When you are not famous, a chance encounter with a famous person is exciting. I’m not famous and this has happened to me quite a few times. Some have entailed casual conversation, while others have been mere “run-ins”. Most of these encounters have occurred in Louisiana, where I was born and raised. Some have occurred on airplanes and others in New York City, because, you know, that’s where all the famous people eventually end up. One of my very best stories of an encounter with a famous person I will save for last, however, since it is the best one. For that one, you will have to check back next Sunday to read Part Two. Let’s begin with the first half of the list of “close encounters of the famous kind”.
- Judge Leander Perez. Growing up in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, we had our own brand of celebrity in our parish leader (Louisiana being the only state without counties), Judge Leander Perez. Judge Perez served as district judge of Plaquemines Parish, then district attorney, and finally President of the Plaquemines Parish Commission Council until his death in 1969. He ruled my hometown with an iron fist, keeping control of the area by limiting economic development, controlling the oil and gas leases of the parish properties, and maintaining segregated schools until 1966 when a federal court issued a decree to integrate the schools and placed Perez under injunction not to interfere. My Girl Scout troop went on a field trip to the parish courthouse, while working on our leadership badges, and we were granted an audience with the powerful Judge Perez in his private chambers. He called us up one by one to his desk to have a short conversation and give us a small trinket commemorating the occasion. One could say I had a very interesting childhood.
- Governor Edwin Edwards. Between 1983 and 1987 I was involved in a community theatre group, serving as actor, director, board member, and president. We did great work with very high production values. I was lucky to learn all sides of performing arts through some very talented people. At times our group teamed up with the music department of the local university, my alma mater Southeastern Louisiana University. One such joint production was a performance at a political fundraiser. Now, if you are from Louisiana you will recognize this name immediately, the famous and infamous Edwin Edwards. At the time, he was serving as governor of Louisiana for the second time. He was the honored guest at this event, and as such, there was a photo-op at the end of the event. Our group was called over to the side of the banquet hall to have our photo taken with him. The photographer placed us according to height, shortest on the front row, tallest in the back, and then inserted Governor Edwards smack dab in the middle of the front row, immediately to my left. He put his right arm around me and his left arm around one of the singers, and just as the photographer said, “One, Two, Three, Say Cheese,” I felt a very firm grasp of my rear end. Yes, the governor of Louisiana had just grabbed my butt. I nearly jumped out of line, and just as quickly as it had happened, he moved on, smiling and shaking hands with his adoring fans.
- Chef Justin Wilson. As a native Louisianan, I was privileged to grow up with very good seafood right in my backyard so to speak, good family recipes, and great cooks all around me. Outside of the family, however, we all knew one famous name: Cajun chef Justin Wilson (1914-2001). And, by the way, that first name is pronounced as the French would say it, ZHuwSTEHN, although he himself said he pronounced it as the Cajuns would say it, JOOS-tain. The interesting thing is that he wasn’t Cajun at all, having been born in Roseland, Louisiana, near the Mississippi border. His mother was of Cajun heritage, however, and it is from her where he learned to cook and tell stories. I was on a flight once and got up to go the bathroom and on the way back I noticed someone who looked a lot like him sitting in first class. He was in a business suit, not his trademark flannel shirt and blue jeans so I wasn’t sure it was really him. He looked like any other well-to-do business man in first class. I went back to my seat, thought about it for a few minutes, and got back up with the only paper I had, my airline ticket stub. I went back to first class and asked politely if he was Justin Wilson, the Cajun chef. He nodded so I asked him for his autograph. He smiled, and without a trace of his famous Cajun accent, asked me my name. I told him “Michelle Blanchard” in my best Cajun accent. He signed my ticket stub and handed it back. I returned to my seat, feeling a bit like Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!”
- Sister Helen Prejean. For a period of time during the early 1990’s I traveled back and forth from Maryland to Louisiana to be with my mother when she was either having surgery or recovering, equating to lots of times alone on an airplane, feeling low, never quite feeling like I was in the right place at the right time. If I was in Louisiana with my mother, I was not in Maryland with my two young children, who were home with their very supportive dad. If I was in Maryland with my children, then I was not in Louisiana with my mother. There was a great deal of pain either way. On one such return flight to Maryland, I was feeling particularly low. My mom was not doing well and I was very worried. Each time I boarded a plane to fly home, I always thought it might be the last time I would see her. On this particular flight, the plane was packed. Crying babies, loud storytellers, business men working on laptops, hipsters with their headphones, you name it, we were all on there. I had a middle seat (naturally, where else would you be if you were already feeling low) and the man on the aisle was asleep. The woman in the window seat was sitting quietly for most of the flight, looking out the window. At one point, she reached into her tote bag and pulled out a large stack of letters bound with a rubber band. She started going through them, opening one, reading it, putting the letter back into its envelope, and moving on to the next one. She saw me watching her and smiled modestly at me. I said, “Fan mail?” Really I was just joking. I could not imagine it really being fan mail; she was just a normal looking woman in a plain top and a plain, dark skirt. No jewelry, no make-up. She smiled back, and said, “Well, yes, it is. I get lots of letters about a book I wrote about the death penalty. It’s called Dead Man Walking.” And, so began my conversation with Sister Helen Prejean, a Roman Catholic nun who is one of the nation’s most outspoken opponents of the death penalty. Her first book was later made into the feature film of the same name. Susan Sarandon won the Oscar for Best Actress for her portrayal of Prejean in the film. I had not read the book at the time of our meeting, and because she was more interested in why I seemed so sad, we spent the flight talking about my mom and her health. I got off that plane with a sense of peace that I had not felt for a long time.
- Chef Jacques Pépin. The fifth person on my list is another chef, but this one is really French. For many years before there was a Food Network or a Cooking Channel, there was PBS and its round-up of cooking shows: Julia Child, Graham Kerr, Jeff Smith (until his legal troubles began), Pierre Franey, and my favorite of all, Jacques Pépin. I love everything about that man. I still watch him every weekend. I love all of his shows, those with Julia and those without, those with Claudine, his daughter, and those with his granddaughter, Shorey. I have all of his cookbooks and use them regularly. One week I read in the Washington Post newspaper that he was doing a book signing at La Madeleine’s in Rockville, not far from where I lived. It was a school night, so after work, mad dash to after care to pick up my daughters, rush home to meet my husband, load back up in the car and head to La Madeleine’s. We were early and first in line to see him. Because there weren’t many people there yet, he spent some time with us, talking to my daughters, posing for a photo with us, and signing my copy of his cookbook, Cooking with Claudine, which I had already purchased. As he was signing it, it fell open to a well-used page that was already stained with splatters of grease and what-not. He said to me, “The sign of a well-loved cookbook, one with grease stains on it!” He was utterly charming, and still is at age 79. My husband frequently jokes that I would leave him for a night on the town with that Frenchman! What can I say, he reminds me dearly of my late godfather, my dear Uncle Guy, an utterly charming Frenchman himself who was also a great cook.
And so ends the first half of my list of “Ten Close Encounters of the Famous Kind”. In Part Two of the list, I will share with you my first ever trip to New York City, where I had three of these encounters, all in the same week, and a business trip to Palm Desert, California, where a very presidential one happened. Oh, and for #10, the best one, we will return to good ole Louisiana. Stay tuned!