Sunday in the Park
July 8, 2011
I don’t think I’ve ever read a biography before where I knew with certainty that some of the details were wrong. Sloppy and wrong. So when I finished, I wondered how the subject felt upon reading the nearly-500-page story of his life. He had, reportedly, agreed to interviews over more than a dozen years and some 300 friends and associates had contributed their musings.
I need to add this disclaimer: I read much of this book recovering from minor surgery. So I may have slept through some of the chapters. I know I wanted to. But I also wanted to have those "aha" moments one hopes for in a good read. But if those pearls are there, I missed them.
Robert Redford and I have crossed paths for 30 years. Always here in Utah, mostly in Park City. The first time was when I was visiting Utah in the fall, staying with a friend who asked what my plans were one day. I said I was going to ride a horse at Sundance and run into Redford. My friend, then the vice president of Park City Ski Area, said Redford didn’t hang out at Sundance shaking people’s hands. "He is a very private person," said Craig, who had skied with him on this mountain.
I drove to Sundance, rented a horse, got thrown from the horse, alone on that mountain, recaptured the horse, and hours later rode back to the barn. When I opened the trunk of my car to grab a jacket, I turned around and a runner brushed my shoulder. "Excuse me," the strawberry-blonde handsome man said. "No problem," I replied. It was some time before I realized I had just had my hoped-for Redford encounter. I decided that visit to leave Lake Tahoe and move to Park City.
More than a dozen years later, when Craig was killed in a helicopter crash following the World Cup ski races he hosted, Redford stood in the back of the crowd on the plaza where we held Craig’s service. A lone figure there to pay his respect.
By then I was editor of this paper and had been covering the film festival for years. First, when the guys from the Utah Film Commission moved the U.S. Film and Video Festival up the hill from Salt Lake City, I helped generate press for two years. And later, I reported on the films and the festival’s near failure before being rescued by Redford in the late ’80s and re-branded the Sundance Film Festival. There are great, colorful, Redford stories from those years. But none of them is in the book.
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But I digress.
The book begins slowly and stays that way. I found a few grammatical errors that I chalked up to sloppy proofreading. It was surprising, because Knopf is one of the most respected publishers and this Irish writer also wrote biographies of Anthony Hopkins and Sean Connery. It was when I reached page 95 I knew I couldn’t trust the author. There, he is writing about Redford building his cabin at Sundance. He is searching for someone to build a stone-in-cement chimney:
"Finally Redford found stonemason Jay Bown, a half Cherokee Mormon based in Cash Valley on the Iowa border. ‘I drove 130 miles north to find this apparently hostile guy.’"
And though I was taking pain meds at the time, I knew something was wrong. So I reread the paragraph and realized the author must have meant the Cache Valley on the Idaho border, ’cause no matter which direction you drive from Sundance, 130 miles doesn’t get you anywhere close to Iowa.
Towards the end of the book, riddled with things I knew to be half truths or just plain wrong, there was a sentence about Redford’s love of his nonprofit Sundance Institute and his for-profit film festival. As someone who has ended up in the nonprofit world, I know how damning that kind of mistake can be. The festival may just be the most successful nonprofit on the planet and nonprofit it has always been.
I wanted stories more than a sketch of the man who still sketches as he did in Paris in his twenties. I wanted Our Town to have a role in his story because we do. I wanted someone to recount the time Ordinary Bob locked his keys in his Jeep outside the Egyptian while he was inside talking about the making of "All The Presidents’ Men." Or when he was, perhaps, over-served and rather than drive, jumped onto the city bus to go from a party at the Yarrow to a party in Prospector.
Someday, maybe, I’ll write a story about The Way We Were, all those Sundays ago in the Park…
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the director of the foundation that provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.