05/15/2012 01:04 pm ET Updated Jul 15, 2012

Who Is Cool, What Is Cool

Writing in the New York Times, Maureen Dowd took note of Hillary Clinton's being photographed by Time magazine on a C-17 flight from Malta to Tripoli. "I don't think she was meaning to be cool, " the photographer said. "She just reached in her bag to get some glasses to read her BlackBerry before the plane took off for Tripoli."

Cool includes sunglasses. Cool communicates attitude, as in "How does she handle stress?" Cool can suggest how a well-known person maintains a deliberate distance of mystery. This can raise a question: "If she's sending a message, what is it?" Cool can mean letting other people assume they really know you when they don't at all. Is it cool, then, to steer them away? Maybe it's cool to find one's own space, cultivate it and throw away the key.

Certain people have come to epitomize cool in the public eye. One is Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. She chose a life of her own in the heart of the busy power base of Manhattan. Having chosen a late career in the book publishing world, she appeared walking on busy streets to dining in well-known restaurants. New York accepted her as one of its own. She has moved from person to myth. That misused word "icon" is applied to her. Yet she managed to live her own life in the eye of the hurricane. Apparently she decided what she wanted to do and went about it painstakingly. She defined herself. Doing this was cool.

Michelle Obama appears to be incredibly cool. She's raising her two daughters with impeccable grace, trying hard to save America from obesity, pushing veggies in the market and managing a healthy, constant smile in the midst of a first lady's chaotic life. She's also the nation's first black first lady. Hers is perhaps the most serene cool. Michelle -- or should I call her Mrs. Obama? -- appears wholly adept in her given ceremonial role. She's gracious, cheerful, down-to-earth, yet as regal as the Queen of England. How's that for cool?

I've included Queen Elizabeth II on my cool list. How has she managed in these many years to be the reigning mum of all mums. We've seen her seemingly forever. First, she was the small girl who was also a royal princess. She and her sister Princes Margaret sat between their august parents in many a royal carriage, doing on the job training that taught them how to wave to great crowds. Then she was transformed into a quite young queen. She remained a constant figure in a changing world. Like Queen Victoria before her, she accepted a hard job and devoted her life to it.

A few years ago we saw the movie "The Queen" which was designed to seem like her story. Actress Helen Mirren played the cinematic Queen of England. Bloody good she was, too, along with the movie. The underlying mood was cool. Yes, there were conflicts. Perhaps the biggest was ill-fated Princess Diana. Her life was seemingly never cool, always apparently in the shadow of a volcano.

Is cool necessary for a public life? I think it helps. One aspect is distance. I don't subscribe to distance over closeness. Not at all. Yet in a public life there seems to be a yearning -- even a need -- for shading and variation in tone and color and meaning. Celebrity requires it if a celebrity is to survive.

One of the greatest celebrities of the 20th century was actress Mary Pickford. Known as "America's Sweetheart," she was for at least a decade perhaps the best known woman in the world. She and Charles Chaplin pioneered the new age of global celebrity. I recall an old photograph of Mary and her husband actor Douglas Fairbanks in London at the height of fame. A crowd had grown around them in a street. But instead of just being smiling and adulatory, it changed its mood to dangerous closeness. Mary's face in the picture is frightened. The crowd is out of control. What should one do? For years to come many others would experience the same reaction. But Mary came first. Obviously she was rescued. But always she knew a crowd could be heartwarming and supportive or else a demon out of control.

When I was in my 20s I worked in Hollywood in the motion picture industry. Mary and I met, became friends and formed a small production firm, PRB, Inc. (Pickford, Rogers, Boyd) that explored the coming new world of TV. Mary, who had weathered decades of world fame, remained cool. There were no new Mt. Everests for her to climb. She had seen and experienced it all. She became the great mentor of the rest of my life.

Once Mary and I were in San Francisco together for a civic event. We realized we had an evening when we could have a quiet dinner alone. There were no public duties or a star appearance on the schedule. We decided to embark on an experiment. We'd try to make Mary incognito and enjoy a meal in a completely inconspicuous restaurant where we could be anonymous and left alone. So Mary dressed down, wore no jewelry, kept her hair plain, and we found the restaurant of our choice. Shortly after 7 p.m. we quietly entered. I noticed a few quizzical looks and glances in our direction. After all Mary's face was still one of the best known in the world. However, in just a moment these folk got bored, simply looked away and went back to their meal. The point is: Mary Pickford couldn't possibly be here.

We relaxed and had fun. We ordered garlic bread. Then, laughing, we rubbed it on our hands and hair. We were like children. The world was our oyster. It was pure enjoyment and complete relaxation. Soon we departed without anyone saying goodbye.

We thought it was pretty cool.