MAXWELL:  Guess who’s coming to dinner

2/7/1999 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


My colleague Bonnie Blackburn, an editorial writer and columnist for the Journal Gazette of Fort Wayne, Ind., recently wrote a column about some of the famous people, living and dead, with whom she would like to have dinner. Bonnie’s guest list was so interesting and the piece so well-written that I am mimicking her. Following is my own short list of people with whom I would love to have food and drink.

Because I am as attracted to evil as I am to goodness, Adolf Hitler tops my roster. Yes, the Fuehrer himself. I would love to dine with Hitler. What, I would ask, drove him to such murderous hatred? I would look him in the eye as he tried to justify the unspeakable crimes at Auschwitz, Treblinka and other death camps. In hindsight, would he treat Jews as fellow humans and spare them? Could he give me insight into the nature of human evil and help me understand today’s human slaughter in places such as Africa and Kosovo?

Next, I would eat with Salvador Dali, one of my favorite 20th century artists. After having read and reviewed Ian Gibson’s recently published biography of Dali and watched a two-hour documentary of the Catalan surrealist, I am more intrigued by the man than ever.

I would not ask him about his art as much as I would ask about his incredible life _ his sexual hang-ups, the paranoia, the chase after money, the egomania, the exhibitionism. At his death, he seemed to have come to some understanding of his excesses. Did he have any regrets? And, of course, I would ask him to tell me about Gala, his libidinous wife. Was she the enigma that she is reported to have been? Was she loving? Or was she just lustful?

May Sarton was the first professional writer I met as a college student, and I have always admired her poems and journals. Having her in my home for dinner would give me the opportunity to ask her about the aging process and writing. In one of the last journal entries before her death in 1995, she wrote: “I realize now that it will be good for me to talk about old age, find out where I should bear down more heavily on myself and where I should let things go.” Specifically, I would inquire, did she bear down, and where did she let things go? Perhaps her answers could help me face old age gracefully.

Abraham Lincoln, the morose genius who freed my forebears from slavery, would be my next guest. I would like to know what he thinks of race relations in the nation today. Where did President Clinton’s race initiative go wrong _ if it did go wrong? As a Republican, where does he stand on affirmative action?

Are the vestiges of the “peculiar institution” sufficiently gone to permit us to declare _ with honesty _ that the playing field is level? What would he think of Ward Connerly, Clarence Thomas and their white supporters who claim that race no longer matters? What advice would he give to John Hope Franklin, head of Clinton’s race panel?

When Sylvia Plath arrives for dinner, I will tell her that The Bell Jar and her diary have been my constant companions since graduate school. “You had no right to kill yourself at age 30,” I would tell her before serving the main course. “You left a void in many lives. Why?”

Then, I would read to her one of my favorite passages from her journals: “I long to permeate the matter of this world: to become anchored to life by laundry and lilacs, daily bread and fried eggs, and a man, the dark-eyed stranger, who eats my food and my body and love and goes around the world all day and comes back to find solace with me at night.” I would tell her that she died much too young, that I am mad at her, that her husband, British poet Ted Hughes, was not over her suicide when he died recently.

A meal with Ida Tarbell, one of my mentors, would be a special treat. She has been given many labels _ feminist, statesman, social reformer, biographer, historian. To me, she will always be the McClure’s magazine writer who, in 1902, broke the story detailing Standard Oil’s monopoly. She became the nation’s first “muckraking” journalist. The very thought of her made the corrupt and powerful run scared.

What, I would ask, does she think of today’s “gotcha” journalism? What about the way we handled the Lewinsky-Clinton affair? How would she have approached this scandal? She was a pioneer in every sense of the term and, because of her writing, helped to make America a better place for ordinary citizens. Tarbell would be an inspiring dinner date.

I have always wanted to ask Giovanni Casanova how he did it, how he _ magician, moralist, musician, philosopher, scholar, poet and priest _ became Europe’s most notorious lover. After a few glasses of wine and a fine steak, perhaps Casanova would share the secrets of his charm, the forces that made women collapse in his embrace. Casanova understood human pleasure. He saw it not as a sin, but as a natural, essential part of life.

I would ask him to share his wisdom, after dessert, of course. Enjoy these two gems:

“Only human beings are capable of real pleasure, for endowed as they are with the faculty of reason, they anticipate it, seek it, fashion it, and reason about it after having enjoyed it.”

“The happiest of men is not always the most voluptuous but the one who knows how to choose the greatest voluptuous pleasures; and the greatest voluptuous pleasures, I repeat, can only be those which do not stir up the passions but increase peace of mind.”

Who are the famous people on your guest list? Invite them for a meal and enjoy their companionship.

Bon appetit!