That Morning In Manhattan With Michael Crichton
In the taxi on my way to meet Michael Crichton in Manhattan in 1999, I glanced at an article that mentioned his height. But I still wasn't prepared.
At 6'9", he was a tower of a man — in stature and accomplishment. When word circulated Wednesday that he had died of cancer at 66, I remembered that crisp autumn morning some years ago.
Timeline, his novel about quantum physics set in 14th-century France, had just been published and I was assigned by The Washington Post to write a profile.
We met and strolled a few blocks to the Cafe des Artistes on the Upper West Side. In a gray suit, dark tie and wire-rim glasses, Crichton was dressed like an off-duty professor, which he was in a way. He stooped a little as we ambled along — so I wouldn't feel too short.
He was softspoken and courtly. He said he ached now and then from old sports injuries; he had played basketball for a couple of years at Harvard University.
Some of us reporters who spend our days listening to other people describe their lives and dreams are struck when a subject asks questions about us. It's a rare occurrence and, for efficiency's sake, not to be indulged. But it does separate the curious from the merely vain. Crichton was super-curious and asked all kinds of questions.
"Michael has such an enormous range of interests and concerns," his agent, Lynn Nesbit, told me at the time, "he has to try new things in order to keep himself completely engaged."
His editor at Random House, Sonny Mehta, called him "polymathic."
He was always pushing himself and though he wasn't the most poetic of writers, I admired his mind, his energy, his productivity and his insatiable curiosity. He was always just slightly ahead of the societal curve to turn a controversial idea — cloning or nanotechnology — into a fast-paced story.
Millions of people were educated and delighted by Crichton's work. Others were provoked by his contra-flow takes on global warming and sexual harassment.
He started writing when he was young, even while he was a student at Harvard Medical School. Over the years he penned The Andromeda Strain, The Great Train Robbery, Jurassic Park and a raft of other megasellers. He wrote Westworld, Coma, Twister(with his wife at the time) and other successful screenplays. He produced and directed box office smashes. He developed video games. He was the creative force behind the hit TV show ER.
"Whatever I am doing," he told me, "I wish I were doing one of the other things."
We sat in the cafe, which hadn't officially opened for the day, and he spoke of his love for the 18th-century German composer Georg Philipp Telemann — and for up-to-the-nanosecond music such as the Dixie Chicks. He lauded Jane Austen and lambasted Henry James.
In the middle of our conversation, a sleepy-eyed man came bursting through the door. It was the British-turned-American writer Christopher Hitchens, in search of refreshment. Crichton stood up and introduced himself. Hitchens was obviously taken aback and somewhat flattered by Crichton's recognition.
Crichton praised Hitchens' most recent book, quoting chapter and verse. "You've made my day," Hitchens said.
Some time later I called Hitchens and the conversation wound around to that morning in Manhattan. Neither of us could get over what a tower of a man Michael Crichton was.
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