- - Friday, August 31, 2012

By Craig Brown
Simon & Schuster, $26.95, 368 pages

Something like this could so easily be just a gimmick, but it’s not too hard to spot one which is just that and no more. And there’s no doubt that its author takes a wicked delight in wrapping his project in the mantel of gimmickry:

“To lend a pattern to a book that revolves around chance, and to insert a note of order into the otherwise haphazard, I have described each of the 101 meetings in exactly 1001 words, which makes ‘Hello Goodbye Hello’ 101,101 words long. The acknowledgements, prefacing quotes, note to the U.S. edition, book description, author’s biography, and list of my other books each consist of 101 words, as does this note.”

Clearly, the maker of this book is having a lot of fun and that pervasive playful sense is infectious.

In the hands of award-winning London columnist Craig Brown, though, “Hello Goodbye Hello” is not just a delicious, gossipy romp through some of the most famous faces of the 20th century — although it certainly is that. What we have here is a close-up look at these celebrated folk in some rather surprising situations and connected to even more unlikely fellow celebrities: a refreshingly original look at some of the movers and shakers of the previous century. And if some of them are better known in Britain than here, he has helpfully added explanatory notes to this U.S. edition. Could American readers ask for anything more?

Adolf Hitler, with whom the circle of encounters begins and ends, alas needs no introduction, to readers here or elsewhere, but the young man who knocks him down with his car in 1931 — unfortunately for millions, without killing him — certainly does. John Scott-Ellis was not long out of school but his family was sufficiently connected that, when only a mere boy of 10, “he has already lunched with G.K. Chesterton and George Bernard Shaw.” But it is not his encounter with these superstars, but with another, Rudyard Kipling, in that summer of 1923, which launches the book on its trajectory of the 100 characters we will encounter before returning to Hitler, courtesy of the Duchess of Windsor.

Der Fuhrer is in uncharacteristically benign form in both these bookend intersections, an interesting contrast to Josef Stalin. First we are treated to a priceless evaluation of Stalin by an almost unbelievably obtuse H.G. Wells, who met with him in the Kremlin in 1934:

“I have never met a man more candid, fair and honest. I had thought before I saw him that he might be where he was because men were afraid of him, but I realise that he owes his position to the fact that no one is afraid of him and everybody trusts him.”

The only people to whom this ludicrous last sentence actually applies are Stalin’s comrades in the Politburo who would soon find themselves in those infamous purge trials and apparently went to their executions still believing that Stalin would save them. Craig Brown takes us from Wells next to Stalin’s hands-on murder two years later of Maxim Gorky, finished off by poisoned candy, personally administered by the Soviet dictator “who was worried that Gorky was planning to tell the world that his show trials were a sham.”

Mr. Brown is indefatigable in his burrowing through published memoirs and diaries to find not just the perfect incidents for his book but also to embellish them with background quotes and asides that are consistently enriching. Often these are in footnotes, helpfully provided on the page. Note to readers of this book: on no account skip these marvelous notes, which act as additional seasoning to an already piquant mix. They will underline the undeniable fact that this is indeed a saucy stew.

Among other things, “Hello Goodbye Hello” confirms the notion that, even on our crowded planet, there are fewer degrees of separation between people than one might readily suppose. Of course, we are in the rarefied world of stratospheric celebrity culture in these pages, so the pool is smaller. Hardly the creme de la creme, given some of the villains we encounter, but we do get an uncommonly interesting view of life at the top.

• Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.