Dreamer of Dreams-Fame’s Unquiet Sleep

Don King dreamt that his hair was going straight and rising toward heaven. Private Dreams of Public People , by Lauren Lawrence. Assouline, 184 pages, $34.95.

A nifty idea, recording celebrities’ dreams. How better to plumb the Rosicrucian mysteries of fame than to peer directly into the famous person’s psyche? Let’s face it: For all the money and sweat spent trying to dredge up the inner lives of celebrities for public consumption, their most private selves remain irritatingly off-limits! Lauren Lawrence, dream compiler and dream analyst, puts it slightly differently in the introduction to Private Dreams of Public People : “The paparazzi phallic lens zooms into the darkest privacies, intent on mating with the intangible inner being of fame. But only master photographers succeed.” Ms. Lawrence then proffers her alternative: ” Private Dreams of Public People lets the reader get into bed with the celebrity mind and nestle with its glittery, klieg-lit unconscious.”

Never mind whether the notion of getting into bed with something glittery and klieg-lit is appealing; Ms. Lawrence’s prose strays closer to Robert James Waller’s than one might wish, but she’s onto something. I was curious to read about celebrity dreams. Unfortunately, what Ms. Lawrence serves up is a coffee-table book bulked up with lush, glossy photographs of famous people primarily from the fashion and entertainment worlds, strung together by a somewhat skeletal text. Sometimes really skeletal. Juliette Binoche, whose picture not only graces the book’s cover but occupies the better part of a two-page spread within, has this much-and only this much-to divulge: “I have often dreamt that I wake up within the dream.”

If you’re looking for a fresh alternative to InStyle celebrity, keep looking. And yet there’s amusement to be had here. Some of the dreams are genuinely revealing, even poignant: Elvis Presley, we learn, told a close friend of a dream he had of being onstage with his twin brother, Jesse, who in reality was stillborn. “He was the spitting image of me except he could sing better,” Presley reportedly said. Paul McCartney once told Larry King that the melody for “Yesterday” came to him in a dream. The model Helena Christensen dreamt she was Hitler’s mistress. Madonna dreamt that she had killed her unborn child through overwork. The boxing promoter Don King dreamt that his hair was going straight and rising toward heaven. And one week before he died of cancer, the poet Allen Ginsberg dreamt that a bulge in his right side was a full-grown baby, whom he worried his partner would not have the energy to care for.

Most of the dreams are less interesting. Some are so obvious that the reader can’t help but suspect that once again, those mulish celebrities have kept the juicy bits to themselves. Model Tyson Beckford drops a real bomb: He sometimes dreams of playing basketball. Luciano Pavarotti unveils a dream in which he watches Orson Welles play Othello and then takes his place in the performance. Ivana Trump dreamt of winning a gold medal skiing and then being applauded by her children. Socialite Nan Kempner dreamt of riding with Mikhail Baryshnikov on the Concorde, where, she reveals, “I meet the most wonderful people on the plane and have great conversations above the clouds.”

Ms. Lawrence, who has a master’s degree in psychology, includes this bouquet in her analysis of Ms. Kempner’s dream: “Dreamt by anyone other than Nan this dream would be considered a wish. In Nan’s case she is living her dream-living high, living fast, and definitely first class.” The big challenge for Ms. Lawrence is how to transform each dream, no matter how familiar, sparse or dull, into an occasion for congratulating the celebrity. Here is Joan Collins’ dream in its entirety: “I often dream that there is a young girl with me, around four or five years old. Sometimes she’s left behind and I have to go get her.” Ms. Lawrence’s analysis begins: “No wonder this diva of Dynasty is a timeless beauty. Just look at her dream. The young girl who often accompanies Joan is the dreamer herself, tapping into a reservoir of kinetic energy and youthful exuberance.” Yeah, right. Ms. Collins is youthfully kinetic. The froth of praise feels almost compulsive, like a waiter who heaps approval on your choice of entrée.

At times, the boosterism seems to cut off more intriguing interpretive routes. Candace Bushnell, the only woman among eight “Literary Dreamers” included in the collection, is quoted thus: “I keep having horrible nightmares that blood is coming out of my mouth.” Ms. Lawrence hastens to assure us that “what may seem gruesome is actually hot and gutsy-the blood that trickles from her mouth is her life blood-and means that her writing is pure and true, because it comes from the heart.” One suspects that Ms. Lawrence either knows most of these people personally, or hopes to.

When she isn’t fawning, her analysis-a mélange of Freud, Jung and New Age spirituality-has its moments of loopy appeal. Milos Forman recounts a vivid dream in which he’s standing outside his childhood home, hand on the doorknob, when a witch hidden in the bushes grabs him and throws him into “never ending space.” Ms. Lawrence persuasively interprets this as an allegory of masturbation and punishment. The comedian Denis Leary (whose first name is spelled two different ways in the book) presents a dream in which Madonna asks him to breast-feed her baby in a taxicab driven by weatherman Al Roker. Lawrence handily responds, “By using reversal, Dennis wants Madonna to breast-feed him; by using displacement, Madonna is the baby that Dennis wants to breast-feed. This implies that Mr. Leary has in mind some other method of satisfaction. He has the concealed wish to substitute the breast for the male organ.”

As amusing as anything in the book itself is a small section at the end headed “Declinations” (the word is actually in the dictionary; I checked): remarks by those who declined to be included in Private Dreams . A number of people, including Fran Lebowitz, Donald Trump and Scottie Pippen, claimed they either don’t sleep or don’t dream. Tommy Lee Jones said, “My dreams are not fit to read.” Henry Kissinger said, “It’s not my style.” Glenn Close had the best response, I thought: “If I gave you my dream it wouldn’t be my dream anymore.” Ah, how true. Though it promises intimate access, Private Dreams amounts to an inch or two of filigree on the sprawling, ubiquitous apparatus of celebrity promotion. But hey, the pictures are great.

Jennifer Egan is the author of Look at Me (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday) and The Invisible Circus (Picador USA).