Alexandria is full of famous people – politicians, athletes, writers and coaches. I know none of them. I’ve met a few for sure, but I don’t know any of them.
Famous people also have been known to visit our city. Take my friend Larry, for example. He was invited to a Twelfth Night Christmas dinner party in Old Town several years ago. One of his fellow guests approached Larry and whispered excitedly, “Did you hear that Chef Boyardee is here tonight?”
Larry, of course, scoffed at this notion, explaining to his informant that there was no real Chef Boyardee, just as there was no real Mickey Mouse. A few minutes later, a distinguished-looking gentleman of short stature approached Larry, extended his hand and introduced himself as Mario Boiardi; the Boyardee spelling was an Americanization of his name. Larry peered at the fellow, and, sure enough, he resembled the iconic face on the spaghetti can, minus the toque.
Larry admits there was a good bit of Christmas cheer shared between him and his new pal Mario, and they found themselves at 2 a.m. in the kitchen, ravenously hungry. What do you do in the middle of the night when you’re starving with a world-famous chef? You cook spaghetti of course. Which is what Larry and Chef Boyardee did that Twelfth Night of Christmas.
Fame, of course, comes in different forms. There’s the type that is widespread and is known as celebrity. But there’s also fame within, say, a certain field. Such is the case with my friend John who is known nationally and internationally as an expert on the Middle East.
I invited John and his wife to my house for drinks one evening not long ago. John is an eloquent fellow and a deep thinker. Frankly, he can be a little intimidating when you first meet him because you sense that his intellect is on a scale you don’t run into that often. But he also has an easy charm and a self-deprecating sense of humor that puts you at ease.
A few minutes into his visit, he picked my first novel, “Pointer’s War,” off the shelf and began thumbing through its pages. That made me a bit nervous, knowing that John himself is a prodigious writer.
I anxiously watched him out of the corner of my eye as he stopped at a certain passage. It turned out to be an account of General George Patton receiving Morocco’s highest honor, something called the Ouissam Alaouite, bestowed upon him by the Sultan of Morocco. Patton was the first American ever to receive this award.
With a twinkle in his eye, John looked at me and said, “Well, I guess I was the second American to receive the Ouissam Alaouite.” Yes, the Sultan had awarded John the honor some years ago. To me, that was a “drop the mic” situation. Nobody could top that one.
I am not one to seek out the famous. I have never approached a famous person for an autograph fearing that I would be a nuisance. I played a round of golf with Curtis Strange; I sat at a table at a gala with John Elway and his then-girlfriend, the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen up close. Both were pleasant fellows, much as I imagine Chef Boyardee to be. But I didn’t hassle them for an autograph.
Years ago, I was in Bangkok on business. If you’ve never been there, the crowds, the noise and the traffic make New York City seem like Mayberry. I was on my own and was fortunate to stay at the Oriental Hotel, said to be the finest hotel in the world at the time.
I was killing time in the lobby one day, wondering what made the Oriental the world’s greatest hotel. Was it the exquisite mahogany paneling? Was it the uniformly diminutive boys in white livery with green piping and pillbox hats carrying standards with tinkling bells bearing telephone messages for guests parading through the lobby?
Or, was it that each of the hotel’s wings was named for a famous author that had stayed there? The Hemingway, The Maugham. The Fitzgerald. The Vidal. Any hotel can name wings after famous people, but only the greats can name them after real guests. I was soon to find out what made the Oriental the world’s greatest.
That afternoon, I was sitting by the pool reading Gore Vidal’s novel, “Hollywood,” when I peered over the top of the book to see Gore Vidal himself looking at me reading his book. I simply nodded to him, and he nodded back, acknowledging my fine literary taste. That’s what made it great.
I often think what might have happened if I’d gone over to him. Would we have discussed literature? What might we have in common? Maybe we’d have become fast friends, my first famous pal. Maybe he’d have invited me to his villa in Italy. Maybe …
Nah. Probably not.
Rob Whittle is CEO of Williams Whittle Advertising and is the author of two historical novels, “Pointer’s War” and “Pointer and the Russian.”