In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle discovers the extraordinary meetings of famous writers
J. D. Salinger met Ernest Hemingway. Ernest Hemingway met Ford Madox Ford. Ford Madox Ford met Oscar Wilde. Oscar Wilde met Marcel Proust. Marcel Proust met James Joyce. Some of the most famous writers of the last century met each other, but they also met the great and good from beyond the literary world. And the not so great and not so good. H. G. Wells, for instance, met Josef Stalin.
Craig Brown’s book Hello Goodbye Hello: A Circle of 101 Remarkable Meetings, which was published in 2011, is an interesting ‘dipping’ book: each encounter between two notable people is given a short entry, a mini-essay, outlining the details of the meeting. This makes it a fascinating book to read in fits and starts (probably the best way to read a book like this), since you effectively learn something new, and surprising, about two famous people at once. It’s also a great premise for a book, the sort that must have had writers of such non-fiction books kicking themselves for having failed to come up with such a neat conceit. Each meeting documented in the book is linked by one of the contributors, so that Maxim Gorky’s encounter with Tolstoy leads into Tolstoy’s meeting with Tchaikovsky, just as George Bernard Shaw’s meeting with Bertrand Russell gives way to Russell’s meeting with Sarah Miles. Such a structure compels you to read on, so the temptation to dip begins to merge into a desire to read on. The account of J. D. Salinger’s meeting with Ernest Hemingway during the Second World War, for instance, leads nicely into a meeting twenty years earlier between Hemingway and Ford Madox Ford, and we learn that Hemingway, who came to detest his erstwhile mentor, took the opportunity to tinker with Ford’s transatlantic review in the latter’s absence, publishing some terrible poems by Elsa von Freytag von Loringhoven. They were written in pidgin English, and Elsa, a German poetess, was famous for wearing ‘an inverted coal scuttle on her head and ice-cream spoons for earrings.’ Such local colour lifts Hello Goodbye Hello above the kind of book it might otherwise have settled for being.
Even the more well-known encounters are brought to life with additional colour. Take T. S. Eliot’s dinner with Groucho Marx, for example: when the author of The Waste Land met the famous comedian for dinner in 1964, it became clear that, despite their mutual admiration for each other’s work, they are talking at cross purposes. Eliot wants to talk about comedy, and the Marx Brothers’ films, while Marx wants to talk King Lear with the poet. Craig Brown adds, in a footnote, an account of a similar meeting between Anthony Burgess and Benny Hill in 1990, a meeting at which Brown himself was present. As with Eliot and the star of Duck Soup, the two men found it difficult to find any common ground. Eliot and Marx did, however, bond over their love of good cigars, cats, and puns.
Talking of Eliot, when he took part in a poetry reading in front of the royal family during the Second World War, the Queen Mother and her daughters, including the present Queen, all suffered from a fit of the giggles. Eliot’s reading from the final section of The Waste Land – or, as the future Queen Mother later hazily recalled it, ‘The Desert’ – didn’t go down very well, but it wasn’t the most embarrassing event of that night, since Dorothy Wellesley got horrendously drunk and had to be lured outside into New Bond Street, after Stephen Spender tried to pin her down and Beatrice Lillie had failed to restrain the worse-for-wear Wellesley using a jujitsu grip.
Hello Goodbye Hello shines a light on such little-known encounters alongside the more famous remarkable meetings in history. Rudyard Kipling once met Mark Twain. Mark Twain met Helen Keller. Kingsley Amis met a very rich Roald Dahl at Tom Stoppard’s party in 1972, where – according to Amis – Dahl encouraged the Lucky Jim author to try his hand at writing for children, since ‘The little bastards’d swallow it’. (The only account of this conversation we have is Amis’s, which was published after Dahl’s death.)
Brown also peppers these short essays with some interesting literary trivia, which is the meat and potatoes of this blog, of course. And these diverting diversions are the real joy of Hello Goodbye Hello: A Circle of 101 Remarkable Meetings. Kenneth Tynan once quoted Stoppard himself as saying ‘I am a human nothing’. Off the back of this comment, Tynan opined that all of Stoppard’s plays should be seen as ‘an attempt to come to terms with this bleak truth’; but thirty years later, Stoppard revealed in an interview that what he had actually said was ‘I am assuming nothing’.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.