Harvard's endowed but Columbia's got the girls!
It was one of the first beautiful spring days on the Columbia University campus, one of those glorious days when Columbia guys are known to gather on the steps of Low Memorial Library and act like guys -- you know, shooting the breeze, catching rays, pausing occasionally to admire, perhaps a bit oafishly, shapely young things bounding across the quad in their recently uncloseted spring dresses and tank tops.
These are particularly glorious days to be a Columbia guy, because this year, the usual male hormonal stew in Morningside Heights is blessed not just by girls bearing tank tops but by movie stars, and two of them: Julia Stiles, star of Save the Last Dance and a recent Rolling Stone cover girl, and Anna Paquin, a 1993 Oscar winner for The Piano, who recently appeared in the hits Almost Famous and X-Men. Both Ms. Stiles and Ms. Paquin are members of Columbia's freshman class; and if that duo weren't potent enough, Dawson's Creek star Katie Holmes was supposed to be here, too, but she deferred her enrollment.
This Hollywood invasion has made the men at Columbia -- like the boys at Yale who went ga-ga for Claire Danes and the guys at Harvard who dreamed of Natalie Portman -- starstruck and a little bit nervous. Back in high school, these guys probably fantasized about these actresses, watching them 10 feet tall at some suburban multiplex, and now they're sitting next to them in class, in the library, in the dining hall ....
Of course, they're still guys, and so they try -- rather unsuccessfully -- to play it cool, all Fonzie and Fight Club, like it's not such a big deal to see Anna and Julia around.
"People crowd around them, but that's all the dorks, man," said a Columbia men's soccer player named Brian as he sat on the steps of Low Library with his friends, most of them soccer players, too. "You got so many dorks at this school who want to go up and touch them and smell them. Us, we don't really give a shit, to tell you the truth."
Brian's buddies looked at him blankly.
"At least I don't," Brian said.
A brawny Asian guy on the steps named Dave reported that Ms. Paquin was in his French class. How's her French? "Alright," Dave said. "She's an actress. She likes to embellish." He pronounced "embellish" with a fancy-pants cadence.
The guys on the library steps recognized one of their posse crossing the quad in the distance. "Jason!" they called out. Jason Colombo, a dark-haired sophomore in a DKNY sweater, loped over.
Mr. Colombo was unabashed about his interest in Ms. Stiles. He said he met her one night late in the fall semester at the West End, the popular campus watering hole on Broadway.
"She was pretty cool," Mr. Colombo said. "She's always there ... I talked to her for, like, 45 minutes."
Suddenly, Mr. Colombo's soccer pals -- some of whom had professed ambivalence about Ms. Stiles just minutes ago -- were hanging on his every word. It was like that scene in the beginning of Grease where John Travolta returns to high school and tells a rapt audience of T-Birds about his summer fling with a beauty named Sandy.
"I made fun of her a little bit, and she was cool with it," Mr. Colombo continued. "I told her that when she smiles, her lip is weird. I seriously said that to her! She told me that her father told her that, too. She has a really good face, so I told her that ...."
You could almost hear the T-Birds singing "Summer Nights." Tell me more, tell me more / Was it love at first sight?
"It was pretty good," Mr. Colombo went on. "I talked about all the things I didn't want to talk about, like her being famous."
Mr. Colombo said he made a lot of new friends because of his courage that night. "There were people coming up like the whole time, talking to me while I'm talking to her," he said. "People that I'm friends with, but not really friends with, just 'cause I'm talking to her -- like, 'Yo, Jay! What's going on?' and tapping me on the shoulder."
Alas, Danny -- er, Mr. Colombo -- didn't manage to get Ms. Stiles' telephone number.
"I was expecting to, but no -- like, everybody kept jumping in and out," he complained. "I got tired of everybody coming up talking to me while I was talking to her, so that was that. I gave her a kiss on the cheek and left."
I gave her a kiss on the cheek. You could practically hear a pin drop.
"That was a long time ago," Mr. Colombo said. "She's in one of my classes now, and we like give each other the head nod now, but not like anything else."
Talking to young men at Columbia that afternoon, it became clear that, despite some mild pooh-poohing of their movies, there is, in fact, a great deal of speculation about the campus lives of Ms. Stiles and Ms. Paquin. Some of it is cute. Some of it is mean. Some of it is creepy. Some of it is just ... speculation.
A few consensus observations emerged, however:
1. Anna Paquin smokes like a chimney, frequently enjoying cigarettes right outside the doors of her no-smoking residence hall.
2. For a while, Julia Stiles dated Joseph Gordon-Levitt, another freshman at Columbia, who played Tommy Solomon in Third Rock From the Sun and also had a part alongside Ms. Stiles in her film 10 Things I Hate About You.
3. Ms. Stiles and Mr. Gordon-Levitt are no longer an item.
4. Anna Paquin is -- or at least until recently, was -- dating a fellow Columbia freshman named Alex. Alex was described by a fellow Columbia male as a "total urban hipster."
5. Ms. Stiles created a little campus brouhaha when, during a recent appearance on Late Night with Conan O'Brien, she apparently referred to the cafeteria workers at John Jay Hall as "mole people."
But generally speaking, the Columbia boys seemed kind of flummoxed about how to deal with these celebrity classmates. After all, these are 18-, 19- and 20-year-old men, many of whom have trouble talking to the opposite sex, period, never mind a pair of movie stars. Still, a few had taken a page from Jason Colombo's book and swooped in to make a bold approach.
"At the beginning of the semester, I was actually nice to Anna Paquin," said a sophomore named Will Murphy. "I complimented her on her movies, on winning an Oscar at 11. She was just sort of reaching over and taking the cherries [from behind the bar] at the West End. I said, 'You can't do that,' and we started talking. I was just trying to give her a hard time, but she was cool about it."
Mr. Murphy pretty much bombed with Ms. Stiles, though he tried to put a favorable spin on the story. "It's so awful," he said. "Me and one of my roommates were at [the bar] Jake's Dilemma, right? I had heard that she was there, so I sort of got up and started screaming her name ... and she was having none of that."
Mr. Murphy continued. "Jake's Dilemma has an upstairs and a downstairs bar, and we were downstairs doing all these shots, and so I walk upstairs and she's standing right there, and I give her a tap on the shoulder and I say, 'What's your name?' and she says, 'Julia,' and I say, 'Julia what?' Then -- this is what I was told, I don't really remember the conversation -- but she wanted to talk more, and I sort of blew her off."
As Mr. Murphy's wild tale showed, even when the Columbia boys try to profess detachment or even distaste for Ms. Stiles or Ms. Paquin, they end up sounding a little like, well, college boys. Later that afternoon, The Observer encountered two 19-year-old freshmen, Richard Rosenblum and Patrick Luhan, and a friend of theirs, Josh Clark, who was visiting from the School of Visual Arts. They were smoking cigarettes on their way to get a bite to eat.
Mr. Rosenblum, who said he had met neither Ms. Stiles nor Ms. Paquin, nevertheless offered that Ms. Stiles was known for talking to the "nerdiest, ugliest kids" in the student dining hall. Mr. Luhan said that he, too, had seen Ms. Paquin puffing away on cigarettes around campus and at bars.
Then Mr. Rosenblum launched into a long impression of Ms. Paquin in a Columbia dining hall. "You see her out and hear her saying, 'All I've had to eat today was these fava beans, but I wish I could have the pizza,'" he said, trying to imitate Ms. Paquin's Kiwi accent. "I'm like, 'Why don't you have the pizza?' And she's like, 'I don't eat cheese.'"
Then Mr. Rosenblum and Mr. Luhan proceeded to say some flatly awful and unprintable things about both Ms. Stiles and Ms. Paquin, most of them plainly untrue.
But then, when asked if they might be interested in hooking up with either Ms. Stiles or Ms. Paquin -- as if that was ever the faintest of possibilities -- both Mr. Rosenblum and Mr. Luhan said that yes, of course they'd be interested. (Mr. Clark, the School of Visual Arts student, said that he, too, would be interested, except that instead of "interested" he used a rather unfortunate turn of phrase.)
Mr. Rosenblum then launched into another impromptu fantasy sequence. "I'd love to be in the paper with [either Ms. Paquin or Ms. Stiles] talking about how she met this fantastic guy, Richard Rosenblum of Florida, math genius, and she'll have a quote saying, 'Yeah, Richard changed my life, the way his face spoke to me when I met him, and I was just more intrigued with him than any of my directors.'
"If they hit on me, I would be either one of their boyfriends."
But if there is an epicenter of weird Julia Stiles emotions on the campus of Columbia, it is a junior named Benjamin Letzler. Mr. Letzler, a self-appointed "smear-job artist" who writes occasional editorials for the Columbia Spectator (in his prouder moments, he has called Professor Edward Said "fat" and boasts about labeling a handful of university administrators "drunks" in print), got all bent out of shape when he heard that Ms. Stiles had dissed Columbia men and the cafeteria workers on Conan O'Brien's show.
Mr. Letzler responded with a piece in the Feb. 20 Spectator in which he referred to Ms. Stiles as a "sloe-eyed Hollywood wench." That column prompted Ms. Stiles to pen a retort in a subsequent op-ed column in the daily, in which she pretty much apologized for her cafeteria-staff quote on Conan but accused Mr. Letzler of mudslinging. "Even lunch ladies and Hollywood wenches have feelings," Ms. Stiles wrote.
Mr. Letzler, a somewhat nervous and cerebral young man with glasses, was still upset with Ms. Stiles nearly two months later. He explained his enmity over a beer at the West End.
"She complains that I'm insulting her to get in with people," he said. "Am I insulting her and saying horrible things about her to make friends? At some level I surely am, because I can't just make a teeny-bop comedy and have no end of teenage boys who admire my body. Those avenues just aren't open to me. It's probably some sort of complex I have from being a short, bespectacled Jewish man."
Mr. Letzler said he hadn't met Ms. Stiles personally, and he confessed that when he did catch sight of her in J.J.'s Place, a campus eatery, he ran away.
"I'm honestly a little afraid of her," he said. "For all I know, she'll slug me, or use her jujitsu chop to crush my liver or something." Mr. Letzler said he has now become a big Anna Paquin fan in reaction to the outcry.
Somehow, however, it seems that Julia Stiles - a young woman who's kissed both Heath Ledger and Ethan Hawke on-screen - has managed to get over Mr. Letzler. In a brief e-mail exchange with The Observer, Ms. Stiles wrote that her Spectator piece pretty much spoke for itself.
As for the college guys at Columbia University, Ms. Stiles sounded like she was pretty well-adjusted to them, too.
"I have no problem with them, and I don't really know why they have a problem with me," Ms. Stiles wrote. "Probably those who do have a problem with me have never actually talked to me."
Article by Andrew Goldman
Originally published in the April 30, 2001 issue of the New York Observer