Flying with celebrities is always in First Class

Last time I posted about when going First Class was really special, and to illustrate my point, I told the story of one spectacular flight on a United 747 JFK/LAX in 1978 with David Frost and Sammy Cahn on board.  That got me recollecting other experiences rubbing shoulders with luminaries in my travels.  One thing I’ve noticed about celebrities: They always ride in First Class.


One of my fondest memories was being seated next to droll, rubber-faced funnyman Buddy Hackett on an Eastern 727 LGA/RDU in the early 1980s. His was an instantly recognizable visage, and I was delighted to find myself with him.  Even better, he was happy to talk, and we gabbed all the way to Raleigh.  A favorite on the Johnny Carson show, Mr. Hackett was known for telling naughty jokes and risque stories and getting away with it.  He always had Carson in stitches.  

I told Mr. Hackett how much I enjoyed his performance in “The Music Man” (picture above shows him dancing in one famous scene), and that set him off on a tangent of colorful reminiscences about how much fun everyone had filming that movie.  Why, I asked, was he going to boring old Raleigh.  He said he had a lifelong weight problem and regularly checked himself into Duke University’s Rice Diet for a few weeks to slim down, lest he blow up.  Mr. Hackett loved the folks at Duke, and he said he liked getting out of the entertainment rat race for awhile, too.  I was struck by how quiet, calm, and earnest he was as we talked, so different from his stage persona.  Buddy Hackett seemed to be a warm and congenial man, and I felt lucky to have had a couple of hours with him.

In Newark’s Eastern Ionosphere Club I once met soul singer James Brown and discovered that he, too, was quite humble in private.  Mr. Brown was a small, low-key man with slow and deliberate movements, the opposite of his manic public performance self.  I had a quiet chat with him, and I was sorry to part.  We talked about our Southern roots and how the South we had known growing up was changing fast.

Another encounter with a famous singer took place in Terminal Five at LAX one late Thursday night in the eighties when I was waiting for my Delta 757 red-eye to ATL.  I literally ran into Ray Charles in my hurry to board, and we both apologized to each other profusely.  I felt terrible because he was, of course, blind.  He was traveling with two other band members, he said, and was seated in the first row of First Class.  I preferred my customary seat 6C on Delta 757s because DL deplaned 757s from the second left door, allowing me to get off first by being in the last row of First Class.  

A few years before that I ran into Jane Fonda almost the same way in the old Delta terminal at LAX (before they renovated Terminal Five and moved in).  At the time I was commuting between RDU and LAX every week and was normally harried getting to LAX in time for my noon flight to ATL on Delta.  They were then flying L-1011s on the route, and I was always rushing to get to the gate, usually arriving just as First Class was called for boarding.  As I galloped to the jetway entrance that day, i bumped into a petite, strikingly beautiful woman who flashed me a million dollar smile when I apologized profusely.  It was only then I realize it was Ms. Fonda.  She certainly was gorgeous up close.  En route to Atlanta she exchanged pleasantries with me and several others, but she slept most of the trip, as did I.

On a different LAX/ATL Delta L-1011 I shared the flight with John McEnroe when he was at his peak.  I was sitting directly behind him and noticed that he was quite polite in the air the entire trip, even subdued.  He kept his distance from everyone, and they honored his wish for privacy.

Not so with Richard Simmons on yet another Delta L-1011 between LAX and Atlanta.  Mr. Simmons was traveling with his partner and took a particular liking to me because he admired the outrageous Japanese lightweight sweatshirt I’d changed into to be comfortable.  That set us talking, and I found Mr. Simmons to be personable and hilarious.  The flight attendants adored him.

A consulting colleague and I were flying First Class in the sharp end of a PanAm 747 JFK/LAX and conferring on business matters constantly until the plane reached altitude and the seat belt sign blinked off.  Then he jumped up to be the first one upstairs in the First Class lounge.  To his disappointment a PanAm flight attendant told him that the lounge was off limits for the entire flight because of a VIP on board.  Never one to take no for an answer, my friend boldly challenged the FA, asking in a loud voice who it was.  “President Nixon,” she said. Nixon had by then been out of office for at least a decade.  

My friend, not be denied the special lounge upstairs, then bellowed, “Hell, I’M A REPUBLICAN, and I voted for Nixon!”

From up in the lounge came the deep distinctive voice of Richard Nixon:  “LET HIM UP!”  My friend bounded up the stairs and spent the entire flight laughing and drinking with President Nixon.  

My wife and I once found ourselves on a Varig 747 in First Class flying to Sao Paulo from Rio with the entire Brazilian soccer team.  They were national stars of the first rank, and the flight attendants let them get away with anything and everything.  Most of the players chain-smoked (it was a nonsmoking flight), and the FAs would do nothing to stop them.  They also got royally drunk and kept on drinking which made them raucous and unruly.  We were very glad to get off the plane, and I don’t think I’ve flown Varig since.

Speaking of sports, I used to fly Eastern Airlines in the eighties between Raleigh and LaGuardia regularly.  This was the period when Eastern developed its wonderful “Executive Traveler” program for very frequent flyers that allowed us ET members to be upgraded to First Class on a space-available basis.  Eastern made it on a first come, first served basis at the gate, so that the earlier an ET got to the actual gate, the higher in the ET queue they were assigned.  

Legendary UNC basketball coach Dean Smith was also flying regularly to New York (for some reason) on the same days each week, and I often found myself competing with Coach Smith for an upgrade.  I made it a practice to get to RDU about 15 minutes earlier each Monday morning to get a higher upgrade number, and I routinely beat out Coach Smith, who then had to take a coach seat.  Once I asked him when we both got upgraded why he didn’t just buy a First Class seat.  After all, he was famous and surely pulling in a lot of money.  No, he said, he couldn’t afford it, and anyway, he told me, he just couldn’t bring himself to spend all that money.  He loved getting free upgrades, though, and he was quite cross when he had to turn right at the door into Sardine Class.  I was, too, when I didn’t get my upgrades.

A client near Nashville had me commuting there through ATL on Delta for several months back in the early nineties, and none other than Minnie Pearl and her husband sat in front of me on one flight.  I was appalled to hear Ms. Pearl, who was so funny on stage, berate her better half the entire trip.  She snorted and complained to him fiercely; the poor guy just kept repeating, “Yes, dear, yes, dear, yes, dear.”  I felt sorry for him.  Ms. Pearl was rude and demanding of the Delta flight attendants, too. She didn’t modulate her voice, either, instead keeping up a rasping loud tone that distracted everyone in the small First Class cabin of the 727.

Reese Witherspoon was 14 or 15 when I shared a flight with her and her entourage of keepers in 1991.  It was another Delta 727 flight, this one between ATL and ORD.   Ms. Witherspoon was touring to promote her first movie, “The Man In the Moon,” and she and her manager and I had  great fun talking on the way to Chicago.  They liked me enough to invite me to the premier of her motion picture in Hollywood scheduled for some weeks later.  I accepted their kind invitation to the Directors Guild Theatre for the screening, and I had a fabulous time that night.  After the premier I piled a stretch limo with Reese, her pal Kate Hudson, and a bunch of hangers-on like me, and we ended up at Ms. Hudson’s house, which was, of course, the home of her mother, Goldie Hawn, and of actor Kurt Russell.  I found myself playing pool on Kurt Russell’s table with Ms. Hudson and Ms. Witherspoon before I decided to head back to the Beverly Hilton.  I had an early morning flight to catch.

En route to Singapore from Hong Kong in the nose of a Singapore Airlines 747 I plopped down in my favored seat 1A way up front. The well-dressed man who sat next to me started up a conversation over several glasses of Veuve Clicquot La Grand Dame as we waited for Cattle Class to board far back behind us.  Pretty soon we were telling jokes and laughing over shared experiences.  He then introduced himself as Monsieur Tissot, scion of the famed Swiss watchmaker.  M. Tissot regaled me with stories of why he and his family love living in Singapore (the gist of which is “because it’s so safe”) though he mentioned abodes in more places than I could remember after the Champagne wore off.  Tissot complimented me on my Hermes tie, and when I told him I owned several hundred of them, he beamed and admitted that he did as well.  His stories sounded like fairy tales of the rich and famous.

One of my favorite encounters was with Elizabeth “Liddy” Dole, wife of Senator Bob Dole, who had been Reagan’s Secretary of Transportation and was, when we flew together on another Delta 727 from Atlanta to O’hare, George H. W. Bush’s Secretary of Labor.  I didn’t recognize her at first when a Delta redcoat escorted her at the last minute to seat 1A next to my favored 1B (on 727s).  Once we were airborne I made a quick trip to the lav, and when I came back to my seat, I immediately realized it was Liddy Dole and started a conversation.  Both of us were born and reared in North Carolina, and we had a lot of common friends and relatives.  Pretty soon we were talking labor and transportation.  The hours went by fast; she was a quick study and had a quick wit.  The fact that we were in different political camps didn’t matter a whit.

I’m sure there are other encounters on planes with recognizable people that I can’t dredge up from my old brain, but I repeat one observation that stands out:  I flew a lot in coach during those years, too, and I never once saw a celebrity, sports star, politician, or recognizable top business executive in the back of the plane.  Heck, I would never had the experience of asking Kate Hudson to go wake up Kurt Russell in his own house to play pool if I hadn’t been in First Class on that flight to Chicago with Ms. Witherspoon.  That was memorable.

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