Books: Fame in the 20th Century, Chapter Three: The Charisma Kids, 1930-1939 |
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]

Fame in the 20th Century, Chapter Three: The Charisma Kids, 1930-1939

In the 1930s, to be famous in Europe was to be famous enough. The educated classes of Europe still looked down on America as a kind of kindergarten. The 1929 Wall Street stock market crash had led to a worldwide Depression that made capitalism look like a failure. Economic upheaval was an American export, but no solutions were forthcoming from the site of the catastrophe. The real politics were in Europe, where various competing ideologies were heading forward to Socialism, back to Nationalism, sideways to National Socialism. It would take a strong man to stave off chaos. A superman. There were various supermen available. The daddy of them all was Benito Mussolini, il Duce — the Leader.

Mussolini had already been strutting his stuff since 1922, when he led the Fascist march on Rome and found a power vacuum into which he expanded like a balloon full of hot air. But Mussolini wasn’t all talk. His first claim to fame was that he made the trains run on time, a feat he accomplished by beating up a few carefully chosen helpless victims. He was also a master of the judicious murder — not on a mass scale, just the carefully chosen liberal opponent — and of the technique, much practised in the ancient Rome he was out to restore, of gaining credit as a champion of law and order by purging his own thugs once they had finished the job of frightening everyone else. But he was almost all talk. Fascism depended on appealing to the people by turning politics into a show in which they had a permanent role as extras. Mussolini played most of the leading characters himself. The superman was a statesman. He was a horseman. He was a musical genius. He designed his own costumes. He showed a particular flair with hats. He also knew when to take his clothes off in order to display his magnificent torso.
It was common knowledge that women of every class, even the aristocrats, found him irresistible, although his sexual technique was said to consist mainly of throwing them to the floor and passing over them in a shallow dive. The sensual aspect of his super powers didn’t show up on the newsreels, but everything else did. The Fascist movement was essentially a movie by Cecil B. De Mille. When sound came in, Mussolini took all the speaking parts. The cast of millions had nothing else to do except turn up on time and shout agreement. If they forgot to come in on cue, he agreed with himself, thrusting his massive jaw in the air and shaking it vigorously, like a killer whale short of a toothpick.
Though it wasn’t wise to say so, there were plenty of people in Italy who guessed that Mussolini’s heart was in show business. But there were a lot more people who forgave his histrionics because they thought history was on his side. Some of them lived in other countries and were famous themselves. The Irish playwright and pundit George Bernard Shaw was a hangover from the nineteenth century who had achieved twentieth-century fame for his piercing insight. He praised Mussolini for his powers of decision. Shaw was well aware that these powers of decision were dictatorial. He was rather fond of that idea, too. The Dictator was an actor and Shaw liked drama. He and il Duce were dramatis personae.
But intellectuals like Shaw were not the only non-Italian admirers of Mussolini. There was a German politician who watched everything Mussolini did with a mixture of excitement, envy and a conviction that he could do even better. In 1933 Adolf Hitler conquered Germany with a bigger show than Mussolini had ever dreamed of. Booked in for a long run under the title of the Thousand Year Reich, Hitler’s mega-budget spectacular was a monster musical that included the audience in its choreography. Hitler was a self-proclaimed superman with an irresistible appeal, because he persuaded his followers that they were supermen as well. For the price of a ticket, they weren’t just entertained, they were transformed. The trick was made plausible because Hitler had so successfully transformed himself. He didn’t look like a superman, but that was the point. He was up from nowhere and could have been anybody. What made him unique, in his own eyes and in the minds of all who fell under his sway, was his willpower.
Hitler raved on about a new race of seven-foot-tall, blue-eyed blondes with big muscles and even bigger husbands. His own personal appearance was rendered significant only by the flopping cow-lick, the dust-bug moustache, and the pointed eyeballs common among people for whom anti-Semitism counts as a complex political theory. Yet his admirers, numbered in the millions, never noticed the contradiction. He mesmerized them.
In normal circumstances Hitler would have been just another headcase writing to the newspapers complaining that his wolfhound had been given indigestion by a passing child. But circumstances weren’t normal. Sabotaged from both the left and the right, a weak state had been left itself wide open to a bold man driven by big dreams, and one of his biggest dreams was fame. Hitler had always been interested in fame. As a semi-student in Vienna it had been the only thing he ever studied seriously. Hanging around the public library with a liverwurst sandwich in his raincoat pocket, he sketched lighting designs that would make him look like a man of destiny.
By the time he got his show on the road, he had taken on some help. Hitler was like a film star with a personal staff. In charge of all Hitler’s publicity was Josef Goebbels, who had a highly effective method of making sure that Hitler was always the main topic of all means of communication — anyone who showed insufficient enthusiasm for his client, he simply threatened with sudden death. There are press agents today who would like to have the same clout but they lack the back-up. Goebbels’ chief advantage was a docile client. Hitler was always ready to cooperate with the machinery of publicity. Even in his home movies he was willing to do another take if the cameraman muffed the first one.
Another prominent staff member was Rudolf Hess. Still dizzy from his privileged position as the private secretary who had been allowed to transcribe Hitler’s prose masterpiece Mein Kampf as it poured from its creator’s inspired lips, after the Nazis came to power Hess got the vital job of acting as Hitler’s feed-man and adoring stooge. At rallies, Hess pioneered the technique later used on American television talk shows whereby a feed-man plays dumb so that the host can act smart. Whipped into a frenzy by Hess, the audience was already orgasmic with enthusiasm before Hitler even opened his mouth.
But for an artist to attract top-class advice he must first have talent, and that was what Hitler had. He was a ham actor but he had timing. It was his idea to enter a rally always from the rear of the auditorium, so that he appeared to emerge from among the people as the expression of their desires, the embodiment of their dreams about a better fate. And above all he knew how to time a speech. In this department he improved on Mussolini, whose speeches started big and stayed big, sharing the formal properties of a salami. Hitler started small. He started by not talking at all, while the audience — already driven berserk by Hess — gradually calmed down. Waiting, Hitler looked like an ordinary man faced with too big a task. The audience grew apprehensive. What if he gave up, went home to Austria, changed back into lederhosen and spent the rest of his life raising wolfhounds? All Germany held its breath as one. Into the silence Hitler launched his first soft words, the grammar dubious, the sentiments execrable, but the voice, even at such a low pitch, already as brain-curdling as Kulminator, the most fatal brew of the Munich Beer Festival.
As the hour-long speech progressed, Hitler pretended to draw energy from the adoring crowd in the arena and the millions of theoretically enthralled listeners clustered around the radios at home. The ordinary man became an extraordinary man, a man possessed, gripped by his tremendous vision of a superior Aryan race battling against the world Jewish-Bolshevik conspiracy to invade Germany and open a kosher restaurant flying the hammer and sickle on every street corner. To the detached observer he looked like a six-year-old boy throwing a tantrum in tight underpants. But at the time it was hard to remain a detached observer. Even the cleverest people thought that Hitler really must be some kind of superman after all. Once again, Bernard Shaw avowed that he admired a dictator’s powers of decision. People who knew Hitler was evil were still impressed by his success. He was supremely powerful and he was supremely famous. He had the power to declare himself famous, so it was easy to combine the two things.
In America they were still separate. Power was in Washington and fame was in Hollywood. The only fully equipped American superman was in the movies: Tarzan of the Apes. Tarzan’s ape-call was based on a Tyrolean yodel. If Johnny Weissmuller, like his parents, had been born in Germany, he would have provided Hitler with a stunning example of what the master race looked like with its clothes off. But Weissmuller was raised in America and got the job of Tarzan instead.
He started off as an Olympic swimmer who won so many gold medals he could stay fit just carrying them around. He was a revolutionary technician of his chosen sport, perfecting a whole new style in which the chest served as an aquaplane. He wrote an excellent book about the subject which can be recommended as a useful guide to the concentration of effort required for success in any field of endeavour at all. But there was no future for an amateur competitive swimmer, and there was a future for a good-looking young man who could swim.
Weissmuller had a face off the front porch of the Parthenon. He was a natural to play the king of the jungle. In one low-budget movie after another he fought to gain the upper hand over Tarzan’s deadly enemy — the dialogue. As everyone remembers it, the most famous exchange of dialogue in a Tarzan movie — ‘Me Tarzan, you Jane’ — wildly overestimates the complexity of what he actually said. He said: ‘Tarzan. Jane.’ But his double looked good somersaulting through the prop vines and he himself swam beautifully, especially in the underwater scenes, which were filmed with a simple lyricism never matched later with budgets ten times as big. This was where dreams of omnipotence belonged: in dreamland. The king of the jungle was a sportsman turned actor and the jungle he was king of was a hundred yards across at its widest point. Everybody was enchanted and nobody was fooled, not even the ape, who wasn’t earning all that much less than Weissmuller.
In Europe, the eyebrows of the highbrows were raised in derision at America’s culture of daydreams. But there was one big advantage in confining daydreams to culture. It kept them out of politics. In America, the man in charge didn’t have to be a superman. Franklin Delano Roosevelt would have been better cast in the role of superman than any of the European dictators. But he didn’t want the part. He left all that stuff to Tarzan. Roosevelt was a different sort of strong man. The human consequences of the Depression were standing in line for work: any work. People with nothing were trapped by little debts. Roosevelt’s New Deal was a bold plan for rescue, and it would have been easy for him to agree when he was hailed as a saviour. He preferred to present himself as an ordinary man and play the drama down. But it was still drama. When he said that there was nothing to fear but fear itself, Roosevelt didn’t scream or throw his right hand in the air, but he was still a showman. His common-man routine was carefully rehearsed.
The real Roosevelt was an aristocrat. If America had a ruling elite, he belonged to it. His unquestioned and unself-questioning membership of the upper stratum was one of his strengths, because he knew the rich for what they were and suffered from no insecurities when he told them that the time had come for them to think of the common good. Yet if Roosevelt had merely exercised his silver-tongued oratorical skills on a privileged audience he would have stayed remote, like Woodrow Wilson. What made Roosevelt exceptional was his revolutionary trick of talking intimately to everybody all at once. He did it though the radio, in a regular feature known as the Fireside Chat.
Though a recording of it might sound stilted by the folksy standards of a later, more practised age, Roosevelt’s Fireside Chat was fundamentally different from a dictator’s ranting broadcast. FDR wasn’t out to establish his own superiority. He wanted the listeners to appreciate their importance, not his. At any rate he made it sound as if he did. There was an element of flattery. But there was a bigger element of fraternity. One common man was speaking to all the others, as if it was only a fluke that had put him where he was.
The press knew that FDR was a showman. They forgave him because it was a great show. The press knew that FDR had been crippled by polio and couldn’t stand up without leg braces, but they never talked about it. Even when he appeared on behalf of polio charities the effects of the disease on him were never mentioned. It takes less than a minute to see all the film footage showing the extent of FDR’s affliction that has ever reached the screen.
FDR didn’t want his condition to become an issue and the media agreed. It was also known to his inner circle that he was unfaithful to his wife Eleanor, the most famous First Lady of the century. She was a woman who would probably have been famous without him, a condition which she might well sometimes have pined for. Roosevelt was far from being a perfect man. Forty years later he would never have been elected. In the long run FDR’s very success in making himself so famous helped to ensure that no candidate for the Presidency of the United States could hope to escape the full glare of media attention. At the time, though, a president could still afford to be fallible. It was part of his charm. In the era of the superhumans, he sounded human.
Radio was a medium that favoured the common touch. In the dictatorships the radio had to run the leader’s speeches and the population had to listen. In America, even FDR had to compete for an audience in the open market. The worst that the radio could inflict on the audience was too many fervent requests to buy dog food, or, some said, too many songs by Bing Crosby.
Bing’s singing sounded so much easier than other people’s singing that it was called crooning. Actually there was an art to the way Bing sang, just as there was an art to the way Fred Astaire danced. The art was to conceal the effort, to make it look as if anyone could do it. The microphone helped. Earlier popular singers such as Rudy Vallee had resorted to the megaphone, but by now the microphone had become sensitive enough for Bing to commune with it. He could sing ‘Boo-boo-boo’ to it as if it were a child’s ear. The result was intimacy, the aural version of the close-up. So Bing was already a big star before he even got into the movies. His ears stuck out, but they didn’t slow him down unless he faced into the wind. In his first film try-outs the studio bosses taped Bing’s ears to his head. Gradually it was realized that it didn’t matter if they sprang loose. Bing’s extraordinary fame was solidly based on his being an ordinary guy.
The exaltation of the ordinary man looked like a threat to anyone who still believed that art was for the few. There were those in America who feared that their country might be overwhelmed with triviality. There were those in other countries who feared that the plague might be catching. As Hollywood movies spread American popular culture to the world, warning voices announced that although rule by dictatorship might be terrifying, America threatened something even worse: Shirley Temple.
Shirley Temple was a tremendous talent. She was America’s biggest box office star for four years until puberty caught up with her. It had trouble catching her because the studio executives were understandably reluctant to let her grow up. There were rumours that they gave her reverse hormone injections, and surrounded her on the set with bigger and bigger furniture and taller and taller co-stars. Shirley Temple stories abounded. She was public property, so the whole world wanted to know everything about her private life. France was only one of the theoretically sophisticated countries that held a wince-along contest for Shirley Temple sing-alikes. All over the world, wherever thoughtful people were proud of their national culture, little Shirley Temple looked like a bigger menace than any of Hitler’s towering blond storm troopers, who also enjoyed moving rhythmically to music, but at least didn’t look winsome when they did it. But the thoughtful weren’t being thoughtful enough. People wanted to see Shirley Temple movies out of their free choice, and to quarrel with that was to quarrel with democracy itself. Despite the damage she was supposedly inflicting on their higher brain centres, her audiences survived the Shirley Temple era. More remarkably, so did she. At the time of writing she is the well-respected châtelaine of the US Embassy in Prague. At the time of her early singing and dancing, however, the thoughtful people undoubtedly had a point when they wondered if this was what American culture added up to: a small but persistent noise.
In Europe those same thoughtful people soon realized that the fate Hitler had in mind for them was even more frightening than an American culture geared to the retarded adolescent. If they were lucky they headed for America. Famous refugees like Einstein got an early ticket. The less famous queued for visas. They were leaving terror behind them. But triviality still loomed ahead.
Already famous as the incomprehensible scientist whose theories about relativity nobody understood but everybody was impressed by, Einstein now became more famous still as America’s unstoppable publicity machinery turned him into the nutty professor. He was perfect casting, right down to the accent. Once he understood he was stuck with the role, Einstein seemed to enjoy hamming it up. He poked his tongue out for the photographers, was content to pose sockless, had his hair cut on a biennial basis, and generally seemed to accept philosophically that a certain amount of flimflam came with the territory. In an essay about his view of the world he stressed the importance of attaining a state of liberation from self. Liberation from socks was obviously part of it.
Other distinguished exiles from Europe adapted with varying degrees of discomfort to a new culture that seemed determined to rob them of their dignity. In his native Italy the great conductor Arturo Toscanini had been described as flamboyant. In America he was called Electric Whiskers. The man who had conducted some of Puccini’s opening nights was not necessarily flattered by this description, but he got on with the job, turning the NBC Symphony Orchestra into a powerhouse for the propagation of classical music. Toscanini had set his face like flint against the blandishments of the dictators. Mussolini would dearly have liked the great conductor’s allegiance. Hitler hoped that he would conduct at Bayreuth. Toscanini’s refusal was as decisive as the scything arc of his baton. He unambiguously favoured democracy, whatever its vulgarities. Other eminent exiles were less certain. Towering representatives of Europe’s uncompromising avant-grade landed up in the very place whose materialist iniquities they had spent their lives denouncing — Hollywood. Years went by before Stravinsky was finally granted the privilege of having his masterpiece The Rite of Spring cut up and used in Walt Disney’s Fantasia. His admirers were appalled.
Stravinsky was less appalled, perhaps because he was grateful for the money. But that was as good as the famous European refugees ever felt about winding up in America. They had a phrase for it: dankbar aber unglücklich. Thankful but unhappy. They had come from cultivated countries that were no longer free into a free country that seemed to them uncultivated. Walt Disney was the symbol of all that they feared: a man made famous by a mouse, a duck and a shameless ability to exploit childish innocence on an industrial scale.
But not even Hollywood could replace all its flesh-and-blood screen stars with mice and ducks. Human beings were still thought to be a necessary evil. In the silent days the screen’s leading men had glowed with charisma and flourished profiles that cut like swords. Now, as the Great Depression dragged on, the man in the street who was lucky not to be selling matches wanted to see someone not utterly unlike himself as the hero. It was a demand that the film studios were more than willing to supply, because less-than-outlandish film stars were thought easier to control. Ordinary-guy heroes rolled off the Hollywood production line one after the other.
Gary Cooper had the god-like features of an Easter Island statue. Off-screen his manners were highly sophisticated. From well-connected women he learned to move easily in café society. Some of the best photographers for the glossy magazines took some of their best photographs of Cooper. But on-screen the script said he was an ordinary guy and the ordinary guys in the audience believed him. He talked like a shy man made eloquent by a passion for justice. When Mr Deeds went to town he spoke for every man in America who felt victimized by economic disaster and political indifference. James Stewart was even shyer than Gary Cooper. Stewart took a long time to get the words out. To the man in the street who had the same trouble, here was his representative. When Mr Smith went to Washington he got the same reaction from the average Joe as Mr Deeds.
Henry Fonda was even shyer than James Stewart, even more passionate for justice than Gary Cooper. Fonda never got the chance to play anyone evil until he was an old man. In his early years he was a bashful but unbudgeable pillar of integrity. That was what the lines said and that was how he said them. Towering even above all the other pillars of integrity was John Wayne. No film star did more to convince his own country and the world that the ideal American male said no more than he could help, helped the helpless get justice, and was helpless himself when it came to women.
The new leading men all played the one character: the shy guy. There was the occasional aggressive exception but he had to play a psychopath. James Cagney was allowed to push a grapefruit into his girlfriend’s face. Not surprisingly, in the light of later events, Cagney was Stalin’s favourite screen star.
The only new leading man who was allowed to retain something of the old, rakish, pre-sound glamour was Errol Flynn — and he usually had to wear costume, in throwback movies that were essentially silent swashbucklers plus words. Captain Blood was one, Robin Hood was another, and Flynn was the same in both, trading in a frilled shirt for a fitted jerkin but retaining the same flagrant buckle for his swash. Flynn was born in Australia and thus blessed with the physical perfection common to Australian males. Off-screen he took full advantage of his appeal to women and got his name into the language with the phrase ‘In like Flynn’. But on-screen his line of seduction was hampered by the lines in the script. Maid Marian’s puzzlement about why Robin Hood should be so self-sacrificing was partly explicable by his apparent reluctance to make himself plain verbally. He was forever hopping on to a branch, leaping through an embrasure, or adopting any other posture that showed off his magnificent Australian legs.
The long-thighed and devilishly handsome Flynn was lost without his tights. Put him in a suit and he was gone. Put Clark Gable in a suit and he actually gained in authority. Gable was the ordinary man made majestic, except there was nothing threatening about him. He was friendly even when he frowned. Gable had a lot wrong with his personal appearance. He had the same ears problem as Bing Crosby and couldn’t sing to make you forget it. His upper lip looked almost as weird with the moustache as it did without it. But it all added up to masculinity, especially when, as in the pioneering comedy It Happened One Night, he took the suit off, thus revealing the first pair of male nipples to hit the Hollywood screen outside Tarzan’s well-worn patch of jungle. Gable was the ideal of the butch yet sensitive man in the street, a hero who could be safely worshipped without anyone getting the idea that a superman was leading little girls astray. In Broadway Melody of 1938, Judy Garland, still barely post-pubescent, could sing a song of adoration to him without anybody getting the wrong idea. She was merely making her obeisance to royalty. Gable was king of Hollywood. The publicity said so.
Hollywood, however, wasn’t just a kingdom, it was also a business, and the king was on the payroll like everyone else. The male stars clocked on for work like the studio janitor. But in ten years they had come a long way. They had graduated from men of mystery to being all things to all men. For the women it was a bumpier transition. The biggest female film star of the lot didn’t like the idea of losing her mystery, but the writing was on the wall. Under the influence of the New Deal, Hollywood had acquired confidence in the democratic process almost to the point of finding women of the people glamorous. With American democracy on its way in, the European femme fatale was on her way out. Garbo’s art was at its peak. So she crowned her career with the hardest thing of all: comedy. Ninotchka was perfect, and she was perfect in it. Written and directed by gifted exiles, the film was a little piece of Europe transferred to America and kept safe. It was prophetically sad for the future. ‘Bomps may fall,’ said Garbo. ‘Give us our moment.’
Soon she decided that she had had hers. Garbo quit while she was ahead. Ninotchka wasn’t her last movie, but it was the way she wanted to be remembered. She went into self-imposed permanent obscurity with the media chasing her. They chased her all over the world. She never told them a thing. The most famous woman in the world had never conceded that fame imposed duties. During her career she never answered a fan letter, and after it was over she never answered a question. Twentieth-century fame was largely an American idea and in America private life was public property. Garbo was a European and she disagreed. Her day in the sun was over, but it was her business what happened at night.
The European women of mystery had been marginalized by the American women of the people. At the start of her career Joan Crawford didn’t look like one of those. They made her up to look like Garbo. Gradually her own visual style asserted itself, starting with the make-up. She made aggressive use of lipstick, and looked, some female critic said, as if she had been eating jam with a wooden spoon. Crawford emerged as a woman who fought for her own identity even when she was suffering from the torments of passion. She got the same-sized weekly mountain of fan letters as Garbo, but instead of ignoring them she answered every one of them personally. She was a pro. She put strength on screen. Though she was torn apart by anger and desire, you could see the steely resolve of the future director of the Pepsi-Cola Corporation.
Joan Crawford was strong and Bette Davis was stronger. Here was a woman ready to stand up for her rights on the bare chest of a recumbent male. Davis was as strong off-screen as on. In real life she committed a crime which in Hollywood’s eyes was worse than murder. She told the studio where it could put its bad scripts. The studio put her on suspension. She fought them in the courts. The world heard about her independent spirit. If Bette Davis had a point to make it was hard to miss. There was a characteristic moment in her movies when she shot the man who had done her wrong — or even the man who had done her right if she didn’t agree.
These new strong women looked more like strong men than the men did. The shy American hero could only stutter helplessly while some triumphant goddess such as Katharine Hepburn ran rings around him. A whole new kind of movie was developed just to show this happening; it was called the screwball comedy. Bringing Up Baby was a prime example. Cary Grant dithered and Hepburn exulted, bursting with plans and ideas, all of them to his discomfiture except that he ended up happier than he could have managed on his own. For the sophisticated onlooker, the worrying aspect about America’s ordinary-guy hero with integrity was that he always looked bewildered, as if his brain was his least developed muscle.
This was the period in which Ernest Hemingway, whose stories put a lot of emphasis on ordinary-guy heroes with integrity, became the most famous writer of the century, but it was for everything except writing. He killed at least one each of every animal in Africa. He caught at least one each of every big fish in the sea. Hemingway’s lethal exploits were written up in the new picture magazines Life and Look, with photographs taken on the site of the massacre. Often Hemingway contributed the prose himself. Along with Scott Fitzgerald, he was one of the first serious writers to contribute to the men’s magazine Esquire. Some critics began to doubt whether he could remain a serious writer at all if he adopted the life of the celebrity. But he himself had no doubts. It was his mission to establish the artist as a man’s man. He was a walking advertisement for the life of action. He appeared in advertisements for beer. He gave advice on where the best food and wine were in which part of the world in what season of the year. He called it the straight dope. Hemingway knew the straight dope about everything, up to and including death. He didn’t actually kill every bull in Spain, but he liked watching. He wrote a book about it. He used simple sentences. He said the simple life of the instincts was better than too much thought.
When Spain’s own superman General Franco rebelled against the government, Hemingway attended the Spanish Civil War as if that were a bullfight too. He wrote a novel about it. He used simple sentences. The hero was a man who was simple and brave like his friend Gary Cooper. Hollywood didn’t get around to making the movie until five years later, but the brave simplicity of the novel’s hero was captured all too well. In the novel the hero and heroine shared only a sleeping bag. In the movie Cooper and Ingrid Bergman shared some abominable pseudo-simple dialogue. It wasn’t really Hemingway’s fault. He hadn’t really sold out. He had merely sold his novel. But there were those, not all of them envious, who said that fame was working in deadly combination with alcohol to corrode his talent.
For the sophisticated onlooker already worried about the European supermen, the American common man looked like the same threat from another direction. How could superior ability flourish in a culture ruled by a talking mouse? Orson Welles had ability so superior that he was famous almost from the cradle. He was the baby genius of the American theatre, his name known to all who cared for the arts. As a radio star he became nationally famous, his name known to many who didn’t care for the arts at all but liked to be startled. He startled them too much with his dramatization of The War of the Worlds, which he made sound like a news report of an event that was actually happening. Welles forgot to say that the flying saucers from Mars were only fiction. Today Shirley MacLaine and thousands like her would be out in the backyard signalling the saucers in. But at the time a large part of the audience at home panicked. There were cases of heart failure and someone drove off a bridge. The enfant terrible back-pedalled, saying he never meant for anyone to be fooled. He said this not just to the press but to the newsreels. Everything he did was news. Though Welles was aware that a big audience would be unlikely to understand all of his subtleties he was not the sort of man who, having been shown a big stage, would willingly retreat to a smaller one. For his admirers, almost as daunting as the public’s gullibility was the way the boy genius submitted to its judgment. It looked like the price of democracy.
Even in the British Royal Family, aloofness was brought down to earth when a strong American woman made an ordinary man out of the Prince of Wales. The consideration that he was a fairly ordinary man already — it could be kindly said of him that he had hidden shallows — would scarcely have been relevant, if he had fulfilled his constitutional role. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, he didn’t. The Prince of Wales was already world-famous, even though his early accomplishments had not added up to much more than the successful wearing of clothes. But now he passed into legend. The Prince of Wales was all too briefly King Edward VIII before he quit, crownless, for the sake of Mrs Wallis Simpson, described by him, on national radio for all to hear, as ‘the woman I love’. He passed into legend, and passed out the other side as the Duke of Windsor. He had put the role of the monarchy into question, but there was no question about his own role. He was an ex-monarch, self-condemned to an anti-climactic après-career as a non-paying international house guest.
One of the Windsors’ first hosts was Hitler, for whom their admiration was unbounded. Hitler was delighted to see them. Here was further evidence that only the superman could cut the mustard in the new world order. Out-of-work kings were turning up to tell him he was marvellous. Hitler was in the position of a star actor who has too many famous people infesting his dressing room to shower him with praise. Britain’s famous ex-Prime Minister Lloyd George, no mean seducer of the masses himself, dropped in for a drink. One of the famous Mitford girls, Unity, was so in love with Hitler that she shot herself during a spasm of ecstasy. Nobody in history had had this much publicity before and he started to believe it. He was infallible. If a fact contradicted his prejudices, it was the fact’s fault.
When the black American athlete Jesse Owens won four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics, Hitler went home early and listened to his new set of Siegfried 78s, but failed to conclude that his theory about inferior races might have something wrong with it. Later on, the black American world heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis beat the Aryan ears off the racially pure German hope Max Schmeling. Americans of whatever colour were proud of their world champion, but Hitler didn’t get it. He thought the Americans were so far gone they needed a sub-species to do their fighting for them.
Hitler was confident that America was a decadent culture and would do nothing while he cleaned up the even more decadent Europeans. He was vague about his next career move after that, but a strong hint was provided by what he told his mistress Eva Braun. The German public never got to hear about her except by rumour. Hitler assured her that things would soon be very different. He promised that one day he would make her the biggest star in Hollywood. Home movies shot at Hitler’s hidey-hole in Bavaria suggested that Adolf and Eva were a great screwball comedy team in the making.
Hitler seemed infallible, and at that time the look of the thing was everything. Fame was persuasive. A leader’s image went unquestioned, even if he had manufactured it himself. If it had been wished upon him by the accident of his personal appearance, it was even more likely to be taken for reality. Neville Chamberlain was Prime Minister of Britain. It wasn’t his fault that he looked like a walrus in search of a mate. In reality he was an able administrator whose bitter experience of one world war had made him passionately committed to avoid a second. But he didn’t sound passionate. He sounded as if he vaguely hoped that his keeper might throw him a fish. Too much of a gentleman to realize that Hitler wasn’t, Chamberlain pursued an appeasement policy based on the fatal notion that Hitler’s promises meant something. Chamberlain’s most famous moment came after the Munich Conference when he flew home with Hitler’s signature on a peace note that might as well have been a dinner menu.
The old-style European leaders were being acted off the stage by Hitler. He had them buffaloed. They were taking the image for the reality. Waiting in the wings, another superman was impressed with Hitler’s performance. Joseph Stalin had already killed so many innocent people that not even Hitler would ever catch up. But Stalin was the most famous man in the Soviet Union, a title for which he had no competition apart from Lenin, who was safely dead. Through his monopoly of publicity, Stalin hailed himself as a political, artistic and military genius, fountain of all wisdom and father of his people. His people were in no position to disagree.
More remarkable was that people abroad agreed too. Once again George Bernard Shaw was loud in his acclaim for a dictator’s powers of decision. Nor was Shaw the only great thinker with a soft spot for a strong man. Generally only the crackpots admired Hitler, but there were some sane fans of Mussolini and almost everyone with progressive opinions thought that Stalin’s social experiment was worth the cost, especially since they weren’t paying it themselves. More importantly, the strong men admired each other.
Hitler and Mussolini were a mutual admiration society, like two film stars basking in each other’s glory, talking about making a movie together — hey, let’s do it, I’ll tell my people to contact your people. Hitler’s invasion of western Europe started as a military onslaught and turned into a PR operation — the aggressive marketing of his image. Mussolini couldn’t bear to be part of the supporting programme. He wanted to be in the main feature, so he went to war as well.

Stalin applauded warmly from the wings. For the moment Franco hung back, but how long would he be content to remain merely the biggest man in Spain? Unless they started fighting among themselves, it looked as if the supermen were due to run the world. Each supreme being had made himself famous for the one supreme quality: leadership. That his people might be following him only because they had no realistic alternative was a possibility that the leader tended to discount. Fame changed reality even for the man who possessed it. Hitler, in particular, grew more and more convinced as time went on that a master race was destined to follow where he led. The evidence was before his eyes. He had started to forget that he was the author of the show that was carrying him away. It failed to occur to him that there might be a more experienced showman with a better script and more convincing, because less histrionic, props: a bowler hat, a cigar and two extended fingers that meant victory viewed from one direction and rude defiance viewed from the other.