British journalist Craig Brown has written 101 sketches of unlikely meetings between odd couples. Brilliant
December 23, 2012 5:00 AM
Craig Brown: man of of 1,001 words.
By Len Barcousky Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
'Hello Goodbye Hello" represents a near flawless execution of a very clever premise.
British journalist Craig Brown has written 101 sketches of unlikely meetings between odd couples like Nikita Khrushchev and Marilyn Monroe.
Some of these huddles are widely known, like a 1970 White House get-together between President Richard Nixon and Elvis Presley. Many others certainly were new to me, like the shipboard performance mind-reading magician Harry Houdini gave for Teddy Roosevelt in 1914.
Each piece is exactly 1,001 words long. One of the two parties in each short chapter becomes one of the two subjects of the following chapter. For example: "Sergei Rachmaninoff Is Drowned Out by Harpo Marx" is followed by "Harpo Marx Is Denuded by George Bernard Shaw."
"HELLO GOODBYE HELLO: A CIRCLE OF 101 REMARKABLE MEETINGS"
By Craig Brown. Simon & Schuster ($26.95).
Mr. Brown writes his descriptions of the sometimes serious, most often comic, encounters in the you-are-there present. His sources, which number in the hundreds, include diaries, memoirs, autobiographies and newspaper accounts. The resulting brief lives beckon like a bowl of mixed nuts or a bag of potato chips. It is impossible to read just one.
"Hello Goodbye Hello" opens with a 1931 meeting in Munich between rising politician Adolf Hitler and English teenager John Scott-Ellis. The 18-year-old student, in Germany to learn the language, knocks Hitler over with his Fiat.
The future Fuehrer, regrettably, is unhurt. "For a few seconds, perhaps, I held the history of Europe in my rather clumsy hands," Scott-Ellis writes years later.
Closing the circle, Hitler pops up in the final encounter involving Wallis Simpson, the woman for whom King Edward VIII gave up his throne.
After she and her husband, now demoted to Duke of Windsor, meet the German chancellor in 1937, she asks what Hitler and he talked about during a closed-door session.
"Oh, the usual stuff," the duke replies. "What he's trying to do for Germany and to combat Bolshevism."
"What did he say about Bolshevism?" his wife asks.
"He's against it."
Mr. Brown's book contains a handful of names likely to be unfamiliar to many American readers, so the U.S. edition includes mini-biographies for people like painter Walter Sickert and politician Tom Driberg. Each sketch is, fittingly, 101 words long.
If "Hello Goodbye Hello" has a flaw, it is that a good number of Mr. Brown's anecdotes center on sexual peccadilloes and bedroom gossip of questionable origin. Too many of these stories can have the same effect on the reader as eating too many greasy potato chips.