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Notes on New York’s Celebrity Infestation

Plus, where to see a famous person and pretend you didn’t.


Photomontage by Peter Rad  

I've seen Brad Pitt.

I’ve seen Steve Martin. I’ve seen Gwyneth Paltrow carrying Apple in her arms. I’ve seen Drew Barrymore with her boyfriend, that drummer from the Strokes. I’ve seen Martin Amis, Jonathan Lethem, Eugene Levy, and Michael Imperioli. I’ve seen Liv Tyler and Willem Dafoe on the same day in the Village, Phoebe Cates on the Upper West Side, Jimmy Fallon at Rockefeller Center, Josh Hartnett in Tribeca, and Patricia Clarkson near Washington Square. I once turned around at a book launch and nearly bumped into Julianne Moore, red-haired and delicate and smaller in person than you’d expect. I saw Jennifer Connelly shopping in a store in Brooklyn, along with her husband, Paul Bettany; she too was smaller in person, and he, jackknifed over a stroller, seemed much taller and slightly pissed off. Maybe because I was staring at his wife. Well, not staring, exactly, just trying to place her, in that I know I know you from somewhere way, and it took me a second too long, which meant she got that Please don’t say anything look of fright on her face, so I got that Oh, no, don’t worry, I’m not crazy look, which only made me look like I was definitely crazy.

But did I say anything to these celebrities? Did I ask for an autograph? Did I stop and gawk and snap a camera-phone picture and squeal that this was the greatest day of my life, at least since last weekend, when I saw Mike D of the Beastie Boys at that place just off Avenue A?

Of course not. I live in New York.

I don’t care about celebrities.

“On any person who desires such queer prizes,” wrote E. B. White in 1949, “New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy.” This includes, apparently, Sarah Jessica Parker. “You can’t live in New York City and be the most important person in town, you just can’t,” she said in last month’s Good Housekeeping. “There are too many other important people here.”

She’s sounding a familiar echo of White’s famous sentiment, though in her case, it’s harder to accept. Really, Sarah Jessica? No one ever bothers you? No one asks you to pose for just one photo, holding a Magnolia cupcake? Yet this is the common fiction we’ve agreed upon in New York: Celebrities claim they come here to lead normal lives (though, of course, they don’t, not really), and we claim we don’t notice them (though, of course, we do, all the time). We maintain this pact in part out of nostalgia for the city’s glamorous past. New York has never professed to have the most celebrities, just the coolest ones. L.A. had sunshine and Burt Reynolds; we had autumn and Woody Allen. We had Scorsese and De Niro (Taxi ­Driver, not Rocky and Bullwinkle). We had Blondie, for crying out loud. Naturally, these luminaries could walk among us unmolested—they were New Yorkers, too.

But now New York’s jammed with celebrities, both the newly minted and the recently trucked in. We can’t just have the cool ones anymore—Peter Sarsgaard and Maggie Gyllenhaal, Kanye West and Karen O. We apparently have to have all of them. Lenny Kravitz! Stephen Dorff! The Freaking Olsen Twins! As each sparkling new condo rises, it gets worse. “There’s been a huge increase in the last three years,” says Wilbur Gonzalez, a senior vice-­president at Corcoran. “Ten years ago, it was pretty standard: film people in L.A., music people in New York. But now the film people are coming here, too.” Film people, music people, whatever-it-is-that-you-did-to-be-famous people—suddenly, they’re everywhere. In our parks, in our schools, in our out-of-the-way restaurants. In the most celebrity-crazed era in history, we live in the most celebrity-clogged city in the world.

Yet, in our humble way, we’ve gamely tried to continue the charade. We don’t want to become L.A., a city split into castes of stars and fans. We disdain that city’s star-map-wielding tourists, their noses pressed against the tour-bus glass for a glimpse of O.J.’s driveway. And we understand that celebrities live here for the same reasons we all do: the opportunities, the culture, the city. So we still work hard to make them feel at home.

Take, for example, this encounter experienced by Roger Bennett, the publisher of Guilt & Pleasure magazine and the co-founder of the Reboot Stereophonic record label, which reissues albums by Borscht Belt mambo stars. (Seriously.) One day, while out with his son on the Upper West Side, Bennett met Conan O’Brien in the park. “He’s good friends of a great friend of mine,” Bennett tells me. “My kid ran over to see my friend, and I saw she was chatting with Conan O’Brien. I had a second to decide how to react. I thought, It’s a Saturday afternoon, everyone’s with their kids, and he’s a great guy—let him have the weekend off. So she says, ‘Roger, this is Conan.’ And I say, ‘Hi, Conan,’ as if she’d just introduced me to her dentist.”


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