This is a true story, though it relies purely on memory, and memory notoriously plays tricks. I don’t think you will find it in any of the other tributes to Carol Channing published today, but I swear this happened.
I was sitting on the sofa watching Johnny Carson with my parents. I was in my late teens, probably in college, and Carol Channing was telling Johnny a story about how, long before she was famous, she had a job in a bakery where they sold cakes filled with chocolate chips. Every day, she burrowed in—maybe with a pipe cleaner, or some other sharp tool—and ate a chip or two, and finally, the cake collapsed and she was fired.
The audience roared with laughter, but for me, the story was totally inspiring, as I was the sort of person (then, as now) who would eat purloined chips and inevitably get sacked. I was feeling particularly lost at the time—I had no idea what my future held—and I was pretty depressed and terrified. But here was Carol, a huge success, a Tony winner, a Hollywood legend—who had once been an unemployable mess like me.
Channing, who passed away today at the age of 97, had huge star wattage, but she was always so friendly, so familiar, that you felt she was not just talking to you but winking at you—the two of you sharing the joke. Of course, she was a consummate actress, and so maybe this camaraderie wasn’t as genuine as it seemed—but I don’t think so.
In any case, what does it matter? Can’t we be seduced by art as well as life? In her many roles—from the gold-digging flapper Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes on Broadway to her iconic Hello, Dolly! to her film role as Muzzy in Thoroughly Modern Millie (another flapper), she seduced millions.
Channing was a deeply progressive person, named on Nixon’s enemy list. She often said that she considered being on that roster the highest honor of her career. And, of course, I loved her for that, and for the special, inimitable way she could mix glamour and humor and good politics. Playing Lorelei Lee, she famously opined, “I always say a kiss on the hand might feel very good, but a diamond tiara lasts forever.” And yes, many things last forever—in my case, the memory of a caved-in cake that convinced a sad college girl long ago that things might turn out okay after all.