[Another installment in the ongoing true life adventures of Periphery Man, who has had myriad peculiar encounters with celebrities while not being one himself.]
In the early '80s in New York City, I wed a woman named Sue. As a freelance writer married to a just-relocated theater manager, we were poor, but not starving: While I started churning out a series of romance novels under a female nom de plume, Sue worked at the original Dean & DeLuca’s in Soho. We didn't have too many dinners out, but we had world-class gourmet sun-dried tomatoes at home.
One of Sue's co-workers, soon a close friend and complicit in the occasional um, borrowing of imported extra-virgin olive oil and the like, was Jamie Harrison, daughter of Jim, himself as famed a gourmet as he was a master of the western literary novel. One summer Jamie (then a beginning, now a successful novelist) invited us to visit her and her family in Montana.
We drove from the airport up to their place in a rent-a-heap so trashed that we expected to lift its rusty hood and discover a caged couple of pedal-pushing squirrels. This dyed-in-the-cardigan city boy was wearing too tight, just bought blue jeans, because I’d suddenly realized I didn’t own a pair. How could I greet Jim Harrison wearing my usual urban pleated pants over my loafers? Might as well hang a ‘Wussy NYC intellectual’ sign from my belt.
I was profoundly uncomfortable, physically and psychically, en route to meeting this mythic figure whose prose spoke of riding a Percheron through the chaparral on the arroyo (I’m sorry, the what? Through the where, now?). He would surely see by my outfit that I was no cowboy. So Sue and I were bickering most of the way, punctuated by our mobile junk-pile’s burps of auto-indigestion. By the time we’d come to the end of Jamie’s directions, we were in full marital fight mode, which only made me more anxious. “Are we going to be okay?” I asked my wife. “Yeah,” she said, “although it would be even better if I could pretend I’d never met you.”
We pulled into the driveway of the Harrisons’ appropriately isolated, rustic ranch house. I saw the hulking form of the great man trundle toward us with a greasy-looking paper bag in his mitts. No sooner had I climbed out of our heap than he thrust it under my face, grinning, with a cry of “Fish!” I passed my first test of manliness by not reeling back from the bag’s stench, and made a sound of savvy appreciation. Intending to make a bouillabaisse for dinner, Harrison had just caught this batch, perhaps by diving into treacherous whitewater and grabbing the trout with his bare hands.
Inside the house the Harrisons did their best to put their guests at ease, though for me ease was impossible. Anyone who’s been married knows that frustrating, frightening phenomenon: embarking on a high-stakes social mission when you’ve lost your most trusted ally - and horribly, you and your mate have to fake a united front.
For the first hour it was touch and go. But the rapport between Sue and Jamie, the calm exuded by gracious beauty Linda, Jamie's mom, and Jim's own lurching garrulousness diffused our tensions - as did generous glasses of wine from what he gleefully referred to as “the Warner Brothers cellar” (he’d sold some early works to that studio for a small fortune). Soon other guests were arriving to fill in the gaps.
By nightfall, Jim's bouillabaisse bubbled and steamed up the kitchen like a benign warlock’s cauldron stew, with a party in full, boisterous swing. Somewhere in the midst of this, Sue and I came face to face in a quiet corner of the living room, alone for the first time since our rancorous arrival. The olive branch I proffered came like second nature to rom-com maven me, whose go-to question in such circumstances is: What would Cary Grant do? Remembering Sue’s parting shot in the car, I feigned flirtatious intrigue. “I'm sorry, have we met?”
“Sue,” she said, extending her hand. I shook it and introduced myself, asking: “So… how do you know our hosts?” I was rewarded with a familiar sparkle reappearing in her eyes and her little snort of a laugh. “Actually, I’m a friend of Jamie’s from New York,” she said, and just then Jamie called her away.
In the movie version, we’d have stayed in character all night. In real life we fell back into our real roles. After all, we just wanted to enjoy where we were. Jim Harrison had a colorful good-time-loving group of friends, and the stew was stupendous. Buoyed by detente with that cute woman named Sue and various combinations of controlled substances, once I got comfortable with Jim's wall-eyed gaze ("My left eye is blind and jogs like/a milky sparrow in its socket") and accepted the fact that he really didn't care about either my literary or agricultural pedigree, I even got to share a few laughs with our host.
The rest of the night is a blur in happily addled remembrance. I do clearly recall that as Jamie drove Sue and I to the guest cabin in the moonlight, I was standing up through the sunroof of her car, yelling and nearly getting decapitated by a tree branch as Sue and Jamie shrieked and laughed at me. I believe there was awesome makeup sex. And that's how Cary Grant saved my first marriage.
Though in fact, it was Jim Harrison's fish.