My Lunch with Michael Crichton and Other Stories
I’ve lived many years just feet from stardom, brushing shoulders with A-listers, although rarely speaking to them directly. I’ve attended movie premieres at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and Golden Globe parties at the Beverly Hilton.
I sat at a table next to Tom Cruise on my 30th birthday. Rubbed shoulders with George Clooney in the VIP room of a Hollywood club. Bumped into Will Smith on the dance floor of his holiday party. Waited for my car at a valet next to Cameron Diaz. Waited for the bathroom in line next to Ashley Judd. Took a hit from Lenny Kravitz, which left me tongue-tied and unable to utter a word.
Yeah, it’s humblebragging, but, other than the corroboration of friends in attendance, I have little proof that these events ever occurred. In most cases, I had no direct contact with the celebrities at all. There is an unspoken etiquette required for admission into star-studded affairs: no autographs, photos or selfies — no behavior that would indicate that you’re a fan. As long as you look the part and pretend like you belong, you’ll find that you can.
I came to work in Hollywood nearly two decades ago. After getting a liberal arts degree at Notre Dame and a masters degree at an art school in New York City, I started my career as an interactive designer at an Internet start-up in Washington, DC. The 1990s were the “wild west” of digital development, and I had a front-row seat.
I passed up an art director job at AOL (because I didn’t want to work in the Virginia ‘burbs) to take a job working for Aaron Spelling in Los Angeles. My colleagues who migrated to AOL in those early days ended up with estates in Potomac, while I found myself out of a job a mere six months after Spelling Entertainment Group paid for my move out to California.
Spelling had invested in and developed an in-house new media team of which I was a part, but it wasn’t long before corporate politics brought about our demise. My executive VP crossed the company president, which resulted in the dissolution of our department.
But not before I got to experience one of Mr. Spelling’s (as he was always called) holiday extravaganzas at the Regent Beverly Wilshire. Not before I got to visit the closed set of Melrose Place in Santa Clarita. And not before I got to art direct and design Spelling’s first Internet presence, for Melrose Place.
I was young, resilient and resourceful. I asked my boss from Spelling to join me in starting our own woman-owned website development business. After some trepidation, she eventually did, and one of the first entertainment clients on our roster was Spelling Entertainment.
The second was Michael Crichton.
We worked as website development consultants for Michael Crichton and Constant c Productions from his very first site launch in 1997 until his unexpected death in 2008. As is often the case in Hollywood, we worked with “his people” more often than with the man directly. In all that time, I actually only sat down with Michael himself on one occasion. My business partner and I met him for lunch in Beverly Hills to review our proposal for fresh website content.
The old adage “it’s who you know” accurately sums up working in the entertainment industry. I came to work for Michael Crichton because my new business partner was a close friend of Michael’s publicist.
After years of living in Los Angeles, I’m not easily intimidated by fame. However, one of my most memorable and intimidating encounters was lunching with Michael Crichton. Maybe I was nervous because this Harvard-educated MD had a purported IQ of 180. Maybe it was because he was the only artist in history to have projects chart at Number 1 in U.S. television, film and books sales simultaneously (for ER, Jurassic Park and Disclosure respectively). Maybe it was because I worried about how I was going to make intelligent conversation over the course of an entire meal.
The first thing you noticed upon meeting Michael was his height. At 6’9”, you immediately felt his presence in the room. But of all the celebrities that I have met, he was the most unassuming, reserved, even soft-spoken. As far as you could get from slick, flamboyant or the narcisstic Hollywood norm.
I don’t remember the name of the Beverly Hills restaurant where we ate. I don’t remember what I ordered. Or what Michael ordered. It’s funny the things you do remember. Although Michael listened politely to our ideas for expanding his online presence, he was clearly distracted by the young child at the table next to us.
Here was a man who had sold over 200 million books worldwide. Who had 13 of his titles turned into films. Who had won an Emmy and would eventually have a dinosaur named after him. A man with enough money and clout to make whatever he wanted materialize. But what did Michael Crichton want? He wistfully mentioned that he wanted another baby. As successful as he was professionally, his personal life could unequivocally be deemed less successful. At the time of our meeting, he was on his fourth marriage and had one daughter.
He would divorce and marry a fifth time. He never did expand his website or take advantage of the interactive technology at his disposal, despite the behest of my partner and myself. For a man who made his fortune writing about technology and the future, we were surprised that he never wanted to delve further into the existing technology of the times.
My partner and I were shocked when she got the call from his publicist. Michael Crichton died on November 4, 2008 at the age of 66, after a private battle with lymphoma. He never revealed his illness to the public. The summer before his death, he had started requesting changes to the content of his website, mostly rewrites of his bio and more details about his contributions. In hindsight, he must have known and was putting the final touches on his legacy in print. His fifth wife, Sherri, was six months pregnant with their son when Michael Crichton died.
The official Michael Crichton Facebook page recently posted the home page screen I designed in 1997, citing the passing of 18 years. It seems hard to believe. Especially because the carefree attitudes of those pre-9/11 and pre-recession days seem like a distant memory.
The 1990s may as well have been the Roaring 20s as far as I was concerned. The “Great Recession” hit me hard, not much more than a year after my marriage, the birth of my only child and the purchase of my first home, at the height of the market. I soon found myself unemployed, divorced and in foreclosure, a single mom with a toddler.
I’d be lying if I said that the road back has been easy. And I’m still on it. Humbled and more grateful than I have ever been. Although there were times consumed by worry and despair, the rough times also helped me to start writing again, to remind myself of all the stories, the good and the bad. To remind myself of all the moments that collect and compound across the years that brought me to where I am, and will propel me to where I’m going.
Because ultimately, the stories, and our memories of them, are what matter most.