07/30/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Two Interviews

Iran is off the media radar, instead we are caught up in another purely American sense of tragedy -- the deaths of celebrities -- the recent loss of Farrah Fawcett followed by the one dwarfing hers and nearly all others -- Michael Jackson.

I had the most tangential connections -- brief interviews -- with Farrah Fawcett and the father of Michael Jackson, Joe Jackson, many years ago. I am a writer, but in no way an expert on popular culture -- yet through a series of offhand connections, I ended up asking questions of these two people I knew close to nothing about.

Farrah Fawcett and Ryan O'Neal had the same business manager in the '80s as my late husband, David Dukes (who died in 2000) -- we occasionally glimpsed them in the Beverly Hills office of this manager.

David somehow offended Farrah Fawcett without ever intending to. When he was hired for a project she was headlining, he made the mistake of telling People magazine in an interview that in taking this job with Farrah, he'd have "worked with all of the Angels". (He'd been in the play "Key Exchange" with Kate Jackson and a TV film, called, I believe, "Sentimental Journey" with Jaclyn Smith.) Suddenly, he was no longer hired. He heard that Farrah had read his People quote and was incensed because she didn't like it when people still referred to her as an Angel -- she wanted to put all of that behind her. She found another co-star.

Thus when, in the nineties, House & Garden magazine asked me (a poet and professor, with only the occasional literary journalism credit) -- to interview Farrah at her (then) home in the hills near Mulholland -- I said yes, expecting to meet a somewhat bitter, somewhat battered, beautiful woman. Unlike David, I had never watched Charlie's Angels -- yet I was intrigued by what appeared to be her new, if Hollywood-ish, version of feminism -- I think she'd appeared in "The Burning Bed" by then and seemed to want to define herself as a strong actor -- and as a notable life apart from the troubled O'Neal.

Her house was small and unpretentious -- an expanded bungalow with a tennis court, filled with her art work. This, in fact, was supposed to be the focus of my interview -- Farrah's art. A busy insistent woman, Farrah's decorator, led me around the house -- pointing out Warhol's famous portrait of her over the fireplace and Farrah's own bronze sculptures, which were workman-like, not bad -- and then a parade of objet d'art from the decorator's own shop. Farrah, when she appeared, looked wraith-like, tiny and delicate -- it was hard for me to imagine her taking charge -- on stage or in life. She spoke in a soft whispery voice -- she talked about majoring in art in Texas, she showed me embroidered pillows and rosaries and crucifixes in her bedroom. She seemed child-like to me, except when she talked briefly about playing tennis with O'Neal (who was not present). He had done something to annoy her and she suddenly livened up, looking fierce and spunky -- "I could have belted him a good one -- wham!" This offhand half-threat seemed to cheer her up and she flashed her famous smile at me. This was so many years ago - her son Redmond suddenly raced into the room brandishing a wand with a star at the tip - he must have been about five or so -- I remember the wand (in memory, he wears a "magic" costume) -- but finally all I recall definitely is how her face lit up as he raced toward her.

The article/interview was published ("Farrah Fawcett Up Close") in House & Garden, then collected in a guide to writing non-fiction -- but I've lost track of it. I left Farrah's house that day without ever letting her know that she'd been unfair to my husband -- I wondered if I had been afraid to bring this up because I was cowed by her celebrity -- or if I had been put off by her smallness, her seeming frailty -- despite her comment about "belting" Ryan O'Neal.

I had no confusion about why I also wasn't forthcoming about my own thoughts in my interview with Joe Jackson -- I found him completely off-putting and somewhat alarming. I don't remember the series of circumstances that ended with my meeting this man at his office. I believe that I had been retained by one of his "aides" to write, for a fee, a kind of introduction to his life story -- perhaps he wanted a ghostwritten autobiography? My brother, who knew the Jackson "aide" had enlisted me in this project. I remember that I'd done some quick research on Jackson and on the Jackson Five and wrote something predictable to present to him. I had house-guests at the time, my husband was out of town, on location, and my little girl was waiting for me in the car with a baby-sitter. I had intended to deliver my summary, pick up a check from Mr. Jackson - and go home.

But he was late arriving at his office -- a sultry young woman who seemed intent on establishing herself as a kind of palace guard or possible girlfriend -- kept asking me rude questions about my qualifications. I told her I'd written for the NY Times and the LA Times (I didn't mention my poetry or fiction), but this, I remember, did not impress her.

I also apparently did not impress Mr. Jackson when he arrived. He approved of most of what I'd written about his background, but mentioned "errors" -- I can't remember now what I'd gotten wrong, but he talked about not paying me because I'd gotten a fact wrong. (He eventually did pay me.) He rambled on and on about himself, as if I weren't in the room. He had a broad, flat leonine face and a faux-jovial mean-ness about him. I tried to reason with him -- it was late, I needed to leave. Yet when I got up to go, he was still talking -- but now he was mentioning Michael, who still apparently lived in the same house in Encino where the Jackson family resided. I think I asked him finally if he saw a lot of Michael -- and he said something about passing him in the hall -- Michael not speaking to him. Just before I left, though, he came up with a touching moment -- he told me that one of his favorite memories was coming home at the end of the working day in Gary, Indiana -- hearing the sound of his boys singing and playing their instruments as he came up the front walk from his steel-worker's job. He smiled as he remembered the sound of his sons' voices.

Later Michael Jackson spoke bitterly about never having had a childhood because his father made him and his siblings practice their music non-stop, everyday -- a relentless regimen that left no room for a child's natural joy or delight. The sweet recollection of Joe Jackson's turned out to be just another sadness of his famous son's famous past, from which he famously tried to escape.

I didn't know either of these two -- Farrah Fawcett or Joe Jackson -- but there is still this insistent sense, as they each described their lives to me, of a wish to be recognized as talented and good, a wish to be taken seriously. Yet they remain, as most famous people, a kind of inviting absence -- filled by what the public gathers about them or desires for them or itself. In a way, the less we know about those whose lives are made "public" -- the more we think we know.

We can say we know, or knew, Farrah Fawcett -- or even the peculiar unpleasant Joe Jackson - but we cannot claim that familiarity with any authority. I met them, I talked to them -- I have only this quick series of impressions. Whatever we write about them is a kind of fiction. Or what we call "creative non-fiction". And we still know so very little about what is going on in Iran.

Read Carol's poem "Twin Cities" in the most recent edition of New Yorker magazine.