“So, what exactly is this book about?” Griffin Dunne asks.
He is across the table from me at a café near his apartment in SoHo, one of New York City’s chicest — and most celebrity-filled — neighborhoods. He’s in his late 50s but could pass for twenty years younger, and is completely adorable in an Allman Brothers “Eat a Peach” T-shirt and baseball cap.
Looking at this bona fide famous person, an actor/producer/director who actually knows Madonna — MADONNA — demands all my attention. His dad, Dominick Dunne, was in show business, too, and Griffin has lived around fame since he was in footy pajamas and a bathrobe. He understands it.
“It’s about the nature of celebrity,” I say.
He frowns and furrows his brow. I know that look. Timothy Hutton had it a few months before, as did pretty much everyone else I talked to about this book. Because they’re thinking: “What are you talking about, girl who wrote some books about dogs and friends and your mother, and how did I get roped into this conversation?”
“Who else have you talked to?” Griffin asks, trying to see if perhaps my earlier research will make this clearer. This sort of suspicion or wariness from celebrities is something I’m getting accustomed to. They need to be careful about what they say on the record: They’re not like those of us who freely talk politics with strangers on the subway, whose words are not headlines. Celebrity is both a reward for a job well done and a weapon to destroy someone’s privacy, reputation, and chance at a normal life.
“Timothy Hutton, Denis Leary, Michael Black, Adam Schweitzer, Julie Warner, Doris Roberts . . . ,” I begin, rattling off an impressive list.
“And what did you tell them to get them to talk to you?”
Oh my God. I want to run away with my giant New York City PS 87 tote bag filled with a pumpkin bread I baked for him, as well as signed copies of some of my books. Why did I bring these things with me? Because I’m not a journalist. David Frost didn’t bring Richard Nixon a Bundt cake when he interviewed him in 1977. No. Pumpkin loaves are for amateurs.
“Well, uh, they talked to me because, um, I knew people who knew them.” I say. “Not Timothy Hutton, though. I know him.”
“Oh, how do you know Tim?” Griffin asks, desperate to grasp at something to explain why he’s sitting here with me.
“I, um, met him on Twitter,” I say.
Griffin, I learn, is not on Twitter. He doesn’t understand how I got to “know” a great, Academy Award–winning actor through social media.
“Blech, Twitter. I can’t wait for it to just go away,” he says.
I try to explain the benefits of Twitter, and as I speak I can hear myself becoming one of the people I used to pass every morning standing outside the ABC building that housed the “Live with Regis and Kathie Lee” show. Five or six oddballs with autograph books came every morning to wait and get signatures from whatever guest was desperately darting from the building into their waiting limousine post-interview. Now that was me, the real-life Sandra Bernhard in “The King of Comedy” (though in my defense I wasn’t asking for autographs).
“But now we’re real-life friends, Tim and I.” I say “Tim” because his real-life friends don’t call him Timothy.
Griffin doesn’t look as if he believes me.
I think back to when I wrote my first book and people would ask me what it was about. I would start stuttering and then try to remember the flap copy: “Julie Klam was raised as the only daughter of one of the three Jewish families in the exclusive WASP stronghold of Bedford, New York. Her mother was something, her father was something else, and she ended up somehow turning it into a book?” All I can think now is how bad I am at explaining whatever it is I’m trying to do, but I know why. It’s just kind of embarrassing to explain to Griffin. (We are friends now, so I call him Griffin, instead of Mr. Dunne. Any day now, though, I might switch to Griff.)
In my desperation I look across the table at Griffin, and I think — I hope — that he is starting to understand what I want to know from him and what I’m trying to write about. Or maybe he just hopes to get back home to his beautiful apartment and gorgeous wife before the sun sets.
Why do we feel this way about celebrities — people we’ve never met? Why did my eighty-six-year-old grandfather when reading the Miami Herald once bark, “I hate Johnny Depp!”? I tell Griffin that by talking to the celebrities themselves about the concept of celebrity, I will better understand this relationship — what they’re putting out, what we are getting back.
Griffin still doesn’t look completely convinced. So I give it one more shot.
“A few years ago,” I say, “my husband and I split up.”
“My daughter, who was then nine years old, was watching me going through some legal papers, and she saw her name and asked why she was in there. I explained that a lot of our divorce had to do with how her father and I could take care of her the best way possible. She suddenly got teary-eyed and asked me who would take care of her if something happened to me and her dad. I explained to her that now that we didn’t live together, it was very unlikely that something would happen to us at the same time. She wasn’t satisfied. I told her that years before, our plan was for her to live with one of her aunts and uncle, but now that she was a bit older, she could have a say in whom she lived with.
“She sat and thought for a couple of minutes and finally said, ‘OK, I choose Seth Meyers.’”
Griffin laughs. I remark, “It’s funny, but she’s only thirteen, so he is still on the hook for another five years.”
Without me saying anything more, he gets what I’m after.
From “The Stars in Our Eyes: The Famous, The Infamous, And Why We Care Way Too Much About Them” by Julie Klam. Copyright © 2017 by Julie Klam. Published by arrangement with Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.