Books: Fame in the 20th Century, Chapter Four: Twin Pearl-handled Guns, 1939-1945 |
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Fame in the 20th Century, Chapter Four: Twin Pearl-handled Guns, 1939-1945

For thousands of years before the twentieth century, history was just what famous people did. For the first forty years of the twentieth century fame had been setting up a history of its own, separate from the real one. A lot of famous people didn’t do anything really historic except get famous, usually in America. But for two eventful years after the outbreak of World War II in Europe, it was like old times. History was back in Europe where it belonged, and the people making it were more famous than the Americans. They were running their own show again. The Americans were out of it.

In private, Winston Churchill was saying that unless America came into the war the jig was up. But for the nation he led and for the empire that his nation still controlled, the thing that mattered was what he said in public, and how he said it. Churchill’s oratory was practically all that Britain had to fight with. The wings of the Few were lifted by his rhetorical flair. Few of the Few got famous at the time. The fame was all Churchill’s. His nation and the free world were inspired by what was really an act — but it was a real act. He was really like that. He had been training for this part all his life. His only role was to lead the English-speaking peoples in a great crisis. If the great crisis had never come he would have remained an erratic figure fulminating at the edge of the stage, only occasionally called to the centre, sent back again after saying too much.
The hour had come when he was the only man to match it. There were plenty of people around him who had better judgment. That was what told them he was their only hope. He could act the part. Without his gift for dramatizing himself he would never have rallied his country at the last ditch. But if the machinery of twentieth-century fame had not been so highly developed, he might have failed to get his message out. The message was himself. The camera carried it to the people. After he made his great speeches in the House of Commons, he made them again on the radio. Rumours have persisted to this day that some of the radio broadcasts were made for him by an actor. It wouldn’t have mattered, because what counted was those phrases ground out in that voice. If a mimic was imitating it, then it amounted to the same thing. Churchill was probably imitating himself. He worked on his image: the siren suit, the cigar, the V-sign and the growl. He sounded the way he looked, like a bulldog. For just long enough, he united Britons of all classes in the belief that they were a bulldog breed. With the Continent fully occupied by a triumphant hostile power, the natural thing for the British to do would have been to give in. But they did the unnatural thing and fought on.
World War II had been a script by Hitler until Churchill started making up his own lines. As one actor to another, Hitler recognized Churchill as the embodiment of his country and was genuinely shocked by his refusal to see reason. The watching world couldn’t help seeing the conflict in terms of personalities, because that was how the personalities saw it. Hitler was Germany. Mussolini was Italy. Stalin was Russia.
Stalin couldn’t believe that Hitler would attack him. Capable of any degree of evil himself, he didn’t underestimate Hitler’s duplicity. But he didn’t think Hitler would take such a risk. Having formed an opinion, Stalin thought it was a natural law. He was frightfully offended when Hitler invaded Russia. He took it personally. They all did. Hitler’s new order had put the old world into such a state of disorder that a nation without someone to symbolize it was as good as lost. France was lost until one army officer who had escaped to England declared himself the embodiment of his nation’s historic mission. Charles de Gaulle was France. He said so himself in the French language. But he had to say it on the BBC, and in France not many people were yet listening, not just because the Gestapo told them not to but because very few Frenchmen knew who he was. For the moment, the famous man they looked up to as the symbol of their national heritage was Marshal Pétain, a hero left over from the previous war, the war they didn’t lose. For de Gaulle to replace Pétain in the national consciousness, he would have to appropriate the old man’s prestige. It was a fame fight. De Gaulle had only a handful of soldiers and hardly any guns. He just had an idea. Free France. And he was it. La France, c’est moi. Visiting America, he sold himself as the symbol of his nation like a talking Eiffel Tower.
And America was Roosevelt, and Roosevelt was out of it. He wanted to get into it, but unlike the European men of destiny he had to listen to the voice of the people, and too many of them wanted no part in a foreign war. The isolationists were not necessarily cowards. One of the most prominent was the Lone Eagle himself, Charles Lindbergh. Lindbergh treasured his hard-won obscurity but gave it up again because he passionately believed that America should stay neutral. He pitted his fame as an independent spirit against Roosevelt’s fame as the saviour of his country. It was another fame fight. In the late thirties Lindbergh had convinced himself that Europe was the business of the dictators, whose contemptuous attitude towards inferior breeds he had an unfortunate tendency to share. As a leading light in the America First movement, Lindbergh was effectively a weapon in Hitler’s hands.
A world threatened with rule by supermen had all its suspicions about American frivolity confirmed. America was dreamland. Everywhere else, famous people made history. In America they made movies. In The Wizard of Oz Judy Garland sang about rainbows. It should have been Shirley Temple singing, but MGM wouldn’t agree to the loan, so Judy Garland took her turn as the most famous girl in the world. She was as American as a talking mouse and wonderfully unconcerned with anything that was happening in real life. Was America coming to the world’s rescue? Not yet. It was going somewhere else. It was off to see the Wizard.
While the outside world’s supermen battled it out for the sake of the future, the Americans went in search of their own past. The most famous of their ordinary guys climbed out of his suit again, but not to put on a uniform. He put on a costume. Clark Gable was the only possible choice to play Rhett Butler, hero of the most famous popular novel of the period, Gone with the Wind. The period the novel was about was the American Civil War. The movie’s advance publicity promised that it would be exactly like being there.
Gone with the Wind restaged an old war just at the very moment when the rest of the world was caught up in a new one. It was as if America was a world apart. The British actress Vivien Leigh was made world-famous overnight when she was given the part of Scarlett O’Hara. But the price she paid was to be Americanized. In the screen test she still sounded like a British actress doing a very good American accent. By the time the same scene reached the screen, she was as American as Judy Garland.
Gone with the Wind burned Atlanta in the special effects department the same year that Hitler burned Rotterdam for real. It was as close to war as the Americans wanted to go. Hollywood’s adventurous heroes were still exploring the world, but it was a fantastic world unconnected to the real one. A crisis to match Europe’s was already building up in the Far East where America made its contribution to the understanding of the region’s problems: The Road to Singapore, starring Bob Hope and Bing Crosby.
There was one great Hollywood star who knew that America couldn’t ignore Hitler for ever. He went into the attack with his most powerful weapon, ridicule. Charles Chaplin’s impersonation of Hitler in The Great Dictator was hysterically accurate in every detail: the rant, the strut, the megalomania, the instantly inflatable eyes. Chaplin had even more experience of mass adulation than Hitler had, so he knew exactly what was going on in Der Fooey’s mind. Chaplin gave it everything he had and it wasn’t enough. Americans weren’t going to be told by one European superman that they should go to war with another. If the ordinary guy was going to fight, he would have to find the reason in his own soul, like Rick, the sceptical expatriate American bar owner played by Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca. Off-screen, Bogart drank seriously but turned up for work on time like all the other Hollywood heroes. On-screen, he was the way American men saw themselves: making their own decisions. Rick, the on-screen Bogart, searched his soul to find out whether he should back the weak or stay aloof.
But the answer wasn’t really there. The idea that the ordinary guy could decide his fate was an illusion. The issue of whether America should go to war was settled at Pearl Harbor by the Japanese, a previously anonymous people who were overnight required to personify themselves in the form of an arch-villain. He was the Emperor Hirohito, and no trapdoor had ever produced a less likely-looking demon king. The West had previously known little about Emperor Hirohito and vice versa, although on his one trip to England, in 1921 when he was still Crown Prince, he had met the then Prince of Wales and acquired from him a daring taste for plus-fours. The Emperor was so divine that not even his tailor was allowed to touch him, so whatever style of clothes he wore had to be fitted by eye. But they always had more charisma than he did. Hirohito was a fifteen-watt bulb. Yet the day after Pearl Harbor he was world-famous as Japan’s all-conquering Emperor.
Prime Minister Hideki Tojo was elevated at the same moment to the role of the all-conquering Emperor’s cold-blooded factotum. Better casting than the Emperor, Tojo had the advantage of actually looking as if he had evil thoughts on his mind. It was quite true: he had. His dream was of mass slavery for all Asian peoples, including his own. But he would have been demonized anyway, if only to make up for Hirohito’s uncanny lack of any detectable spark. Since the Japanese power structure was hard to understand even for the Japanese, it was inevitable that the press in the Allied countries would groom Tojo as the more marketable monster.
The war was as big as the world, and far too complicated to follow unless it was dramatized into a battle between good and evil. Nazi Germany was a rich source of villainous leading characters, quite apart from Hitler himself. Before the war, Hermann Goering had played a complicated role as the second man in Germany. Hitler, who suffered from no vices except an overdeveloped taste for cream cakes and mass murder, had looked austere and dedicated beside Goering, a conspicuous consumer of fine wines and other people’s property. Goering thought that he could divert attention from his weight problem by designing his own uniforms. It was a miscalculation on a massive scale. But Goering knew his way around a country estate, and this had fooled some of Europe’s more clueless aristocrats into believing that despite his regrettable fondness for building concentration camps he might be a civilizing influence on Hitler. Now the gloves were off and Goering had emerged as a simple roly-poly figure of fun. British newsreels helped the gag along with specially edited Fatty Hermann compilations plus comic voice-over. When Goering’s much publicized Luftwaffe failed to beat the RAF, even the Germans got the joke. On the rare occasions when the Gestapo wasn’t listening, ordinary Germans called Goering ‘Meyer’, ironically commemorating the moment when he had assured his countrymen that no enemy aircraft would ever appear over Germany, or else his name was Meyer.
Heinrich Himmler was no joke at all. Playing Tojo to Hitler’s Hirohito, Himmler was cast as the cold-blooded horror who didn’t even have the excuse of being crazy. Actually he was as crazy as a loon, ready to spend millions of scarce Deutschmarks on scholarly research to prove that the Japanese, like himself, were members of the Aryan race, seven-foot blue-eyed blonds in disguise. But Himmler rightly became world-famous for the aspect of his character that matched his personal appearance: he looked like a mild-mannered civil servant dedicated to his work. All the more sinister for looking so efficient, Himmler was the bad German.
And Field Marshal Erwin Rommel was the good German. Running rings around the British in the Western Desert, Rommel combined the unorthodox glamour of T. E. Lawrence with Baron von Richthofen’s knack for looking chivalrous even while he was shooting at you. If Rommel had been fighting in Russia he might not have behaved so correctly. But the desert was blessedly short of innocent civilians and Rommel was fighting the right enemy, the British, who love a winner so long as it isn’t them. They enjoyed coming second to him so much that orders had to be issued from on high making it an offence to credit him with paranormal powers. But nobody stopped calling him decent. It was a necessary belief. Somebody on the other side had to be good, or there was no hope for mankind.
And somebody on our side had to beat him. Faced with the uncomfortable challenge of admiring a winner of their own, the British came up with Bernard Law Montgomery. Like Rommel, Montgomery was good casting for a national hero. Montgomery had Churchill’s positive attitude. But there were other British military commanders who had that and they didn’t become famous. Montgomery also had Churchill’s gift for belligerent showmanship, and that was what made the difference. He was so much the fierce warrior that he looked as if he was overdoing it even though there was a war on. The British will admire a superior man as long as he is eccentric, and professional soldiers didn’t come more eccentric than Montgomery without being given sedatives. He was preposterous, but he was a tonic. Britain had a right to feel proud. For a long and crucial moment it had held the fort. Now the Americans were in but they were still getting organized, so Britain was saved from despair but still in the forefront of the battle. It was a time for glory.
Glory was the stock-in-trade of Britain’s most glamorous aristocrat, Lord Louis Mountbatten, friend of the stars and the Navy’s most dashing young commander. When his destroyer, the Kelly, was badly hit he brought her to harbour with her decks awash. Laurels were heaped on his noble, and noble-looking, head. It was one of a famous man’s most famous moments. Mountbatten’s admirer, Noël Coward, re-created it as an inspiring example of the very best type of staunchly nautical British movie, In Which We Serve. Celebrating Mountbatten’s fame with a thinly disguised portrait, Coward increased his own fame as well. All the other actors on the prop ship were presenting a thinly disguised portrait of the ordinary fighting man. Coward/Mountbatten spent half the film addressing the chaps. On their behalf he waxed patriotic while they listened in tongue-tied awe, occasionally speaking but only when spoken to, and always in a strangled cockney accent. Coward’s friend as he was the friend of everybody famous, Mountbatten was busy fighting. But when he couldn’t visit the set he sent his relatives: the Royal Family. They approved of Coward because he was doing his bit, helping to buttress a benevolent Empire and a class system in which people knew their place even if they had their backs to the wall.
Mountbatten and a few other star officers of high rank might get famous but everybody else served. For them there was collective glory, in what Churchill called the war of the unknown soldier. The same went for the showbusiness stars, who were expected to do their bit through doing their act, giving a voice to the stiff upper lip. A man with a silly face who flailed a ukulele while singing pitiably uninspired songs, George Formby was popular at every level of the social scale up to and including the King and Queen. Here was convincing proof that the war had brought Britain’s social classes together. A sceptic might have said that they were still separate, just packed tighter in the bomb shelter. But no one was listening to sceptics. The bombs and the entertainers were too loud.
Too loud and too piercing. Gracie Fields had a voice from downstairs that told upstairs people the British classes were all in the war together. When an upstairs voice delivered the same message to the downstairs people it could sound more strained. Lieutenant Laurence Olivier of the Fleet Air Arm came home on leave to address a morale-raising rally in the Albert Hall. The startled audience heard their most famous actor as his natural self — a Plantagenet pretender with dialogue by someone who vaguely knew Shakespeare.
Famous actors pretending to be toffs were adding their highly polished voices to famous ukulele players pretending to be proletarians. In Britain’s tangle of mutually irritating tones it was hard to sound natural. The only voice and face that were hard to place belonged to the woman who gave the British war effort its one true anthem: ‘We’ll Meet Again’. Vera Lynn’s classless voice rang out to a nation which had never felt more like a family and an Empire which had never seemed more united. It was a culture that circled the world. Within it, in the warmth of what at least seemed like a new social cohesion brought about by the pressure of adversity, it was easy to believe that a Johnny-come-lately country like America was still a bit provincial despite its wealth and power.
After all, America’s first military hero of the war led a retreat instead of an advance. With the Japanese triumphant all over South east Asia and the South Pacific, General Douglas MacArthur arrived in Australia to explain that his expulsion from the Philippines was only temporary. His explanation, however, sounded like a victory speech by the Emperor Nero. Even while he was still going backwards, MacArthur became world-famous for going backwards in style. His monumental hunger for publicity convinced the Australians that a British prima donna like Montgomery was a shrinking violet by comparison. To them, MacArthur sounded ridiculous. He should have sounded ridiculous to everyone. But with a war on, some of the old bets were off. Even in America, the land of celebrity, the celebrities had to take a step down and join the war effort along with everyone else. The political leaders and the top soldiers were the new stars, and the top soldiers could bask in glory only on the understanding that the war really belonged to the ordinary, anonymous foot-slogger, GI Joe, the American equivalent of Churchill’s unknown soldier.
The Hollywood stars could hope only to serve, and if they were 4F, meaning medically unfit, then their best role was to raise morale. Bogart the tough guy wasn’t allowed to fight. He wasn’t 4F. He was simply too old. But he threw himself into the new task of flying off to meet the troops, coming home to say he had done it, and urging everyone to reach into their pockets. The Buy Bonds message was a way of raising morale and money at the same time. It was an honourable contribution. No longer on the road to fantastic destinations, Bing Crosby crooned for civilization. All the film stars did their bit, even if it was only to sling hash at the Hollywood Canteen. It was a new version of noblesse oblige: fame had its duties. Nor was it to be despised just because there was no getting out of it. Raising funds and fighting spirit was real work. It was even dangerous work. Clark Gable’s beloved wife Carole Lombard was killed flying in bad weather to a bond rally.
But for Gable there could be only one course of action. Against the studio’s wishes, he put his career on the line and joined up. Gable trained air-gunners for the Eighth Air Force based in England. Though he wasn’t allowed over enemy territory as often as he would have liked, it was real duty. The event was duly publicized by the Air Force in the field and the studio at home, but the only line to take was that a mythical creature had resumed human proportions. The ordinary guy hero really was an ordinary guy after all. The actual man had replaced the legend.
James Stewart was another big star who put himself through the same reduction process, strengthening his links with reality but reducing his radiance for as long as he was away from the screen. The stars who joined the services — Douglas Fairbanks Junior went into the Navy — could be released to make movies deemed important to the war effort, but there was no avoiding a hiccup to their careers. David Niven, a British actor who was starting to make it big in Hollywood, would have made it bigger if he had not gone home and joined up. The pictures he made when on leave in England were strictly for Empire consumption. Doing his duty cost him the Hollywood starring roles that would have put him on top.
The same was true of Ronald Reagan. Much mockery was fated to be aroused by the fact that Reagan spent his was service making training films in Hollywood. But his eyesight was so poor there was no question of his seeing action. He could barely see anything. Nevertheless his war service exacted a true sacrifice. He was away from the big screen for long enough to lose all the momentum created by his most famous screen moment. As the amputee in King’s Row he clutched at his missing leg and cried, ‘Where’s the rest of me?’ It was the premature epitaph for the remainder of his screen career.
The stars who helped the war effort in any capacity were on unchallengeable moral ground. When they played soldiers in movies about the war, however, they inevitably courted scorn if they were obliged to look heroic. The unfortunate Errol Flynn, reproducing his erstwhile derring-do in a prop uniform, unwittingly detonated a diplomatic depth charge when he starred as the American who outwitted the Japanese army in Hollywood’s most notorious war movie, Objective Burma. The trouble was that the war in Burma was fought mainly by Britain. The Hollywood film moguls had dismissed this as a side issue, but when the film was screened to British Empire troops there was a mass cry of derision. Australian troops who had previously been proud of the priapic Flynn’s Antipodean origins were suddenly willing to concede that he really was an American after all.
Whether Japanese or German, the lethal enemy was a stranger, a hard target for specific hatred. The enemy obligingly provided some leading characters who lent themselves to brutal caricature. The enemy armies were easy to demonize because they behaved demonically. But the loathing wasn’t personal. There was nothing human to identify with and resent. The same was not true of the friendly ally. The Americans were familiar, all too familiar, and they were living too well — almost as if there wasn’t a war on.
Despite all that the famous American stars could do to be one of the boys, there was always a new boy coming up to grab the glory and the girls. Frank Sinatra was 4F and not allowed to fight. Like all the other stars he did his bit for bond sales. But Sinatra’s fame had little to do with the war. It had a lot to do with the rise of the teenager as a separate, powerfully vocal sub-group in modern consumer society. The female version of the teenager was called a bobbysoxer, and she thought Sinatra had been manufactured in heaven specifically to gratify her desires. The gratification expressed itself in wails of ecstasy that threatened to drown him out, but during lulls in the mass caterwauling he could still be heard crooning. Though it wasn’t Sinatra’s fault that the bobbysoxers went crazy about him, American servicemen overseas thought it was, and non-Americans everywhere had all their old fears confirmed that America was living in a world of its own.
If America had been living in a world of its own, American culture might have been easier to resist. But when the troops advanced, the culture advanced with them, marching to its own music — swing. Swing bands were like little armies with their own famous generals: Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw. They had spectacular skirmishers like the trumpeter Harry James and the frantic drummer Gene Krupa. The march was a dance but the swing musicians were always called invaders, especially if they were invading a friendly country.
Though it wasn’t until after the war that James Stewart played Glenn Miller, for a Hollywood biopic The Glenn Miller Story was unusually exact in its evocation of period. The most famous swing bandleader had put his outfit into uniform and the result was conquest. Glenn Miller’s music really did wow the British. His fame was a portent. The Americans brought a lavish, enjoyable way of life with them. The magnetic attraction of their popular culture was a kind of weapon. Miller himself vanished on the way into Europe, but there were more where he came from.
American culture was seductive, sometimes blatantly so. War production had pulled ordinary women into the factories, where it was conveniently discovered that their fragile femininity was more adaptable to handling machine tools than had previously been thought. Women stars did war work too, in a role that was then thought to b more inspiring than demeaning — the Pin-up Girl. Betty Grable was the most famous American woman in the war because she didn’t appear just on the screen. She was pasted inside footlockers and painted on the sides of tanks and aircraft to raise the morale of men who hoped they might come home to a girl like her, or at any rate come home. Rita Hayworth was a greatly talented beauty who had shone as one of Fred Astaire’s best partners. In normal circumstances she might have had a more fruitful career. The war transformed her into an upmarket dream girl. Though she married Orson Welles and starred in some interesting movies then and later, she never fully recovered from being such an object of desire. Personal insecurity always tempted her to agree that a woman so lusted after had no right to a brain.
But Katharine Hepburn could never be pinned down as a pin-up. She was too bright for that, and too confident. When America came into the war she had just starred in The Philadelphia Story, first on Broadway and then in the movie. She got the starring role because he had bought the rights to the script — a revolutionary step which opened up the possibility that a famous female film star could control her own career. An electrifying portrait of a woman who seemed to embody all the best possibilities of American prosperity and freedom, The Philadelphia Story was playing in Singapore on the day the British surrendered. Whether on screen or off, Hepburn proved herself the equal of any man. She was Spencer Tracy’s partner in life as in art, but she was an equal partner. America was sending a powerful message to the world through its famous people. The message was that their country was so rich it had a way of life that the war hardly touched.
The message was rubbed in by the appointment of Dwight D. Eisenhower as Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces invading Europe. Ike had the knack of getting on with everybody. He could soothe ruffled feathers like Bing singing. He would have been easier to resent if he had struck Napoleonic attitudes like General MacArthur. But one of the most famous men in the world looked and spoke like a sales director for a vacuum cleaner company, and that was the point. The Americans had gone into the war business and out-organized everybody else. They had captured a global market. Even Eisenhower’s name sounded like a reminder to Hitler that the Americans didn’t just have better dance music than the Germans. They had better Germans than the Germans.
Under Nazi pressure Marlene Dietrich had renounced her German citizenship but not her nationality. Meanwhile she had kept her German accent. Her presence in the forward areas was a sign that fame in America was a passport to everywhere. Taking the war over, the Americans had an endless supply of stars who turned out to be gum-chewing ordinary guys and gals at heart. On the other hand, their top soldiers seemed to be unbeatable at showbiz. When the Americans moved to centre stage in the Western theatre, their star warrior was General Patton. From North Africa to Sicily and on into Normandy, he moved in a blaze of publicity. On any objective assessment Patton’s get-up of jodhpurs, high boots, lacquered helmet and twin pearl-handled guns made Mussolini’s dress sense look understated. Some of Patton’s opinions were likewise difficult to distinguish from Fascism. When he slapped a shell-shocked soldier in Sicily he had to be reminded on pain of dismissal that America was a democracy. Patton proved that Americans could be led by an entertainer as long as they thought he knew where he was going. Patton was going to Germany.
If Montgomery wasn’t outshone by Patton as a strategist, he was certainly upstaged by him as a showman. It might have affected Monty’s judgment. He was going to Germany too and tried to take a short cut, through Arnhem. The operation was a disaster that would never have been mounted in the first place if he had not staked his prestige on it, and it seems likely that he would not have done that it he had not felt outflanked and outranked — in a word, outyanked — by his upstart allies. The balance of world power had shifted to the Americans, and as an old Empire man Monty resented it for the rest of his career.
General de Gaulle was regarded by the Allied leaders as an even bigger prima donna than Montgomery, but in de Gaulle’s own eyes he was justified. He was the symbol of his country, whose battered pride had to be restored. De Gaulle insisted on liberating Paris before the Americans. It almost happened, but one American beat him to it. If Earnest Hemingway’s account can be believed — and his unsubstantiated account of anything has to be treated with caution — he exploited his status as a famous war correspondent to ignore the restrictions placed on regular troops, reached Paris before anybody else, and reconquered the Ritz Bar on behalf of civilization.
Famous people who had stayed on in Paris during the Nazi Occupation now emerged as Resistance heroes. One of them really was: Josephine Baker had risked her life and was awarded the Legion of Honour. The famous intellectuals Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir were more dubious Resistance heroes because nobody else could establish that their Resistance group had ever done anything except meet. When Maurice Chevalier was accused of being a collaborator he said that although he had sung to audiences full of German officers he had been carrying out secret intelligence work. Picasso had sat out the Occupation in expensive restaurants eating black market food but now resumed his pre-war position as a champion of the oppressed proletariat. Jean Cocteau was a known collaborator but was forgiven because he was famous for his extreme sensitivity. Coco Chanel had at least been honest enough to live openly with a German general. After the Liberation there were suggestions that the famous couturier should be fitted with a couture noose. She prudently decamped to Switzerland until the fuss died down.
The supermen of the Axis powers had believed their own publicity and started a world war. Now the world was catching up with them. The comedown from unchallenged fame to human frailty was cruel. Mussolini had always been the most human of the supermen and the shock showed in his face. He was temporarily rescued from the collapse of Fascist Italy by his lifelong fan Hitler, whose divine status was also fraying at the edges, although he himself was the last to know. Hitler bankrolled Mussolini for one more try at starting another Fascist Italy. Returning to his country’s northern area, which was still held by the German army against the Allied advance, Mussolini presided over the Republic of Salò, a grubby rump of a regime in which the Italian Fascists finally achieved the questionable distinction of behaving as disgustingly as the Nazis. Mussolini had run the full course from self-glorification to squalor. Caught by partisans, the disgraced Duce was hung up by the heels in Milan and would have seen his world turned upside down if there had been any life in his eyes.
Though things were looking bad for the men of destiny, Hitler still thought that his personality would decide the issue. He thought personalities made history. He was right about that, but continued to forget that everyone has a personality, not just the few geniuses chosen by fate. The group of young German officers and aristocrats who tried to bump him off were not untouched by the same delusion. When the plot misfired, it came out that they had enlisted Rommel as a replacement figurehead. It the trick had worked, Rommel’s prestige would certainly have helped to keep the nation together, but only so that it could surrender unconditionally. As it happened, the matter was never put to the test. The bomb that the conspirators planted in Hitler’s conference room went off all right but he survived the blast — final proof, in his eyes, that he was a chosen one. Wanting no further competition from Rommel’s prestige, he gave Germany’s favourite general the choice of either committing suicide or else seeing his family suffer — a medieval practice, called Sippenhaftung, which the Gestapo had revived with conspicuous success. Rommel was lucky to be given the option. If he had been less famous Hitler would have hanged him with piano wire.
In his last days Hitler was a trembling wreck, yet still believed that his status as a man of destiny would deliver him a miracle — the death of Roosevelt. Roosevelt did die, but it didn’t slow down the Allied advance by a single day. The Third Reich shrank to the size of one bunker under Berlin, where Hitler, determined to remain in charge of the production even though the budget had run out, arranged his own final curtain. Fanatical admirers later preferred to believe that he had gone on tour in Argentina. But fanatical admirers had suddenly grown few.
Hitler had been misled by the completeness of his own fame into thinking that Roosevelt, too, was the embodiment of his country. It was true, but it was only theatrically true. The drama of famous people just made things easier to understand. In the Allied countries, served by a comparatively free press, it was taken for granted that there was a difference between the great man’s publicity and the real person, even if the great man showed signs of forgetting it himself.
MacArthur returned to the Philippines. He waded ashore several times to make sure the photographers got the shot. As the Australians had discovered in New Guinea, MacArthur didn’t always remember to tell the press that his victories were gained with the assistance of other nations. MacArthur didn’t always remember to mention other Americans. Mainly because of MacArthur’s shameless self-publicizing, the belief persists to this day that he was the sole author of the island-hopping campaign that brought victory in the Pacific. In reality he was far outstripped for effectiveness by his naval opposite number, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz. When it came to press relations, however, the General left the Admiral floating. MacArthur was the whole show. Whether his showmanship contributed as much to victory as his admirers thought was an open question, but there could be no doubt that it was decisive in the victory ceremony on board the battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay. When he said, ‘These proceedings are now closed’, he had all the authority of a ringmaster who owned the circus.
The defeated Japanese were hugely impressed by MacArthur, partly because he was so huge. He towered over Emperor Hirohito, but the discrepancy served them both. Jointly charged with the historic task of ensuring Japan’s safe transition from a defeated militarist imperium to a modern democracy, MacArthur was the proconsul of the new world order and Hirohito was ready to play the humble representative of an old world order eager to take advice. The question of the Emperor’s responsibility for starting the war never came up, partly because there was no doubt that he had played a decisive role in bringing it to an end. Tojo was not so lucky. Having attempted to commit suicide and failed, he was tried as a war criminal and sentenced to death. His fame fell through the trapdoor with him. There was no mileage left in being a superman. Hirohito stayed on as Emperor only on the understanding that he was no longer a divine being. He left all that to MacArthur.
Mountbatten was Britain’s MacArthur, but his post-war role was very different. Mountbatten’s prestige was employed not to extend British influence but to ease the way for its decline, by giving back India. His fame helped to make the process relatively smooth. But it was the reality of ebbing power that had made it inevitable. Not even Gandhi’s enormous renown was enough to ensure that the Empire would break up in the way that he wanted it to, without bloodshed. Some of the blood shed was his. Gandhi had been the symbol of India’s struggle for independence from the British. From the British, at least, he had been safe from assassination. But with independence achieved, Gandhi went on to become the symbol of tolerance between India’s own hostile religious sects. This time he wasn’t safe at all. His name made him a target.
Famous characters had made the world conflict a drama that the worldwide audience could follow. The great events had called forth great men, or at least great names. But now their time was up. Churchill’s unchallenged position, like the British Empire’s unity, had been held together by the war. Peace was the downfall of both of them. His fine intelligence bamboozled by years of fame, Churchill had trouble understanding that the people who wanted only him to lead them in a war preferred anyone else now that it was over. His historic vision, however, was still working clearly. He went to America to warn one of the two remaining great powers about the intentions of the other. He would be a leader again, but only of a small country. This was his last world-famous moment, and he made it count. His ‘Iron Curtain’ speech was the formal recognition that the Western democracies were in a state of irreconcilable conflict with their former ally, the Soviet Union. It was no surprise: nothing except a mutual interest in suppressing Hitler could ever have brought about such an alliance in the first place. Churchill, though, as always, found the words that gave dramatic force to the obvious.
The only superman who had gone into the war and come out smiling on the other side, Stalin had effectively been Hitler’s ally when the war started. Their non-aggression pact had given Hitler a free hand in Poland, and Stalin would have been happy to go on watching Nazi Germany chew up the democracies if Hitler had not made the supreme unforced error of invading Russia, too. Having already stripped his own army of nearly all its best generals, Stalin was at first paralysed by the attack which he had always said would never come. When he rallied himself at last, his strategic gifts left his country to the verge of defeat. The Red Army turned the tide only after Stalin had been obliged to admit that some of his commanders might have almost as much military talent as himself. But he remained the infallible political genius. In the east European countries over-run by the advancing Red Army he made a point of turning out the few lights of liberty the Nazis had missed. Yet Stalin came out of the war looking more monumentally symbolic than ever, like a living statue. Since real information about what he was up to was even harder to get inside the Soviet Union than outside, it was no surprise that his countrymen worshipped him. But the admiration he attracted from otherwise well-informed people in the free world showed that, if a man was famous for employing supreme power in pursuit of an aim thought compatible with the collective good, evidence that he used it ruthlessly would only make him look more serious.
It was easier to say that the other superpower wasn’t serious. With victory secured, Hollywood fought the war all over again and made it look silly. Audie Murphy had been a real war hero, the only soldier to wind the Congressional Medal of Honour twice. The movie moguls made a star of him, but put him in more westerns than war films because he didn’t look enough like a soldier. They thought John Wayne did look like a soldier. Wayne had never fired a shot during the war, but now that the war was being refought he had thousands of shots fired at him. Luckily, on Hollywood’s version of Iwo Jima the Japanese had been issued with bullets that bounced off tall actors running slowly. In cinemas all over the English-speaking world, ex-soldiers who had been through the real thing watched the fantasy with wonder, alarm, contempt and bitter laughter.
Meanwhile one of the real soldiers had hung up his uniform and was contemplating other forms of employment. The common man had conquered the world. Some were saying that the common man should run for President, but he wasn’t saying it himself. Dwight D. Eisenhower disclaimed all ambitions for civilian office. He might genuinely not have wanted the limelight. But it wanted him. The fame he had gained in war for reconciling factions to a common end was too valuable to pass up for a peacetime political party in search of a candidate. The fame machinery which had been kept under some measure of control during the War of the Unknown Soldier was back on the loose. Worse than that, there was more of it. One of the new post-war domestic appliances, the one standing in the corner of the living room, was ready to unleash a new kind of American hero. He didn’t sound much like an ordinary guy, nor was it immediately clear that he had come to save civilization. But when Liberace smiled at you only six feet from your sofa, you knew you weren’t alone.