To the uninitiated, overhearing KK Ottesen talk about her life must be disorienting. “Babe Ruth took me out for steaks in Lansing, Mich.,” the 32-year-old recalls over coffee. “Jimmy Hoffa and his family took me out for steaks, too. Jesse James and I sat around a bonfire in West Virginia, and then he called me the next day to make sure I got to my destination OK. Betsy Ross sent me e-mails saying, ‘I’m so proud of you!’”
The willowy Bethesda native and Sidwell Friends School alum actually met all these people. Beginning in 1998, Ottesen crisscrossed the country in search of people who were blessedor cursedwith famous names. Homer Simpson and Greta Garbo. Rock Hudson and Lois Lane. Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Helen Keller and Martin Luther King. She wound up interviewing and photographing exactly one sort-of celeb in each state and the District.
Her quest was wide-eyed and somewhat quixotic: to take the pulse of America through a series of interviews and photographic sessions with people she discovered only through the happenstance of naming. She had no experience as a professional writer and only a few small assignments as a photographer. But by taking time off from business school and a job on Wall Street and relying on the kindness of strangers, Ottesen managed to complete her project in just five years. This past July Fourth, it was published as a book, Great Americans: Famous Names, Real People.
The project’s gestation, however, took nearly Ottesen’s entire life. “My curiosity started when I was little,” she says. “My family would drive around, and I’d always be looking out the back window as everything went by. I wondered what it would be like to live wherever we happened to be. We’d be driving in the Bronx and I’d see all the windows in the apartment buildings; I knew each window had one family, and it was all mind-boggling to me. Then we’d drive somewhere rural and I’d ask myself, Would I be the same person if I lived there? How would life be different?”
Ottesen always imagined herself as something of a wanderer: She wanted to graduate from college, take a job somewhere, and then, after a while, move on to somewhere else, repeating the cycle as boredom dictated. Instead, she followed a more traditional route, earning a degree in political theory from Connecticut’s Wesleyan University in 1994 and then returning to the Washington area to work for a nonprofit group specializing in inner-city development. After a few years, she enrolled at Yale University to earn a degree in business. In 2000, she got a job on the equity-research desk at Credit Suisse First Boston.
During her summers away from Yale, Ottesen began thinking about how she could recapture her dreams of roaming and somehow combine them with her love for photography, which she had essentially taught herself. “I just needed a way to organize it,” she says. “I thought of using birthdays, Social Security numbers, or even the person on my left on the bus every Monday morning. Then I came up with the idea of using famous names. I figured that if there’s anything that Americans have in common, it’s our cultural icons. So putting together the idea of the names and the 50 states seemed fitting.”
Using Web-based address-and-phone-number databases such as Switchboard.com, Ottesen began fiddling around after hours at Credit Suisse. She failed to find a nonfamous Oprah Winfrey, Benedict Arnold, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harriet Tubman, or Hillary Clinton, but most of her inquiries came up with at least one possibility. “As soon as I started getting results, I knew it was going to work,” she recalls. “I just printed out pages and pages of addresses.”
Ottesen plugged this information into a spreadsheet, then sent out letters to one or two candidates with a given name. “I’m terrible at cold-callingI hate talking on the phone,” she says. “Plus, all these people have been getting prank calls for most of their lives. The last thing I wanted was to call at dinnertime and have them hang up on me.”
Ottesen told her prospective interviewees that she might be coming through their parts of the country soon. Did they mind if she stopped by to talk about their lives and take their pictures? A few turned her down: One Bill Gates told her that it sounded like a fine project but that he was tired of getting publicity. Most everyone else, however, welcomed Otteseneven though some probably expected that nothing would ever come of the project.
“When KK first called me, she sounded so sincere, and, of course, people here in the heartland are pretty trusting,” says Marilyn Monroe of Urbandale, Iowa, who’s now 67 and retired from a position in the Iowa secretary of state’s office. “I thought, Here is a young woman, and I can help her out.”
In the meantime, Ottesen had to figure out how to sell her idea. She pitched it to a friend, New York literary agent Elizabeth Sheinkman, who urged her to continuebut only if she produced a good deal of work before showing it to a publisher. It took three more years before Ottesen finally secured a deal with New York’s Bloomsbury USA. She admits to having been so paranoid that someone would steal the idea that she told almost nobody about it. “It’s the kind of project,” she says, “that you could do poorly but quickly.”
Initially, Ottesen also worried that her small universe of Americans would provide a poor demographic sampling of the nation as a whole. But her random haul ended up being almost comically diverse: Cesar Chavez turned out to be gay. Jewish-born Betsy Ross had become a Mormon. Oliver Wendell Holmes, a Jewish African-American, taught Ottesen history at Wesleyan.
Her subjects’ occupations run the gamut, too. James Dean spends his days using a metal detector to prospect for gold in the plains of North Dakota. Paul Revere is a maverick anti-government pastor who runs the self-styled Embassy of Heaven on a plot of land near Stayton, Ore. And when Ottesen met John Adams in Vermont, he was in prison for DUI and driving without a license.
In Great Americans, she relates their stories with one to three pages of stream-of-conscious narrative paired with photographs reminiscent of Richard Avedon’s In the American West, Robert Frank’s The Americans, and the Depression-era work of Dorothea Lange. Ottesen sought to capture not just big ideas about American identity and reflected celebrity, but also the nitty-gritty details of her subjects’ liveswhich, she found, require a special kind of good humor. “Can you imagine?” she says. “Whenever I get a wrong number, I’m annoyed. My God, these people get that every day!”
Monroe, for example, recalls regularly turning down requests to appear in advertisements for hair salons that wanted to crow about how they serviced Marilyn Monroe’s locks. Instead, she pursued a career in politics. Though she was elected to multiple terms in county office, she failed when she ran statewide. “I’m not sure anyone took me seriously,” she recalls. “[Once you get beyond the county level], a lot of voters have no idea who you are.”
Ottesen conducted most of her visits during weekslong driving loops. The longest came when she quit her job and went on the road for three months straight. “If I was staying at a Motel 6, I was lucky,” she says. “I had a few sad occasions of sleeping in the caronce I caught some sleep in a rest area. I made sure it was one with a lot of people around, but I still roasted myself. One time I stayed at a Days Inn, but only because Jim Hoffa got me a good rate.”
When Ottesen visited her subjects, she interviewed themoften for several hoursbefore getting a sense of what setting might work best for her photograph. She also tried not to learn anything about her interviewees in advance, so that she wouldn’t enter their meetings with preconceived notions. Even so, Ottesen wound up a little surprised that so many of her interviewees told such poignant stories about their seemingly ordinary lives.
“I didn’t expect the level of insight I found,” Ottesen says. “My favorite question was, ‘What advice do you live by?’ And [the responses] were profound, really. In every interview, I would be bowled over, yet it was all spontaneous. I mean, if somebody asked me that question, I would be boring as hell.
“Take Herbert Hoover,” she adds. “I asked him what an average day was like, and he said, ‘Well, I’ll tell you what it’s like: It’s dark. I haven’t been happy since my wife went away.’ I thought it was so sad. But then he started telling about an average day. He gets four big cookies, then he goes to the Automart, where his grandson works. You could tell that he really enjoys the little things in his life.”
But the most striking development may have been the linkages Ottesen discovered between the people she interviewed: Twenty-something TV-news reporter Amelia Earhart was dating a guy who knows Homer Simpson, a dairy farmer in Loudon, Tenn., and Ottesen’s ex-roommate applied for a job at the school in Little Rock, Ark., where Betty Ford is principal.
“To me, the project demonstrated a kind of general connectedness between people,” says Ottesen. “And it demonstrated the goodness of peoplenot in a trite or cheesy way, but the fact that people really do go out of their way to be good and understanding. It’s the kind of thing you always want to believe but don’t always have evidence of.”
Ottesen, who has decided not to return to Wall Street and is now working on a new book proposal or two from her just-purchased “fixer-upper” on Capitol Hill, hasn’t heard about Great Americans’ sales figures yet. But whatever happens next, she says she feels satisfied with the projectand especially with the relationships she formed with her subjects. “To this day,” she says, “I still call Martha Washington just to hear her wonderful voice.” CP