Jan Wong, author of Red China Blues: My Long March From Mao to Now used to write a column in The Globe and Mail newspaper wherein she took celebrity guests to lunch and conducted a no-holds-barred interview. Lunch With is a collection of past newspaper columns. Wong had developed a reputation for sometimes (some would say often) skewering her guests in print and several of these guests openly wondered why they were putting themselves through such journalistic torture, before even glancing at the menu. In fact, many of the guests felt betrayed and Wong writes about the lawyers and press agents who contacted her afterward.
Perhaps times have changed in interview techniques since the first “Lunch With” column was published in the late nineties, or, as I am more likely to agree with, Wong and I are much alike in our journalistic style, so that I don’t feel that any of her columns are insensitive, self-serving or bullying. I spent many moments in the staff lunchroom laughing with a full mouth over these columns. Wong has reproduced sixty-one of her “Lunch With” interviews and followed up with all the letters to the editor that poured in afterward.
Wong divided her book into themes, with interview sections devoted to “Fellow Scribblers”, “Political Animals”, “Movie Makers” and so on. She interviews Rosemary Altea, a psychic who claims to be able to communicate with both dead people and dead pets, and while other interviewers may have been impressed:
“She stunned Larry King, who is easily stunned, by describing his dead parents. And she reduced a sympathetic New York Times reporter to tears by supposedly communicating with the journalist’s late husband.”
Wong herself will have none of this and tells Altea to her face whenever she is wrong (which is often). I myself have never visited a psychic but I lived vicariously through Wong as she exposed these charlatans for what they self-deludedly believe they are capable of.
Eartha Kitt, whose autobiography I’m Still Here I have reviewed, repeats the same stories from her childhood over and over. Don’t take this as a dig against the great Miss Kitt, but whenever I caught a TV interview with her she would break down into painfully obvious mock tears as she described poking through trashcans for her next meal. I felt that I could predict what she would tell Wong next…and I was right.
I particularly liked her lunch interview with reviled food critic Marion Warhaft. In her lunch preparations, Wong always picks the restaurant and tries to tie it in with the guest she is interviewing. For Warhaft, however, it was a near impossible task since she had given so many negative reviews:
“Fed up with her lukewarm reviews, sixty restaurant owners banded together and tried to get her fired. They also banned her from their restaurants. As the daughter of a restaurateur, I was intrigued. I left it up to Warhaft to pick a place for Lunch.”
I was most touched by her lunches with Yo-Yo Ma, Denny Doherty (the Canadian member of the Mamas and the Papas who died in Mississauga and whose funerary wake I attended) and with George Cohon (the senior chairman of McDonald’s Canada for whom she suggested dining at either Wendy’s or Burger King).
The book’s last two lunches were with members of Wong’s own family. After the first interview, with her favourite Aunt Ming, even her own family was wary of her, and worried what she’d write about them in her next column.
Reread some of the funniest “Lunch With” columns in this collection. After Red China Blues, I knew I was in for a good old laugh and Wong certainly gave me a riot of a time as she lunched with five dozen guests, including Alex Trebek, Grace Slick, Suzanne Somers and Mel Lastman.
I have included the front cover of the hardcover edition. I always show a photo of the actual book that I read when I post reviews to LiveJournal. The back cover I feel is even better, and Wong used a mirror-image of the back cover for the front cover of the paperback edition:
Note however that in using a reversal of this photo, the paperback cover shows Wong writing with her right hand. Wong is a leftie.