Famous people cross each other’s paths all the time and end up exchanging views on various topics. No surprise there. What is surprising about Craig Brown’s Hello Goodbye Hello: A Circle of 101 Remarkable Meetings is how artfully he strings these meetings together into an unbroken chain. Brown begins with a 1931 traffic accident involving Adolf Hitler and British playboy John Scott-Ellis, then moves on to an earlier encounter between Scott-Ellis and Rudyard Kipling and from there to a meeting between Kipling and Mark Twain, who, in turn, grants a farewell audience to Helen Keller, and so on. Each account involves a person from the former one. By the time Brown writes his last vignette—reconstructing a 1937 tête-à-tête between the Duchess of Windsor and Hitler—he has completed the circle.
Brown, a London-based satirist, includes in this bounty of historic get-togethers such seemingly disparate pairings as Nancy Reagan and Andy Warhol, Frank Lloyd Wright and Marilyn Monroe, H.G. Wells and Josef Stalin, and Alfred Hitchcock and Raymond Chandler. He enlivens these brief accounts (each precisely 1,001 words long) with smirky asides and breezy footnotes.
In one such note, Brown quotes the Australian comedian Barry Humphries concerning his reaction to meeting playwright Arthur Miller: “When [he] shook my hand,” Humphries recalled, “I could only think that this was the hand that had once cupped the breasts of Marilyn Monroe.”
For the most part, it’s the incongruity of these one-on-ones that interests Brown—and the reader. Why does Groucho Marx persist in discussing King Lear when T.S. Eliot clearly prefers talking about the Marx Brothers movies? Is it conceivable that the 92-year-old philosopher Bertrand Russell is putting the moves on his 22-year-old neighbor, the budding actress Sarah Miles? (Short answer: Oh, yeah.)
There are many personalities chronicled here who won’t be familiar to an American audience, but that doesn’t matter. Brown makes them all come alive.