Sunday Reading: First Encounters with Legendary Figures – The New Yorker

Photograph from Minnesota Historical Society / Corbis / Getty

In 1962, A. J. Liebling visited a Chelsea gymnasium and spoke with a twenty-year-old boxer named Cassius Clay on the eve of his professional début in New York, at Madison Square Garden. “Poet and Pedagogue,” Liebling’s report, captures Muhammad Ali, as Clay would later be known, in the early days of his career. As a fighter, he writes, Ali has a “skittering style, like a pebble scaled over water.” At the gym that day, Ali seemed more interested in sharing his dazzling verses than discussing his upcoming match with Sonny Banks. Noting that Ali freestyled between sit-ups, Liebling reflected on the young boxer’s athleticism and virtuosity. “He is probably the only poet in America who can recite this way,” he writes. “I would like to see T. S. Eliot try.”

This week, we’re bringing you a selection of pieces on first encounters with artists, writers, and other notable figures—stories that capture fascinating talents when they were young and less well known. In “Survival,” John Hersey writes about a naval lieutenant named John F. Kennedy, who fought to save his crew after his ship was rammed, by a Japanese destroyer, during the Second World War. In “Godard Est Godard,” from 1965, Lillian Ross discusses the state of cinema with a young French New Wave director named Jean-Luc Godard. In “Oxford Man,” Harold Ross and Charles Cooke chronicle William Faulkner’s second trip to New York, as he works on a new novel, “Light in August.” (“His mother reads every line he writes, but his father doesn’t bother and suspects his son is wasting his time.”) In “Keanu Reeves (In Theory),” from 1994, Susan Orlean speaks with an instructor who has designed a university course based on the twenty-nine-year-old actor’s body of work. Janet Flanner examines Bette Davis’s career trajectory from fledgling Broadway actress to breakout film star, and Hilton Als profiles the rising hip-hop musician Missy Elliott, several months after the release of her début solo album, “Supa Dupa Fly.” (“Missy approaches rapping the way jazz musicians approach jazz—as an improvisational musical form.”) In “Let’s Pretend,” Ingrid Sischy explores Cindy Sherman’s provocative and edgy photography. In a concert column, Douglas Watt describes the comedian Lenny Bruce’s battle against hypocrisy. Andy Logan, in a piece from 1945, talks with the playwright Tennessee Williams about his new hit show, “The Glass Menagerie.” In “Coming Star,” from 1962, Geoffrey T. Hellman writes about Barbra Streisand, a twenty-year-old singer and actress who had been wowing audiences on Broadway. Finally, in “That Sad Young Man,” from 1926, John C. Mosher catches up with the novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald, who complains, in part, about feeling quite old, now that he is almost thirty. Taken together, these pieces capture legendary, illustrious figures in the act of becoming themselves.

Photograph from Bettmann / Getty

Long before he became President, J.F.K. battled to save himself and his men while adrift in the South Pacific.

William Faulkner at home.

Photograph from Bettmann / Getty

Cassius Clay has a skittering style, like a pebble scaled over water. He’s the only poet—or boxer—in America who can recite this way.

Photograph by Aaron Rapoport / Corbis / Getty

A college class on Keanu, from “My Own Private Idaho” to the actor’s “Bill and Ted” films.

Bette Davis’s almost regal power in Hollywood still startles her, and she makes no use of it.

Photograph by Max Vadukul

As a rap star, she’s the bomb. As a music-video producer, she’s set a new style. Is Missy Elliott music’s next transformer?

Tennessee Williams looks back.

Photograph by Dennis Stock / Magnum

The standup comic’s one-man war against cant and hypocrisy.

The director of “Breathless” in person.

Photograph from CBS Photo Archive / Getty

The young singer discusses her Broadway début.

F. Scott Fitzgerald is wary of the limitations of his experience.

Lady Clementina Hawarden’s photographs were born of one of the few things in life in which women have traditionally been granted more opportunity for self-expression than men—dressing up.

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