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Diane Shah recalls dining with Frank Sinatra, breaking into White House, hiding from Larry Bird in new book

Diane Shah had no idea that a story she wrote on Reggie Jackson would lead to a friendship with Cary Grant. But it did. Courtesy Neil Leifer

A walk through Central Park -- not the time she grappled with KGB agents in Red Square, nor the time she broke into the White House, nor the time she flew Dennis Quaid's plane over Malibu -- has gotten the best of Diane K. Shah. The pioneering sports journalist had surgery on her left wrist earlier this month after she slipped and broke it during a neighborhood stroll. It's the first bone she has ever broken. She calls it her Steph Curry sympathy injury.

April has been quite the month for Shah, who is learning to live with one working hand in her pandemic-induced solitude in her New York apartment. She had surgery on April 1. She turned 75 on April 3. ("Since I couldn't celebrate my birthday, I think I didn't get a year older, right?") On April 28, she'll celebrate the release of her memoir, "A Farewell to Arms, Legs and Jockstraps."

Today, she's chirpy on the phone, chuckling before launching into stories. Shah is not used to writing about herself. For years, working for Newsweek, GQ, The New York Times Magazine and others, she told stories about famous athletes and movie stars. In 1981, she became the first woman sports columnist for a U.S. daily newspaper, at the Los Angeles Herald Examiner. Her 1983 column on Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Steve Carlton was included in "The Best American Sports Writing of the Century." After her life as a journalist, she published four mystery novels and co-wrote a biography -- "Chief: My Life in the LAPD" -- that made the New York Times bestseller list. When she set out to write her own book, she wanted to be a fly on the wall, somebody who had incredible stories to share about famous people. But her editors wanted Shah in the stories -- she was the key character that tied them together.

"A lot of people can write very good books about just the athletes. Because I was kind of one of the firsts to do this -- to be a girl writer -- I thought I should be in it," Shah said.

She chats about life after the pandemic. "I believe when things get back to normal, we are going to become the same people we were before. I don't think it's going to make us better people," she says. She offers advice to young writers. "One thing I wish I had done all along was to take notes for myself. I never imagined I'd be writing this sort of a book, but you never know. Keeping a sort of a diary, not every day, but just maybe special things you've covered or written about."

Shah could have filled a library of diaries. Here are six stories from her life -- in her own words -- that will make you stop and ask, "What? Is this for real?"

That time Diane Shah broke into the White House for the Lakers' meet-and-greet with Ronald Reagan

In 1985, the Lakers beat the Celtics for the NBA championship, and President Ronald Reagan invited them to come to the White House on the way back to Los Angeles the next day. There were a few of us writers, and we went too. When we landed in [Washington, D.C., the next morning], the Lakers were put on one bus and the writers were put on another bus and we headed to the White House. The Lakers got there first and went in. Our bus pulled up, and the guard, who was at the door, looked at his clipboard and said, "I don't have any of your names, you can't come in." So some of the writers got off the bus to argue. I got off the bus -- I had worked in Washington, D.C.; I had done a couple of things at the White House -- and I knew there was another gate just down the block. So I took off. I ran to that gate, I waved my press pass at the guard and yelled, "I am with the Lakers," and I ran in. The door to the White House was open, and there was nobody there! I am just wandering through the White House looking for the Lakers, and I finally found them. I came in right as they were leaving the Rose Garden. I think Reagan was back in the Oval Office. I followed the Lakers. They had a tour guide walking them around. I remember Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] was complaining that the doorways were too low and he had to keep ducking. He is very smart, and he was asking about the paintings on the wall, getting information. It was a fun thing to do, and no other writer got it because nobody else broke in.

After that I went to the airport to fly back to Los Angeles, and I called my editor and whispered to her that I got this story. And now I am afraid that I am going to run into other L.A. sportswriters at the airport. I don't know if it still works this way, but we helped each other out. If I got to a press conference late, they filled me in, and I thought if I ran into somebody who knew I was at the White House ... I don't want to share -- not this! So I skulked around the airport and got on my plane, and there were no sportswriters on the plane, luckily.

It sounds cool when you say I broke into the White House, but I think I kind of did?

Larry Bird: 'If I ever see that girl again, I'll spit in her face'

I don't know why I found all of this somewhat amusing. I was a columnist in Los Angeles for the Herald Examiner, and of course I write about the Lakers -- and the Lakers were playing the Celtics a lot at the time. That was probably the best sporting event, with the Celtics and the Lakers, because that's when basketball really began to capture people's attention. And it was Larry Bird and Magic Johnson.

I had printed two things that he had never talked about. One was his father's suicide and the other was his brief marriage -- and he had a daughter. He wasn't paying spousal support -- or he was letting them down. The Boston sportswriters were aware of this, but they didn't want to write about it unless they talked to Larry about it. Larry refused to talk about it, and so when the piece came out, they all said, "Come on, Larry. It is out there, let's just get this over with." When they approached him, that's when he said that quote to them. Nobody else knew he said that except for those sportswriters and me because one of them told me.

At the time, they put writers at tables under the basket along the end line, and [after the story ran] I was sitting there sipping my cup of coffee, and here comes Larry Bird dribbling down the court. I would sink into my seat. Obviously, he didn't spit in my face. After the game, we would go in the locker room, I would throw out a question and he would answer it. He never spit in my face, and I didn't have much to do with him after that.

'Oh my god, Frank Sinatra is getting me a glass of wine!'

In Los Angeles back then in the '80s, there was a prominent [talent agent] named Irving Lazar. Behind his back everyone called him "Swifty" Lazar because he made deals so fast. He called me out of the blue at the Herald Examiner and invited me to lunch. We went to lunch, and he wanted to represent me. I said no because I had a really good agent. He kept calling me from time to time and said, "Are you still with that agent? You're making a mistake. You should be with me." This one day, it was Dec. 23, 1991, the phone rings late in the afternoon and it's him. He said to me, "Are you married?" And I said, "Not at the moment." And he said, "Well, we should get married." And I said, "I am old-fashioned, I believe we should have a date first." And he said, "Good. Come with me to Frank Sinatra's dinner tomorrow night."

What? So I wore a navy silk jacket pants outfit. I bought myself a pair of navy shoes and had a manicure. I opened my jewelry box and put on the best I had, which was a 1-carat rectangular-shaped emerald, and then a little diamond tennis bracelet. I was supposed to pick up Swifty at his home. The reason he had invited me was that his wife had cancer, and I have met her several times. So I was to be his date instead. We go to the living room, and we sit there and we sit there, and [finally] I asked, "Why are we waiting?" And all of a sudden I hear, "Hello, hello, hello!" It's Michael Caine and his wife. They were going too.

We get to Sinatra's house, and I am thinking there'll probably be thousands of people. We ring the doorbell. The door opens and Sinatra is standing there. I kept whispering, "Oh my god, oh my god." He said, "Welcome, Diane! Nice to meet you. Can I get you something to drink?" And I said, "Um, white wine?" and he said, "OK." I kept thinking, "Oh my god, Frank Sinatra is getting me a glass of wine." The upshot of the story was Michael Caine, whom I had seen a million times -- he always went to Dodger games but never spoke to reporters. But now I find that he is quite amusing. He is sitting to my left and Swifty is sitting to my right and next to him is Barbara Sinatra. Barbara Sinatra was telling a story, and as she was gesturing, I noticed that on her right hand was an emerald about 10 carats bigger than mine and on her wrist were about 10 of these little diamond tennis bracelets. Michael Caine caught me looking at her and said, "If I were you, I'd keep my hands under the table," which I thought was the greatest.

The next day it suddenly hit me, "Oh my god, I didn't tell [Frank Sinatra] how much I love his music and how much his music means to me," and I felt so bad that I hadn't.

The twist after Diane Shah's run-in with KGB agents during the 1980 Summer Olympics

[That Olympics] might have been the only assignment that terrified me because relations between the U.S. and Russia were horrible. There was always the threat of war. About two months before the Olympics were to start, [I heard] some Western photographers were beat up. I have a wild imagination, and I thought, "Oh my god, what if they throw me in Lubyanka, their big prison?" That was also the time Iran was holding our hostages and Jimmy Carter couldn't get them out. I remember thinking, "If I get arrested, I am on my own. My government will not be able to help me." I made myself very scared.

Newsweek had arranged for me to have a car and a driver. It was a very nice little guy in the front seat, spoke not a word of English. I would bring him gum, cigarettes and pens. He spoke so little English that at night when he took me back to my hotel, I would have to turn the hands on the clock on the dash to show him what time to come get me the next morning. Sometimes we would give other American journalists [covering the Olympics] a ride. At noon this driver would turn on the newscast, a man and a woman speaking perfect American English, and the newscast would go, "The economy in the United States is in terrible shape. The unemployment rate is 70% ..." and they would make up all this stuff about how bad life in the United States was. The man would talk, the woman would talk. They sounded just like us, regular Americans. I am sitting in the back seat with a friend laughing about it.

The day before I went home -- it was Saturday, and Sunday was the closing ceremony. I had noticed that KGB or whoever they were, they had these great black leather belts with a brass buckle that had a hammer and sickle on it. I wanted to get one. Somebody told me there was this army and navy store that sold them. That Saturday morning, me and two other reporters set out to Red Square. There weren't too many people around, but we started from one end of Red Square. We got a quarter of the way in, and at the very far end toward where we were walking, all of a sudden these flames shot up from the brick flooring. We couldn't see what was burning. We started running toward it, and I had a camera around my neck and I raised the camera trying to take pictures. All of a sudden, these military guys came out of the woodwork and one of them tried to grab my camera, and it was my father's camera and I didn't want to [give it up], so I started fighting this guy. My friends were like, "Diane let him have the camera, for god's sake." But I kept tugging at the camera. Finally, he gave up and went over to harass somebody else. Then, more of these military people came and made us leave Red Square. Red Square is around three blocks, and running along one side there's the Kremlin on one side and on the other side is Gum, the department store. We circled back and got back to Gum, all the way to the end of Red Square. It took us 15 minutes, and we look back at Red Square -- no people, no police, no ashes, nothing. Absolutely nothing. Just an empty Red Square.

That night we had a party for the American press, and several of the people there were the Moscow bureau chiefs. They all were calling their sources in the Kremlin to find out what happened in Red Square: "But there was no fire in Red Square today."

That really shook me.

And when I got back to New York, our bureau chief in Moscow sent me a note saying, "By the way, your driver was a KGB agent and he reported every word of what you said." I said, "Whoa, I should have figured that out."

So he actually knew English; he just acted like he didn't.

At least I didn't get thrown into Lubyanka.

When Diane Shah flew Dennis Quaid's plane over Malibu -- and had no idea what she was doing

He [called me and said], "Do you want to go flying? I got my pilot's license," and I was like, "What?" When you're a reporter, you do anything. You got to get the story. We get to this tiny airport, and they all knew Dennis. There was this very small plane -- one- or two-engine plane, I can't remember now. As I climbed into it, I pounded the side of it and it felt like a tin can. It sounded like I was literally getting into something that unsubstantial. I sat in the co-pilot's seat and Dennis was in the pilot's seat and his brother was in the back on the floor, I think. I don't think there was a seat back there. I was thinking, "Is this how I want to die? I mean, really?" I didn't imagine it would end like this. Dennis takes off and pretty soon we are 5,000 feet up. It was a beautiful day. We are above Malibu, and I am looking down at these stick figures lying on the beach. Dennis was explaining things to me; I wasn't really paying any attention. He kept asking me to look out the window to see if I could spot any other planes. Then he leaned toward me and said, "You don't steer with the steering wheel, you steer with the pedals," and then he said, "Put your hands on the pedals, [now turn the pedal right]." I do as he says. He is grinning at me, and I [looked at him and] said, "Why are you looking at me like that?" And he said, "Because you're flying the plane." I was like, "Oh my god, no!" I mean, can you imagine? I was flying a plane. Then his brother was like, "Dennis, you're not going to let her land it, are you?" and I kept saying "Oh my god" over and over again. Dennis took over and we landed.

Dennis went out of his way to make his interviews enjoyable. He would come up with things to do. I didn't put this in the book, but after that episode, he was going to Montana. He was dating Meg Ryan at the time, and he was building a cabin in Montana, and I went with him for a few days, and we just walked around. He took me to some of his favorite places, and he made it fun.

How Diane Shah and legendary actor Cary Grant became best friends

I went to Arizona for spring training. The Angels had just gotten Reggie Jackson from the Yankees. I was down there doing some columns on spring training, and Reggie -- he was difficult in New York, some people loved him, some people didn't. But now he was turning over a new leaf. He was going to be nice to everybody. One night another sportswriter and I found a place to have dinner. We walked in, and there's Reggie by himself, and he asked us to join him, which we did.

[These people] came over asking for autographs, pushing his food away, smoking cigarettes in his face, and poor Reggie was trying to be polite. I made a whole column out of it. I called them rednecks. The day after the column ran, I am in my office and the phone rings and it's 10 o'clock in the morning. Nobody calls me at 10 o'clock in the morning. I was trying to do my expense report, and he said, "This is Cary Grant," and I am thinking it's a friend of mine playing a joke on me. And then finally I realize I am talking to Cary Grant. He called to compliment me on that column because he has gone through situations like that too. Time goes on, and we become friends. He calls me at home from time to time to compliment me on something I have written. But I never got used to picking up the phone and hearing that voice.

I was also doing a lot of stuff for GQ, and they wanted a cover story on Cary Grant and he didn't want to do it. [I finally persuaded him to do it.] They were doing the photo shoot at his house. I went over there, and he brought me into this long hallway with mirror doors on either side. You push a secret button and all the doors pop open. Cary Grant is asking me if the shirt [he picked for the shoot] looks good with the tie, and I am like, "Cary Grant is asking me for fashion advice? Me? What?"