Celebrities today are not as real and accessible as those of times past.
Unlike the Greek gods, they do not come down to Earth to mingle with ordinary people. They exist on a surreal plane, and are seen only as images on screens or the pages of magazines.
Those who do come to Earth do it only in enormous settings, like the Coliseum or Dodger Stadium, where they appear at a distance from the multitudes.
One hardly hopes to bump into Prince shopping at the K mart, or to Madonna looking into Frederick's window on Hollywood Boulevard, or even on Rodeo Drive.
One way to remain a celebrity is to remain remote; to give the impression of other-worldliness, or being not quite real and mortal.
One of the fantasies of people who live a long way from Los Angeles is that we who live here are all acquainted with celebrities, and rub elbows with them every day.
I remember capitalizing on this myth shamelessly when I was a very young man in the merchant marine. One night at a dance in Melbourne an Australian girl asked me if I knew Robert Taylor, and I told her that I not only knew him, but lived next door to him.
She evidently believed me. Los Angeles was far away, a fairy-tale land where anything was possible.
That is why Ray Bradbury's story of bumping into Greta Garbo on the sidewalk outside the Biltmore Theater one afternoon is so poignant. Things like that could happen then.
Charles Willis of Palm Desert remembers an encounter with a star at a most unlikely place--the Black Oak Restaurant in Vacaville.
After a long wait, he was seated at the counter; an older and a younger man were at his right. He noticed that the menus were new, and suspected that the prices would have gone up since his last visit, as they had. He turned to the older man on his right and said, "Mister, when you see the prices on this menu your eyes are going to fall out of your head."
When the man turned to him, Willis' eyes almost fell out of his head. It was Bing Crosby. The young man with him was one of his sons.
Any man who eats at a restaurant counter is human and accessible.
As a high school kid entering the county fairgrounds at Ventura, Stanley Larson of Claremont was invited to hop up on the running board of a spectacular open white sports car.
The year was probably 1921, he remembers, and the car was probably a Stutz. But the driver was none other than Tom Mix, a very mortal god. It is said that Mix used to drive down Hollywood Boulevard in an open phaeton with longhorn steers on the radiator. (Clara Bow is said to have driven down the boulevard in an open car with two chow dogs dyed the color of her hair.)
Larson followed his father, Toby Larson, as publisher of the Claremont Courier. He was a Pomona College classmate of Joel McCrea, who lived next door and got his suntan by lying on his roof.
Occasionally Larson would leave his desk to have breakfast or coffee at Pop and Mom Slade's restaurant with Arlington Brugh--before he turned into Robert Taylor (my former neighbor).
Imagine a god having coffee at Pop and Mom Slade's!
As for the question of what Greta Garbo wore underneath, Ann Bricka of Long Beach remembers a revealing encounter with the great star:
"Many pounds ago (1938-41) I was a model for Saks in Beverly Hills. Every day at noon we would show the latest fashions in Perino's tiny satellite restaurant on the top floor. Many stars dropped in to lunch in its quiet seclusion.
"One day Garbo was there and liked the white crepe shirtwaist evening gown I was modeling. She said she would like to try it on, so I took her to my dressing room, where she disrobed to only a pair of men's white boxer shorts. They were very fine, not your Fruit of the Loom at all. There was no bra (a bit of trivia you might find interesting)."
That seems to raise the question from mere gossip to a biographical footnote, and I will pursue it no further. In any case, there is nothing wrong with boxer shorts. I wear them myself.
I have had several encounters with stars of the first order--besides those brought about by my access as a reporter.
Not long ago I was shopping for a printer in a computer store and ran into Marlon Brando. He was wearing a planter's hat, which fit his image as a South Seas island owner, and he was deeply engrossed with a salesman on the merits of various pieces of equipment.
That's what people all over the world think we do. We run into Marlon Brando in a store.
Once, more than 30 years ago, I was sitting alone in a bar in Studio City, in the afternoon, having a beer, when a man came in and sat two stools away from me. He ordered a beer and we looked at each other in the back-bar mirror.
It was Robert Mitchum.
He knew I knew who he was, and I knew he knew. I assumed that if he wanted to say hello he would. He didn't, and I didn't.
Nevertheless, I was once again aware of the magic of living in Los Angeles, where the gods sometimes came down and walked among us.