The Daily Heller: My 10 Favorite Celebrity Sightings

Posted inThe Daily Heller
Greta Garbo on E. 52nd Street
Bob Dylan on Houston Street

A sighting is a chance, fleeting yet unobstructed view of a notable person or persons (aka celebrities). Having lived in New York City my entire life, I’ve had hundreds, if not more, such sightings. My wife says I have an uncanny knack for the sport. And indeed, it is a sport with certain guidelines and rules. To qualify as a real “sighting,” the encounter must be an unmitigated surprise; it cannot be deliberate. For instance, stalking is disallowed. You must be taken unaware. Going to an event or being in a studio or office where famous (and infamous) people are likely to be seen is not a sighting.

For instance, being in a club or restaurant where a sightee is known to frequent does not qualify. (I’ve stood behind Meryl Streep on line in a grocery store in the town where we both have weekend houses; that was more of an inevitable accident than cosmic coincidence—therefore, it was not a bona-fide sighting.) A sighting only lasts a few seconds (at most a minute or two), otherwise it must be elevated in status to an encounter. Furthermore, only one sighting per celebrity, please. Multiple sightings over time are considered a single event (the thrill is gone when you sight more than once).

In New York, asking for an autograph, selfie or photograph (unless cleverly candid), or invading the celebrity’s space in any manner is prohibited.

One final equivocation: You must know who you’ve sighted. (When I was taken as a 7-year-old to a Broadway play, my parents pointed out the Duke of Windsor and Mrs. Simpson. At the time, both were unknown to me. Although I still remember them quite clearly, that is called a memory.)

With these ground rules in mind, during one of my recent states of insomnia I compiled a mental list of sightings made mostly in New York City, and came up with a list of 10 bullseye moments. I got out of bed, ran to the computer and jotted them down, and fell immediately asleep thereafter.

  1. Alfred Hitchcock: It felt a bit like one of his movie cameos. I was walking down West 44th street in the theater district when unexpectedly from the opposite direction the famously exaggerated Hitchcock passed by, as large and iconic as life. (Well, it was life and there could be no mistaking him for anyone else on the planet.)
  2. Ed Sullivan: Sunday night television’s most watched master of ceremonies was an icon for millions of Americans, young and old. He was crossing Park Avenue and I was in a cab. Like Hitchcock, he was a caricature of himself given his smallish body; his hunched shoulders were a pedestal holding up a long horse-like head.
  3. Bob Dylan: It occurred in the afternoon on Houston near Thompson and I presumed Dylan was headed for his townhouse on MacDougal. It was 1970, around the release of his New Morning album (my favorite song: “If Not For You”). I noticed as I brushed by him on the street that he was taller than me. I would never have thought that would be the case.
  4. Joan Baez: Decades after the above Dylan sighting, I passed Baez in the Union Square farmer’s market. She was much older than when I saw her in concert in Central Park in 1969, but seeing her in the market was nonetheless a thrill. I stopped and stared, but as hinted above, in New York it is not cool or proper to acknowledge the acknowledgement unless for some unknown reason the one who is sighted acknowledges being acknowledged.
  5. Senator Eugene McCarthy: Many of you will not know him, but in 1968 as an anti–Vietnam War peace candidate, he ran in the Democratic presidential primaries against incumbent Lyndon B. Johnson. He also opposed Robert F. Kennedy, who also ran after LBJ announced his decision not to seek reelection, and was later murdered after his primary victory in California. One night in August 1974 I walked past Senator McCarthy, who had moved to Greenwich Village. It was the very night the disgraced President Nixon announced his resignation from the highest office in the land. I wanted to stop the senator to say I voted for him six years earlier, but I didn’t want to be late for the resignation party I was going to.
  6. Marcello Mastroianni: Not all of my most notable sightings happened in New York. This one was in Paris on Rue Cassette. In fact, it sort of breaks the rules. For around six years, my wife and I stayed at a lovely hotel every week after New Year’s on the aforementioned rue. Every year, at least once during our stay I’d catch sight of a man in a green overcoat sitting down in the parlor reading a newspaper. “Isn’t that Mastroianni?” I’d say, almost sure it was. “It can’t be,” she’d reply. He’d leave the building and that was that. We took a few years hiatus from traveling to Paris after our son was born, but when he was 5 we returned to the same hotel. The man in the overcoat was there again. This time, after he left, I asked the concierge, “Is that Marcello Mastroianni?” “Oui,” he replied—he lived on the top floor when visiting his lover and the mother of his child, Catherine Denuve, who lived around the corner on St. Sulpice. The following year we returned to the hotel, but he had passed away in the meantime. Still, I saw Denuve one day in the coffee room.
  7. Andy Warhol: Back to New York. I was in an antique center on Third Avenue in the upper 40s looking at copies of the German satirical magazine Simplicissimus, when I heard a familiar-sounding voice ask if he could look too. I turned. It was Andy Warhol. I passed the stack to him and left. A few years later we were introduced formally.
  8. Greta Garbo: My wife and I were cabbing to a friend’s apartment at 450 W. 52nd St. on the East River when I caught the glimpse of a somewhat familiar elderly woman waiting to scurry across the street. Her longish grey hair covered most of the right side of her face but I could still recognize her profile from recently published candid newspaper photos as Greta Garbo. Our friend later confirmed it had to be her since they lived in the same building.
  9. Jimi Hendrix: It was Summer of 1966, and I was walking downtown on Madison Avenue. I was smiling because I had just sighted Sonny Fox, the host of “Wonderama,” a popular TV kids show (he died in January 2021), coming out of a building. Seconds later a tall man in a dark purple velvet suit and hat clipped past me in the same direction. It was Jimi Hendrix. It was an unofficial sighting because I didn’t know who he was until a few months later. He had moved to Greenwich Village in 1966 and played some of the clubs on McDougal Street before moving to London. I saw him play a few years later at the Fillmore East and a little while after that when he opened his Electric Ladyland studio on West 8th Street.
  10. Yoko Ono: I stood next to John Lennon and Yoko Ono at a party for the New York Ace, an underground paper I designed in 1970 that was housed in a basement office on West 17th Street. It was a total surprise to see them there at the gathering. They were chatting with some colleagues who were pumping them for financial support. We probably said hello but I was too starstruck to recall. Ten years later, just three days after John’s murder on Dec. 8, 1980, I sighted Yoko with David Geffen together at my lunchtime restaurant on 9th Avenue and 43rd St. It was sad, and made even more poignant by seeing her following the tragic event that was still fresh in all our minds.

I could go on. But there is a difference between recollecting sightings and dropping names, so suffice to say I’ve seen a lot of people. Stand in one place long enough and you will, too. I don’t know why it is such a thrill to see famous faces, but it is. Maybe for the same reason people collect autographs or relics of another person’s life. Perhaps some of their glory will rub off. But again, in New York the etiquette is to never get that close. So let’s just call it a vicarious thrill.