“What was it like for you…?”
This is a question my editor at the Los Angeles Times never asked me back in 1989, after my luncheon interview with a young and unknown Australian movie actress. So, I will tell you now.
Near 30 and newly pregnant, I was feeling pretty pleased with myself as I swirled in the revolving doors and entered the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. I was well prepared; I had seen her movie, my tape was in place and my legal pad was blank. I felt smart in my designer suit and it hid my baby bump. I had another secret, too. I was also an actress — yet, for the time, I had returned to journalism, the family trade. Inwardly, though, I felt I was as glamorous as any movie actress.
Then I met Nicole Kidman. Her complexion was perfection. Her hair was like Alice in Wonderland’s, only red. She was very tall, practically gangly. She was wearing a chiffon shift, and a girlish smirk that in no way masked the enormity of her ambition. I observed her objectively as she moved through the hotel lobby — in her flats across the Persian carpet, under the gigantic chandeliers hanging like glittering octopi from the decorous ceiling, navigating oversized urns exploding with opulent flower arrangements. In awe I thought: If anyone has everything it takes to be a movie star it is this Miss Kidman.
Suddenly I felt over the hill. My Issey Miyake suit was itchy.
My father was a journalist. To say I learned the five points of a strong lead — who, what, where, how and when — shortly after I learned to count on my fingers is not an outrageous exaggeration. Early on, he instilled in me a devotion to facts, diligence in research and an appreciation for lively verbs. Above all, he said, a reporter strives for invisibility and objectivity.
He admired Hemingway and Fitzgerald. I wanted to be Zelda Fitzgerald. In the early ’80s, when I arrived in New York — after majoring in semiotics at college — I did not sit by the fountain at The Plaza Hotel and sip champagne and then take a dip in it as Zelda had; still, the fountain was a sort of shrine to me. I toiled as a model by day and went out at night. I had dinners with Tom Wolfe at Elaine’s and did headstands at Mortimer’s, where I met Gay Talese. These two literary (and sartorial) giants revolutionized journalism. They wrote first-person nonfiction. They made the reporter central, integral to the story.
Years later, in 2004, when my child went off to boarding school, I went back to school. I reveled in the multi-genre opportunities in the Master of Professional Writing (MPW) program. I wrote a play, a movie and short stories. Then my mentor suggested I take on a new genre: memoir.
The focus of my book was my mother. It began as an essay for Vogue. When I turned in an early draft, my editor roiled me with a question.
“But, Devon, what was it like for you?”
Reporting was just not enough. Yet habits do not just go away; they must be studied and understood and dismantled.
Is invisibility actually possible? Is objectivity achievable? I defer to scientists and to philosophers for the answers to these questions. Yet remembering my lunch with Kidman, I questioned myself. Tinged with jealousy, had I not worked just a little too hard to include in the article that her first acting role had been a sheep?
“I wasn’t able to play Mary in the school play,” she explains, “because I was so tall. I cried my eyes out.”
I had an I, of course, and always had. Through work with my editor at Vogue, and continuous work on the book, I retrained myself and positioned my I in the proper place: at the very center of my story.
One night at USC, some of us wandered over to Radisson’s. The basement restaurant had only one customer, Gay Talese. We descended on his table. I wanted to tell him I was the girl who had stood on her head at Mortimer’s. I wanted to tell him that I, too, had morphed from journalist to memoirist.
Mr. Talese was gracious, but weary. He had flown the red eye from JFK to LAX and spent the day with his students in MPW. So, when the waiter brought his dinner, we left him alone.
Well — not alone. We left him in the company of his impeccably dressed, revolutionary and iconic I.
Devon O’Brien ’06 recently completed a memoir, My Mother’s Body.