Books: Fame in the 20th Century, Chapter One: The Close-up Stakes Its Claim, 1900-1927 |
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Fame in the 20th Century, Chapter One: The Close-up Stakes Its Claim, 1900-1927

The outstanding American newspaper tycoon was William Randolph Hearst. He solved the problem of how to satisfy the insatiable public desire for reading about famous people. He did it by making more people famous, building up his friends as saints and branding his enemies as monsters. Later on, by a satisfactory irony, Orson Welles handed Hearst the same treatment by portraying him as Citizen Kane. Welles simplified Hearst’s character and travestied his long love affair with the actress Marion Davies, who was, in turn, much more talented than Welles portrayed her. But for most of us, Kane and his mistress are all we know of Hearst and Marion Davies. Fame simplifies. It was a process that Hearst himself codified and cashed in on.

At the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, movable type, moving ever faster, got the new kind of fame off the ground. Pictures went into the papers too. But moving pictures were just a gleam in the laboratory. They flickered and fizzed in the garages and gazebos of gifted amateur scientists all over the world. The country most open to the exploitation of an inventor’s discoveries, however, was America, homeland of Thomas Alva Edison.
Edison had his name on two of the principal inventions which would ensure that fame would actually shape twentieth-century history instead of just reflecting it. He invented moving pictures, and he invented recorded sound. At the time not even he thought of joining the two discoveries together. They were fascinating enough separately, especially the moving pictures. Edison enjoyed standing in front of his own camera and did it as often as possible. He was a pioneer of the home movie. But being filmed didn’t make him famous. He was already famous for being a fertile inventor of new devices. He didn’t necessarily invent what could be done with them, and was capable of violent jealousy if anyone looked like infringing one of his patents. If other people borrowed his moving picture idea to make featurettes for the new Nickelodeons he charmingly sent strong-arm men to smash their equipment. It never occurred to him that his most extraordinary invention would ever make news by itself.
And at the start it didn’t. The first movies were home movies, like Edison’s own. Queen Victoria was already the most famous female monarch in the world since her compatriot Elizabeth I. Still photographs of her were displayed in silver frames on top of mahogany pianos in every corner of the world’s biggest Empire. In her final hours she made a movie, but it added nothing to her fame. It wasn’t seen outside Balmoral. The same applied to the Russian novelist Count Leo Tolstoy. His books were translated while he was still alive. He was as famous as Dickens. The reading public all over the world and many people who had never read anything thicker than a popular newspaper knew that Tolstoy wrote very thick books. The only film footage he had time to appear in didn’t make him any more famous. It wasn’t news.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a famous British writer who appeared on film. But the film didn’t appear anywhere significant. It didn’t make him any more famous. The creator of Sherlock Holmes believed in popularity and would have liked to have more of it, but film wasn’t a way of getting it. The same went for Rudyard Kipling. He was the most famous of all British writers, read throughout the British Empire. He would have been a natural for film, especially if it could have spoken. If film could have sung, Caruso’s fame would have been different. It could scarcely have been bigger. He made some of the first gramophone records, and millions of people who never saw him sing in the opera house did hear him sing at home. Wives who didn’t like the noise their husbands made in the bath said, ‘Who do you think you are, Caruso?’ But a few scraps of film had nothing to do with that. All he did on celluloid was fool around for his friends. It wasn’t news.
Getting the motion picture cameras to where the news was happening, getting the film back again to where it could be developed, and then getting the developed film to where it could be shown all needed quick transport, and the means of quick transport were still being invented. When the Wright Brothers made their first flight in 1903 there was no motion picture camera there to catch it. The camera didn’t arrive until they flew again. America was too big. Even the fastest of the new automobiles could cross only a little bit of it in a day. For just a moment a small country like France had the advantage. The French had a newsreel system up and running when their most intrepid team of aviators, Louis Blériot and his formidable moustache, prepared to fly the English Channel. Amid maximum tohu-bohu, the French for brouhaha, Blériot set off to battle the air resistance created by his formidable moustache. He made it and became world-famous. But he stayed world-famous only in France. He didn’t make fame a career. He was content to be a French national hero.
Madame Curie was a French national heroine. She discovered radium, an extremely glamorous substance which gave off mysterious rays that journalists enjoyed writing about. She wasn’t glamorous herself, but she didn’t care. She won the Nobel Prize and every other prize and was proud of her calling. She had nothing to tell the reporters except a lot of stuff about radioactivity. Thirty years had to go by before the Americans finally managed to immortalize her by replacing the unglamorous reality with a glamorous fiction that the audience could appreciate. Greer Garson starred as Madame Curie with Walter Pidgeon as her husband Pierre. It was one of a string of movies known to the trade as Garson-Pidgeons, and neither Garson nor the studio had any intention of making the great scientist look realistically haggard. Instead, they made her ‘human’. The real Madame Curie already was human, and the Greer Garson version transparently wasn’t, but that was what fame did — it simplified what was real so that people could take it in. In America, where the people ruled, the century was only a few years old when an ambitious politician realized the possibilities.
Teddy Roosevelt started his build-up to the Presidency by gleefully cooperating with any printed organ which would run his photograph. He smelt votes and his whiskers bristled. He was so vibrant that the pictures almost moved. When the pictures did move, Teddy was quick to get into them. He was a complicated, brainy man who realized that a simple, manly image would win him fame and fame would win him elections. He got the emphasis off his politics and on to his personality, away from the intellect. A visionary who foresaw America’s global dominance, he took steps to embody it personally, creating the first Presidential photo opportunity for a motion picture camera, which proved to be an opportunity for the cameraman to be almost flattened by a falling tree. Tireless, shameless, a machine for converting energy into publicity and vice versa, Teddy the White Hunter strode forward to world fame over the dead bodies of thousands of animals. In real life he had a tender regard for nature and set up some of the first conservation areas. But he preferred to be famous as a wild man of the woods, slapping aside all opposition like his favourite animal, the grizzly bear.
Teddy Roosevelt set a trend for twentieth-century American Presidents to play the role as much as they filled the office. It was with his example in mind that Presidents learned to be performers — Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon. Later a performer learned to be president — Ronald Reagan. Looking back, it seems logical that if a President of the United States turned himself into a star he would open a window of opportunity through which a star would one day emerge as President of the United States. But stardom had a long way to go before that happened.
In the early 1900s, the people in the movies were just little figures on the screen, smaller than the people who were sitting in the dark watching. But then something happened that turned twentieth-century fame into something else: the close-up. It made cinematograph performers into stars. It could make anyone into a star. Twentieth-century fame isn’t just about Hollywood. Some of the most famous people of the century never made a movie. But they have all been in the movies, because one of the things that made them famous was the film camera’s capacity to make the face so big. Larger than life, different from life, it took on more meaning than it had in reality. A new and strange relationship was established between those looked at and those doing the looking. It had something to do with eroticism, although the close-up brought the onlooker into a greater intimacy with the looked-on than could be achieved by any lover, who would always have his imagination kept in check by the actual texture of a living thing. With the close-up film face there was no limit to the imagination’s involvement. Radiant in the distance yet close enough to taste, the people in close-up were symbolic, but what they symbolized was the people watching them. It was a way for the human race to worship itself in ideal form. It still is. It happens in public, but it’s as private as self-love. When Madonna strokes herself on camera she is merely putting the finger on this fact. And if it’s one-way, it doesn’t feel that way. You know these people so well that you can’t believe they don’t know you.
They don’t, of course. They never did. Nobody could become a star without being cut off from the mass of people who were going to buy the tickets. Twentieth-century fame has tended to unite bigger and bigger audiences while making those who possess it more isolated. The process began early, with the Hollywood star system. When the close-up came in, old-style acting ability went out. It was useful, but it wasn’t essential. Even the greatest actors on the stage wouldn’t necessarily make it in the movies. The nineteenth-century-famous French actress Sarah Bernhardt was on her last legs, or leg, when she starred as the dying Queen Elizabeth, so it was perhaps unfair to describe her late bid for screen fame as a flop. Unfair, but accurate. Isadora Duncan was another nineteenth-century hangover. Famous for dancing in an untutored, not to say unhinged, manner, she managed to get herself filmed doing it, but proved by doing so that it would be easier to turn someone more photogenic into a dancer than a dancer into someone more photogenic.
What was essential was looks. Perfectly ordinary people who looked good turned up in Hollywood from all over America and soon from all over the world. A few of them were cut out of the herd and became stars. In those very first years of the close-up, between 1908 and 1919, a huge audience could recognize the Biograph Girl but they didn’t know her name. The Biograph studio issued a statement denying that Florence Lawrence had been killed in a streetcar accident. Actually no one had ever suggested that she had. It was a publicity stunt staged by the studio. It worked. Florence Lawrence became a famous, if not very likely, name. It was the beginning of the star system. Studios had to have stars. When the stars realized how necessary they were, their salaries went up, form five dollars a week to five hundred times that much in the first four years. The studios paid out, not just because they couldn’t do without the stars, but because big money kept the stars on a short leash. They couldn’t do without it. They felt the same way about their fame.
Francis X. Bushman. William S. Hart. Theda Bara, whose name was an anagram for Arab Death. Most of them are now forgotten. At the time they were part of the scenery. Some of them acted like it, but they were all heroes. They looked like heroes. They presented an insoluble problem to real heroes who wanted to become stars. Buffalo Bill, after a glittering late nineteenth-century career of slaughtering buffalo, had movies made about himself. But he didn’t look as much like a cowboy as the screen cowboys did. Houdini, the great escapologist, had a fitful screen career based on his skills as a man who could get out of anything given a certain amount of time. But he couldn’t get out of the problem posed by the fact that his real ability to escape from impossible situations was irrelevant on the screen, where the stunt could be faked using an actor who looked better than he did. By the time his career ended he was only pretending to go over Niagara, a silent admission that someone with more screen presence could have been doing the same thing. Stars had to fit their fame. Looking the part was what they did. They were up there looking handsome, or looking lovely. It was easy for them to look handsome and lovely because that was what they were. But they also had to look intelligent, innocent, passionate, sensitive, heroic. Above all, heroic: in control of life on behalf of the audience, who weren’t.
Twentieth-century fame — this new centripetal/centrifugal force which seemed to suck everything into showbusiness before squirting it out again — was still confined to America. The rest of the world might have heard it throbbing, threatening to burst out. But the rest of the world didn’t yet rate America that high. Still thinking of America as a provincial place where a washed-up act went to make money, Europe continued producing the old-style heroes — real ones who actually did things, even if they didn’t do them very well.
Intrepid if inept, none was more heroic than Britain’s redoubtable Antarctic explorer Robert Falcon Scott. Though hopeless when it came to the petty practical details which merely meant the difference between life and death for his colleagues, Scott was aware of the value of publicity and took film cameras with him as far south as he could. But he died out of reach of the lens, leaving only a diary. The diary later became a best-seller and helped to establish Scott as a hero in the old style, waging a private, lonely interior battle with destiny. His blunders were forgotten. He was enshrined as an example of the best type of British officer, with a stiff, indeed frozen, upper lip. He was an example to his class and later in the century became the embodiment of his nation, when the whole disastrous expedition was staged all over again at Ealing Studios. The moment when John Mills, peering through snow-caked binoculars, descried the fateful Norwegian flag at the other side of the studio, is a proud memory for all those who were brought up on a diet of British films after World War II. Mills, as Scott, said it all in one word: ‘Amundsen.’ The other guy had got there first.
Roald Amundsen was an even less likely candidate fro twentieth-century fame than Scott, since he had got on with the job, reached the Pole first, and returned without fanfare to become famous in Norway. But even Scott is less famous outside his country than the people inside his country tend to think. The British like him because he was decent about coming second. He was a national hero, and there was already something outdated about national heroes. Though the European countries were slow to realize it, twentieth-century fame was international, even if most of it was in America, which had already developed the infuriating habit of treating itself as if it were the whole world. Sophisticated American — the novelist Henry James was a prominent representative of the trend — were appalled by such confident provincialism and took refuge in Europe, thus helping to lull sophisticated Europeans into the belief that America was all noise. But the noise was made by a giant stirring.
The World Heavyweight Boxing Championship became an American monopoly when Jack Johnson revealed a frightening ability to obliterate all opposition from other countries. America’s white men didn’t like it when Johnson went out with white women. They locked him up for it. They dreamed that a white version would show up. The journalists had a name for him: the Great White Hope. He would, of course, be American. America seemed as good as the rest of the world put together, perhaps because it was the rest of the world put together.
The point was rubbed in when World War I started. It was strictly a European event. America wasn’t interested. As the slaughter commenced, the news was dominated by nineteenth-century-style moustaches. Behind them were the men in charge, but you could hardly see them. Kaiser Wilhelm II was the chief German moustache. Reputedly he was crazy, but it was hard to tell. The next most famous German moustache was Hindenburg. He was meant to be a pitiless Hun like Attila, but if his cruel lips were twisted with ruthlessness there was no way of telling. The top French moustache was Marshal Foch. He was billed as a military genius and might have looked like one without all the facial hair. Great Britain’s leading moustache was King George V. With a beard to complement his moustache, he was known to all by name yet utterly invisible.
Britain’s Prime Ministerial moustache was Lloyd George. He was a brilliant orator but since there was no sound film or any radio at the time you had to be there to hear him; and he wasn’t there in the front line, he was safely at home seducing women. Britain’s top military moustache was Lord Kitchener. He inspected the troops while the troops did their best to inspect him, but he was hard to see. The hero of a poster, he was like a poster himself. He was stuck up, and when he was lost at sea he was taken down.
As the total of dead mounted into the millions, gradually it became apparent that the great moustaches wouldn’t do as heroes. The fighting man was the hero. He had to be a hero every day for as long as he lasted. But he didn’t look like one. The average soldier was covered in mud. The average soldier was dead. Individuals were hard to find. They showed up above the battlefield, in the form of ace pilots. Germany made a hero out of Baron von Richthofen, the Red Knight of the Air, so called because he flew into action in a little red Fokker triplane. In the clean arena high above the muddy massacre, single aerial combat looked like chivalry. Actually the war in the air was mainly a matter of shooting the other guy in the back if you could, but at least it looked as if a man could show honour to a gallant opponent, survive by skill, and die on his own terms. For purposes of raising morale, the German high command poured on the publicity. Richthofen became a hero to all Germany. Though portrayed as a dastard by the Allied press, he became a bit of a hero to our side as well, symbolizing human individuality in a war that had wiped it out. The Australian soldiers who shot him down gave him a hero’s funeral. After the war the Germans dug him up and buried him all over again.
The Red Baron was above the battle, in a neat little war of his own. The same sort of thing was also permitted at the edge of the battle, in obscure places such as the Middle East, stamping ground of Lawrence of Arabia. He was T. E. Lawrence, a gigantic ego well camouflaged as a neurotically shy, short man. He had a knack for backing nervously into the limelight. The limelight was mainly provided by the American journalist Lowell Thomas. He sent back reports about this exotic Englishman who dressed up as an Arab prince and went tearing around the desert like Sir Galahad in a sheet. Thomas played up the story for all, and more than, it was worth, hitching his wagon to Lawrence’s romantic star. America was suitably intrigued, but the exotic Englishman’s heroic stature was of importance mainly to the English. Lawrence was a national hero. Aided by a gift for telling tales as elaborately decorated as his presentation jewelled dagger, he had made the war look like old-fashioned derring-do. Peace was less exciting. Either genuinely revolted by his publicity or aiming for legendary status, or both, he tried to hide from his fame under various assumed names, eventually killing himself on a powerful motorcycle. At the time his passing was noted mainly by his friends: the British ruling class for whom he had been a golden boy. His true fame only happened forty years later, when the movie came out. Though they had cast the part of one of the world’s shortest heroes with one of the world’s tallest actors, Peter O’Toole was at least British, or at any rate Irish. The film had a British director, David Lean. But it was an American movie, arriving late at the event and taking it over.
Boycotted by America, World War I went on exterminating its own extras in the modern manner without producing any stars who didn’t look old hat. The Russian Revolution did better. It produced Lenin. Or rather, Lenin produced it. And he produced it in every sense. Lenin staged the Revolution as a theatrical event s well as a political one. If he didn’t personally arrange to give himself top billing, it was only because he didn’t have to. Dutiful apparatchiks did it for him, making him the centre of attention for a propaganda system which right from the start was the most efficient thing in the Soviet Union apart from the secret police. Lenin was cast as the symbol of centralized and unquestioned power, the embodiment of a new civilization which would replace the old Western version. It never quite did, but for most of the century it ran as an alternative.
His own people cast him as a demigod. After his early death they rained tears into his open coffin, all unaware that he was never going to go away. The corpse was never buried. Lenin’s face was used for a death-mask which became the mould for a million reproductions. First gradually, then grotesquely, after death Lenin was raised to divine status. On permanent display inside his aggressively hideous mausoleum under the Kremlin wall, Lenin’s corpse, pumped full of artificial preservatives, became Moscow’s longest-running hit show.
State-run fame had its limitations, but in the early days they didn’t obtrude. Otherwise intelligent people in the West didn’t mind that Lenin backed up his orders with a gun because they approved of his management skills. In the West as in the East, it was widely assumed that scientific management could fix anything and lead the world to progress. Henry Ford put his name on the century like no one else. He put America on wheels and the whole world followed. He turned the automobile from a privileged carriage into a mass-market consumer utensil. He was hailed as a genius with a vision of the new, infinitely mobile democratic society. The Ford Motor Company was the new America. Ford’s success at creating an industrial empire was so enormous that delusions of genius came drifting in with the smoke from his factories to his house. His fame went to his head. He rated himself as an original thinker on world affairs. His critics were nearer the mark when they called him an anti-Semite and a hayseed. In his saner moments he seemed to agree that the backwoods were where he belonged. He had home movies made in which he featured as a simple soul communing with the elements. In old age, when he seized the microphone and spoke, he just didn’t match up to his own historical significance. Though Henry Ford had done more than Lenin to shape the twentieth century, his voice came quavering out of the nineteenth, when what a man did was what counted and his personality didn’t have to match his renown.
No less an industrial centre than Ford’s Detroit, Hollywood was more up-to-date. The star system’s production line turned out personalities too good for this world. Stardom was a parallel world ruled by the people in it, with no one below the rank of prince and princess. The king and queen were Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. Pickford was America’s sweetheart: she had innocence, along with a salary of 350,000 dollars a picture. Fairbanks was the athletic hero. He had athleticism, and teeth. Even off-screen the couple were on-screen, living in a house on a hill that was like a castle where all the world’s famous people came to pay court. On-screen, the couple were a fairytale. They chose their costumes from the vast walk-in wardrobe of the romantic past. They were modern heroes, but the heroes they played were a hangover from another era.
The same applied to Rudolph Valentino. No man in history had aroused so much female desire. But he looked as if he came from history, or anyway from somewhere exotic. He was a gaucho who danced the tango. He was a bullfighter who got gored. But mainly he was The Sheik. He was Lawrence of Arabia with a degree in Latin American dancing. He was something else. Valentino was equipped with a smouldering glance that could reach all the way to the cheap seats and scorch the spit curl on a flapper-s forehead to a frazzled pretzel. Valentino had a violinist’s hands, which the camera dwelt on as his female fans dreamed of being held like a Stradivarius at various strategic angles. For the studio publicity department Rudi was gold dust. They set up sex appeal tests to measure his cataclysmic effect on the female metabolism. Off-screen, Valentino was obliged to keep up his performance as a great lover with magic powers of sexual attraction and infinite supplies of savoir faire. In real life he had been a male taxi dancer and freelance lounge-lizard, but real life had been left far behind. He was in over his head. When he tried to take control of his own movies he had one financial disaster after another. He found out that he was a prisoner of his fame. The public wanted The Sheik.
He came back as Son of the Sheik. They had changed the girl but it was the same tent. He knew his way around it blindfold, and barring accidents he would have gone on to make Grandson of the Sheik and Sheik Trek V: The Voyage Home, perpetually transporting upper-class young women over a sand dune for immoral purposes, his palpitating victim the object of toxic envy from untold millions of watching women as she echoed the curve of the Great Lover’s dagger while he bent her to his will on cushions hot from the sand beneath.
Valentino was merely the most sensational example of a performer whose real-life personality became confused with an outlandish persona. The man and the role were two different things, and it was becoming evident that if the man couldn’t control the role, the role would control the man. Fatty Arbuckle lost control. Famous for his screen portrayals of a little boy who got into trouble, in real life he got into trouble like a little boy, but he did it with big girls. Arrested after a girl died at a party in circumstances that were never made clear, Arbuckle was destroyed by the press before he could be tried. His career as an artist was over because he hadn’t managed it like a businessman. Fame needed a clear head.
Charlie Chaplin grasped this fact and became the first truly great figure of twentieth-century fame. His role as The Tramp wasn’t drawn from the romantic past, or from some exotic land where they danced the tango in Arab head-dress. The Tramp was from the twentieth century. Thanks to the nearly universal reach of silent film, he was the most recognizable figure on Earth. And the man who played the role made himself famous too. Chaplin enthusiastically cooperated with the publicity that built him up as a genius who had the whole picture under his personal supervision. With the fame of the real man added to the fame of the role he created, Chaplin filled the sky as the most famous person in the world. There had never been fame on that scale before. When Chaplin toured his native England it wasn’t like going home; it was like going to a foreign country — the fame country, which started just outside his front gate in Hollywood and covered the whole planet, full of people who wanted to shake his hand but didn’t care if it bled.
The price of adulation was isolation. Chaplin found himself cut off from the mass of mankind that adored him. Only other famous people could behave naturally in his presence. Lord and Lady Mountbatten, making an early start on a long career of being noble friends to the famous, asked to be included in a private movie. Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks were like little boys together because they were little boys together, living again the last time when they might have met each other by accident. Cut off from ordinary people, the film stars were trapped with each other, paying for the upkeep of high walls to shut the public out. When Fairbanks and Pickford toured Europe, they found to their horror that their loving public was ready to crush the life out of them. There was no way back from this kind of fame. Anyone who got it was stuck with it. Unprecedented fame brought unprecedented problems which not even the smartest stars could yet guess at. They had to find out the hard way.
All except one woman, who seemed to have the whole thing figured out in advance. Her name was Greta Gustafsson and she started off being famous in Sweden. She was a substantial girl with a disarmingly natural set of teeth. But she had something — a ticket to America. After a change of name and a rewarding encounter with a cosmetic dentist, Greta Garbo held America enthralled. Americans knew Sweden was in Europe somewhere and Europe was where women were aloof, blasé and so sophisticated they made love with the light on. This wasn’t Mary Pickford looking winsome in a dirndl. This was sexual desire. Flesh and the Devil was the very first time the American screen had shown a kiss happening horizontally, the way they did it in Europe. The movies were silent but Garbo’s silence was eloquent. It didn’t just say ‘Your place or mine?’; it said ‘Your place and mine.’
It was widely assumed that Garbo and her favourite co-star John Gilbert were not acting. This was especially easy to believe in Gilbert’s case. He fell in love with her off-screen. So did romantics of both sexes in dark cinemas everywhere. Garbo moved love to the ethereal level for millions of ordinary people all over the world who didn’t have much time for love on any level. She made them see what they were missing. She did it for them. She never complained when the studio stills photographers made her pose for hours while they angled lights to reduce her face to the minimum of information. She understood exactly what they were after: ideal sex. Garbo firmly squashed all attempts by the studio to invent a private life for her. The studio soon got the point. Mystery made her a bigger star. If the studio couldn’t publicize her private life, it could publicize her reluctance to reveal it. It was the enigma effect. Whether she calculated this effect, or whether she just found all the hoo-hah too silly to get mixed up in, remains a mystery to this day — like almost everything else about her.
But few famous people were as instinctively wary about their fame as Garbo. They had to learn. Everybody did. It has taken us a whole century of fame to find out that its radiance burns. Fame has to be handled with care. It needs special suits and lead shields so that people can step into all that light and still breathe. As Chaplin had already guessed, the real story of twentieth-century fame would be how to live with it. But that didn’t become clear until someone died of it.

It was Valentino. If he had been operated on in time, he might have been saved, but they couldn’t find a surgeon to match his prestige. It was the last farce of his life. His death was a theatrical triumph. People queued to get in. The funeral rites started in New York, where the queue to see his body became a riot. Valentino’s body crossed the country by train. The funeral in Hollywood was one of the film world’s events of the century, razzmatazz in mourning. But for millions of women all over the world his loss was the occasion of deep and lasting grief, which pundits preferred to call mass hysteria, rather than face the difficult question of how otherwise normal people could feel love for a dreamed object, passion for an illusion, and treat the life and death of a man who wore funny hats as if it was a matter of life and death. It was the death of innocence. Fame was a force, and the proof was in the coffin.