Though the poems in this book are about very public, very private people, they are, for me, very personal. After spending time interviewing a particular subject for a book or magazine article, I often found myself thinking about a specific detail that seemed to define that person for me. Occasionally I’d jot down a few lines at the time; more often it was a few years later. That’s when I knew there must be some truth to these observations—they had passed the test of time, and they often made me smile.
Celebrities allow for fantasies. We fall in love with them, and then root for their downfall. We worship their beauty and talent, and then quietly applaud their public disintegration. We know they are richer than we are, live in bigger homes, drive better cars, have a bountiful range of sexual exploration, but we aren’t quite willing to consider them smarter or better read or more friends-and-family inclined that we are. They exist not just for themselves, but for us. And once in a while we’re given entry into their inner sanctums, their private islands, their touring buses, their backyards, bedrooms, or swimming pools. It may only be temporary, but then, so are they.
It all began in the early 1970s, when my editor at Newsday assigned me to interview “Household Names,” beginning with Mae West. I continued doing interviews, but on a deeper level, when I started writing for Playboy in 1976, with Barbra Streisand as my first subject. I did about 50 Playboy interviews, which brought me into the lives of some very famous people for extended periods of time. I also wrote for other magazines, like Rolling Stone, Movieline, Reader’s Digest and Redbook. When Playboy Cable TV wanted to duplicate their famous interviews on the air, they asked me to give it a try, and I did another 50 for them with two cameras filming us.
These poems are often the result of one particular moment in my encounters with these “Household Names.” The one about Lauren Bacall, for instance, happened when I first met her in the living room of her New York apartment. With Lucille Ball, the inspiration came when she told me that she was ready to die, since most of her friends were gone. Marlon Brando’s bet made me uncomfortable. Jake Gyllenhaal’s publicist was the spark for what I wrote about my limited interview time. The same with Barbara Walters’ publicist, who interrupted my talk with Walters. Ava Gardner told me a touching story about her childhood. Madonna said something to my daughter I never forgot. Pavarotti took off his shirt in my living room and I knew I had something. Olivia de Havilland’s tears surprised me. My phone call to Bette Davis turned very long distance, and Bette Midler’s call to me was puzzling. Seeing Barbra Streisand in Malibu was a glimpse into her being a perfectionist. Kiefer Sutherland actually lassoed me. Al Pacino was handy with a broom. Christopher Walken cleaned countertops. These were the kinds of moments on which I zeroed in.
Though some of these poems are about celebrities who are no longer with us, or whose lives have had some dramatic changes, I’ve tried to capture a particular moment in time. They are private glimpses into their rarified air. True, they breathe the same smog and suffer from the decline of ozone protection as the rest of us, but somehow we suspect that they don’t button their clothes the way we do. They do, of course. But that doesn’t mean we have to believe it.