Sunday, May 10, 2009

Famous people I have dreamed of, seen, or written to

Famous people you meet in dreams don't really count, but if they did mine are heavy with political figures. Sometime in my twenties I met Teddy Roosevelt in a dream, and upon meeting him (he was flirting with me) I said "I remember you! You're the one that said 'speak softly but carry a big stick,' aren't you?" That was all. Another night (all these dreams seemed packed into a single week) I found myself hanging out with all the Kennedy women, kind of an entourage following Jack, Bobby and Ted around. It felt like being some Kennedy's significant other, because there they were and there I was, you know? That was it, unfortunately. But the best one of all, really the best, was the night I dreamed I met Henry Kissinger. I was introduced to him in the dining room (in the house in Parsonsfield), and as he bowed and reached for my hand, his hand slightly grazed my breast.....suddenly we were in the southwest bedroom upstairs (my bedroom). And then, facing each other, we began to take turns singing Dylan's song "All Along the Watchtower." I began "...There must be some way out of here, said the joker to the thief. There's too much confusion, I can't get no relief..." Kissinger took up the refrain without missing a beat: "Business men they drink my wine, plowmen did my earth. None of of them along the line know what any of it is worth..." --we definitely connected. But that was it for that dream.

Bob Dylan dreams also abounded. I was always meeting him behind the curtain between sets back stage, sharing my poetry with him, he'd be sharing his with me, what he'd written lately. Once we were out in the parking lot behind the auditorium riding bikes around. I always had a great time with Bob Dylan. Dreams of my friend Frederick Turner, whom I've never met in real life but only corresponded with, and who is not ubiquitously famous but academically so, surfaced similarly. Once in a dream he and I were out behind the Carnegie building on the University of Maine campus in Orono; Carnegie is the art and used to be the music building too. It was where I spent most of my time while my mother was going to summer school when I was little trying out all the instruments in the practice rooms and looking at all the art in progress and on exhibit. In the dream Fred and I were sitting on a stone bench side by side talking, and we were sort of leaning toward each other, our heads touching. The odd thing was that Fred had a head (though I knew he was Fred, as you do in dreams know such things) with a great crest on it, exactly like Australipithicus robustus--and he had not the gracile jaw of homo Sapien, but the huge chomping jaws (which would go with the crest of course) of robustus too! I wrote Fred about this and he said it made perfect sense, and alluded to his poem in April Wind "The Angry Man," a beastly alter ego of himself.

But dreams are not reality. In real life, one of the most famous person I have ever set eyes on was probably Louis Armstrong--it was probably 1955 0r '56 in Charlottesville, Virginia at UVA. My brother Robert took me to see him, and I was in the crowd getting pushed around, everyone talking, and suddenly the lights dimmed and a bunch of people pushed by us--"that's him! That's Satchmo!" my bother said in my ear over the roar of the crowd. I looked up to see Louis Armstrong about three or four feet away, passing right by us with the other musicians on his way to the stage. Everybody was cheering and clapping wildly--I had no idea who he was--I must have been 12 or 13, my brother was the one who was into jazz, not me. I was listening to Elvis and Pat Boone and Fats Domino at that stage. Anyway, once he was up on stage we stood so near I could see him really well. And the thing I noticed was that his lip went in in one place and out at another in a sort of circle whenever he took his horn away from his mouth--his horn fit to his mouth perfectly. And his cheeks puffed out like grapefruits were in them when he played! Yes, he could really play, and he was always sweating so much while he was playing he had to keep taking out his white handkerchief and wiping his brow with it. I had no idea he was so famous.

One day on Rugby Road my brother pointed to a man walking down the street (this was at the University of Virginia--Rugby Rd. runs right into it) and said "Look! There's William Faulkner!" I didn't know who William Faulkner was either, but later I learned he had given lectures there, and later I took my brother's advice and read some of his books--The River (experimental), and most recently As I Lay Dying, which I think is an amazing book. At that age I was into movies and had a habit of seeing the movie and then, in order to get more out of it, reading the book. Hence I did run into Faulkner after I saw Paul Newman in "The Long, Hot Summer"--my brother told me it was based on the Snopes Trilogy, whatever that was, and I tracked it down and read it. I liked the movie better--it had Paul Newman in it. Other books I read when I was twelve or thirteen because I had seen the movies were: Tea and Sympathy (Deborah Kerr), The Rainmaker (Burt Lancaster, Katherine Hepburn), War and Peace (Audrey Hepburn and Henry Fonda), Ten Angry Men (Henry Fonda), Night of the Kiawa Moon, a short story I found in an old Saturday Evening Post, the basis for The Unforgiven (Burt Lancaster, Audrey Hepburn), Oliver Twist (Alec Guiness), Hamlet (Lawrence Olivier). If the movie came out in 1956-58 and I liked it, I read the book. So anyway, I saw the actual guy who wrote the book the movie with Paul Newman in it was based on. I would rather have seen Paul Newman, but it's all in your perspective at the time. The name William Faulkner meant nothing to me, but my eyes did behold him.

Then there are the correspondences with famous people who you do not know are famous at the time you are corresponding with them. Thus it was I wrote to and was written back to by Oliver Sacks without being aware in the least that he was the guy Robin Williams was playing along side Robert DiNiro in the movie "Awakenings," which I had of course seen--this was in my fifties I think, not too long ago. Anyway, I was reading a letter in Harpers from this guy Oliver Sacks (??? didn't know him from the man in the moon) and he was talking about how his whole family was into swimming in a big way--his father and himself. So that made me think of my mother and my grandfather (Robert Greenleaf Leavitt), how they would swim twice a day and never think anything of it. I wrote Oliver Sacks all about our family's swimming too, and even sent him pictures of me and my mother in our swim suits, several. And he so kindly wrote back, a nice long letter, returning the photographs too as he knew they were precious to me, and that was that. But then I told Evie I wrote to him and she screamed in amazement and delight and told me who he was, and then sent me his wonderful book Island of the Color Blind, and another one I can't remember now. Oh! He was the guy the Robin Williams character was based on?? So there it is.

I also didn't think much of it that I had a letter from Mrs. Joseph McCarthy (to my mother and grandmother) thanking them for their nice letter to her upon McCarthy's death. I gave these letters (from Sacks and Mrs. McCarthy) to Evie. It can be disconcerting when you are fourteen or fifteen and everyone in the world seems to be hating the person your own mother and grandmother thinks is wonderful, and I am ambivalent still about the whole era. Talk about a divided America. Supporting Joseph McCarthy then was sort of like supporting Rush Limbaugh now. I also have many letters from Herbert Philbrick to my mother--she wanted to be, and actually was, it appears now, a spy (though unpaid) for the FBI! Last of her letters, she was working on getting paid. She was spying on the good leftist members of World Fellowship in Conway, New Hampshire, because their leader, Mr. Willard Uphaus, would not give the membership list up to the House Unamerican Activities Committe ruled by McCarthy. My mother was convinced there were TWO Willard Uphauses, and while one was running World Fellowship in New Hampshire, the other was being a courier of messages to and from Moscow; and the FBI believed it! Maybe my mother saw and liked too many spy thrillers. Her spying consisted of listening to speakers at World Fellowship (with me) talk about how wonderful Fidel Castro and Raul were, then later taking down license plate numbers in the World Fellowship parking lot and then speeding home looking over her shoulder--it was very fun and exciting. One day I went rowing with a boy at Wold Fellowship and I agreed with everything he said! I didn't tell my mother.

I did get to see Bob Dylan up close. I saw him in the first appearance of the Rolling Thunder Revue, and--due to exceptional karma (another story)--got a front row center seat, with only 400 people in the audience, in Plymouth, Mass. Even better, I was invited by a friend to go to the party where he would be the next night at the Plimouth Plantation (the friend worked at the plantation so had an in with the people there)--I took Donna and Erika. This would have been 1974-75. But Dylan did not arrive. Then I heard he had had a falling out with a guy in the parking lot and had left in his van. Then I remembered, as I drove into the parking lot and pulled up, and heard my own van die (electrical system again), there was this big van next to me pulling out. That must have been Dylan! But anyway, I went to the party and Allen Ginsburg was there! They were making a movie for Dylan, and they interviewed me and took pictures of Donna and Erika dancing with Allen Ginsburg, and in fact filmed the whole party all night long. Later I heard that Dylan himself did all the editing for the three-hour-long movie he made from that. And so you see Dylan must have heard and seen me answering those questions the camera man was asking me (a HUGE movie camera it was!), and must have seen Donna and Erika dancing with Allen Ginsburg. Now, what do you call it when a famous person like Dylan sees you, instead of you seeing the famous person? Isn't that a whole different category?

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