For the past ten years I have been hosting a cable television show, The Drexel InterView, widely distributed throughout local PBS and community-access stations, in which I interview luminaries in the arts, sciences, business, and education. Some of these people, despite impressive resumes, are rather dull. Their responses are so practiced and their personas so honed that I can't get beyond the scripted carapace. But others, despite being often in the public eye, manage to convey exceptional spontaneity and originality. Even if they have been asked the same questions many times before, their answers seem fresh; they are able, even in the course of a short interview, to create a sense of intimacy. I realize that they may be great performers, but if so, I don't care. I'm thoroughly engaged and willing to be seduced.
A number of these people have died since I interviewed them, which makes my recollection of them all the more poignant. Among the most notable of this group -- in the order of their decease -- are: journalist and political gadfly Molly Ivins; Philadelphia Museum of Art director Anne D'Harnoncourt; literary and cultural critic Paul Fussell; public intellectual and literary pundit Christopher Hitchens; writer and director Nora Ephron; and, most recently, former poet-laureate Daniel Hoffman.
Each of these figures has remained in my memory as inimitable. I can still hear the twang of Ivins' wit and the brash sound of her laugh. I will never forget Hoffman's tender reading of a poem written for his late wife. I can see the regal figure of D'Harnoncourt looking around the Drexel University Picture Gallery and pointing out a painting she liked. And I recall sitting opposite Nora Ephron when the security alarm in the building went off and we had to wait 30 minutes for it to be deactivated. I had heard that Ephron was a famously impatient person, but she chatted amiably while the alarm continued to blare. I asked her why she seemed so calm -- after all, she had an important engagement for which the delay threatened to make her late. She said she only got upset about things within her control. I did not know at the time that she was ill. The only hint in retrospect was when I spoke to her about aging. "There are some good things about getting older," I said. "No, there aren't," she responded curtly, closing the subject.
Christopher Hitchens, whose cancer diagnosis was announced only a day after I interviewed him (mine was his last interview with hair), was as delightful a conversationalist as I had hoped. He answered my questions with his characteristic frankness, even when I badgered him about the absence of women in his famous lunch group. He spoke about being a committed social activist when in college at Oxford while also enjoying elaborate meals at the home of one of the more effete dons. He discussed the surprise of learning late in life that his mother was Jewish; it meant that those Jewish kids from his Marxist student days who had always held themselves (or been held) apart were, retrospectively, his compeers. He spoke movingly about his mother's suicide and why he thought she had been talked into it by her lover.
But perhaps most memorable was my interview with Paul Fussell, author of the landmark work about the poetry written about World War I, The Great War and Modern Memory. Fussell arrived at the interview clutching his cane and looking feeble and confused. The first few minutes of the interview were halting; he seemed to have a hard time comprehending the questions and keeping on track. But as we continued, he got his bearings and began to answer with the cogency that I associate with his writing. He spoke about his harrowing experiences in World War II, when, as a young lieutenant, he relied heavily on the guidance of an experienced older sergeant. That man was later blown to bits next to him during a mortar attack -- an event, he said, that would have a shaping effect on the rest his life. He spoke about his father and his upbringing, about eighteenth-century poetry, about academic conferences and academic pretension, about ocean liners vs. airplanes, and travel vs. tourism. It was a wonderful, wide-ranging interview, full of the wit, heart, and crankiness of a larger-than-life personality. He was dead a year later.
I am saddened to think that these people are gone; they were such vibrant and original human beings. But I feel fortunate to have met them and to have a record of doing so.