Stories are all we have. We each possess them. Hundreds. Thousands. The stories of our lives. The stories of those who have been part of our lives. And, depending on who we tell them to, people might be amused, enlightened or offended. Sometimes they can relate, and sometimes they may be stimulated to match a story with one of their own. As I began interviewing people, I found my early stories useful. I didn’t just go in and start asking celebrities questions–instead, I’d try to bring them out by relating incidents in my past. That’s how I’ve been able to do what I do–I told them mine, they told me theirs. It’s an ancient technique.
Truman Capote told me how he informed Brando about his miserable childhood and his drunken mother who used to lock him in a hotel room and disappear for hours. Brando told Capote his mother was also an alcoholic and he used to have to fetch her from bars and bring her home. When Capote’s article appeared, his own stories were left out, and Brando felt cheated. To get Capote to tell me how he got Brando to talk, I first told him about my experiences with Brando on his island in Tahiti. I’d tell Brando my stories as we walked around the island and he would tell me some of his. I would interrupt his stories to say I’d prefer to wait until we were taping, and he would say not to worry, he’d repeat them. But of course I knew that a repeated tale is never as lively as a fresh one, so I wound up telling Brando my stories for three days, until he was ready to let me turn on the tape recorder.
Dolly Parton liked to share ghost stories, especially after I mentioned that I had served in the Peace Corps and lived in West Africa for three years. She wanted to hear all about the witches who turned into fireballs in the forests, about dead people who came back and talked to friends but couldn’t be touched. And about the fetish priestess ceremony I had witnessed in a place called Larteh.
Al Pacino laughed at my prankster stories with my friend Glenn, the crazy things we did during high school. It reminded him of the things he did with his friend Cliffy, who once stole a city bus and took him on a wild ride. Goldie Hawn related to the sibling rivalry between my sister and me and opened up about her family. Kurt Russell never forgot the time eight policemen came to my house with a search warrant thinking I was running a child pornography ring. He always used it as an example why we should never give up our right to bear arms, because we were dealing with a fascist police state which might one day force us to defend ourselves against them. Bridget Fonda saw one of the five prints her grandfather Henry had given me and was moved to ask for stories about him. In return, she gave me what she remembered. Alec Baldwin once got excited over a story I told him about how I used to pick up my friend Alexandria at her house and make like I was taking her on a date, when what I did was drive her to the train station so she could sneak into Harlem to visit her boyfriend. When I later found out that her father was mob connected and he had her followed, Alec thought it had the potential for a movie and embellished it with tales of his own childhood.
When I met Henry Moore in Italy I told him a story about how I once went to a gallery of a performance artist and wound up buying the artist herself, who came to live with me for a week. Moore had a hard time with this and went into his theories of what art was…and wasn’t.
Chris O’Donnell, before he married and became a father of four, was reluctant to talk about his girlfriend, until I told him how I had lived with mine for eight years before we decided to get married. He also didn’t want to talk about the kinds of things he did with girls when he was a teenager, so I told him that my daughter was then a teenager and I knew only too well the kinds of things I wanted to protect her from. Because O’Donnell was then just 25 and not used to revealing himself, he was a particularly difficult interview, and so I resorted to telling him about my travels through Africa, India, and the Orient after I left the Peace Corps; about seeing the Tyson-Spinks fight at the Playboy Mansion with nearly a hundred famous faces, none of whom had time to make a bet, it was over so fast; about collecting first editions; and about spending nine months interviewing Barbra Streisand for Playboy. My travels led him to reflect on what he might have missed out on, having turned professional at 18; the Tyson fight brought out his enthusiasm for sports; collecting books turned into a discussion that he’d never really read any books for pleasure and was more influenced by television; and dealing with Streisand for so long left him speechless, he just couldn’t imagine talking about himself to anyone for more than a few hours, and even that was a struggle. But in the end, because we had so many subjects to cover by just trading stories, he gave far more than even he thought he had in him. It also didn’t hurt that he knew Al Pacino had become one of my closest friends, since he first achieved recognition when he appeared with Pacino in Scent of a Woman.