For years I’ve had this fantasy about being the second guest on Jay Leno, invited on to promote my latest novel. Robin Williams would be the first guest. Being a totally cool first guest, he’d move over on the couch and stick around when the second guest came on, interested in what he or she would have to say. I’d walk in, hug and kiss Jay, then Robin, and then surprise them both with my own anecdote about Robin Williams.
For the year of 2001, my husband and I lived in San Francisco’s Richmond district, a few blocks south of the Golden Gate Bridge and a few blocks north of Golden Gate Park. We were also a few blocks to the east of Sea Cliff, a small neighborhood of multimillion-dollar homes that overlooked the Golden Gate entrance to San Francisco Bay and its spectacular ocean scenery. Ray and I liked to hike the Lands End Trail on the top of the peninsula and follow it onto China Beach, then through Sea Cliff, appreciating the eclectic architecture of the mansions on our way home.
Sometime during that year our friend Trudy visited, and we gave her the tour of our latest home city. A month earlier I had taken a Barbary Coast walking tour of San Francisco and had pretty much memorized everything the tour guide said. With Trudy we followed the Barbary Coast Trail through Chinatown, up Telegraph Hill, down to Fisherman’s Wharf, and ended in Pacific Heights. My tour guide had pointed out the house where Mrs. Doubtfire had been filmed, and I pointed it out to Trudy along with the private school that Robin Williams’s son attended. Later that evening we took a walk through Sea Cliff and remarked when we passed the house where Robin Williams lived. The tour guide had been full of celebrity information.
“So, you guys hang with Robin Williams these days?” she joked.
“Oh yeah, sure. We’re neighbors!” we laughed.
It rained the next day, so instead of walking up and down hills, we visited an art museum close to our apartment, the Legion of Honor in San Francisco’s Lincoln Park—and adjacent to Sea Cliff. On our way to the European paintings, we noticed groups of well-behaved boys in blazers clustering in the hallways of the museum.
A few minutes later in front of an Impressionist work, Trudy whispered in my ear, “Don’t turn around, but I think Robin Williams just walked into the room.”
I didn’t turn around so much as look over my shoulder, and yes, it looked like him. I elbowed Ray, and he did the same. We looked at each other a little wide-eyed, with slight shoulder shrugs, but there wasn’t much else to do about it. The three of us were alone in a roomful of art with Robin Williams. We continued along the path we’d already chosen, but I stood a little straighter, conscious of how my hair might be hanging and wondering if my makeup had smeared in the rain, trying not to say anything too stupid as we pretended to analyze the paintings. We’d just moved back to the U.S. from France, thus thought we knew a lot about art, but I kept my mouth zipped shut, for once not spewing tour guide trivia.
We played it cool—looked at the paintings, then went into the next room to look at some more. Robin followed, looking at the same paintings, continuing into the same rooms. Trudy and I mouthed to each other, through our teeth, “Robin Williams is stalking us.” At one point all four of us stood in front of the same painting, and Ray gave him a nod and raised eyebrow as if to say, Nice one, huh? Robin smiled and nodded back to us, his kind eyes sparkling.
It continued for a few more rooms, Robin’s stalking, and then we lost track of him. A museum employee mentioned that he’d been accompanying his son’s field trip that day.
We giggled about ‘the incident’ on the walk home once the rain had stopped, but kicked ourselves for being too chicken to say anything to him. This week, though, after hearing the very sad news of his death, I’m glad we didn’t say anything, that we’d let him stay in a private moment. Of course he knew that we knew who he was, but on that day he was just another person that we smiled with in front of a painting in a museum.
In my Tonight Show fantasy, I’d imagined Robin and Jay cracking up about my ‘you-stalked-me-in-a-museum!’ comments (I’d have been a brilliant and witty guest, my hair and makeup perfect), and Robin would have said, That was you? I remember you guys! I’d have told him about bragging to our friends that we ‘hung out’ with Robin Williams, and he would have gotten a kick out of it.
It won’t happen now—Jay’s no longer the host of The Tonight Show, and the world has lost Robin Williams—but I’ll remember with a smile the conversation that never was and the brilliant, lovable man that charmed us with his radiance. Rest in peace, Robin Williams, and thank you for sharing yourself with us.