By Lydia Hope Wilen / New York City
In olden days–1992 and 1993–my sister Joany and I had a dream job. The two of us were responsible for a full-page weekly feature in the New York Daily News Sunday Magazine. It was called My Favorite New York. Each week we would meet a celebrity at their favorite place in NYC, have them tell us why this was their favorite place and a Daily News photographer would photograph them there.
We met actors, playwrights, politicians, comedians, singers, rappers, musicians, directors, talk-show hosts, newscasters, authors, a model, a drag performer, a diet guru, a disc jockey, a frog (Kermit, of course) and a soon-to-be inaugurated U.S. president (Bill Clinton).
I’d like to take you behind the scenes and share some of our experiences with celebs who endeared themselves to us in one way or another.
Richard Simmons, diet guru. Favorite NY: Mabel’s, a gift shop for pets
Richard Simmons, in shorts and a tank top, entered the store and burst into song and dance. He then sat on the floor, lotioned his legs, then jumped up to help a woman who walked in the door. She didn’t recognize him and was happy to have his help picking out an appropriate play toy for her friend’s new cat.
When the tomboyishly-dressed photographer arrived, Simmons took one look at her feet and said, “Oh how nice. A soldier died and left you his boots.”
Thinking back to how outrageously funny he was that day, I realize, you had to be there. Luckily for us, we were.
Michael Caine, actor. Favorite NY: a suite at the St. Regis Hotel
We waited for Michael Caine in the Presidential Suite ($2,500 a night in 1993). Suddenly, the door opened and in walked the Academy Award-winning actor. He said, “Hello, I’m Michael Caine.” (As if we didn’t know.) That was the moment Joany and I believed in love at first sight.
Caine confessed that he was staying in a nonpresidential suite, but that the hotel management wanted his picture taken in this suite. He then told us to take our pocketbooks and follow him. We went from bathroom to bathroom, as Caine filled our bags with all available freebies – shampoo, toothbrushes, toothpaste, razors, soap, and the like. We thought he must be channeling our mother.
When it was picture-taking time, he posed with his elbow on the fireplace mantel. The picture captured Caine laughing and if you looked closely, you’d laugh too, seeing my face reflected in the mirror behind him. Oops!
Diedre Hall, actress. Favorite NY: Steuben Glass on Fifth Avenue
Known then as “Queen of the Soaps” for her role on Days of Our Lives, Diedre Hall showed up at Steuben right after a TV appearance and she was accompanied by her in-laws and a dozen fans.
During our interview, Hall kept looking at her watch. The last one of those times, she asked if she could be excused for a few minutes. Who were we to say “no” to the Queen? She and one of her fans left the store. A couple minutes later, Hall came back alone, after seeing to it that the fan got into a cab that would take her to the airport to catch her plane.
It was no wonder that this gracious actress had a huge following of devoted fans.
Hector Elizondo, actor. Favorite NY: Nicholas Roerich Museum, 319 W. 107th St.
The one time it happened: a celeb introduced us to a place we never knew existed. The museum is dedicated to the works of the Russian-born artist, Nicholas Roerich, featuring nature scenes from the Himalayas. It’s in a brownstone and worth a visit. Caution: stairs are involved. Who knows? You just may pass Hector Elizondo on a staircase.
Gloria Steinem, journalist, feminist leader, co-founder of Ms. magazine. Favorite NY: East 96th and Lexington Avenue subway station
Gloria Steinem asked that we meet at her apartment and then she’d walk with us to the subway.
We arrived at her no-frills building and walked up to her floor, then to her apartment and knocked on the door. We heard her say, “Come in, it’s open.”
We walked in and there was Gloria Steinem, half-dressed, ironing her blouse.
This powerhouse of a person, a mountain mover, a change-implementer, was ironing her blouse. If something needs to be done, clearly, Steinem is the one to do it. That blouse-ironing scene said it all. Picture painted.
Martin Short, comedian, actor. Favorite NY: Claremont Riding Academy
We were in front of Claremont, waiting for a car to pull up with Martin Short. No car. Just Short, walking down the long block from Columbus Avenue towards Amsterdam Avenue on W. 89th Street. He was by himself (no publicist, no agent, no assistant). When he reached us at Claremont, this charming, thoughtful, caring star of stage and screen, told us he wanted his page in our feature to be unique. And so he showed up wearing a tuxedo at 1 p.m. in the afternoon. Ya gotta love that guy! We did.
William Shatner, actor. Favorite NY: Central Park’s Wollman Rink
This was our fastest interview and photography session. We talked to Shatner while he put on ice skates. The picture of him in the rink happened as soon as he stepped foot on the ice. We then heard a kid shout, “Beam me up. It’s Captain Kirk.” That’s all Shatner had to hear. He was off the ice, out of the skates and away from the Wollman Rink, to boldly go where no man has gone before…wherever that was.
Robert Goulet, singer, actor. Favorite NY: St. Patrick’s Cathedral
Robert Goulet started singing publicly at his hometown church in Lawrence, Mass. (An appropriate abbreviation, considering the place was a church). When Goulet lived in NY, he would stop by St. Pat’s quite often, always feeling more at peace after his visit.
Goulet told us, “I pray to the Lord all the time. He’s my friend.” The church’s public relations person in charge of us, heard him say that and decided to give Goulet a real treat, taking him in an elevator up to the main organ and then, taking him through what we think was a crawl space to the electrified chimes. All we knew was that a thrilled but sooty Goulet came back to us, looking as though he should be singing, “Chim chiminey, Chim chiminey, Chim chim cher-ee!”
From 1993 until the last holiday season of his life in 2006, we received beautiful Christmas cards from Robert and Vera Goulet.
Louie Anderson, comedian, game show host, actor and author. Favorite NY: Think Big, a store on Broadway and Spring Street, featuring giant-size Pop Art American culture symbols
Have you ever met someone and instantly feel as though you’ve known them forever? That’s the way it was with Louie Anderson for both of us. The way he autographed his book, says it all.
Enough of these celebrities. What about you? What’s your favorite New York, or your favorite anyplace? Please think about it, then tell us below in the comment box. We’d love to know!
Lydia Hope Wilen had a successful collaboration with her late sister Joany as nonfiction bestselling authors (18 books), journalists, TV personalities, writers and talent coordinators on a Nickelodeon series hosted by Leonard Nimoy, Reading Rainbow episodes, skit writers for Dr. Ruth's TV show, Diet America Challenge on CBS, and writers of screenplays (optioned but not produced yet).
Lydia is writing on her own now and has just completed an extraordinary book for young people and their parents. It will have them laughing and learning...once she gets an agent and it gets published.