The Universal Notebook: Privacy and public figures

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Novelist and Portland native Elizabeth Strout’s “Oh William!” has been nominated for the Booker Prize, which is given to works of fiction written in English and published in the United Kingdom or Ireland. Most Booker winners are British, so Strout would be a long shot.

Congratulations, Ms. Strout. I must say, however, I was miffed that you declined to be interviewed about your nomination, your hubby explaining to the AP that you are way too busy writing and publishing to answer a few questions. 

Edgar Allen BeemI’m sure lots of people view the press as invasive, but, as I see it, if you are an author, artist, actor, athlete, or anyone else whose livelihood depends on the support of the public and the media, you really have to have to be pretty full of yourself not to respond to interview requests. 

I am amazed, for example, that the media lets New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick get away with his surly treatment of reporters. He treats them as a nuisance when, in fact, they are the public’s representatives and one of the major reasons he gets to make a good living coaching a meaningless sport. If the media and the public didn’t pay attention, Belichick would be selling cars. 

Of course, my irritability with public figures who decline to be interviewed is conditioned by a half-century of invading people’s privacy as a journalist. Some public figures can get away with the Greta Garbo “I want to be alone” routine, just as long as they are consistent. J.D. Salinger and E.B. White, for instance, treated all would-be visitors the same. (Well, actually not so. Salinger just hid out and didn’t reply to requests for interviews; White wrote short, well-worded notes politely declining.)

I have two such notes from White. My favorite is a 3-by-5 card upon which the great man typed, “Sorry I won’t be able to ask you for a visit. My days of being interviewed are over, along with a lot of other days.”

He wrote that in 1983, two years before he died at age 86. In a journalism career in which I interviewed hundreds of people, famous and not so, White was the one who got away, the only person I really wanted to meet who turned me down.

Socialite Brooke Astor was another major naysayer. For several summers in the 1980s, I wrote a series of articles about summer colonies along the Maine coast and I very much wanted to talk with Astor about her life in Northeast Harbor. She replied that she did not want to call attention to her Cove End “cottage” because it stood empty most of the year.

I accepted her excuse until a few years later when I saw a lavish article about Cove End in Architectural Digest. I’m pretty sure prospective burglars were more likely to read AD than Maine Times when looking for a score.

Among my favorite visits with public figures whose lives I invited myself into are author Stephen King; designer Sister Parrish; artists Andrew Wyeth, Jamie Wyeth, Leonard Baskin, and Robert Indiana, and philanthropists David and Peggy Rockefeller. 

King was so obliging that he rode around Bangor on his motorcycle while the photographer sat in the trunk of my car and took pictures. The Rockefellers were so gracious that I didn’t realize until I sat down at the typewriter to write the article that they really hadn’t said anything at all.

Some folks just know how to handle the media.

Edgar Allen Beem has been writing The Universal Notebook weekly since 2003, first for The Forecaster and now for the Phoenix. He also writes the Art Seen feature.