Books: Fame in the 20th Century, ChapterTwo: All Ahead Warp Factor One, 1918-1932 |
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Fame in the 20th Century, Chapter Two: All Ahead Warp Factor One, 1918-1932

As the years between the wars began, America wasn’t yet the deciding factor in twentieth-century fame. Older countries still had their pride, and could prove it. They were bang up-to-date. Suzanne Lenglen was five times Wimbledon Singles Champion. If she had entered for the Olympic high jump she would have won that too. She wasn’t American, she was French. Anna Pavlova toured the world with her Dance of the Dying Swan. The swan died a thousand times to overwhelming applause. She wasn’t American, she was Russian. Dame Nellie Melba, no longer in her first youth but still energetic, made the world’s first radio broadcast. The toast named after her is still consumed to this day. She wasn’t American, she was Australian. And those were just some of the women among scores of women and men from various countries who all came to world prominence. Language was ceasing to be a barrier. News could be translated, and anyway in a new activity like international competitive tennis language scarcely mattered. Now that the possibility of leisure had been extended beyond the leisured class, the number of things someone could be famous for had increased.

America’s intervention had finished World War I. Economically the old Empires were already dead. But they wouldn’t lie down. Right through the 1920s the British turned out a supply of famous people to keep their Empire suitably enthralled. Using various means of transport, first Sir Malcolm Campbell and then Sir Henry Segrave, or vice versa, repeatedly broke the world record for maximum publicity over the measured mile. Amy Johnson flew solo all the way to Australia. When she got there she spoke a language the Australians understood, although it didn’t sound like their language or any other language spoken by an ordinary human being. She sounded as if her mother had been to school with Queen Mary. It was the language of Empire.
The British Empire was one big happy family because most of its children were seen and not heard. But they were allowed to play together even if they were different colours. The game they played was called cricket, and only people who belonged to the British Empire could understand it. England was the heart of the Empire, so it was only fitting that the dogged English batsman Jack Hobbs should put the natives in their place by scoring hundreds of runs against Australia. But the English were very sporting about it when the natives fought back and Australia’s Don Bradman scored hundreds of runs against England. It wasn’t until the following decade that they tried to put him out of action by throwing the ball at his head, a tactic strangely known as ‘Bodyline’ instead of ‘Headline’.
Nobody outside the British Empire had any idea why these men were running backwards and forwards or talking a lot of incomprehensible jargon about hitting each other in the bails with a googly to the inside leg. The famous names of cricket were famous as far as the Empire went and no further. Since the Empire went quite far, it was practically world fame. But in America a sportsman achieved world fame in a sport played scarcely anywhere else except in his own country. Babe Ruth was the greatest name in baseball. He won the World Series for the Yankees. Cricket-loving cynics in Britain might have said there was nobody else in the World Series except Yankees but at least the British got to hear about him, whereas no American ever got to hear about Jack Hobbs or Donald Bradman. The reason was that Babe Ruth wasn’t just good at baseball, he was good at being a celebrity.
The celebrity was yet another pioneering American contribution to twentieth-century fame. Celebrities weren’t just famous for what they did. They were famous for the lives they led while they did it. As American sports became more and more professional, the professional sportsman found that he wasn’t famous just when he was hitting or running, he was famous when he was at home eating, or out drinking, or running off the rails. The celebrity sportsman was famous for being human. Babe Ruth was human in a big way. In 1921 his signing-on fee for the Yankees was 125,000 dollars and he had already spent half of it on hotdogs. An America hungry for Babe Ruth statistics was told how many hotdogs he ate and how fast, along with how many home runs he hit and how often. His fame didn’t just have quality, it had quantity. When the Babe had trouble making the weight, it reassured American men who had trouble waking for work. Babe Ruth helped to make baseball grow big. Baseball got written into the plots of movies, so Babe Ruth was heard about even in countries that never took the game up. One of the countries that did take the game up was Japan, so that later on, during World War II, American troops on the Pacific islands heard Japanese soldiers shout during the night that Babe Ruth would die in the morning.
America made its national sporting heroes into international celebrities. And boxing was an international sport, so when an American won the World Heavyweight Championship there was nowhere on earth he wasn’t a household name, whether the house was made of brick, wood, palm leaves, dried mud or ice. The name was Jack Dempsey. Boxing went legal in 1919 and turned into big business. Dempsey was a famously mean fighter who got more famous the meaner he behaved. The public was fascinated with the idea of a man who would hit below the belt even when his opponent was already lying down. Dempsey’s character was a big draw. He wasn’t just a famous boxer, he was a famous brute. So he was famous twice. When Dempsey had been on top for seven years he lost his title to Gene Tunney and failed to regain it after the notorious long count incident about which every boxing buff will give you the boring details unless you get in fast with some cricket statistics. But the important thing was that Dempsey accepted defeat gracefully. He stopped being Mr Nasty and started being Mr Nice. He became famous for that too. So he was famous three times.
Dempsey stayed famous. Even out of the ring, he was still courted by other famous people. Charlie Chaplin wanted to know him. When they pretended to fight, Douglas Fairbanks was the referee. Dempsey didn’t get very far with his film career but that became part of the story too. Later on Dempsey lost all his money in the Stock Market Crash and that was part of the story. He staged a comeback as a restaurant owner and other famous people came to eat. Dempsey survived as a performer even when he ceased to be a champion. He fought his way free of what he did, and became somebody who simply was.
Sporting celebrities, any kind of celebrities, were like film stars, with less of the mystery but aspiring to the same durability. They didn’t just do something once. They did it again. They were still news even when they weren’t doing it. They were there all the time. It was getting harder for anyone to perform a single heroic feat and then quietly retire. Heroes were now expected not only to risk their lives but to hand their lives over to the hungry media. The day of the lonely hero was almost done. At that very moment, the greatest lonely hero in history performed his death-defying feat.
At first glance, Charles Lindbergh was a gift from heaven for the omnivorous new means of mass communication. He let them do all the communicating. He never said a word. But he was as good-looking as any film star and his wings didn’t come from the prop department. He was real. He was patriotic. He was perfect. The whole of America flew with him across the Atlantic. His progress was tracked on the London, Amsterdam and Tokyo stock exchange tickertapes. The country built by Europe’s rejects was sending its sensationally brave son on a voyage of conquest in reverse. When he arrived in Europe it was like Columbus coming back, all on his own. The French went crazy. But the Lone Eagle was soon looking trapped.
The press and the newsreels believed that they had helped to build Lindbergh up and there was something to it. The Lone Eagle had never been entirely alone. The idea of flying solo across the Atlantic wasn’t a lonely dream, it was a competition with 25,000 dollars in prize money. It could have been won by someone else. It could have been won by René Fonck, a French war hero whose attempt to fly the Atlantic was foiled only because he took too many croissants with him. The plane was too heavy to take off. If he had travelled light, the name of Fonck would have resounded through the twentieth century. You could call it the Fonck Factor. The single heroic deed could always be done by another person. So the media couldn’t help believing that Lindbergh owed them something when they called him a hero. They wanted cooperation in return.
The story started going sour when Lindbergh didn’t give it to them. He came home to a hero’s welcome which was staged twice. First he came home to Washington. Battleships tilted under the weight of photographers. Then he came home to New York. More than 4 million people turned out to see him. The tickertape formed drifts knee-deep to cushion the fall of fainting secretaries. It was hype, and it made him unhappy. He had to fight hard to keep smiling. Before his great flight to immortality his taciturnity had been a plus. Now it was a minus. The media which had sung hosannas to his silence now wanted him to say something, and the same silence looked like ingratitude. He was the same man but the rules had changed. The media wanted the show to go on. Its hero wanted it to be over. The perfect hero was a dud celebrity. The Lone Eagle was laying an egg.
Lindbergh didn’t enjoy fame, so there was no story there. He had done his deed and there was no bigger deed left to do: the only comparably astonishing one-trip flight left to make was to the moon. So there was no story there either. The only story left was his private life. Lindbergh wanted to keep it private. The press tried to intrude and he tried to keep them out. So that was the story. He couldn’t hide, so he tried to run. But when Lindbergh and his new wife arrived in Japan, the cameras were waiting. His search for obscurity was transmitted to the waiting world. The Lone Eagle was already finding to his cost that twentieth-century fame was a show you couldn’t get out of once you had been cast in a starring role. He just didn’t want to be in the limelight.
But there were plenty of people who did. Prohibition made America’s gangsters into headline news. The bad guys became big celebrities. Scarface Al Capone was the baddest guy, so he became the biggest celebrity. He loved the part and dressed up for it. The media couldn’t get enough of him. All they had to do was turn on the lights and he did the rest. He paid for his own wardrobe. Extras to play dead bodies he provided free. He made his own transportation arrangements. His car was built to stop bullets from other gangsters. The cops never shot at it. They just gave lectures about it, pointing out its exciting features: armour plate, bullet-proof windshield, standard-issue police siren — this last doubtless provided, although the police press liaison officer didn’t say so, by one of the cops on Capone’s payroll.
Compared to the cops he had corrupted with payoffs, Capone looked honest. Apart from the people who were actually getting beaten up or rubbed out, the whole world seemed to like the idea that at least one man was up there above the daily grind. Capone liked the idea, too. His fame justified him. He was beyond good and evil. He was in show business. He wasn’t really a killer at all, he was more a kind of star. As if to prove the point, the film studios rewrote his life a dozen different ways; but it was always the same part, the big part, the American equivalent of King Lear. Film stars wanting to play it formed a queue seventy years long: Paul Muni, Edward G. Robinson, Rod Steiger, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro. They changed the story and they changed the setting and sometimes they even changed Capone’s name, but it was still him. Capone is a classic. He’s lasted longer than Lindbergh and it’s because fame suited him. He needed fame. It was a step up.
It was a step up for honest people too. The great black jazz musicians were down there in the lowlife of Prohibition America, and if they wanted the status they had coming to them they had to go with the story. The only problem was how far. When Louis Armstrong’s long career ended he was the most famous jazz musician in the world. For millions of people who didn’t know much about jazz, he was the voice and the face they knew. People who did know about jazz said that he had thrown away his art and there was nothing left except showmanship. But they seldom asked why that was. The answer was that when the man famous for singing ‘Wonderful World’ was starting off, the world wasn’t so wonderful. In Prohibition America the black inventors of the twentieth century’s most exciting music had the same prestige as minstrels. Armstrong’s brilliant trumpet solos were works of art from a sweatshop. The works of art were preserved on classic records. All over the world people with a true, unprejudiced ear for musical creativity heard the 78rpm recordings of Armstrong’s Hot Five numbers and delightedly recognized a great musician. The dramatically improved means of its transmission had made Armstrong’s world fame safe from the start. But in the land where he lived, white men controlled the record business and stole most of the money.
To stay solvent, the artist had to become an entertainer. Louis Armstrong the revolutionary modern musician turned into Satchmo the showman. Out on the road night after night, Armstrong clowned it up. But if he was wearing a false face, at least he had made it himself. When Hollywood put him in the movies, they put him in costume. Armstrong loathed the jungle-bunny outfits and the Uncle Tom dialogue, but it was the price of fame. And fame was the road to freedom. Black entertainers couldn’t raise their status without being celebrities. That meant they had to have a story. Armstrong’s story was the one about the man full of spontaneous joy. The price of celebrity was to be stuck in the role. Armstrong had to be hail-fellow-well-met no matter what.
For a black American artist in the 1920s, it was hard to become a celebrity without becoming typecast, not just because he was black but because in America any artist had the same problem. No one who became famous through achievement could stay famous without giving the media a story to feed on. The only hope was to control the story. Duke Ellington understood that it wasn’t enough to be a serious musician. He had to behave like a serious musician. He was an entertainer too, and never lost sight of the necessity to please the crowd, but he thought that his prestige as a composer was good business and the best weapon against prejudice. Even in the movies he managed to keep his dignity. For the white men who were out to exploit black talent, black dignity was an obstacle. Ellington’s smile never slipped, but his eyes showed that the cost was high. Though fame had made it possible to take his art to a wider world, fame had also made him a representative of his people: a responsibility that no white musician was asked to bear. In America it was the fate of black success first to be feared by white failure, then to bear the weight of black aspirations, and finally to be accused by black power of playing Uncle Tom in a white man’s world. It took a strong man to carry a load like that and keep swinging. Ellington never missed a beat.
Duke Ellington had a long career ahead of him as a cultural hero, but in America that was the hardest kind of hero to be. The mass media weren’t interested in the artistic achievement. They wanted to hear about the interesting life. If the person of achievement wasn’t prepared to be a celebrity, there was no story. In that respect Europe still had America beaten. In Europe someone who did something didn’t have to do it for the media first. Achievement was saluted by an elite and the reputation arrived later.
In Vienna, Sigmund Freud developed a complicated theory about how the unconscious determined behaviour. His name was known to everyone who could read. The press made him world-famous by simplifying what he had to say, until eventually everyone in the world who could only just read came to believe that Freud thought sexual repression was bad for you. This message was especially popular in American speakeasies late at night. But Freud was famous in Europe first.
In Berlin, Albert Einstein developed the General Theory of Relativity. He was admired by the scientific community and lionized by the social elite. The press made him world-famous by spreading the vague notion that Einstein said everything was relative, so anything went. This message was especially popular in America, where pseudo-scientific cults were beginning to challenge evangelical Christianity for the allegiance of the would-be profound. But Einstein was famous in Europe first.
In the great cities of Europe, America still seemed far away. From Paris it was a dot on the horizon. America had the money, but as far as culture went Lindbergh might as well have stayed home. There were famous Americans who agreed with this assessment. They made Paris their stamping ground. None stamped more effectively than the girl who wore bananas for a skirt. Josephine Baker was black, sassy, and sexy off-stage as well as on. The American media would have destroyed her. In Paris they loved her. She could be her real self without having to invent a false one. She tore the place apart.
The fame of the young American writer Ernest Hemingway began in Paris. He went there to write about the condition of modern man and journalists went there to write about him. He was there because a few dollars bought a lot of francs and because America was too small for him. He wanted to be famous, but on his terms. The fame of the young American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald increased in Paris. At home he had written a book about drunken young wastrels — This Side of Paradise — and attained celebrity for behaving like one of his characters. In Europe he drank no less but he acquired class. In Europe writers were taken so seriously that they made news, and he liked being in the news.
The Americans were in Paris because they thought their own country was too provincial. The Russians were in Paris because their old civilization had vanished into the pit dug for it by Lenin. The Russian composer Igor Stravinsky had come from old Petersburg to knock Paris dead with The Firebird, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring, which caused an uproar that made his name synonymous with the kind of music your mother thought was incomprehensible noise. After the Bolshevik Revolution, Petersburg turned into Leningrad and Stravinsky made Paris his address. The Irish writer James Joyce was in Paris because his own country banned his books and in Paris the dollars he borrowed from his rich American female patrons bought more whisky and cigars. In Paris he published the kind of novel your mother thought was incomprehensible filth. And Pablo Picasso was in Paris because if he had stayed in Spain his early struggles might have gone on for the rest of his life. In Paris he fulfilled himself creatively and was a big hit at the same time. The American expatriate Gertrude Stein helped make him world-famous for painting the kind of pictures your mother thought were incomprehensible daubs. But in Paris the elite were either clever enough to understand him or scared of looking stupid if they said they didn’t.
In Paris to be smart was smart. Paris was an all-star spectacular of brilliant foreigners who were there for the exchange rate, the tolerance, the intelligence and the style. The style was set, however, by a local girl. Coco Chanel invented the little suit — prêt-à-porter, ready-to-wear — the made style affordable for women who weren’t rich. Her couture clothes made the rich feel richer. She made the fashionable feel artistic. She made fashion into a new set of values more valuable than a pedigree, as if to have chic was a birthright better than birth. Chanel herself was raised in an orphanage and at the peak of her fame turned down the hand of the Duke of Westminster, although she had already become intimately acquainted with the rest of him. Reputedly she said, ‘There can be many Duchesses of Westminster, but there is only one Chanel.’ A lot of the things she reputedly said were written for her by adoring young poets and essayists whom she kept close and threw crumbs to. In realizing that the best way to get usefully quoted by journalists was to feed them a prepared excerpt, Chanel was ahead of her time.
Chanel also perfected the technique of putting exclusivity on the open market. Her fragrance Chanel No. 5 was sold on the idea that only the discerning few knew about it. In fact it was available to anyone who could afford the equivalent of 215 dollars an ounce in today’s money. Chanel raised design to the level of art and herself to the level of artist. Though Hollywood had plenty of dress designers, in 1931 Chanel graciously agreed to spend an entire year in Hollywood’s barbaric atmosphere, with only a small hill of money for compensation.
In the twenties the news from Paris got to America within the month because the Paris editions of the new glossy magazines like Vogue and Harpers were owned in America. American money bought European style. The Europeans thought they were getting the best of the bargain, protecting their traditional cultures and getting paid for it. British actors enjoyed the prestige generated by speaking a version of the English language that Americans applauded for its sophistication. ‘And how was China?’ asked Gertie. ‘Very big,’ replied Noël.
In 1925 Noël Coward had three plays on in London. But the West End was just an out-of-town try-out for New York. He starred in his own plays on Broadway too. It was where the fame was. European theatrical stars had once toured America to make money when they were washed up. Now they came at the height of their careers. Broadway was bigger than London as a showcase for theatrical stars. Hollywood was bigger than either but it couldn’t talk: not until October 1927, when The Jazz Singer, a movie with only half a soundtrack, revealed the full talent of Al Jolson. Jolson already had national fame as a Broadway musical star whose stock-in-trade was the kind of energy that couldn’t be stopped with gunfire and a blackface act that graphically demonstrated what Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington were up against. It never occurred to Jolson that he was being racist. But it takes only a few bars of Jolson’s ‘Mammy’ to remind us why Josephine Baker had to go to Paris. It was a wonder she didn’t go to Patagonia.
Sound film turned Jolson from a crass vaudeville headliner into a world-famous crass vaudeville headliner. He gave it everything he had, so he had nothing left over for the audience to wonder about. Sound movies threatened the mystery of silent stars. It didn’t matter to comedians. Laurel and Hardy were just as funny throwing noisy pies as quiet ones, and there was the bonus that Hardy could say something, even if Laurel still didn’t say much.
The Marx Brothers would have remained stars of radio and Broadway if it hadn’t been for sound film. Harpo was essentially a silent comedian plus a motor horn. But Groucho talked. He had always been written up as a famous wit. Now the cinema audience could judge for itself how witty he was. It was through the movies that Groucho established his world fame as a master of the wisecrack. Self-exiled in London, the American-born poet T.S. Eliot might otherwise never have come to admire him. As it was, the two men formed a lasting friendship. It was a hint that world fame could be a kind of community in itself.
If he had the right things to say, a famous comedian could deliver on his reputation for being funny. But a famous woman of mystery could be killed off by the wrong dialogue. Garbo was aware of the danger, and planned her own transition to sound very carefully, choosing a part — the title role in Anna Christie — where her Swedish accent worked for her instead of against and saying as little as possible even then. She still let her face do most of the speaking. It spoke the real feelings underneath the words, as if the words were just part of the décor. But what she did say she said in a foreign accent, and a foreign accent spelt sophistication. The result was a big success, although observers who managed to retain their objectivity — she was one of them — knew that the days were over when she could transcend a trite story. From now on the scripts would have to be as good as she was. When MGM made plans for her they found her a willing, even demanding, conspirator. Translating her drawing power into influence, she participated in the management of her own career.
Garbo’s redoubled fame suggested that the sophisticated European stars whose accents were just foreign enough still had a future in American movies, especially if they could sing. Whether Marlene Dietrich could really sing is a question that can still provoke fisticuffs, but whatever it was she did it didn’t sound like anything home-grown. Dietrich outdid even Garbo in the European-style sensuality stakes. She was really exotic. In Morocco her American-born leading man was just dressed that way. He was plain, bashful Gary Cooper and he wasn’t used to this sort of thing. She blew his mind.
The Hollywood stars of European origin were actually helping America to export its own version of the world — a version which would be unrecognizable in their countries of origin. But at the time it looked as if the imported exotica were filling a need that the Americans couldn’t fill themselves. One of the first Hollywood musicals, Love Me Tonight, was about Paris, and it seemed only fitting to import the biggest musical star in France, Maurice Chevalier. Directed by Rouben Mamoulian, another import from Europe, the film had a fluency which belied the clumsiness of early sound equipment: the swaggering Chevalier looked and sounded right at home. But as far as the studio was concerned, Chevalier was the unknown risk. The sure bet was his co-star, Jeanette MacDonald, and she was a native-born American.
Jeanette MacDonald was a huge star at the time and she was soon matched with a huge male co-star, Nelson Eddy. So even when the musical was set in some outlandish landscape, two Americans were singing at each other nose to nose. Sophisticated Americans called MacDonald and Eddy the Iron Butterfly and the Singing Capon. But unsophisticated Americans were buying the cinema tickets. As the Depression turned into a disaster, the demand for entertainment went up and the studios were ready to try anything that worked. Sex was high on the list. It turned out that sex didn’t have to be European.
Jean Harlow was a sexy American. She looked like a man’s idea of a woman with nothing else on her mind. But she could act as if she had a mind of her own. Famous straight away for her erotic charge, she might have added lasting fame for portraying characters with brains to match their bodies. But she died young, and even if she had lived she wouldn’t have been writing her own dialogue. It was always written to suit men.
Some experts said that Mae West was a man. Others said that she had been George Washington’s mistress. But nobody ever said anything as good as what she said. She supplied much of her own dialogue and delivered it with enough eyeball-rolling suggestiveness to disguise the fact that she didn’t really look very sexy, she just sounded it. Her style was innuendo con brio. Garbo’s sensual appeal was based on the assumption that her personality was a castle with no drawbridge: a successful suitor would have to climb the ivy. With Mae West there was a highway to the front door. She had a sharp tongue which could tell Cary Grant to go jump in the lake or else to come up and see her sometime — the latter phrase being one she never pronounced in those exact words, but that’s the way the phrase got famous, in a not uncommon instance of the folk memory supplying the rhythm that the original lacked.
People had to be told that Cary Grant came from England. They thought he was just an American who talked in a sophisticated manner. America had absorbed enough European class and gloss. Now it was producing its own. But there was a big difference. American classiness was classless. It was aimed at the masses, with no apologies.
America’s Stravinsky was George Gershwin. He had all the talent of a composer in the classical tradition. If he had been European it would have been a scandal for him to get mixed up in the musical theatre. As an American, he took to Broadway without missing a beat. He took it over. He loved it all: the razzmatazz and the fame. He loved the girls and they loved him right back. When Hollywood called, Gershwin answered. All over the world, Gershwin’s admirers feared that he would be overwhelmed by too many parties and pretty girls. Gershwin only feared that he wouldn’t. Hollywood wanted popular songs from him and that’s what he wanted to give them. He didn’t think his art was being corrupted. He thought it was being developed.
He was right. American popular art had always had energy, but now it had eloquence. It could provide the setting for the American popular hero that made him irresistible, even if, like Fred Astaire, he had few of the attributes of the pre-sound matinee idol. Astaire didn’t look all that different from the ordinary guy in the audience. He could do extraordinary things, but he did them in a natural way, with no histrionics. He was exceptional yet nothing set him apart. What he did was superlative without being superior. He had lyricism, but with words you could sing. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were sexy, but only with their feet, like butterflies. Nothing threatening, nothing to shut you out. This wasn’t the high life behind closed doors — it was high spirits out in the open. The Astaire dance poem was the sheer expression of uncomplicated joy. Projected all over the planet by Hollywood’s worldwide distribution system, it made America look like a democratic paradise where a shy guy with an ordinary face like his could dance like that and get a girl like her.
Astaire acted shy on screen. But he could get away with acting shy off-screen only because the system was protecting him. Shyness fitted his ordinary-guy image, so the studio’s enormous publicity apparatus was deliberately geared down to give the showbiz reporters just enough to keep them happy. Charles Lindbergh, who really was the shy American hero — or anyway seemed to be, although some who came into contact with him said he was merely arrogant — was wide open. The press just kept on coming, because unless he flew around the world upside down without stopping they had no other story except his strange desire for privacy. Lindbergh was too normal to get the point. He wasn’t enough of an actor. He and his wife dutifully posed for photo-opportunities celebrating the arrival of their baby. Lindbergh honestly thought that if he gave the press something today they would stay away tomorrow. But as Lindbergh found out in the cruellest possible manner, the real trouble wasn’t with the papers and magazines that printed the family photos, it was with some of the people who read them. Some of them were more than just curious. A few of them were crazy. And one of the crazy ones was a killer. When the Lindbergh baby was kidnapped, the biggest story of the century, the one about the lonely flyer, took off all over again. The media did the same sort of job on him that they had done before. The indiscriminate nature of twentieth-century fame was clearly demonstrated to anyone cool enough to take stock.
But no one was that cool. Everyone climbed aboard the bandwagon. Al Capone, in prison by this time, offered a reward for the kidnapper’s apprehension. When the baby’s body was found, the Lindbergh legend took on a new, permanent lease of life, through death. Lindbergh had always been in the difficult position of a private man at the centre of a public event. Now the difficult position had become impossible. At the trial, the alleged killer was Bruno Hauptmann. He was the first in a regrettably long line of twentieth-century assassins who achieved celebrity by murdering celebrities. Hauptmann almost certainly didn’t do it. The victim was so famous that the police had to find a killer in a hurry. But there was no doubt about who was really in the dock. It was the star witness. Lindbergh was the victim, but he was put on trial. He knew none of this disaster would have happened if he had not been famous, and now disaster was making him more famous still. Private grief was public property. The Lindberghs had not only lost their baby’s life, they had lost theirs.
Famous Americans were already worried that the fans might overwhelm them. Now they had to face the possibility that, among the autograph hounds who pressed forward without seeming to understand they might crush their prey to death, there might be some who did understand it, and who wanted it that way, and who studied the magazine photographs of the famous person’s lovely new house looking for a way in. Fame American-style suddenly looked helpless, like America itself. In Europe a new breed of hero had more contempt than ever for America’s culture of the common man. The uncommon man was on his way. A new aviator was due to drop out of the sky, and this one — Adolf Hitler — wasn’t shy in the least.