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Sunday, December 10, 2023


Author #LawrenceGrobel with entertainment icon Dolly Parton

An excerpt from a best-selling memoir written by one of journalism’s top celebrity interviewers

Excerpt on DOLLY PARTON 

GUEST BLOG / By Lawrence Grobel--After interviewing Barbra Streisand, I suggested to my editor another iconic singer, Dolly Parton, whom I thought would be perfect for Playboy. 

Her breasts were constantly made fun of by Johnny Carson, who once looked at her low-cut blouse when she was a guest on The Tonight Show, and said to her, “Boy, I’d give a year’s pay to peek under there.” 

Dolly never seemed to mind and played the good sport by making fun of herself. “I know that you-all brought your binoculars to see me,” she often told audiences when she appeared on stage, “but what you didn’t realize is you don’t need binoculars.” 

With 20th Century-Fox offering her a three-movie deal, publishers bidding for her autobiography, TV network executives trying to line her up for specials, and her record albums selling in the millions, it wasn't a difficult decision for Playboy magazine to give me the go-ahead. And once I got in touch with her people and heard back that she would do it on the condition that Playboy put her on the cover as they did Streisand, I just had to smile. That Dolly Parton wanted to be on the cover of Playboy was a no-brainer. I was surprised they even asked. I mean, Hefner had had his doubts about Streisand, but Dolly? How could Hef say no to those!*

*[Ed. note: Remember this was written in 1977-78]

 Our initial meeting took place in the apartment she rented above Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood, from the spare, nearly empty look of the place, it was obvious she didn’t live there but used it as a place to change her clothes….and get some exercise by jumping on the small trampoline in the living room. 

Though Dolly is just five feet tall in her bare feet, I’m not sure if anyone outside her husband has ever seen her that way. 

She wears five inch heels and adds another three to five inches to her head with her bouffant blonde wigs. Meeting her for the first time literally takes one’s breath away. 

At least, it did mine. 

 She was like some 3-dimensional comic strip figure come to life. Her smile was radiant, her teeth glistening white, and that chest! It was…. huge. It was Botero-esque. It was everything it was supposed to be…and Dolly was as proud of them as if they were national monuments that she had been entrusted to take care of. 


I didn’t have to say anything, but she knew what I was thinking, because what I was thinking was what everyone who met her for the first time thought. 

She just giggled and threw the gorilla in the room out the window. 

“People ask me, ‘Are they real?’ I say, ‘Real what? Real skin, real plastic, or real rubber?’ Well, they’re there, let’s put it that way. Why should people just dwell on that?” Why indeed? 

After all there is a lot more to Dolly Parton,  for example, she's one of America’s most prolific songwriters. (She once wrote twenty songs in one day, fourteen of which were published and recorded.) She was an acute businesswoman. She had a stellar personality. She could sing, she could act, she could write, she knew how to make fried potatoes, green beans, country-style creamed corn, corn bread, turnip greens, meat loaf, and vanilla pudding. 

So why dwell on those….?" 

“OK,” she said as I sat trying to catch my breath, “I’ll save you the trouble of askin’: Why do I choose to look so outrageous?” That wasn’t the question I was going to ask. But as long as she was willing to get it out of the way, I went along. “People make jokes and things, not because of my beauty but just because of that physical thing that’s built around my boobs.” 

 Yes, true. And? 

 “My body is not really as extreme as people make it out to be. I’m just a small, tiny, little person, with a small frame. People say, ‘Oh gosh, she must be 45 inches.’ I’m not nowhere near it. I’m not that well-endowed. I’m not as huge as people make me out as being. I really ain’t. I mean, if you look real good…I’ve got plenty, but I know a lot of people that are so big it’s unhealthy, it hurts their backs.” 

“You certainly don’t look unhealthy,” I said. 

She noticed my eyes veer to the trampoline and said, “I used to jump rope, but gave it up for that for a couple of good reasons.” Then she laughed that little girl’s laugh of hers and talked about her Look. “People have thought I’d be a lot farther along in this business if I dressed more stylishly and didn’t wear all this gaudy getup. 

Record companies have tried to change me. I just refused. My biggest fans are little-bitty children. Because they relate to my name and this gaudy Cinderella-Mother Goose look. I wear lipstick and makeup and fingernail polish and that’s what they want to do. And they relate to my little squeaky voice. 

And old people like me a lot. Old people and little kids are my biggest fans. If I’m going to look like this, I must have had a reason. It’s this: If I can’t make it on my own talent, then I don’t want to do it. I have to look the way I choose to look, and this is what I’ve chosen. It makes me different, and ain’t that what we all want to do: be a little different?” 

 Dolly didn’t have to worry about that. She was certainly different. And she was quick. When I mentioned that it took me nearly nine months to finish with Streisand, she said, "Nine months! We could have a baby in nine months." 

 Well, I thought, in order to do that…. but I didn’t say what I was thinking. 

Dolly was forward and flirtatious, but she wasn’t about to tell me my integrity was showing when I started asking her questions. She understood what she needed to do to be the person she was. She knew that back when she was ten and started singing on the radio, and at eleven when she cut her first record, and at twelve when she first appeared onstage at The Grand Ole Opry. She knew that despite hating school she had to graduate high school, “Just so I could say I did, because I had already decided I was going out into the world.” 

And out meant Out: “Where I come from, people never dreamed of venturing out. They just lived and died there. But I’m talkin’ about venturing out into areas that we didn’t understand. I wanted to be a star.” 

She aspired to be a female Elvis Presley, and when she left high school she hooked up with Country and Western star Porter Wagoner and wound up the reason people tuned in to his TV show or went to their live performances. 

Dolly and Porter
After writing her most famous song, “Coat of Many Colors” on the laundry tickets she pulled off Wagoner’s cleaning bags, she knew it was time to leave Porter (where she was making $300 a night) to make it on her own (where she shot up to $2500 and then $15,000 and then $30,000 a night). 

She knew what was right for her with every move she made. Doing the Playboy interview and putting herself on the cover was another calculated move to advance her career. We spoke for five hours during that first meeting and then she invited me to join her on her bus tour through Virginia. 

So, the next thing I knew I was catching up with her in Winchester, Virginia, where she was scheduled to appear at the Apple Blossom Festival. I saw how the crowds adored her, how young girls waited to get her autograph after each show, how older men stood behind their young daughters waiting their turn to have a picture taken. 

Dolly never turned anyone down and when all the celebrity business was done, she’d signal me to come to her motel room or back on the bus, where we’d talk through the night. 

Once, around three in the morning, she ordered a fruit platter and when it came, she patted the empty side of her queen-sized bed and told me to dig in. I took some fruit, but I stayed in the chair where I was sitting because I didn’t trust myself. 

Dolly might have been signaling something more than just talking, but I wasn’t sure, and I was there to do an interview and not screw it up by mixing business with pleasure. 

“I’d better sit here,” I said to her with a smile, “because I might run out of questions if I went over there.” She just laughed and I took the opportunity to ask her where she learned about sex. 

“It’s somethin’ I learned in the barn. We were always just findin’ out things on our own. We had uncles and cousins who were maybe two or three years older than us that knew a lot of stuff. I have double first cousins, first second cousins…my mother’s mother’s sister married my daddy’s brother, so their kids are my first—second? —cousins. It sounds like I’m my own grandpa, don’t it? Anyway, who can tell about mountain people? When they would come to visit us, they’d teach us all kinds of meanness or tell us about this and that. And soon as we got a chance, we’d try it.” 

 “Are we talking about sexual things?” I had to ask. 

 “Now, what were you talkin’ about?” Dolly said with a squeal. “We were real curious. A lot of people won’t admit it, but I just always had an open mind about sex. We all did. It was not a vulgar thing. We didn’t know what we were doin’, we just knew we weren’t supposed to let Momma and Daddy know it.” 

Dolly loved talking about her Tennessee mountain childhood. “We were always doing meanness as kids. Swinging from the grapevine in areas where we knew we could get killed, but we didn’t care. Momma was horrified. We had these trees with these big grapevines, so we would swing like Tarzan from one side of the mountain to the other. If we fell down into the gully it would have been too bad. Then we’d hand-walk the tobacco rafters in the barn, which was another thing you could get killed for. And we’d fight, that was one of the things we’d get a whipping for. And smoke, we’d smoke rabbit tobacco. There was this plant that grew in the mountains called rabbit tobacco. When it dried up, you’d crumple it up and put it in a paper bag and you’d smoke. We’d get in trouble for that. Or we’d throw rotten eggs, the ones just ready to hatch, against the barn. We knew Daddy would kill us for that, because that was food. But it was real fun.” 

October 1978
 It wasn’t much fun having to go to the outhouse whenever one needed to use the toilet, but that, too, was part of her growing up. “My aunt in Knoxville had a toilet in the bathroom,” she said, “and we were so fascinated. We were afraid to use it. I just thought it was goin’ to suck us right down.” 

 In the winter, they’d wash with a pan of water. “We’d wash down as far as possible, and we’d wash up as far as possible. Then, when somebody’d clear the room, we’d wash possible.”

 One would think bathing would be a weekly ritual in such conditions, but Dolly said she had to bathe daily, “’cause the kids peed on me every night and we all slept three or four in a bed. As soon as I’d go to bed, the kids would wet on me. That was the only warm thing we knew in the wintertime. That was our most pleasure—to get peed on. If you could just not fan the cover.” 

 Talking with Dolly was more entertaining than standing backstage and watching her perform, and that was certainly entertaining. 

But one-on-one, in the wee hours of the morning, when I’d mention having lived in Africa for three years and she asked if I had heard any ghost stories and I’d say: Ghost stories? You want ghost stories? And I’d launch into the stories Akua told me about her father who once ran into his friend’s Indian wife, only to find out from his friend that she had died three years earlier; or the stories Atar told me about being cut and covered with an herbal potion that would cause bullets to turn away when aimed at him; or the stories about witches that turned into fireballs in the forest—well, that would forever endear me to Dolly Parton, who had a few scary stories of her own to share. 

Three I remember had to do with a maniac who chained women to a bed and whipped them; a meat room no one would enter because its owner was an ax murderer; and the Devil underground whose horns would pierce through the porch of a woman giving birth, shaking the house and cursing the newborn. 

Where to Buy #YouShowMeYours: CLICK HERE. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Lawrence Grobel is the author of 32 books and hundreds of magazine articles. Among his honors are a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship for his fiction; Special Achievement Awards from PEN for his Conversations with Capote, and Playboy for his interviews with Barbra Streisand, Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro; and the Prix Litteraire from The Syndicat Francais de la Critique de Cinema for his Al Pacino: In Conversation with Lawrence Grobel. 

He has been a Contributing Editor for Playboy, Movieline, World (New Zealand), and Trendy (Poland) and has been called “A legend among journalists” by Writer’s Digest, and “The Mozart of Interviewers” by Joyce Carol Oates. He served in the Peace Corps, teaching at the Ghana Institute of Journalism; created the M.F.A. in Professional Writing for Antioch University; and taught in the English and Honors Departments at UCLA. He has served as a jury member at the annual Camerimage Film Festival in Poland. He has appeared as himself in the documentary Salinger and Al Pacino’s docudrama Wilde Salome. His works have been translated into 14 languages. 

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