It did not occur to the Great Man that a more obvious motive might be simple curiosity; the pleasure of asking personal questions that would otherwise seem extremely rude coming from a stranger. An interview grants the ravishing illusion of intimacy.
Why do the great submit? Because they need the publicity, or are mighty show-offs, but most often because they cannot resist the flattery. To the vain or those past their moment of maximum fame, it is an intoxicating experience to be quizzed by an interviewer and encouraged to hold forth magisterially on your preferred version of your life.
Many subjects underestimate their interviewer's intelligence, research or impartiality. The first encounter in this book is between Brigham Young, the early Mormon leader, and Horace Greeley, who interviewed him in 1859 for the New York Tribune. Young tells a number of significant lies, not least about the number of his wives. He admits to 15, but probably had three times as many.
Greeley, told that the average Mormon only had three or four wives, adds drily: 'The degradation of woman to the single office of child-bearing and its accessories, is an inevitable consequence of the system here paramount . . . No Mormon has ever cited to me his wife's opinion on any subject; no Mormon woman has been introduced or spoken to me, (and no man) has voluntarily indicated the existence of such a being, or beings.' There's something to tackle them on when they next stand on your doorstep, clean-shaven faces shining with conviction.
This book should be trawled for the next update of any anthology of quotations. Take Sir Edwin Lutyens on the Landseer lions in Trafalgar Square: 'If I had my way I would put a gramophone in the tummy of each of them, and make them purr.' Or F Scott Fitzgerald on the jazz- and gin-mad generation he chronicled: 'Some became brokers and threw themselves out of windows. Others became bankers and shot themselves. Still others became newspaper reporters. And a few became successful authors.' Or Harold Macmillan on clothes: 'I always wear the same suit. When it wears out I tell my tailor to send another one round.'
Mae West seems to have spoken entirely in aphorisms: 'A man's imagination is a woman's best friend'; 'If you don't take good care of your man, someone else will'; 'A man's kiss is his signature'; 'There's nothing better in life than diamonds' - later contradicted by, 'Honey, sex with love is the greatest thing in life'. Of all those interviewed in this book, Mae West sounds the happiest.
The man happiest with his chosen metier is Arthur Miller who, when asked if it paid him to go on writing plays, answered: 'Absolutely not. It doesn't make any sense. You've got to be obsessed and stupefied with the glory of the medium.' Compare that with Brendan Behan, the Irish playwright who flared briefly in the Fifties before drinking himself to death: 'I only write plays when I'm short of a couple of bob. I don't give a damn for art. I'm just in it for the dough.'
And the most thought-provoking answer in the book? Dylan Thomas, interviewed by Harvey Breit, says certain words can lose their meaning or their goodness. Asked why, he replies shortly and magnificently: 'The wrong people crowed about them.' You tinker with words at your peril.