Years ago, when NPR's Susan Stamberg was working for the wife of an American ambassador in New Delhi, she answered the door to the ambassador's home to find the maharajah of Jaipur standing outside.
"Your highness," she said, "what gorgeous pearls you're wearing."
"Oh, thank you," the maharaja replied. "On Tuesdays I wear pearls; on Wednesdays it's emeralds; Thursday, rubies."
But not all celebrity encounters go so well. In his new book, Hello Goodbye Hello, London Daily Mail columnist Craig Brown has collected accounts of 101 real-life meetings between famous people. Brown tells Stamberg about some of the more surprising — and awkward — encounters he learned about in the course of writing his book.
On a young Madonna meeting legendary dance choreographer Martha Graham in 1978
"Madonna had just arrived in New York City and had got herself a place at Martha Graham's dance school and was absolutely terrified of Martha Graham, who had this incredibly severe reputation as the great kind of mother of modern dance. ... She needed to have a pee and left the dance class and met Martha Graham in the corridor and was completely struck dumb with terror in her presence. ... She, in her own words, said, 'I ignored the aching in my lower abdomen. I forgot that I had a big mouth and that I wasn't afraid of anyone. This was my first true encounter with a goddess. A warrior. A survivor.' ... Someone to be frightened of."
On composer Sergei Rachmaninoff's 1931 encounter with comedian Harpo Marx in Los Angeles
"Harpo had booked into this very fashionable hotel called the Garden of Allah, which [was] a great kind of bohemian place where all the Hollywood stars hung out, and at the same time Rachmaninoff had booked into the chalet next door. And there was this terrible war of musicians ... Rachmaninoff wanted to play his piano and Harpo wanted to play his harp, and they were each drowning out the other. And Rachmaninoff, who was quite a grumpy man, complained to management, tried to get Harpo moved, but Harpo had this very clever idea of playing incessantly the one tune that Rachmaninoff was famous for — he composed it at age about 20 — the 'Prelude in C Sharp Minor.' And so, Harpo kept playing the 'Prelude in C Sharp Minor' and eventually he won the battle and Rachmaninoff had to change chalets."
On The Beatles' meeting with a none-too-eager Elvis Presley in 1965
"Elvis Presley, to some extent, was nervous of The Beatles because he'd gone through a fallow period. He seemed to be going out of fashion and suddenly these young English people with long hair, with girls screaming; they seemed to be the new Elvises. And at the same time, The Beatles were completely in awe of Elvis, so they wanted to be friends with him, and he didn't want to be friends with them."
[Stamberg: "Finally, he agrees to meet The Beatles because his star begins rising again. ... But he said they had to come to him."]
Brown: "Yes. It was a bit like a renaissance court or something, with status. And they had this very awkward, tongue-tied meeting."
On how he learned about so many celebrity encounters
"One of my jobs in England is reviewing books, so I review a book every week and have done for about 15 years. So I started noticing these strange meetings between people, and particularly the ones I enjoyed were between ... sort of philosophers and pop stars, or presidents and film stars. I particularly liked these strange juxtapositions of serious people and lightweight people and see[ing] how they spark off one another."