PAW asks, “What now?” concerning Brooke Shields ’87 and the new ways she can put her creative gifts, ambitions, and generosity to work. May I make a suggestion, with the Princeton community in mind?
Now and then, we everyday mortals have a random encounter, out of the blue, with famous people. In all likelihood it has happened to you, maybe at a restaurant or ballpark, maybe in a hotel elevator. If so, you know that the experience can be awkward and, if a verbal exchange is called for, positively unnerving. Face to face with the celeb, we turn into tongue-tied dopes. All the more so if the person is one of those supernovas of talent and glamor who have become icons of the culture. I’m no stranger to the phenomenon of brain freeze in the presence of a demigod adored by millions. In my case, Ms. Shields did the honors.
Ten years after graduating, I returned to Princeton for a few months on the dime of my employer to do specialized research. It was fall term of Ms. Shields’ senior year at Princeton, 1986-87. The semester zipped by, Christmas came and went, and I had caught only fleeting glimpses of the University’s most gawked-at undergraduate around campus. That changed on a morning of leaden skies and heavy snow in late January, a few days before my wife and I would be wrapping up our stay and returning to our rowhouse in Baltimore with our son, not quite 2 years old.
It was my habit to take my reading materials to an elegant but cozy reading room on the third floor of Firestone Library, which for some reason was lightly used by students. The walls were lined with original paintings by Frederic Remington. A library employee sat at a desk watching over the place. On this morning, however, I found the door to the reading room closed and locked. Figuring that the blizzard outside had probably stalled the arrival of the attendant with the keys, I stood in the deserted hallway considering where else to park myself and my texts. As I weighed my options, I heard a woman’s voice behind me. “Excuse me,” she said, ”when will the reading room open?” I looked around and beheld a tall, slim young woman, no less drop-dead beautiful for being casually dressed. She was instantly recognizable. There was no way to play dumb and act like I thought she was speaking to someone else — we were alone in the hallway. The question had been put to me. By Brooke Shields!
If you have ever been driving on a busy highway in late afternoon and suddenly found your vision obliterated by the setting sun dead ahead as your vehicle barrels forward, you know how I felt as I looked blankly at Ms. Shields, my mental faculties blinded. “Keep your cool,” an inner voice told me, but it was a panicked voice. I was worse than addled. My intellect was stripped away as unceremoniously as a straw hat on a blowy beach. All I had left was the baseline cognitive capacity to answer her question by sheepishly grinning and then mechanically reading out the room’s hours of operation printed in big black letters on the door, as though she couldn’t read them for herself. It wasn’t a conversation starter. She surmised that I was not, as she had mistakenly thought, a library employee — or even someone with a lick of sense — and she said nothing more. She turned to go elsewhere, but just as she did, the actual attendant came rushing up, shaking snow from his hair and apologizing for his tardiness. His frozen fingers futzed with his key ring, and he opened the door. Ms. Shields, all business, went in and sat down to study. I followed and took a spot on the far side of the room, feeling arch-foolish but no longer hyperventilating.
Students on Ivy League campuses are much more subject to this kind of impromptu brush with fame than the average person. Princeton attracts the leading lights of the arts, politics, science, sports, medicine, commerce, and any other endeavor you can name, some as faculty members, some as visitors, and a few even as fellow students. You may bump into one when you least expect it, around any corner, like the time, as an undergraduate, I quite literally ran into Golda Meir in a campus doorway.
Ms. Shields would be doing a great service if she set aside one day every fall, preferably during the freshman orientation period, to meet with the incoming class and hold a sort of tutorial on the subject of everyday people’s interactions with VIPs. She could impart her well-earned insights and also answer the freshmen’s questions, drawing them out and trying to put them at ease. Besides explaining some do’s and don’ts, she could help give students a sense of how these encounters play out from the perspective of the celebrities themselves and how they, too, have their anxieties, inadequacies, and discomfort to contend with. After all, they have to handle these situations all the time, not just on rare occasions like the rest of us.
As a postscript, I should report that my wits did rally on that snowy morning in 1987, at least to the point that, after settling into my seat in the reading room and staying put for a decent two or three minutes, I had the gumption to head down to the lobby and call my wife on the pay phone. Ann had been a bit disappointed never to have laid eyes on Ms. Shields during our months in town. Now I knew exactly where she could find her. Duly tipped off, Ann bundled herself and our toddler up and gamely pulled him in his Radio Flyer red wagon through the driving snow all the way to Firestone — a good long trek from our rental down Prospect Street. I met her in the lobby, took our son in my arms, and sent her up to the reading room. Entering quietly, she had no trouble spotting Ms. Shields, still the only person in the room other than the attendant. Ann slowly strolled around the room’s perimeter, sneaking glances at the object of her visit between leisurely inspections of the Remington paintings. When she was halfway around, the attendant got up and approached her. “Can I help you with something?” he asked. “No thanks,” she said. “I’m just looking at the paintings.” “Yeah, right,” said he.