Me and John Updike

Sounding as if it were an apology, Updike confided in me: "I was invited. Don't ask me why."

At "Night of 100 Stars": back in the 1980s, the star who most impressed me was a shy fellow in tuxedo and brown tweed hat, standing on the sidelines.

I had already shaken hands with Milton Berle, George Burns, Alexis Smith, and a long line of other celebrities. Wearing a tux myself, I suppose they had no idea who I was: a film producer, a bit player, a musician, another star of this star-studded evening at Radio City Music Hall. The truth is, I was a Hollywood nobody, just a middle-aged teacher and poet from across the river in New Jersey who always loved the movies and thought this would be an opportunity to meet the big screen's rich and famous.

The tall, thin man stood looking every bit lost, and one needn't have been a mind reader to decide he really did not want to be there. He was not a movie star. I would suspect few recognized him. But at first glance, I knew who John Updike was. I had read all of his novels and his poetry as well.

"Excuse me, Mr. Updike," I said.

"You're the first tonight," he replied.

"The first?"

"To know me."

"Sir, I am one of your biggest fans. I've read all of your books. Your photo is on the book jackets."

He laughed. "And you?" he asked.

"A teacher who writes poems. Or maybe a poet who teaches." We both laughed.

Then, sounding as if it were an apology, Updike confided in me: "I was invited. Don't ask me why."

I didn't. Instead, I asked if he would mind having his picture taken with me. "For my scrapbook," I explained. "Next to my favorite author." (Which wasn't entirely true. Isaac Asimov was. So was William Goldman. But from them I had only signed letters they wrote me in reply to letters I'd sent them, and here in front of me was a renowned author in the flesh.)

"Why, sure. I don't remind a picture."

My wife at the time stepped forward with her trusty Nikon and snapped a pose we both took, standing next to each other. Both of us are smiling. Updike and I in ballroom tuxedos, he a head taller than I--even taller, perhaps, because of the brown tweed hat he decided not to remove.

As soon as the picture was taken, we shook hands, and my ex-wife steered my elbow toward an incoming crowd of actors like the _Death Wish_ actor Charles Bronson, Jane Seymour, and David Hasselhoff. When I turned around, John Updike had somehow melted into the crowd that was heading for the dining hall, where a high-ticket dinner would be served--one we couldn't afford to attend.

Weeks later, I mailed John Updike a copy of the photo, which he mailed back to me with his signature on the back and a note he'd written: "Who's the weird guy with the hat?"


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