It is a question that I ask of people from time to time:
“With whom would you have dinner if you could choose from anyone in the world, living or dead?”
Although I’ve heard more than a few answers face-to-face, for the sake of this survey I asked for an email response to the question.
My respondents were permitted to list as many as three people and I encouraged them to give brief explanations for their choices.
The survey was not scientific and should be not thought to represent anything more than the answers of a mostly well-educated and not terribly diverse group of people I know. Many of them are close (including a few relatives), others more distant, and some can only be called acquaintances, friends of friends, or electronic correspondents.
The chosen dinner dates fall into the following categories:
- creators and performers
- religious and spiritual figures
- parents and relatives
- historical figures — mostly world leaders
- sports: players and coaches
There were also a few surprising answers that I will get to in due course.
Among those named in the Creative category were John Frusciante (former lead guitarist of the Red Hot Chili Peppers), Lucille Ball, Oscar Wilde, Jane Austen, Jim Carey, Patti Lupone, Anton Bruckner (19th century Austrian composer), Gustav Mahler (described as “the composer who fused sound and philosophy into the most soul-affecting music ever written”), Dave Matthews, Stephen King, Dr. Dennis Slamon (who helped develop the breast cancer drug Herceptin), and Barbara Walters.
Respondents frequently expressed the desire to get inside the creative mind of their dinner companion and probe for practical guidance for their own career.
One writer cleverly realized that a master chef would make the ideal dinner date, naming Auguste Escoffier, who is considered the father of modern French cuisine.
Religious or Spiritual Figures included Jesus, the Buddha, Martin Luther, Eckhart Tolle, and Abraham’s son Isaac; the last “to find out how he felt about his dad in light of his father’s God-directed preparation to slay him (only to be saved by an angel also sent by God, once Abraham had proven that he would actually follow-through on the requested action).”
Caravaggio’s “The Sacrifice of Isaac”
One person simply named “God,” and said that “if he exists, I’ll have enough questions to last long past dinner.”
For another, sharing a meal with Mary Magdalene had appeal: “I wonder if she has been recognized for the woman she actually was. The men who wrote the Bible may have diminished her role; and exactly what was her role?”
I must also mention one brave soul (apparently unconcerned with losing his) who related that Satan would be first on his list of dinner invitations, so that he might ask the Prince of Darkness, “What happened between you and God?” When I told this to someone else, she thought that she’d probably already dined with and dated the devil more than once!
Many people named Parents and Other Relatives as those with whom they would like to break bread. The reasons were often touching, as in the case of the woman who lost her father to an early death and her mother to the living-death of Alzheimer’s Disease.
For another, there was interest not in just a person, but a place and time:
I’d love to have dinner with my paternal grandmother in her reportedly humble home in the rural Midwest. She, along with my grandfather and aunt, died in an accident before I was born. She was of a different ethnicity and is said to have been a beauty and a gentle woman. Her faded and torn, black and white, 16″ x 19″ wedding photo, dated 1901 (not wanted by any other descendants) sits under my desk waiting to be refurbished. I look into her dark innocent eyes and wonder about who she might have become, what her dreams were for her children and grandchildren, how she might have influenced my life, and why, as a ‘dishwater’ blond, I could not have inherited her black hair.
The simple joy of eating alone with grandchildren was mentioned in one email, while another couldn’t have been more heartbreaking:
If it were possible, I’d like to have dinner with my (miscarried) children. I’d apologize for never having the opportunity to meet them. Would they forgive me for not knowing my own body? For trusting my body to care for them… Would they understand that I wanted each of them more than anything? Would they see my anger at my own body? Would they be upset with how hard I blame myself? Would they see me struggling to find the answers? I’d want to know if I have their forgiveness and want them to know that I never stop wondering what they look like and who they could have grown up to be. … Would they have accepted us as parents? Would we have even be any good (as parents)?
Some people wanted the chance to question mothers and fathers about the cruelty they experienced at their hands. A dinner with a deceased parent might also give the adult offspring a chance to inform mom or dad about that part of his life that they did not get to see.
A friend of mine considered the possibility of contact with the 15-year-old version of her mom, wondering “what was she like as a teen?” And I’ve thought about what it would have been like to go to school with my folks. Would we have become friends?
Taking the same idea one step further, how about having dinner with the 15-year-old version of yourself? I know one thing I’d say to my young alter ego: “Trust me, things will get better.”
My survey respondents named quite a few Historical Figures with whom they might wish to spend time over a sumptuous repast. People like Winston Churchill, Hitler, Presidents Clinton (still a part of living history) and Reagan, defeated candidate Adlai Stevenson II, Albert Einstein (not for his scientific expertise, but for his wisdom), economist John Maynard Keynes, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis; and Julius Caesar, called “the greatest man who ever lived” by Alexander Hamilton, as a friend informed me. Not surprisingly, Richard Nixon’s name also turned up:
I find him a very interesting figure. I think many of us struggle from time-to-time in our lives with feelings of inferiority — that we don’t stack up well enough against those blessed with good looks or fantastic education or smooth speaking ability. Few people have struggled so publicly with these feelings (as Nixon) and I would want to know — in honesty — if he finally found a way through them and, if so, what that way was.
That would hardly be the only thing we would discuss. I would want to talk (and have a nasty laugh) about his 1950 Senate campaign against Helen Gahagan Douglass, who he called ‘pink right down to her underwear’ (thereby alleging Communist or ‘Red’ sympathies).
Were I to meet with Nixon myself, I’d also like to know how a man seemingly both introverted and cynical about people was able to take on the extroverted job of running for public office.
On the subject of historical figures, there was the suggestion of a group get-together as…
part of the WPA’S Federal Narrative Project in which unemployed white-collar workers interviewed former slaves between 1936-1938. I would like to have had dinner with the female interviewees, to feel their experience — their many sorrows and few joys — first hand. I stumbled upon a book from this Slave Narrative Collection at Martin Luther King’s Atlanta home last summer and was stricken by what I didn’t know. Fortunately, the Library of Congress has made the whole collection available online at http://memory.loc.gov:8081/ammem/snhtml/snhome.html
Going from the anonymity of these women to the celebrity of a famous black baseball player, we come to the wish of an old buddy to spend time with Ernie Banks.
Why (choose Ernie)? He’s been my hero my entire life. A superb athlete, quite obviously. However, here is a man from humble origins who, through the way he carried himself, made people forget that he was black. White or black he made people love him (but not White Sox fans), without the political baggage. Truly a credit to the human race.
Which makes me think of how neat it might be to have dinner with Jackie Robinson, the man who broke baseball’s color line; or, indeed, any of the black major leaguers of the late 1940s and early 1950s.
To be able to concentrate on the job of hitting or pitching a baseball while simultaneously being abused and threatened by your opponents, some of the fans, and even a few of your own teammates must take a special kind of courage and capacity for concentration.
Finally, in the category of Sports personalities, is Vince Lombardi, legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers football team. Lombardi was much quoted as saying that “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing,” but went on to claim that he meant to say “Winning isn’t everything. The will to win is the only thing.” He was named by a person who wondered:
Is raw, unvarnished will a force that can be felt? I’d ask (Lombardi) about the nature of competitiveness — whether there are healthy and unhealthy varieties, for instance — and why it’s so important to win.
But, perhaps having dinner with any of the famous people mentioned wouldn’t be nearly what you or I would expect or hope for. So said another respondent, who has met more than a few celebrated people:
The cheery assumption regarding dinners with revered persons is that the guests will publicly fulfill our projections of them. But having met nearly all the artists and musicians I admired, I can testify that almost none achieved that miracle. They were, after all, their own persons, ignorant of how I envisioned them and, in any case, under no responsibility to maintain an image consistent with what might be assumed from their achievements. Revealed more often, in varying degrees, was generalized courtesy, protective formality, shyness or inarticulateness. And in no instance did it seem that being thrown together with more strangers, however great or small, would suddenly cause the person to blossom, sharing previously withheld thoughts of a deep or scintillating nature. Some temperaments, of course, welcome opportunities to perform, drawing strength from situations that exhaust others. Presumably they would make better guests, though they tend to monologize rather than interact, dominating as if those around them were an audience instead of dinner companions.
What to do in the face of such unappealing possibilities? Olga Samaroff, a pianist of note, found herself invited to dinner at the home of the famous piano maker Charles Steinway in 1910. Mrs. Steinway greeted her with the following words:
‘I am seating you beside (the famous composer/conductor Gustav) Mahler at table tonight, but do not expect him to speak. He cannot be made to talk at dinner parties.’
Mr. Steinway gallantly murmured something to the effect that ‘Olga ought to be able to draw him out,’ but Mrs. Steinway was not disposed to flattery. She reaffirmed her conviction that Mahler would remain silent, and she added mischievously, ‘If my husband is right and you do make him talk, I will give you five dollars (worth approximately $117 today).’
I responded to the challenge, but when Mahler arrived my courage sank. There was something so remote about him at first glance that I could scarcely imagine his taking part in any ordinary conversation. When we sat down to dinner he never even glanced at me. Oysters on the half-shell received his undivided attention. He did not seem quite so interested in the soup, however, so during that course I ventured a timid introductory remark. Without looking up he said ‘Ja,’ and then relapsed into silence.
I racked my brains for a provocative subject of conversation, but nothing I could find in the animal, vegetable, or mineral kingdom elicited any response. Mrs. Steinway began to look distinctively triumphant.
Finally, I remembered that before dinner, when Mahler appeared to be utterly oblivious of everybody present, he had taken The Brothers Karamazoff off the bookshelf and turned over the pages as though searching for a special passage. I decided that the Dostoyevsky masterpiece was this drowning woman’s last straw. But I also knew that if I did not succeed in establishing a controversial basis of conversation, I would merely get another ‘Ja.’ So I boldly asked him if he did not consider The Brothers Karamazoff a much-overrated book.
‘Not at all,’ said Mahler fiercely, putting down his knife and fork. ‘You ask that because you do not understand it.’ He thereupon launched into a long discourse on the subject of Russian psychology and Dostoyevsky’s supreme understanding of it, while I settled down to the enjoyment of my dinner (and my triumph!), only throwing in an occasional provocative question when Mahler paused to eat a mouthful.
The signals exchanged between me and the Steinways must have mystified anybody who saw them. Mr. Steinway kept looking at his watch and lifting his glass to me. He teased his wife unmercifully when Mahler followed me out into the drawing-room and spent the rest of the evening looking for passages in The Brothers Karamazoff with which to illustrate his points and complete my conversion. I have often wondered what would have happened if he had known we were discussing one of my favorite books.
Before I left, my crestfallen hostess presented me with six crisp new dollar bills. She felt that five would not be enough in view of the length of the conversation!*
The counterpoint to dinner with a great man or woman is doubtless something simple. And, in the end, perhaps the question of choosing among the great personages of all time was the wrong question.
It may be that another friend provided the best possible answer in his brief comment:
Rather than some famous person from the past or present, who in all likelihood would have little interest in my company, I would like to have dinner with the ones who made me and are no longer with us, my mother and father, just to see them once again.
Among the living, the one I would most like to have dinner with is the one I have dinner with every night, my wife.
* Olga Samaroff-Stokowski, An American Musician’s Story (Norton, New York, 1939), 159 ff.
The top photo is of John Frusciante from a 2006 concert. The second picture is a photo of Lucille Ball downloaded by Flickr and Doctor Marco. From there comes Caravaggio’s The Sacrifice of Isaac (including a detail from that painting) dating from 1594-96. The next image is a 1952 presidential campaign poster on behalf of Adlai Stevenson II. Emil Orlik’s 1903 etching of Gustav Mahler follows. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.