Oscar Niemeyer: Never Mind
Rio de Janeiro - ARTnews magazine sent me to interview Oscar Niemeyer in November 1995. Brazil's modernist colossus scheduled the meeting for sometime between 10-10:30 a.m. His Rio de Janeiro office is located in an unmarked residential building. The buzzer didn't seem to be working. Good thing I had until 10:30, I thought, gazing at Copacabana beach and the Atlantic Ocean beyond. When a neighbor shuffled out for his morning constitutional, I slipped inside. Reaching the designated top floor, only an old poster registered the presence of Latin America's most famous architect.
Casually dressed, bent over – my destiny, too, if I reach 87 - he invited me into his office: a cluttered desk wedged behind a divider that separated his private space from a former living room converted into the main work area.
He refused to do the interview, claiming he hadn't been forewarned. I called his bluff. He'd pulled that one a few years earlier on an Italian friend and colleague - so I'd made a precautionary confirmation call (and held on the line as his secretary consulted with him).
He shifted gears to a new justification: somebody had once published a book about him - full of mistakes. The author "is a decent fellow. Even sent me the manuscript as I'd asked. But I didn't have time to go over it, and it came out with all sorts of errors. I don't want to do interviews anymore," he said.
A journalist by trade, I pressed on undaunted, at first anyway. "I don't want to talk about architecture. Let's talk about soccer," he said. Having read that he was a fan of Rio's Fluminense, I asked about that club. "I don't root for any particular team anymore. I root for anybody who scores goals." That included, I discovered, 1994 World Cup hero Romário, then in the line-up of Fluminense's crosstown rival Flamengo.
Sportstalk is usually a good male bonding tactic, so we moved onto baseball. He'd taken in a game in New York (Ebbetts Field? Yankee Stadium? the Polo Grounds?) before the State Department banned his entry into the US as a card carrying Communist. Wherever it took place, the spectacle was "total confusion." But Cubans love baseball, I said, hoping, maybe, to slide the conversation onto politics. "Of course, they're so close to Miami."
He did ask me what I thought about Bill Clinton's Cuba policy before we moved on to boxing. On that topic: Mike Tyson was a victim of the system for his rape conviction.
Turning into an athletic dead-end, we moved to my adopted hometown, São Paulo. Niemeyer hates visiting, but not for reasons given by most cariocas (Rio natives) - pollution, traffic, lack of beaches. He hates flying. So he has to submit to a four-hour drive rather in lieu of the 45-minute air shuttle flight.
The conversation soon moved on to the patented questions Brazilians ask of resident foreigners: how long have you been here? do you like it? do you think you'll move back to the states? are you married? do you have kids? My most innocent questions elicited a single-minded response: "I'm not going to grant you an interview."
Okay. Never mind.
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