Famous People We Don’t Know



When a friend or acquaintance gets  famous, or even sort of famous, we are delighted. Absurdly we feel connected to them.  Not that we don’t love living in the low-key midwest, but few celebrities come through, except touring rock stars like Fleetwood Mac or Paul McCartney. And we don’t know them.

We are incurably bookish.  I grew up  in Iowa City, now a UNESCO City of Books, and attended the University of Iowa, home of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. For years I was a journalist, and interviewed dozens of famous writers, among them Denise Levertov, Galway Kinnell, Ann Beattie, Bobbie Ann Mason, Karen Joy Fowler, Margot Livesey, Frank Conroy, Oscar Hijuelos, Robert Hellenga, Peter Stothard, Karen E. Bender, and Michelle Hunevan.

John Leggett

Over Thanksgiving dinner, we invented a game whose goal was to rattle off our famous “friends” who once lived in Iowa, or even visited here.  My cousin claimed she’d partied with Ashton Kutcher at the University of Iowa (possible) and had sex with Keith Richards in Des Moines (certainly a lie!); my husband took a writing class from John Leggett, who was reputed to be a mean bastard  (I don’t know why my talented husband gave up writing); I also claimed Leggett because I lived around the block from him (and the noise from his parties kept me up all night); we absurdly claimed Jane Smiley, a Pulitzer Prize winning writer who got her Ph.D.  from the University of Iowa and taught for years at Iowa State, because we’ve attended two of her readings; and I took a writing class from T.C. Boyle when he was a T.A. (Do read his hilarious Iowa City short story, “A Women’s Restaurant,” in which the hero desperately wants to break into a Grace and Rubies, an actual women’s restaurant/club I belonged to in the ’70s!)

“Don’t you know anyone who isn’t a writer?” someone asked.

“Greg Brown?” we hazarded.

Yes, we have all heard the musician Greg Brown at the Mill or on Prairie Home Companion.

Duck’s Breath Mystery Theatre

But then I had a flash! Duck’s Breath Mystery Theatre! This brilliant comedy group, founded by five University of Iowa students in 1975, is famous. Their performances and radio sketches were broadcast on NPR, and they had finale show a couple of years ago . All right, I don’t “know” them, but Leon Martell  was the T.A. for my Drama in Western Culture class. I  do vaguely remember him perched on a desk in our discussion group.  And was there another T.A., Jan, who founded the Haunted Bookshop, or was that the second semester?  And  I think Leon may have directed the college production of A Midsummer’s Night Dream, or perhaps he played Oberon. And were the fairies on swings?

The Duck’s Breath Mystery Theatre skits are hilarious:  I love their performance of “When I Get Rich” and “More Than a Box.” And you can watch their finale performance in San Francisco online.   Actually, there seems to be a lot online.




4 thoughts on “Famous People We Don’t Know”

  1. Shall I start with Barry Goldwater? He came to my church when I was a child and I shook his hand. I was much too young to vote. Then there was dinner with Tom Rush & his wife at the house of friends. Who expected him to be there? My husband was in the act of asking him what he did for a living when I recognized him and tried to kick my husband. We had / have several of his records. Steven Wright, one of my favorite comedians, used to drink at the bar we drank at in Boston. A casual ‘hey’ was as close as I got, although his first comedy album, I Have a Pony, was out. Probably the most well-known people we rubbed elbows with were Aerosmith. Joey Kramer, the drummer, lived down the street from us. The band used to rehearse at Joey’s studio and always waved as they passed us. Steven Tyler lived in the same town, so he was often out and about. My husband was at CVS picking up a prescription for me and Steven was there. Steven came over to my long-haired husband and chatted. After he left, everyone wanted to know what band my husband was in that Steven knew him. And do I count the guy on Nova the other night? The show on peregrine falcons. He appeared and I shouted ‘I know him!’ If you live long enough, you run into famous people.

    1. OH, how fun to meet Tom Rush! The few celebs I’ve met just want to relax and have fun, so I’m sure they enjoyed meeting a creative type like you, especially since you prevented your husb from asking what Tom Rush did! And it’s a compliment to your husband that Steven Tyler chatted with him at CVS. I guess they DO have to go to CVS, huh?

  2. “He … spoke of several duchesses as if he knew them – in his more inspired moments almost as if they knew him. ”
    Saki’s guide to name-dropping.

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