(The following piece was part of a public presentation by students in Keith Eisner’s “Beautiful Truths, Beautiful Lies” writing class of which I am one member of 12 intelligent and generous students.)
When I was 17, I lived with my parents in London, England, while my dad was on an academic sabbatical. We rented a lovely second floor walk-up flat in the tidy Belsize Park neighborhood, a few blocks from Hampstead Heath. It was my senior year of high school. The plan was for me to spend the first semester with mom and dad in London and then return to the States by myself to live with friends for six months. I wanted to graduate on time.
It was the autumn of 1972 and I took to volunteering with the McGovern for President campaign’s London office. There is a long history of American presidential campaigns setting up shop in major European cities. They would wring as many bucks from affluent ex-pats as they could muster and send the dollars home.
Joyce, the campaign’s Office Manager in London, got used to seeing me come around every Friday afternoon to help. I would tube down to Piccadilly Circus, walk past the seedy striptease joints on Shaftsbury Avenue, then enter the tiny, cluttered campaign office to take on whatever menial task Joyce could throw my way. I’d stuff envelopes, run errands, and hang around with 30-something chain-smoking Joyce to talk politics. I thought she was very cool but did implore her – once too many times and unsuccessfully – to stop the nicotine habit.
One day, Joyce informed me that there was to be a “Gala for McGovern” at Global Village, located under the arches of Charing Cross Railroad Station. Among the celebrities planning to attend were Kurt Vonnegut, my favorite writer, and Paul Newman, who I admired and mimicked for his roles in Cool Hand Luke and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
Gala day arrived. I had never really been part of anything of that sort. It was a bit like I imagined a Hollywood party to be, with ladies all dressed up and a wild and festive atmosphere surrounding the multi-storied site. Along with the other staff and volunteers, I wore a red, white, and blue McGovern t-shirt, signifying legitimacy (and avoiding the cover charge). Joyce set me up in front of the “Count the Jellybeans in the Jar” game.
I hated my task. The fundraising game area was almost an afterthought, hidden under a peripheral stairwell. Virtually no one was going there. You could hear the commotion and the tinkling of glasses outside our pen, and I wanted to be a part of it. Joyce kept on running around frenetically announcing the latest star. “Lee Remick” she’d squeal. “Ava Gardner, Nicol Williamson,” she gushed.
Rumors began to buzz that Paul Newman had made it to the event and would be speaking from the upper balcony. I decided to leave my lonely post to see if I could get a look and snuck deftly up the rear stairwell.
Just as I got to the top of the stairs, another McGovern for President official spotted me, and motioned me to approach.
“Paul is going to come out of that door to the right,” he whispered. “Stand in front of the door, and when the door opens, I want you to walk in front of Mr. Newman to clear the way for him to address the crowd. Over there, on top of the balcony. Can you do that?”
“Sure,” I said. “I can do that.”
I took my 6’4”, wiry 160lb frame and stationed it in front of the doorway.
The room was getting more and more filled with a mass of excited, slightly boozed humanity. The word must have gotten out as to the location of Mr. Newman’s entry, for a set of teenybopper girls began to coalesce right in front of me.
“Please, please, please let us in,” they squealed. “We want to see, Paul. Can you at least take this paper and get us his autograph?”
“I can’t do that,” I commanded in my lowest and most imperious voice. “But I’m going to touch him soon. I’ll give you my autograph.”
They fell for it. And for the next couple of minutes, I was signing autographs for 12-year-old girls who were thrilled to have them.
Then, the door opened. I didn’t look back. I just “felt” his presence.
“Make way,” I intoned, and spread my arms as I led him up a few stairs and over to a point of prominence. From there, he drew even with me and began his address to the assembled admirers.
My goodness, that man’s eyes were blue! He held his coffee cup in his left hand, and I stood aside him, about one foot away to his left, as he spoke about peace and justice and Nixonian horrors. I marveled at his calmness, his graceful motions, his famous smile, and his ridiculously blue eyes. Oh. Right. I already mentioned that last one.
As he finished his oration, he turned to me and said, “Let me be with the people.”
Just as he spun around to greet his admirers, my right upper arm “accidentally” brushed his right shoulder.
After all, I had promised the 12-year old’s!