Books: Fame in the 20th Century — Time-lapse Prelude |
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Time-lapse Prelude


There was always fame. As long as there have been human beings, there has always been fame. It’s a human weakness. No other kind of living creature knows anything about fame, not even the peacock, who certainly craves attention but lacks the brain to know why. In every human group of any size, someone becomes famous, and it’s a fair bet this has always been true. When prehistory turned to history, famous people became, almost by definition, the first kind of people posterity got to hear about. Indeed it wasn’t until recent times that the writing of history began to concern itself with anyone except famous people and the things they did. Far into the nineteenth century, the famous were remembered and everybody else was forgotten. That was what fame was. It was a classification rather than a force in itself.

But in the twentieth century, fame turned into something different. Suddenly there was more of it. Just when scientific progress was supposed to be ridding the world of myths and ghosts, famous people became larger than life. A special word was brought in for the extra light that the famous were thought to give off: charisma. A lot was heard about the Anonymous Masses. To the extent that they were consulted on the subject, they seemed to agree that anonymity was a drab and undesirable condition. Fame was found increasingly fascinating. And it seemed to happen by public demand. The general spread of education didn’t make people more resistant to fame. If anything, it made them less resistant.
When the century started, famous people were still required, as of old, to do something first and then get famous for it later. As the century progressed, people who became famous for what they did got more famous just for being famous. Elizabeth Taylor has been famous long enough to exemplify the transition from one state of fame to the other. When she started off, she was famous for being a screen star. In her first big role, in National Velvet, when she was still really a child, her heart-shaped face caught the breath of all who saw the movie — and the whole family saw it, usually twice. Her violet eyes looked as it they had been specifically invented to test the possibilities of colour film. When she grew up and appeared as the young bride of the title in Father of the Bride, she had the ideal figure to go with the face — perfectly judged, not too much, but the camera couldn’t get enough. Even then, some said she was more beautiful than talented. But even if she was just beautiful she could be described as doing something. Today she is famous for being Elizabeth Taylor. She gets married, usually to someone unsuitable. She gets married again, probably to someone more unsuitable. She champions a cause. She brings out a new fragrance. She is very busy — far too busy to make movies. The thing she got famous for is far in the past. Only the fame remains, but it is more attention-getting than ever. It has a life of its own.
To lose the capacity for doing what made you famous in the first place need no longer spell the end of fame. Fame can conquer time. It can conquer death. Elvis Presley is a case in point. The conviction that he is still alive is not confined to California, where a large number of citizens have always been ready to believe that the usual laws of time and space have been suspended or rewritten expressly for their benefit. Shirley MacLaine believes that flying saucers cross space just to land in her backyard. We don’t find her belief remarkable. She lives in Malibu and believes everything. But perfectly ordinary people all over the world believe that Elvis still walks among us. There are women leading blameless lives in the western suburbs of Sydney who claim that Elvis makes love to them every Monday afternoon in a motel. He has been seen pushing a trolley in a supermarket outside Basildon, or Brussels, or Bangkok, or Berlin. Elvis Presley’s seemingly everlasting fame is part of our reality, for better or for worse.
But how did that come about? It never happened in ancient Rome. Julius Caesar got his face on the coins, but absolutely no Roman rock singer ever made it. Yet one year, in what is currently the world’s most powerful nation, Elvis Presley’s face was on the stamps. Why do we need these people? What function do they perform? Sometimes the answer is obvious. We know what function Arnold Schwarzenegger performs. He looks like that so the rest of us won’t have to. Most of us don’t want to look like a rubber life raft which has been randomly tied up with string before being suddenly inflated and dipped in liquid bronze. We are just glad that he does. He does all that strong-man stuff on our behalf. He is a walking — awkwardly walking — displacement activity. He was also wheeled out to help President Bush of the United States win elections. But if he were to run for President himself, Arnie’s case would become less simple. He wouldn’t be the first actor to be President of the United States. He wouldn’t even be the first Austrian to dream about being the world’s most powerful man. But questions would arise about the gap between his fame and his qualifications. Or has fame become a qualification, proof that you can make it in America, the place where twentieth-century fame started — and where, perhaps, not just chronologically but as a phenomenon, it is now coming to an end?
There are no famous Tibetans except the Dalai Lama, and when the Chinese took over his country he had to leave Tibet, which effectively left it with no famous Tibetans at all. There are few famous Nepalese, they are all called Sherpa something, and Sherpa Tensing is the only one who remained famous after the latest foreign climbing expedition went home. The only Japanese the whole world knows the name of without being told is Yoko Ono. As the century nears its end and Japanese economic power asserts itself, Midori Ito is famous among skating fans, Isao Aoki is famous among golfers, and there are several Japanese Formula One drivers famous among followers of motor sport. But the only truly world-famous Japanese got that way because she married John Lennon. And John Lennon got that way because the Beatles got famous in America.
Twentieth-century fame finally depends on the world’s media, a word that didn’t exist until long after the thing it stands for got started. It started early. From earliest times, fame and its means of transmission — its media — were intimately involved with one another. But the early means of transmitting fame were of limited range. When people lived in caves, every cave had someone famous in it. But that was as far as his, or her, fame went. There was no way of transmitting it except to write on the cave wall. By the time the cave dwellers found out how to do that, they were already on their way out of the cave, living in bigger and bigger groups that needed kings and queens whose importance had to be drummed into their own people and any other people they might conquer. It could be done by unsophisticated means, such as shouting the monarch’s name in unison over and over so that it echoed in the surrounding hills. Or it could be done by sophisticated means: by song, by story, by some form of elementary graven image.
These elementary graven images grew less elementary as time went by. Showcases for them grew more elaborate. The famous person could order a showcase in advance of his own death and so transmit his fame through time. Pit, tumulus, mastaba: there was a steady line of progress in such devices which reached a peak — if the word is not too appropriate — in the pyramid. But as a means of transmitting the Pharaoh’s fame the pyramid had one conspicuous drawback. People had to come and see it. They could see it from some distance because it was tall and — for the brief time between the occupant’s internment and the arrival of the first thieves — clad in high-quality brick veneer. But it could not be sent to them. Out of sight, out of mind. Yet the pyramid also had a conspicuous virtue: relative permanence. Thus we still remember the name of Cheops, although only the Egyptologists among us know precisely what Cheops did that, say, Rameses II didn’t. To the rest of us, Cheops is the man who built the big pointed building. We might guess, correctly, that he got to do that only because he ruled the known world, which at that time extended about a month’s chariot ride each side of the Nile. We have only the vaguest idea of what he looked like because portraits at the time were so stylized that one Pharaoh looked pretty much like another: big hat, little beard, things to hold, one foot in front of the other.
A certain amount of time having gone by, Alexander the Great achieved fame for conquering as much of the world as he could reach. His fame was transmitted by several means. His body was embalmed and kept on show in Alexandria, a practice repeated recently with the corpses of Lenin in Moscow and Mao Tse-tung in Peking, and with the same limitations, largely to do with air conditioning. Alexander did better with his contemporary portraits but not much, perhaps because he was always on the move. This vagueness left later artists free to interpret Alexander’s features according to their own idea of what the world-conquering hero looked like. The physical image of Alexander the Great has thus altered from age to age. The sixteenth-century Paolo Veronese’s Alexander looks rather like the sort of cultivated Venetian nobleman who might have known Paolo Veronese. This tendency of Alexander’s image to match the passing moment has culminated, in recent times, with our belief that Alexander the Great looked and behaved like Richard Burton: big head, barrel chest, short legs, weeping because he has no more worlds to conquer, Wales has lost to England at Cardiff Arms Park, and the beer has run out.
After Alexander the pace picked up, although it remained a requirement for world fame that it was hard to get without conquering the world first. Julius Caesar was even better at that than Alexander. Caesar also had the advantage that he built roads, got home more often and was therefore easier to sculpt. As already noted, he got his face on the coins. There was also a bust of him in every prominent niche throughout the Roman world, rather in the way that, until the day before yesterday, there were busts of Lenin almost within sight of each other across the eleven time zones of the Soviet Union. Coins, busts, bas-reliefs and cameos of Julius Caesar all looked at least roughly like the man himself. He also added a promising new device to the range of means by which fame could be transmitted. He wrote his memoirs: the Commentariorum.
Unfortunately they were mainly about battles. He has been criticized for not writing even more about the battles instead of digressing to boast about how he could also build bridges. He should have digressed more often. The commentaries would have served him better for containing some of the self-justification that modern politicians go in for. Caesar had a lot to justify: he owned gladiators, for example, until he was forced to sell them. But he said little about himself, so Suetonius and Plutarch could say about him what they pleased. The result was a blurred image. Caesar’s fame was transmitted successfully to the future, but his character was left open to interpretation. Shakespeare’s Caesar couldn’t make his mind up about whether to stay home on the Ides of March as the soothsayer advised. Serious moviegoers in the fifties of our century who saw the Hollywood Julius Caesar got the impression that Caesar was a bit of a buffer who looked like Louis Calhern. Less serious moviegoers in the sixties who saw the Hollywood Cleopatra got the impression that Caesar was a decisive, tersely eloquent demigod who looked like Rex Harrison. The only consistent impression of Julius Caesar prevailing through the centuries has been the one about how he got famous in the first place — by acquiring a monopoly of power. Along with the power to rule came the means to have one’s name propagated, first as an instrument of administration, then — if the man went mad — as an end in itself.
Jesus Christ was the first person to achieve world fame without conquering the world by violence. His message was about another world entirely. The message had a powerful appeal to the downtrodden, which was almost everyone, but it was wide open to misinterpretation. You had to be there to know exactly what he said, and even then you had to be near the front of the crowd. Reports written at the time were transmitted far and wide in the form of gospels. They were contradictory, thin on facts, and left the way clear for arguments that depopulated large parts of the allegedly civilized world for centuries. If any contemporary artist rendered the Redeemer’s personal appearance, the sketch disintegrated from being passed from hand to hand, so the artists of the future could paint him as they liked, which usually meant the way the local crowds liked. The real Jesus must have been Semitic in appearance but in the anti-Semitic European countries he was usually painted to look Nordic. In our time the same tradition was continued by Hollywood, which, although it was controlled largely by men whose background lay in the Jewish minority, for sound commercial reasons aimed its product at a Gentile audience, the majority. Though the real Jesus probably looked more like Dustin Hoffman, the movie moguls usually favoured such blue-eyed boys as Jeffrey Hunter for the role, shaving his armpits to avoid causing offence. Max von Sydow was a Jesus from the Arctic Circle.
The Dark Ages were a dark age for fame too. Attila the Hun was another world conqueror in the old sense, but all he did was tear things down. He never put anything up, not even a statue to himself. Few eye witnesses survived to say what he looked like. Outside his group of low-life associates, he had no ambitions to be remembered for anything except the usual Hunnish activities — pillage, rapine and pyromania. He burned records rather than kept them, so the picture of his personality was never filled out even to the extent that later ages might speculate about it. Consequently he is just a name, without really being famous at all. Genghis Khan is almost the same case. He was an Eastern Attila with the same attitude problem. Once again the globetrotting psychopath’s chief monument was a long trail of smoking ruins. But since it was well known that Genghis came out of Mongolia, it was possible for future generations to assume with some confidence that his facial structure must have been Mongolian, and so in our time actors of Mongolian appearance — in The Conqueror John Wayne wore a Fu Manchu moustache authentically waxed with yak fat — have been convincingly employed to play the part.
Conquering the world with a paintbrush and a chisel instead of the sword and cross, Michelangelo was the man who spelt the Italian Renaissance to the civilized world, which had grown to be almost as big as the old classical world had been before the barbarians got loose. Michelangelo was keenly interested in his own glory. He thought big: king-sized sculptures, frescoes with a Cinerama spread, a whole ceiling laid out like a curved split screen. He regarded himself as a cut above all those other hacks. Unfortunately he left us no reliable self-portrait beyond a flayed skin in the Last Judgment. Though a distinguished poet, he also neglected to write his memoirs, leaving the job principally to Vasari, who was a better writer than painter, though not by much. The consequence once again was lasting fame but little image control, allowing later generations complete latitude to concoct their own version of the greatest graphic artist of all time. The result was almost always a travesty, no matter how noble the initial aims of those who set out to celebrate him. In the film The Agony and the Ecstasy Charlton Heston looked magnificent but he had too few lines, while the poetess Vittoria Colonna, played by Diane Cilento, had one line too many: ‘Michelangelo, you stink.’
Queen Elizabeth I of England had the same interest in prominent men as Cleopatra but always kept it on a platonic basis, thus preserving her realm. Her emphasis on the judicious husbandry of national resources extended to the control of her own publicity. Prominent playwrights of the period were not encouraged to include any character too closely resembling her in their five-act blank-verse outpourings. The portrait as a means of transmitting fame had always been hampered by how long it took to paint one. With Queen Elizabeth it took even longer because so many finely detailed jewels had to be included. She could write — if she had never been Queen she would still count among the accomplished minor poets of the period — but what she wrote was not for publication. Though word-of-mouth had it that she could be quite merry at court when the Earl of Essex was in town, the impression of the Great Queen that went down the ages was of a woman hampered by a severe nature. In our time she has invariably been played by actresses with an edge to the voice: Flora Robson, Bette Davis, Glenda Jackson, Margaret Thatcher. They were not given much to go on by their unyielding original. The great ruler thought fame unruly, and kept it on a short leash.
But it was bursting to get loose as more books and periodicals were published. In the next couple of centuries, rulers of various degrees of absoluteness acquired the habit of glorifying themselves by building whole cities — Peter the Great’s Petersburg was merely the most conspicuous example — but what really spread their fame was movable type, moving by the million pieces every hour of the day. It could make you famous whether your blood was blue or not. By the early, romantic, unruly nineteenth century, the young poet John Keats wasn’t just dreaming of being a great poet, he was dreaming of fame itself. The young poet Byron got what Keats dreamed of. He published a long poem, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, that all the young ladies loved. He woke up to find that he had become famous overnight. From then on, all the young ladies loved him, and not just in Britain but on a European scale. He was written up week by week. The periodicals were making a difference.
Napoleon conquered Europe with the sword instead of the pen. But he realized that fame was a weapon too. He was written about constantly. His portraits took almost as long to turn out as Queen Elizabeth’s, because the dedication to simple dress that he started off with gave way to a taste for the sumptuosity that impressed the populace. The huge painting of his coronation as Emperor took so long to complete that he had started rewriting European history all over again before it was finished. But engravings could be quickly turned out for the periodicals and they fixed the essentials of his appearance for all time. Future generations would find it hard to portray him without the proper hairstyle. Nor can any modern impersonator — Herbert Lom, Rod Steiger, Marlon Brando — readily forgo the hand placed in the jacket. Like Julius Caesar’s falling sickness or Elizabeth I’s reputed baldness in later life, Napoleon’s snuggling hand is one of his kit of parts. Images were growing more complex as time went on — still simple, but more like life. Napoleon would have approved. He wanted to be famous, and he wanted his fame to last after death. He was still giving interviews in his final exile.
Only forty years after Napoleon died, Abraham Lincoln was President of the United States. Lincoln didn’t especially want to be famous, but by now there was no choice. America’s political importance was growing and no politically powerful figure could any longer get out of being famous. If Lincoln was impatient about posing for his portrait, and too busy to meet all abut the quickest sketch artists, there was a new device that could capture his image in a matter of minutes. With the advent of photography, fame started to accelerate. Here was a way for a face to be everywhere in almost no time. And it didn’t have to hang on the wall, it could just appear in the periodical that came out every week — or, another new idea, in the newspaper that came out every day. When Lincoln spoke at Gettysburg, hardly anybody was there to hear it. Perhaps it was a good thing. He had a high, not very satisfactory voice, its timbre nothing like as sonorous as his syntax. With no means of transmitting the sound, the speech drifted away on the wind. But when the words appeared in the paper, it was almost like being there, and probably better. It had happened only yesterday. When Lincoln was assassinated, publications all over the country had the news by telegraph, and all over the world not long after. The press was speeding things up. It needed the news.

It needed more news than there was. The popular press really started in Britain. It was the invention of Lord Northcliffe, who realized that mass education had created a mass demand for daily stories. They didn’t have to be strictly true, but they did have to be sensational. Soon he had the whole country organized into a single market. The continental countries got the same idea. Soon they all had the beginnings of a national press that could speak to the people about anything, including nationalism. In America, a countrywide press was harder to organize because the country was much bigger. But if it could be organized, the rewards would be bigger too.