I envisioned writing the above headline as I interviewed Sam Donaldson in 1986.
I was The Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle‘s 26-year-old editor. ABC News’ White House correspondent was so famous that the Milwaukee Jewish Federation paid him $25,000 to speak at a $25,000 per couple fundraiser. Roughly 80 people who wanted to hear Donaldson talk about Israel attended, but they became angry when he talked about USA-Soviet Union arms negotiations.
Donaldson was supposed to talk to donors for an hour after his speech, but most of the donors didn’t talk to him and I was with him for 55 minutes. Donaldson, 52, was drunk. He acted like we were best buddies as he answered my questions on a couch. Within five minutes, he put his left arm around my right shoulder and moved closer to me.
I was homophobic and tried to wiggle out of Donaldson’s grasp. His hold on me tightened as I tried to deduce whether I could take him in a fight. Eventually, I looked at him angrily. He looked shocked and moved away from me. Then, we had a relatively normal interview.
As a content writer, I’ve never interviewed anyone famous, but I interviewed a few senators during my journalism career. John Glenn angrily rebuked me when I asked him about the rescue of Iran’s Jews. He argued the rescue was a national security secret and ordered me not to write about it. Actually, I had kept the secret out of my newspaper for months, but The Los Angeles Times had spilled the beans a few days earlier.
Asking Glenn about the rescue and writing about it was the right thing to do and illustrates two of my tips for interviewing celebrities—ask unexpected questions and refuse to let them control your story. My other tips include:
- Don’t automatically agree on subject matter: Representatives for politician/TV personality Bess Myerson asked me to interview her about her biography, but said it would be stopped if I asked her about an investigation into her allegedly bribing a judge. I agreed. I shouldn’t have done the interview. Her answer to many of my questions was “read the book.”
- Don’t let arrogance bother you: Celebrities are often egomaniacal. Legendary Israeli politician Abba Eban talked to me about a television show. I asked him about the show, to which he responded, “You’re the only Jew who hasn’t watched my show.”
- Overprepare: Hank Aaron sat next to me at USA Today’s office while I was a sportswriter. I said nothing because I was unprepared. Aaron was playing in an old-timers baseball game that I was covering the next day. My freezing compelled me to overprepare. I interviewed Joe DiMaggio and several other ballplayers.
My most interesting experiences with celebrities, though, were non-interviews. I arranged an interview with Dolly Parton a few weeks before part of the movie Straight Talk was filmed in Lemont, Ill., a town I covered for The Chicago Tribune. Her agent, though, cancelled the interview because Parton insisted that Tribune film critic Gene Siskel interview her rather than someone she never heard of.
The next day, Parton talked to fans for about 10 minutes. I stood next to her, not saying a word, and taking notes for my story.
Joe Biden’s office requested that I interview him after his speech at a temple, but his speech ran long. As I approached him, an aide whispered to him and the two men ran into what looked like a closet. I walked in. I had crashed a private fundraiser for Biden’s 1988 presidential campaign.
My boss told me I would be fired if I wrote about the fundraiser. Thus, the following headline never appeared either.
“Young Reporter Exposes Sliminess Of Presidential Fundraisers”
Martin Z is a freelance writer available on WriterAccess, a marketplace where clients and expert writers connect for assignments.