Monday, July 20, 2009

A Chance Encounter with Future Fame

I was on a plane in the mid '90s, sitting in coach, travelling to some or another location for my job writing about packaged food marketing, when I struck up a conversation with a woman next to me about the small annoyances of travel. She was a publicist, but she was actually travelling quite a bit not for her own work but for her husband, who had recently written a book and was beginning to promote it.

She was delightful. Funny, warm, sincere. We chatted the whole trip and it made the small annoyance of travel a lot less annoying. I was excited for her and for her husband, who was not with her, about achieving at least some modicum of success with writing a book. It is a major accomplishment, one I value above almost anything else because I know what it takes, having tried valiantly, in vain, to write even a coherent personal essay. Before we departed, I asked the name of the book so I could pick it up. If her husband was half as charming as she, I imagined I'd like it.

"Angela's Ashes," she said. It didn't register but I tried to commit it to memory so I could look for it at the store. When I looked, though, it wasn't hard to find thought it was early days, before the phenomenal memoir catapulted the much older man my airplane cohort had just recently wed to a fame seemingly unexpected for a retired New York City school teacher speaking of his poor Irish childhood. I think Frank McCourt actually made it on to People's Most Beautiful People list later that same year.

I often wonder how this down-to-earth woman was affected by this fame and fortune showered upon her husband and herself so late in life. I saw him once, at the restaurant along the Hudson, at the Boat Basin, and thought of approaching him. Yet he was so famous and my brief encounter with his wife was likely not to matter a whit to him though the experience had really stuck with me. Meeting someone just on the cusp of incredible fame is fascinating, in hindsight. At the time, of course, it was just another chance encounter where no one is aware of what is to come.

Mr. McCourt's recent death is a sadness, likely most of all for his family, for his wife who had a too-short but certainly exciting run with him. Finding fame and fortune so late, things so in contrast with his early life, must have been an amazing study for him and for his wife, clearly smart, insightful people who had had so much time to ponder what such things did to others, what they might be like, good and bad. Of course, we can never really know something until we experience it firsthand. The contrast with Mr. McCourt's life and death and that of someone on whom celebrity was showered much earlier, someone like Michael Jackson, for example, is glaring. Sometimes what seems like a great thing can be terrible if given to someone when it's too early to be understood, to be appreciated, to be handled.

I give Frank McCourt and his wife, Ellen Frey, big gold stars for taking fame humbly, for pressing on and being able to appreciate the positives and negatives of what they received for their efforts, as I imagine they did. I probably wouldn't run into Mrs. McCourt on a plane now. She'd likely be in first class. Or maybe not. Who knows?

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