“Inside the Actor’s Studio” is a television program I enjoy watching. The one hour interviews hosted by James Lipton are insightful and respectful. The celebrities on the show look like they want to be there, and they speak freely about their views on a wide variety of topics. Mr. Lipton asks ten questions at the end of every interview, and sometimes he also adds:
If you could sit down to dinner with anyone, who would that be, and why?
The names run the full gamut – Mahatma Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Elvis Presley, Katherine Hepburn – and so on. Admiration is usually the main reason for the actors’ choices.
Well, if I am ever asked that question, my choice will be Elena Poniatowska. Hands down. And yes, admiration would definitely be one of my reasons for choosing her.
Elena was born in Paris, France on May 19, 1932. Her father was a Polish aristocrat; her mother’s family was among the elite who settled in Europe after the Mexican Revolution. When Elena was ten years old, World War II forced the family to flee from France. She moved to Mexico City with her mother and her brother.
She spoke French as a child and learned Spanish in Mexico. In her teens, she attended an American boarding school where she studied English. In 1953 she started working for Excélsior, a Mexico City daily. At first she was assigned the society columns, but she soon turned her attention to social and political issues – eventually she became the voice of those who have no voice. Her best known work is La Noche de Tlatelolco (the English translation is called Massacre in Mexico) It is an account of the repression of the 1968 student protest movement in Mexico.
The recipient of numerous honorary doctorates from universities in Mexico and abroad, she has been awarded every major decoration for literature, including Spain’s Premio Cervantes. She is considered to be “Mexico’s grande dame of letters” and at 83, she is still actively writing. Dos Veces Única, her latest biography about the life of Lupe Marín (Diego Rivera’s wife before Frida Kahlo) has just been released. She autographed a copy for me last night, and when I asked her how many books she has written, she said, “close to fifty.” As well, she has thousands of articles, reviews and interviews to her credit. The sheer volume of work is amazing – that it is of such high caliber is mind-blowing.
Last evening, my wish came true. My friend Michael Schuessler and I were invited to dinner at Elena’s home. We were joined by her son and three of her grandchildren. It is easy to see that Elena’s family is her greatest joy. The children had passed the afternoon with her, looking through her “treasure boxes”. I was reminded of times with my own grandmother, and later, with my Aunt Gisele. How I loved hearing the stories behind the keepsakes.
Michael Schuessler is a well known author too. He has just returned from Turkey and he brought our hostess a silk and velvet shawl. She put it around her shoulders right away and commented on how elegant it would look with a black velvet skirt she owns. She leaned closer to me. “I love the gifts that Michael brings me,” she said.
If possible, Elena Poniatowska’s persona is even more extraordinary than her work. Despite her fame, she remains unaffected, kind and thoughtful – with everyone. When I gave her a copy of my book, CIRCLES, she congratulated me and looked at every page. She complemented my illustrations and the design of the book. She told me she would begin reading that very night!
I also gave her a copy of Sidewalk Symphony, a book of bilingual poetry, written by my friend Marianne Kehoe. Elena was delighted with the poems and illustrations by Doug Greenwood. She then asked to be photographed holding both our books.
I must say that the time I spent with Elena in her home was the best possible end for my book tour – like being served a perfect piece of lemon meringue pie after a delicious meal.
I will savor the memory of last evening for a long, long time to come.