In that vacuous venue of cheerless chatter known as the late night talk show, in that medium of tedium where “small talk” is downsized to the microscopic, Dick Cavett was a luminous exception.
From the Sixties to the century’s end, he presided over an A-list pantheon of personalities with what used to be referred to as dazzling wit. He was a Charlie Rose with charm.
At a recent book signing, I told him I still use his line uttered to Marcello Mastroianni, the legendary Italian movie star, when the romantic idol told a group of shocked guests: “People think I’m a good lay because I’m in movies, but I’m really bad at sex. If a woman wants a good lay, she should find a bricklayer on the street. He’ll give her a good lay.”
Cavett allowed the stunned silence to hover for what seemed like a small eternity, and then spoke up: “Anyone have any hobbies?”
The giants all passed through his screen-sized salon, from the storied (Judy Garland, Orson Welles, John Lennon), to the stoned (Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie), to the stately (Katherine Hepburn, Laurence Oliver) to the hysterical (Groucho Marx, Milton Berle, Woody Allen). But the book is not a memoir, so much as a collection of columns he wrote over the years on a myriad of topics.
Opening to a random page, we see Cavett discussing the debasement of language in our culture. As proof, he quotes a former President, the one who brought as much devastation to language as he did to the people of Iraq. Said President Bush: "The French have no word for entrepreneur."
It was a line destined for malaprop immortality. Except as Cavett discovered, too late for publication at the time, it was bogus. Bush never actually said it. So under the essay, reprinted in the book, Cavett places a footnote. “I owe Mr. Bush an apology, although hardly the size of the one he owes us.