If I were to write my autobiography (I’m still waiting to be asked), I would entitle it My Dinner with Helmut Kohl and Other Brushes with Fame.
It’s not that the former German chancellor and I are BFFs, but we ate dinner together in Kenya one night, courtesy of a mixed up schedule and a fellow traveller who threatened to use my journalism credentials to publicize any snub from Helmut (as I call him).
I was on a safari many years ago and after a long, hot day in the national parks we pulled into our hotel for dinner. The only problem was that Helmut and his entourage had been on safari elsewhere but decided to stay there during a state visit. They had flown in that afternoon and commandeered the hotel. Despite our advanced booking, we were told at the desk we couldn’t stay the night. Bedding down with the wildlife, literally at a local watering hole, was looking like a strong possibility.
But a traveling companion, an airport security adviser from Washington, D.C., wouldn’t budge. He told the hotel manager, pointing to me, “We have a reporter with us who will write about this and give you bad publicity.” I madly searched for a notebook and pen to give the impression I was ready to write such an exposé.
They gave in and put us in the corner of the banquet room, as far from Helmut as possible. We shared dinner with the chancellor and listened as the entourage saluted each other with official toasts. He gave a little nod our way while speaking, but my German is limited. Perhaps he said “May you sleep with hippos you #$%& journalist.”
In my likely-to-never-be-released autobiography I would also mention sitting beside actor Jack Klugman in a Manhattan restaurant when he asked to borrow the salt and pepper from my table. Yeah, that was our contact, but I know that I did it so neatly and precisely that if he had ever wanted to re-cast The Odd Couple for a new Felix to his Oscar he’d have said “Get me the salt and pepper guy.”
On a less foodie note, while working as a government speechwriter, I was once asked to be Desmond Tutu’s bodyguard. Well, slight exaggeration. A few of us communications types were asked to line the hallway in the main Queen’s Park building where Tutu would walk before addressing the legislature — just in case something happened.
At five foot seven and 135 pounds at the time, I was hardly the raging bull you’d want protecting the esteemed South African bishop. What could I do if he was attacked? Jump into the fray? More like “Hey, I’ll write a press release about the fray.”
Tutu smiled as he walked past me, no doubt thinking “You are small of stature but big of heart, my friend.” All I know is nothing happened to him on my watch.
One final brush with fame. During intermission at a play in Stratford, I saw Yo-Yo Mah, the celebrated cellist who had provided music for the production, standing by himself sipping a drink. I asked him how he liked the play and he replied that he was “enjoying it a great deal.” I let it go at that, assuming he’d be overwhelmed by any more of my witty banter.
After all, being polite may get you further in your brushes with fame than being a jerk. But I’ve always regretted my approach to him. It would have been much more fun and memorable for both of us if I’d shouted: