No 164 - 2001
Famous in New York
You know, fame (as David Bowie says in the song of the same name) makes a man think things over, and oddly enough, one of the very first famous people I ever saw in New York was David Bowie. It was in the Museum of Modern Art on a Sunday morning. He was there with his wife Iman, who was wearing a knitted hat shaped like a flowerpot; and they had an entourage with them, or more precisely they each had an entourage of their own. David’s lot, who were male, listened to David as he pointed at pictures and talked about them, while Iman’s lot, who were female and looked like models, discussed where they were going for lunch.
Everyone in the gallery was aware of Bowie’s presence, and it soon became impossible to look at any of the exhibits without keeping at least half an ear open to what he was saying. In fact most of it was perfectly sensible and inoffensive, but the fact that a real live star was there in the room made the art on the walls seem very low voltage indeed.
New York, or more specifically Manhattan, is a pretty good place to spot celebrities. I don’t think of myself as especially star-struck or eagle-eyed but I’m always seeing them: Steve Martin, Lou Reed, John McEnroe, Spalding Grey, Julian Schnabel, Bjork. They’re just out there in the street, in restaurants, in shops.
Since the presidential election Al Gore and Bill Clinton are out there too. Gore has an occasional gig teaching journalism at NYU, and Clinton is about to open an office here. You may well ask why an ex-president needs an office, and a lot of people are certainly asking why he needs it in New York and why it needs to be subsidized by the tax payer, but apparently it’s a great American tradition.
Clinton originally found some premises in midtown Manhattan with an annual rent of $800,000. This seemed kind of high, but then, as his supporters pointed out, New York prices always are, And when you think that Ronald Reagan still has an office in California that costs $300,000 a year, and he’s presumably too gaga to know what an office is, you might think Bill was getting a bargain. Anyway, he capitulated. He decided to look for a cheaper deal. The latest bets are that he’s going to open his office in Harlem. This will allegedly be part of Harlem’s continuing regeneration, but it also sustains the notion that Harlem is a place where a certain amount of sexual and financial indiscretion gets passed off as business as usual.
Not being a great frequenter of Harlem I’m not expecting to run into Bill Clinton too often, but even if I did, I’d play it very cool. That’s what we New Yorker’s do. We don’t give celebrities the satisfaction of acknowledging them, even though we know who they are, and even though they know we know.
The most extreme form I’ve seen of this came at a private view at the British Consulate. The fame level was fairly high to begin with: Kim Cattrell who plays the slut in ‘Sex and the City’, and Anthony Haden-Guest was rumoured to be there but nobody was sure what he looked like. But the most famous by miles was Helen Gurley Brown, seventy-eight years old, editrix of Cosmopolitan in its glory years and regarded in New York as a living female deity. When she came in everybody pretty much fell back against the walls, but nobody actually spoke to her. So the poor lamb finished up walking around the exhibition with only her husband to talk to.
I came across a variation of this at a different event where people kept asking each other, ‘Who’s the Tina Brown lookalike?’ It was Tina Brown, naturally.
Authors seem either to be less conspicuous or perhaps they just leave home less. The only one I remember spotting out on the street was Paul Auster, and it was in his native Brooklyn neighbourhood. If you want to see authors you generally have to wait for readings and signings.
Even at my pathetically low level of fame, the fans and the collectors do turn up at literary events. These two groups are not, I think, mutually exclusive, but when some guy comes up to you with multiple copies of some backlist title and says he wants just a signature in each, you have to assume it’s not because he really, really likes your work. Rather it’s because he thinks, mistakenly or otherwise, that a Geoff Nicholson signature has some monetary value, or at least may have in the future.
The value, or otherwise, of a person’s signature has been much on my mind since I recently had dinner with Linda Lovelace. This seems a rather surprising thing to be able to say, and yet the actual circumstances weren’t so very unusual, and it wasn’t just me, I mean there was a whole group of us at dinner. Linda Lovelace was making a comeback of a sort and she was in town to do a very decorous photoshoot for Dian’s magazine ‘Leg Show’, the soft porn periodical of legend.
Linda Lovelace, as everyone of a certain generation will need no reminding, was the star of ‘Deep Throat’, a pretty ordinary porn movie that arrived at just the right historical moment in the seventies when people were becoming fascinated by pornography and oral sex. (So what’s changed, you may ask?) But this was a time when perfectly nice, suburban, American couples went to the cinema to see pornography, and various critics declared ‘Deep Throat’ to be a high point in western art. Critics, eh?
In England, of course, we never saw ‘Deep Throat’ at all, but we certainly knew who Linda Lovelace was. We’d read the articles, the interviews, the autobiography ‘Inside Linda Lovelace’ which had been very popular with porn fans. We’d seen the film stills. Even at that time it struck me as remarkable that you could be famous for starring in a porn movie that nobody in the country had even seen. But perhaps that was the very nature of the fame. And, of course, Deep Throat was sufficiently current as a term that it became the nom de guerre for a major Watergate informant.
Anyway, Dian’s photoshoot, indeed the entire comeback was being facilitated by a man called Eric Danville who is a serious ‘Linda Lovelace collector’.
There is apparently quite a lot of stuff out there, although the primary materials, as it were, are rather limited. Linda Lovelace only worked in hard core very briefly. She made ‘Deep Throat’, some porn loops, and after that she rose without trace, to become a celebrity, to make ‘straight’ films like the infinitely depressing ‘Linda Lovelace For President’. (A president obsessed with oral sex – what a satirical notion!) She wrote another autobiography called ‘Ordeal’ which had been very popular with the feminist right. Then she had more or less disappeared, while her fame, of a sort, had lived on.
Eric, of course, had tapes of all the films; he even had two versions of the soundtrack of ‘Deep Throat’ on vinyl. He had dozens of the magazines in which she had appeared. He had a live bootleg recording of a Led Zeppelin concert, where Linda had been the m.c..
While amassing his collection Eric had attempted to contact Linda and after a few brush-offs, including one where he made phone contact but she’d pretended to be her own secretary, he had eventually assured her of his good intentions, and they’d become friends. She’d sent him some snapshots for his collection, totally innocent pictures of her on holiday in England. In return for this Eric was helping her make some money by organizing the sale of authenticated Linda Lovelace items on eBay.
All of us at dinner were curious to see what the current Linda Lovelace looked like. In the old days the camera had really liked her. On screen and in still photographs from that period she has a lopsided, quizzical, hippyish laxity about her. She looks as if she’s having a good time. In ‘Ordeal’ she denies this. She says she was hating every minute of it, but was pretending to enjoy it because Chuck Traynor, her evil Svengali manager and husband, had threatened to kill her if she showed any reluctance. If this is true, and it may be, then she’s certainly an infinitely better actress that most people in porn.
The contemporary Linda looked, I think you’d have to say, not bad. Her face was a little florid and pock-marked, but she was lean and tanned and she certainly looked alert and alive, and if she also looked a little damaged at the edges she certainly didn’t look destroyed.
In some ways she seemed quite the innocent. She said she’d met more than her fair share of the rich and famous in her time, but they’d rarely been the way she’d wanted them to be. Clint Eastwood had been a terrible disappointment because when he’d sat next to her at the Playboy Mansion he’d been wearing jeans and sneakers. Elvis had been a sad, drugged-up fat man who erupted from time to time in a flurry of karate moves. The only one she’d really liked was Tony Curtis because, she said, he seemed like the same guy off screen as he was on.
There had been some talk that after dinner we might go back to Eric’s apartment. This would be a rare occasion when a collector, the subject of his collection and the collection itself would all be in the same room at the same time. And so it came to pass.
The Linda Lovelace collection was in a glass-fronted bookcase in the bedroom. It would be easy for Eric to sit up in bed and gaze with pride at his collection. Perhaps this is what he does. He was keen enough to show his collection but obviously showing it to Linda created some unusual tensions.
To an extent she treated it the way someone might who was digging through a long forgotten box of family mementos. Some things she remembered well, others she couldn’t recall ever having seen before, didn’t know where they came from. There were photographs that she didn’t know had been taken in which she was standing next to people she didn’t recognize. Occasionally she’d look at a photograph and say, ‘Oh I still have that dress,’ and Eric would say, ‘Well, if you want to sell it we can put it on eBay.’ The fact that there was a photograph of her wearing it improved the provenance and increased the value.
Then, a little embarrased but flattered, she said, ‘This guy knows more about my life than I do,’ which in a sense was undoubtedly true. But one thing she certainly knew was her own signature, and when Eric showed her a signed film still that he’d bought she was immediately able to tell him that it was a fake. Someone had forged her signature to increase the value, or at least the price, of the still. Eric was reduced to swearing he’d get his money back from the dealer who’d sold it to him.
Incidentally, on page 55 of ‘Ordeal’ Linda says that Chuck Traynor once gave her two pieces of advice. ‘I should never let anyone take my picture, and I should never sign my name to anything. He said those two were things that would come back to haunt me later.’
A recent biography of Joe DiMaggio, one of New York’s best-loved sons, says that for him at least, being famous meant never having to pay for anything. He expected to be given free drinks, free meals, free cars, free holidays; which I find fairly dismaying. Surely the very least that famous people can do is pay their own way. Linda Lovelace, to her infinite credit, brought her own six-pack along to Eric’s apartment; but I’m sure there are those who would think she shouldn’t have had to.
There’s a restaurant Dian and I go to, quite a nice but relatively humble sort of place where the waiting staff fawn over Dian and always say what a great pleasure it is to see her and so on. They’re nice to me too, but they don't fawn. We began by thinking these people must know who Dian is, since she does get her picture in the paper from time to time as the cool, unlikely pornographer. But the thought has been dawning on us lately that she may not be who they think she is at all.
Last time we were there they gave us (by which I mean her) a free bottle of wine, which we accepted gratefully, and as we were leaving, the waitress, who was new, came up and shook Dian by the hand and said what an honour it was to meet her. Which did seem a mite excessive for just recognizing her as a cool, unlikely pornographer. So we have been edging towards the possibility that maybe they think she’s someone she’s not.
This obviously raises the question of who, and the related matter of what they’ll do if and when they discover the truth. And it’s not as if you can ask, ‘Oh and by the way, just who do you think I am?’ So Dian is now afraid to use her credit card in the restaurant because once they see her name they’ll know who she really is, and then the whole game may be up.
It’s not that we’re desperate for free wine, and we could definitely do without the fawning, it’s just that we quite like the place, and the whole ‘discovery’ would be so crucifyingly embarrassing for all concerned that we could surely never go there again. Worst of all, they might think Dian was pretending to be someone famous, which would clearly be the lower depths of uncoolness. OK, I agree that as the problems of fame go, this is a pretty minor one, and it’s obviously not one that Bill Clinton is going to have.
Fame (as David Bowie says in the song of the same name) makes a man ‘loose, hard to swallow’. I’ve never really known what he meant by that, but when you start thinking of Bill Clinton and Linda Lovelace you begin to have some idea.
Geoff Nicholson’s most recent novel is Bedlam Burning (Gollancz 2000).
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