Sheik, Rattle and Roll

Chatterbox stopped wearing Halloween costumes about the time that John Glenn began astronaut training for his maiden flight. So I (let’s drop the Chatterbox conceit) panicked when Joanna Coles, the New York correspondent for the Timesof London, called to say that her long-planned Oct. 31 dinner party had been transformed into a dress-for-the-holiday occasion. There would be a lot of writers there, she added. (For Coles’ own account of how she got dragooned into changing the dress code, click here.

Writers are a notoriously competitive lot. So I felt very smug when I remembered that deep in the recesses of my closet, I still had an official U.S. government Mine Safety and Health inspectors uniform. This outlandish outfit–grey coveralls, white hard hat and a belt equipped with safety flares for emergencies–had been sitting in a back closet since I acquired it 20 years ago during a coal-mine tour during the Carter Administration.

When my wife Meryl (authentic 1920s flapper dress) and I arrived at the Upper West Side home of Coles and writer Peter Godwin, we saw witches, Melanie from Gone with the Wind, the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz and a couple dressed up as Internet icons. But we were perplexed by a bearded man in sunglasses sitting on the sofa wearing a homemade Arab headdress. Who was he supposed to be? Another guest whispered, “He’s doing Salman Rushdie.” As I walked over to introduce myself, I noticed the mystery Arab was carrying a baby’s rattle and a dinner roll. “I’m Sheik Rattle and Roll,” he proclaimed in a light British accent.

With the savoir faire for which I’m famous, I responded with a couple of heh-heh fatwa jokes. I even lamely congratulated him for being the author of (how witty I was) Bonfire of the Vanities. “A terrible book,” the mock-Rushdie said with a quiet intensity that began to make me a little uneasy. But it was only after another 10 minutes of desultory conversation about Ken Starr and the elections that I realized–Oh, my god–it was really the elusive novelist. And his garb proved that he retains a sense of humor about his plight.

News flash: Despite rumors that had him outfitted in more disguises than Mata Hari, Rushdie confided–now it can be told–that this Halloween party was the first time he had been in costume in the 10 years he had been under threat of death.

Well, he sure fooled me. So my little story ends with a boor’s last sigh.

Walter Shapiro