Back in the early 1980s, I sometimes used to share a car journey to London with a then-colleague. It was quite a trek to Kensington, and our conversations ranged far and wide, as they do. One day, he mentioned that his great uncle had met someone who'd met Chief Sitting Bull of Little Bighorn fame. This seemed quite incredible really, as Little Bighorn was in June 1876, over 100 years previously. And we assumed the American West was a world away from a Lancashire lad in the 1870s. But my colleague's great uncle was in his seventies then, so must have been born in the early 1910s, and it was quite possible that he had met someone who would have known Chief Sitting Bull, who died in 1890. But how? It turned out that in 1884,
Sitting Bull joined Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show as its star attraction. Not only that, but the show came to England in 1887 to celebrate Queen Victoria's Jubilee, and, amongst other venues, stayed for five months in Salford, just outside Manchester. It began to look entirely possible that I had shaken hands with someone who had shaken hands with someone who'd shaken hands with someone who'd met Chief Sitting Bull. But then we found out that, actually, Sitting Bull didn't come to England with the show at all, and it's probable that he'd met Black Elk, an Oglala Sioux whom many mistook for the Chief himself. However, that got us thinking: we were working in very high-profile celebrity publishing at the time, and met numerous celebrities though our work. They, in turn, knew many more, and we could count ourselves removed by only a handshake from an enormous number of famous people. That’s not remarkable in itself, most of us could do that if we tried. But it gets more intriguing when characters from long-forgotten worlds appear.
At about that same time, I found myself sitting at lunch with the actor Donald Sinden, who told me that, when he was little more than a toddler, his mother took him to meet an elderly gentleman in Sussex, on whose knee he sat while the adults drank tea. That gentleman turned out to be Lord Alfred Douglas, known as Bosie, and a major part of the notorious Oscar Wilde scandal in 1895. I found myself only two handshakes away from Oscar Wilde. Incidentally, I once also worked for the well-respected educational publisher, Edward Arnold, and, browsing their file copy repository one day, I came across a children's book called Tales with A Twist, ‘by a Belgian Hare’. Inside was a hand-written letter from the pseudonymous author from a hotel somewhere in Belgium, pleading for some sort of advance on his potential royalties for the book. Belgian Hare was, in fact, Lord Alfred Douglas.
It wasn't long after that I escorted the actress Gloria Swanson to a literary lunch in Manchester. It wasn't especially remarkable, except for her eccentric eating habits, but I recently found out that, in the 1920s, she had an affair with the silent screen sensation, Rudolph Valentino, who died in 1926, when 100,000 people lined the streets of New York to see the funeral cortège.
So, the next time you are at a book signing by a favourite celebrity, or, indeed, think of one you attended in the past, just consider the equally tenuous links you may have to past celebrities. The title for this post comes from a popular song, I've Danced with a Man, who's Danced with a Girl, who’s Danced with the Prince of Wales, written in 1927 by Herbert Farjeon at the height of the popularity of Edward, Prince of Wales.