Books: Fame in the 20th Century, Chapter Six: Float Like a Butterfly, 1960-1969 |
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Fame in the 20th Century, Chapter Six: Float Like a Butterfly, 1960-1969

The 1960s were the twentieth century’s second most famous era after the 1920s. Really there is no such historical period as a decade. There are, however, times when a time becomes conscious of itself, partly because of the people who become famous. Until the 1960s, fame in the twentieth century progressed in step with the development of communications technology. But with all the technology in place including a television set in the kitchen, fame as a force didn’t stop its forward march. Suddenly it broke into a run. The world’s most advanced nation elected a President who looked like a film star.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy was as physically attractive as Marlon Brando and a lot easier to understand. He didn’t look like any previous Presidential candidate. He looked more like people who were famous for other things: movies, upmarket sports, fooling around in the sun with beautiful women. The son of a rich Irish Catholic who had bribed and bullied his way to respectability, JFK had a background that could have worked against him. But his foreground worked for him. The children of the post-war baby boom were tipping the free world’s demography towards youth. The Presidential candidate looked young. When he was young he was already a Presidential candidate, at any rate so for as his family was concerned. When his elder brother was killed in action during World War II JFK moved up to top slot. Making him famous was part of the plan. His own natural glamour was enhanced by strategy. JFK’s PT-boat had been sunk in the Pacific and he had helped the crew survive. His heroism became part of the story.
So did his perfect wife, Jackie. JFK had the sexual energy of a male fiddler crab on a spring night, but that was left out of the story. The total picture was kept simple and polished like an airbrushed icon. In the famous television debate between Kennedy and Nixon, the experienced Nixon argued at least as well as his upstart opponent. Without the money his father poured into the campaign, Kennedy might never have drawn level with Nixon in the first place. But in the debate it was Kennedy’s glamour that put him ahead by a hair’s breadth, and the hair was on Nixon’s jaw. The smart money said that Nixon lost the election by the whiskers he had neglected to shave.
The new President was no mere figurehead. He was able and energetic as well as attractive and spectacular. So there was almost no one at the time to question whether it was a good thing for the whole free world’s combined media resources to churn out stories twenty-four hours a day about Kennedy’s Washington being a new Camelot, with Jack as King Arthur and his brother Bobby an abrasive Sir Galahad. But if the euphoria threatened to encourage megalomania, there was always JFK’s self-deprecating wit to prove that he had things in perspective. He made jokes about himself, and everyone else was allowed to as well. At a party packed with celebrities in Madison Square Garden Marilyn Monroe sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to him as if it were a torch song, celebrating his sex appeal along with hers.
All the jokes were flattering jokes. Few outside the family knew at the time that JFK was having an affair with Marilyn Monroe. But millions of people all over the world felt that they were in the family. Kennedy embodied a whole generation’s idea of itself, so it went without saying that he was the whole American governmental system wrapped up in one person.
When Khrushchev planted nuclear-tipped missiles in Cuba and Kennedy demanded their removal, two famous men were deciding the fate of the world. The third famous man, Fidel Castro, wasn’t even consulted. The missiles were in his country, but the real arena was the worldwide media. Kennedy persuaded Khrushchev to back down, and the result was interpreted as a triumph for Kennedy’s character. Politics had become personalized to an unprecedented degree, at least partly because JFK was such an attractive person.
Part of the President’s attraction was an attractive First Lady. Classy, cultivated, good at languages, Jacky Kennedy grew world-famous alongside her husband. The Western world was turning into a single TV network, and a large proportion of the Earth’s total population tuned in to watch Jackie conducting a tour of the White House. Jack had the know-how, but Jackie had the savoir faire. She helped to make the world his oyster. When the Kennedys went to France to visit General de Gaulle, Jackie helped out with the diplomacy. Brought back from retirement as the only man who could keep France in one piece while it solved the problem of what to do about Algeria, de Gaulle, like many of his most highly educated compatriots, distrusted American cultural imperialism and was determined to protect his country against it. But he couldn’t deny that the Kennedys gave America a style and prestige to match its military and economic clout. Jackie wowed the locals by speaking their language.
Kennedy outsoared even Roosevelt, who had merely been the ideal President of the United States. Kennedy was President of the ideal United States. Kennedy reflected America’s dream of itself back into its own eyes. He was dazzling. Only very old people who had read the Constitution dared to suggest that the star could bulk so large because the political system he dominated had grown weak. The founding fathers had intended that the President should be merely the first executive, not the whole show. But the founding fathers belonged to another century. This was the twentieth, and fame had done its work. The President was his country. Kennedy was America, and this side of the Berlin Wall it was an American world. With Jack and Jackie installed in the White House as a modern Ferdinand and Isabella without the PR problem, America’s reverse conquest of the Old World continued.
America’s cultural influence had become so seductive that countries which had fought a long rearguard action to retain their own identities showed signs of retreating into fantasy. Britain’s fictional secret agent James Bond was an acknowledgement that most of Britain’s factual spies had turned out to be working for the KGB. The actor Sean Connery became inextricably identified with the role. The script said that Britain had no independent power left. It was in partnership with the Americans. But Connery gave Bond a physical presence reflecting the influence that Britain would have liked to have, and the films clicked abroad because Britain actually had a new kind of influence — a new chic based on old brand names. Bond’s easy expertise about upmarket consumer goods went down a storm with men uneasily aware that they might not be using the proper aftershave.
Britain had less power than it used to, but made more news. News was more interesting than power, and scandal was the most interesting news. Britain’s Secretary for War, John Profumo, became involved with a svelte courtesan called Christine Keeler. Profumo was James Bond and Keeler was Pussy Galore. He was upper-class and she had only her looks. The suave Profumo found his Italian-sounding name permanently stuck on a very British style of media-maximized sex sensation.
London liked the idea of itself as Sin City. D. H. Lawrence had always been more famous than he would have been if some of his books hadn’t been banned. When Lady Chatterley’s Lover was finally unbanned he became very famous indeed. He had been the prophet of Britain’s sexual liberation. Now it was here and he was one of its icons. Dead for thirty years, he was alive again. Britons were finding themselves so fascinating that the world was fascinated too. Peter Sellers could speak in a variety of British accents. He was a walking class system. Hollywood got interested, but couldn’t quite figure out what to do with him until they made him a Frenchman. As the star of a whole series of films devoted to the adventures of the clumsy Inspector Clouseau, Sellers found himself world-famous — and trapped.
Richard Burton, Britain’s wide-faced gift to the wide screen, starred as Mark Antony in America’s mega-budget movie Cleopatra. America still needed Britons to play Romans. They had the right sort of accent: a kind of Latin you could understand. The movie went over the top in every way long before it was finished, and would have finished the studio if it had not been for the extra publicity earned by Burton and Taylor’s off-screen love affair.
The affair wasn’t really off-screen at all. It was a media event as over-the-top as the movie and with a budget that was only slightly smaller. Taylor was British-born but had grown up into the American Cleopatra in whose arms a succession of the world’s illustrious men neglected their own destinies. Burton was just the latest. Taylor had won her first fame as a young star of outstanding beauty. As already mentioned, in Father of the Bride she had thrilled the world with her portrayal of the pretty girl on the verge of marriage. But one of the reasons she thrilled the world was that the world knew she had already been the bride of hotel heir Nicky Hilton. Later she went on to be the wife of the British film star Michael Wilding, whose noble profile included the kind of stiff upper lip needed to cope with the extent by which her fame outstripped his. She moved onward and upward to become the wife of the very famous American impresario Mike Todd. Not just their wedding but their entire brief marriage was a media event. After Todd’s death in a plane crash Taylor took the famous singer Eddie Fisher away from his famous wife, Debbie Reynolds. That too became a media saga. All this before she got to Burton and fused her fame with his. They were a double act.
As an actress Taylor was limited to being only as good as the performance a director could extract from her. But she was protected against her limitations, and even against ageing, by a media prominence that made her even more famous for being herself than for being an actress. Beyond being a film star, there was this new, bigger stardom of just being talked about all the time. It was like a chain reaction and Burton seemed glad to bathe in its glow, no matter what the cost. It cost him expensive presents, much of his credibility, and a fortune in alcohol.
The couple fought tempestuously in public, and the public paid to see them do the same on screen. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, though much touted at the time, was merely the least embarrassing of a whole string of films in which their clash of personalities was meant to be offset by a need for each other that they could not control. Burton was held up as an awful warning by those who said that British people in the arts should be offering the barbarous but powerful America a cultural example. To the two people involved with each other, however, there was only one country: the fame country, consisting mainly of luxury hotels linked by first-class flights. Burton lapped it up yet looked haunted. He was a very long way from Wales. He was a long way from anywhere, on the way to somewhere he didn’t like.
Ernest Hemingway had been heading in the same direction for a long time and finally reached his destination. It was the ending he seemed to have been planning from the beginning. He had always been reckless with his life, as if he was living it to provide copy for journalists as well as material for his art. His legend took him over. His premature old age was brought on by his relentless pursuit of a young man’s sensations. In Africa, on the hunt for the few remaining animals he had not already killed, he had a plane crash and woke up to read his own obituaries. His next move was to have another plane crash. When he recovered from that one he went fishing. He could never have enough of killing living things. Finally he did it to himself, with a shotgun. He had bagged his last trophy.
Marilyn Monroe also wrote her own last chapter: sadly close, in her case, to the first. The press had been carrying constant stories of the drugs she took to make her sleep. The press didn’t yet know that she scarcely had time to sleep because she was having love affairs with both Jack and Bobby Kennedy. She was practically part of the Kennedy administration. It didn’t help her. Her lack of self-confidence stemmed from childhood and no amount of success could cure it. When she was fired from Something’s Got to Give no one was surprised. Her story was the one about the woman who couldn’t cope with world fame. It could only have one ending. To supply it was practically her duty.
Not even the closed East was free from the influence of the glamorized West. The Russian ballet star Rudolf Nureyev defected to the West because at home he was artistically stifled and national fame wasn’t enough. Forming a partnership with the Royal Ballet’s prima ballerina assoluta Margot Fonteyn, Nureyev rose to the world fame that was his by right. It was good news for him and his art, but it was bad news for the Soviet Union. Any would-be world-famous citizen they produced was always likely to do a flit, unless his transport arrangements could be fixed so that he couldn’t leave the country without having to come back. Such was the condition of the cosmonauts.
In a powerful counterstroke against the glamour of Kennedy’s America, the Soviet Union sent a man into space. He was Yuri Gagarin, and he was the only cosmonaut able to shave accurately. Gagarin’s cheeks were as smooth as Kennedy’s, while most of his colleagues had a blue jaw like Nixon. If Gagarin had sported the usual Communist stubble the message would have been that they couldn’t build an electric shaver. Gagarin’s peachy jowls told the world that Soviet technology was as successful in the bathroom as on the launching pad.
Gagarin was a powerful weapon for the Russians. He showed what might be done if their leadership ever eased up on its monopoly of fame long enough to let the citizens have some. The watching world, however, was more inclined to welcome Gagarin as a world citizen than as a mere instrument of propaganda. Nevertheless it could not be denied that the Russians were one up. Kennedy’s reaction to the Soviet space success was to forecast a feat beyond the dreams of Lindbergh: Destination Moon. He announced the intention of the United States to put a man on the moon within ten years. First the New Frontier and now the Final Frontier! Space. The Kennedy optimism would take mankind to the stars. What could go wrong?
What went wrong was that all the optimism was embodied in only one man, and the man had only one body. Everyone old enough to pronounce the word ‘Dallas’ remembers what he was doing that day, or pretends he does. JFK’s early death became part of everyone else’s life. People got over the Lindbergh case: it happened to him. They never got over the death of Kennedy: it happened to them. They took it personally.
The assassination of the world-famous JFK made Lee Harvey Oswald world-famous too. There was no time to ask him if that was why he did it, if he did it. The assassination of the world-famous Lee Harvey Oswald made Jack Ruby world-famous too, but only for a few days. Conspiracy theories began about Kennedy’s death, Oswald’s death, Ruby’s death. Somewhere inside the miasma of doubt, however, there was one unshakeable certainty: the Kennedy tragedy wasn’t his alone. Everyone was involved.
JFK’s fame lived on, pure, unsullied, brighter even than before. He had made a mistake backing the invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs; he had okayed a build-up in Vietnam against CIA advice; and if his administration had gone on there would have been more mistakes, because all human beings, no matter how gifted, make them. But in his case the gap between the radiant film star and the fallible human being had not had time to show itself. Like a star’s hand-print in concrete, JFK’s myth was set in light. The TV natural was an all-media immortal.
In Britain, the Beatles became nationally famous and were held up as an awful warning that British youth had been corrupted by Elvis Presley. A few scattered adult voices held them up as a shining example of how British youth could now enjoy four home-grown Elvis Presleys with authentic regional accents. British youth said nothing because it was too busy screaming, especially the girls. The Beatles’ songs were pop music of such insidious charm that even those who disapproved seemed to know the melodies and the words. The argument was really about whether young people deserved to have so much fun. Everybody had an opinion about the Beatles, and all the opinions could be summed up as a surge of pride that Britain had something of its very own to deplore — a uniquely British version of American popular music.
Somewhere in the middle of the noise, the Beatles scarcely had national identity on their minds. They already had a new nationality — fame, the borderless country that began in America but was growing all the time. Riding to the rescue of the shattered American dream came four new faces who had kept it intact in a foreign land. The Beatles arrived in America to the same reaction they had already aroused in Britain — an uproar from the audience that drowned them out. Their young admirers were participating in their fame. As many admirers as could manage it participated by hurling themselves in front of the camera along with their heroes. Sceptics back at home were stunned that for once the British version of an American craze was going over big with the Yanks. But it was no mystery. The Beatles represented what their young American fans thought of as their own unspoiled, unsoiled, unsold souls. The Beatles weren’t just products. They were people. They didn’t sell themselves, they were themselves. The Beatles spoke a language that young Americans could understand, even if the accent was hard to figure out. It was the language of authenticity. The record industry might be marketing the authenticity, but they couldn’t manufacture it. The artist had to have it.
The possibility that he might fake it obviously didn’t arise in the Beatles’ case. Bob Dylan’s case was more of a problem. Going in the opposite direction to the Beatles, America’s new troubadour toured Europe. Though he had changed his name from Robert Zimmerman and was open to charges that no one who wrote such fluent lyrics could possibly speak in so inarticulate a manner without practicing in front of a mirror, he came over as even more authentic than the Beatles. Coming over, however, was an activity whose operational details seemed to concern him almost as much as his music. Did he really have difficulty in speaking plainly to the press, or was he just pretending to, so that they would pile on the speculation? Was he Garbo with a mouth organ?
Dylan’s songs evoked a childhood of blue-collar poverty and hopping freights. Actually he had a middle-class background and the only freight he ever hopped was his mother’s car to school. The roots he sang about going back to were long gone, but he seemed to believe that they might come again. It was a seductive message.
Dylan’s audience discovered him. He wasn’t wished on them. It was as if they had wished him into existence. He was their poet and balladeer, the lone voice who could sing a bit for the millions of lone voices who couldn’t sing at all. On their behalf he transformed rebellion into protest. Rebellion had been for crazy mixed-up kids like James Dean. Protest said that society was mixed up. Dylan’s audience was everyone who was young enough to believe that society was repressing their creative originality. The market was huge, and Dylan didn’t have to accommodate it. He could sing and play as he pleased. If you were young, or could pass for young in the dark, the popular music star was a new kind of hero even more seductive than the film star.
Meanwhile the man who started it all was marking time. Elvis Presley was marking time at the top, but the Beatles and Bob Dylan and all the other lone voices of questioning youth might have found it harder to grab the world’s attention if Elvis and his handlers had realized that music was taking over from movies as the number one vehicle to project a star’s personality. Elvis made three potboiler movies every year for the kind of audience that swooned with envy instead of nausea when they read about his pink Cadillac. He could have been more demanding but he would have had to be a different person, and Hollywood a different place. Rock stars could sing what they liked but film stars couldn’t set up their own movies. Only one star was big enough even to try.
Marlon Brando, still Hollywood’s number one brooding outcast, took his revenge on the Hollywood system he hated when it starred him as Fletcher Christian in the remake of Mutiny on the Bounty. Brando did a stunning job of almost getting an upper-class English accent right, playing the role as a brooding outcast who had been to Eton. But Brando’s real brilliance went into sabotaging the movie’s budget. Once the studio was committed to the voyage and it was too late to turn back, Brando demanded endless rewrites to make Fletcher Christian’s part bigger than Captain Bligh’s — an impossible requirement. Nor would Brando learn his lines when they were rewritten. The words had to be taped to the ship’s rail. This explains why Fletcher Christian, when addressing his fellow officers of the Bounty, spends so much time apparently staring overboard.
Taking in less at the box office than the film cost to make, with all the distribution costs a dead loss, the studio ended up in the same shape as the Bounty — on the rocks. There were mutterings in the industry that no star, least of all Brando, would ever be given such power again. But the problem remained that the Bounty fiasco had made Brando more famous than ever. There would always be a movie that needed him even if he might wreck it. Brando seemed to enjoy the grief he was giving to the men in suits. When he ate, it was their weight problem. He would order a cheeseburger with fries and call it a challenge to the Establishment.
In Britain the Rolling Stones mounted their challenge to the Establishment by rising to prominence without cleaning up their act. Unlike the Beatles, the Stones were not cute, loveable mop-tops that even parents couldn’t help feeling protective about. The mere appearance of the Stones’ front man, Mick Jagger, was enough to make parents call the police. On the matter of drugs, Jagger paid no lip service to hypocrisy despite looking as if he could pay lip service to a locomotive.
The Stones were out to shock the Establishment, and the Establishment obliged by inviting them to explain themselves. Asked to participate in the newly developed electronic version of the Athenian symposium, the television discussion programme, the Bishop of Woolwich, the future Lord Rees-Mogg and other venerable religious figures strove to understand. Jagger, despite the irreversible effects of the costive mumble he had laboriously adopted to disguise his middle-class origins, strove to be understood. But finally there was no understanding because the whole impetus of the youth culture was based on rejecting the values of the established order so as to recover the concept of shared humanity. The problem of how someone could become famous for professing these things and yet somehow remain identified with his fellow members of the youth culture was left until later. The Stones were the incorruptible representatives of a non-conformist social movement, gurus of a new vision. Gurus of the old vision obliged by completely failing to understand the new message that making love was better than making war. American evangelist Billy Graham toured Britain and expected to stir outrage when he announced that he had seen young people blatantly making love in the open air. Christians who were shocked by the mass appeal of the rock stars were glad to hear Billy Graham reaffirming Christian values. But Billy Graham himself was more like a rock star than like Christ, who never rented a stadium or held a press conference. The distinction between the old-style holy-rollers and the new gurus was blurred by the requirement that both kinds of messenger needed coverage and the coverage became part of the message.
The division between idealistic youth and untrustworthy age would have remained more clear-cut if the new gurus had not gone in search of old gurus of their own. The Beatles’ John Lennon had already shocked those who professed to be Christians by unwisely letting slip the perfectly true observation that the Beatles were more popular than Christ. Those who professed to be Christian were further shocked when the Beatles went chasing off after an Eastern mystic called the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, a hairball with a line of chat recognizable to experienced idealists of the previous generation as a perfectly standard bill of metaphysical goods.
Aided by his direct pipeline to the godhead, the Maharishi was able to tell his young acolytes that the secret of inner peace was to remain untroubled by outside events. Though there was no refuting this, when the holy person proved to have an appetite for fame far exceeding their own the Beatles went home disappointed. On the question of fame, the youth movement was in a dilemma disguised as meditation. They wanted to be individuals, but they were looking for leaders.
The Maharishi might never have proved disappointing if the Beatles hadn’t gone to see him. Che Guevara had the advantage of remaining inaccessible. Born in Argentina, he helped Fidel Castro liberate Cuba from Batista and the Yankees. Put in charge of the new revolutionary Cuban economy, he proved his detachment from material things by running it into the ground. Prudently packed off by Fidel to help revolutionize Bolivia, he was ambushed and killed by the forces of reaction. From then on he could only be read about, and his true fame began.
Che, the complete romantic article, was the subject of an untold number of romantic articles. Writing about him became a stock-in-trade for everybody contributing to the youth culture’s alternative press — thousand of low-budget publications, scattered worldwide, which added up to a powerful new mechanism for exalting a few individuals in the name of equality. Che’s poster was pinned on the wall of every student who believed in a new kind of political order driven by thoughts of love and peace. It was never explained how any admirer of Che could accomplish this in a fully industrialized Western country when Che himself had been unable to organize anything more complicated than a small ambush. It was never explained because the question was never asked. Che’s undoubted glamour was taken to be a virtue in itself. His beret was a halo. He was a kind of non-singing rock star.
An even more unlikely object of veneration for young Westerners seeking liberation was China’s all-powerful ruler Mao Tse-Tung. Yet there were very few readers of Rolling Stone anywhere in the world who could bring themselves to make a connection between Mao’s absolute power over a thousand million people and the tendency for so many of them to meet an early death. Near the beginning of his career as the Chinese People’s Republic’s supreme source of all wisdom, Mao had staged the Great Leap Forward, a master plan designed to transform China’s economy. In the process he killed more of his own people than Hitler and Stalin put together ever managed to kill of theirs. But since Mao held the monopoly of publicity, none of the blood showed. The world saw only the waving flags. Mao continued to build his unchallenged position as political genius, spiritual leader, philosopher and sporting hero. The wrap-up worked at least as well for export as it did for home consumption. It was assumed worldwide that the smiling guru was doing what he had to do to feed his people, and that if a few million of them should happen to starve it was only a mark of how serious the problem was.
In the 1960s Mao prepared a repeat performance of the Great Leap Forward. This time it was called the Cultural Revolution, and the main purgative element was composed of students who waved Mao’s Little Red Book while demanding punishment for anyone who had committed the crime of growing old and set in his ways — anyone, that is, except Mao. Western students liked the idea of Eastern students exercising so much power over their elders. It was a kind of rock concert, like Woodstock. They might have liked it less if they had seen the bodies, but once again all the world saw was the waving flags. In 1968, the year that the Cultural Revolution swept through China with full force, bringing death and misery to millions of innocent people, Mao was canonized in the West as a compassionate, all-embracing Buddha in a Beatles suit, his mere existence serving to prove that capitalist, imperialist America couldn’t, shouldn’t, have things all its own way.
Mao was especially admired by French intellectuals sold on the idea that all the world’s young idealists could be united in a crusade against the US capitalist imperialists by a suitably sexy version of Communism. In Paris, Jean-Paul Sartre did most of his marching against America. He did little of it against Russia and none at all against China. Sartre was merely the most prominent French intellectual glad to acknowledge Maoist tendencies. But Sartre did it on a world scale. For the would-be serious young everywhere, he was a guru.
At the very moment when his much-admired Mao was taking steps to ensure that every Chinese equivalent of the French intellectual should have his spectacles trampled underfoot by the Red Guards, Sartre attained international fame. He was seen as the profound existentialist soothsayer who was able to prove that the occasional apparent injustice in the East was merely part of an historic process, whereas the West was threatened by the infinitely more insidious evil of the American-style mass consumer society. He was calling America a force for evil at a time when many sincerely concerned Americans agreed with him. On campuses across the USA, students who wouldn’t have been able to get past page one of Being and Nothingness knew his name. It was on page one of the newspapers.
One good reason for admiring Mao’s Little Red Book was that it didn’t sound like John Wayne’s dialogue. Helping to confuse the issue in Vietnam, Wayne made a film called The Green Berets explaining how the Americans had come on a crusade to save a small South East Asian country from destruction. In reality, the crusade was somewhat compromised by the scale of the destruction the Americans were causing on their own account, but Wayne wasn’t concerned with reflecting reality. He was out to change it, by swaying the world audience with the force of his example. He was using his fame as the strolling, drawling straight-shooter. In fact this reputation was based entirely on movie appearances and when not on screen he was just another actor who collected paintings and wives, but in his own mind he was what he was famous for and he could safely assume that his fans felt the same way.
All the world’s young liberals thought that The Green Berets was the funniest movie in the world. But it was the favourite movie of the young Lieutenant Calley, who became temporarily but frighteningly famous himself when he stood revealed as the instigator of the My Lai Massacre. A whole village full of innocent people got wiped out by a John Wayne fan. For those who needed telling, this was compelling evidence that upright, uptight, right-wing America was in serious trouble with its role models.
Muhammad Ali never needed telling. He preferred to do all the talking himself. A cute lip was part of his equipment, along with good looks, a cheetah’s reflexes, a bomb in each hand and a brazen personality. In an earlier incarnation Muhammad Ali had been Cassius Clay, winner of the Golden Gloves and an Olympic gold medal, a World Heavyweight Champion of unmatched speed and grace, the latest and most electrifying example of a youngster fighting his way out of the ghetto to an unlimited future. He was young, gifted and black — a famous phrase at the time, although he could easily say better things himself. His description of his own prowess — ‘float like a butterfly, sting like a bee’ — proved that whatever he lacked as a poet it wasn’t verbal inventiveness. The world warmed to him. He brightened life. But as with so many previous black celebrities, global acceptance didn’t guarantee a fair shake back home. Though Cassius Clay seemed made for the American dream, his response to a whole society rigged against the black man was to join a different society altogether: Islam. Hence the change of name. And his response to being drafted for Vietnam was not to go. His change of name hadn’t changed his fame, which he put on the line to influence events.
Vietnam wasn’t Ali’swar and it wasn’t Martin Luther King’s war either. He had another war on his hands. Before Martin Luther King there had already been a movement towards black civil rights in the United States. With Martin Luther King, the movement became a man. He made non-violence a principle and put his life on the line to back it up. His weapon was to have no weapons: the way of Gandhi, moral authority. Any rewards he had coming for his leadership he accepted on behalf of those he led. One of the rewards was the Nobel Prize for Peace which for once was bestowed on someone who had unambiguously devoted his name to that very thing.
He also accepted most of the danger. Having made himself the centre of the story, he had made himself the focus of hostility. But there was no way out of it. Without TV coverage there was no chance of the movement creating pressure in Washington, and television wanted the story to have a hero. King won a victory in the South. But when the battle moved north he was up against a more ruthless opponent even than FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover, who had merely bugged his bed. He was up against his own fame, which expanded with his territory.
King was a moving target. The target grew larger when he came out against the Vietnam war. King condemned the social conditions which sent black young men to do more than their share of dying for a country in which they did less than their share of living. That made him the embodiment of the Civil Rights movement. It was really no surprise, least of all to King himself, when someone decided that if the body could be hit in the head the whole thing would die. The news of King’s assassination circled the Earth and darkened the sky like the ash of an exploding volcano. From all over the world the cry converged on the USA: ‘Physician, heal thyself.’ But who would be the physician?
It wasn’t going to be Lyndon Baines Johnson. The dead President Kennedy’s successor had a hard act to follow. LBJ wasn’t glamorous. He was an old-style, wheeler-dealer, porkbarrel pol whose modus operandi was a shoulder-squeeze in a smoke-filled room reverberating to the ring of the spittoon. When he spoke in public he sounded like a joke. The facts said that he was a masterly Mr Fix who could back up his cornpone rhetoric about the Great Society with a track record of liberal legislation better than Kennedy’s. But JFK had turned the Presidency into a beauty contest and LBJ had lost it. Vietnam was too big to fix. The young who ruled the world were singing, ‘Hey hey hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?’ He had achieved anti-fame. Time to quit. He announced that he would not seek re-election for another term.
Robert Kennedy offered himself for the job. He had built his career as a committee-room inquisitor not much more scrupulous than Nixon, and he almost totally lacked his elder brother’s charm. But RFK knew that JFK’s fame, intensified by early death, would work for him too. It worked for the whole family. When JFK’s widow Jackie formed an alliance with Aristotle Onassis, her behaviour was judged on the basis that she was a Kennedy. If she had still been Jacqueline Bouvier no one would have batted an eye. As things were, for JFK’s widow to embrace a shipowner in elevator shoes was regarded as a step down in every sense. There were few to say that she had little choice except to seek protection: she was too famous to be out alone. To carry the Kennedy name was to wear a target.
The only refuge was in hiding and Bobby had left that far behind, on his way to the Presidency in a ball of light. He got a far as a kitchen in Los Angeles, where Sirhan Sirhan claimed his share of the dubious fame earned by Lee Harvey Oswald. Once again the world’s TV screens filled with the slow sad spectacle of a Kennedy funeral. Whether Bobby Kennedy, had he lived to be elected, would have achieved the seemingly eternal lustre of his elder brother remained an open question. But there was no doubt that he could never have started on the same course if JFK’s mantle had not been there for him to borrow. Fame, like the funeral, had become part of the Kennedy inheritance.
Richard Nixon resented that and he had a point. The American Dream said that anyone could hope to be President. It didn’t say that a single family could tie the job up. Nixon was elected fair and square by the people to whom he gave a voice — the silent majority. For the vocal minority, which included all the youth-oriented media, he was the villain. The spotlight which had given JFK a halo but had helped to melt LBJ was shining just as hot for Nixon. Every word he said, every little gesture, was marked for style and usually marked low.
Nixon’s earlier fame as the candidate who wasn’t charming like JFK was now redoubled. He was the President who wasn’t charming like JFK and had the gall to be alive instead. The new habit of regarding the President as the personification of his country worked against him. People who saw America as the cruel enemy of freedom in Vietnam thought that Nixon was the walking, talking, deviously smiling personification of a system whose true nature had finally been revealed. At best Nixon was grudgingly admired for his tactical agility. But there was little love even from his supporters; and from his opponents, who seemed to include all the young people in the Western world, there was outright hatred from the first day he took office.
In the Eastern world, in that same famous year of 1968, the Russian leader Leonid Brezhnev became as famous as he was ever going to get when he personally ordered that Czechoslovakia’s bid for freedom should be flattened with tanks. The Western world’s young people were ready to concede that the Soviet Union might be almost as bad as America, but they found Brezhnev harder to hate than Nixon. Lenin had been injected with formaldehyde after death. Brezhnev had apparently received the same treatment while still alive. In his homeland he organized a personality cult for himself which ensured that his face was up on every building like a poster for the Russian version of Planet of the Apes. But with so little personality to make a cult of, his fame had no focus. Even as a villain, Brezhnev was a non-starter: tough on the Czechs, maybe, but strictly a zombie.
Even if you thought the main reason why American culture was so open to attack was because everybody lived in it and knew all the details, there was no denying that Charles Manson was convincing evidence of a society in the process of civic breakdown. Manson was a would-be rock star. After auditioning unsuccessfully for the Monkees he set himself up as a youth culture guru and continued the quest for fame. On the way he and his followers killed Roman Polanski’s wife, Sharon Tate, and several other innocent people. The killings were unusually repellent in their satanic cruelty, but almost equally repellent was the fact that Manson achieved the fame he longed for. Media coverage was total and he revelled in it. His girl assistant, Squeaky Fromme, really seemed to think that she had made something of herself. The Manson family were tried and convicted but gaol walls were not enough to keep the media out. Anything Manson said showed up in print. Manson had star quality.
Twentieth-century fame had always been a value-free commodity. The notion that its freedom from value might be a value in itself — that famous people inhabited a world worth more than ours even when they were worthless — was promoted by the New York artist and style guru Andy Warhol. He first won fame for pop paintings that looked as if anyone could have painted them. He won further fame for making movies that looked as if anyone could have made them. His fame was doubled when he signed his name to silk-screen posters of other famous people, increasing their posthumous fame while causing some experts in pharmacology to observe that he looked as if he had already achieved posthumous fame while he was still alive.
His fame was redoubled when one of his followers shot him. Unlike Martin Luther King or the Kennedy brothers, Warhol survived — some said because he had been so near death from drugs already that his body didn’t notice the bullet. But what made Warhol lastingly famous was his announcement that in the future everyone would be famous for fifteen minutes. Whether or not it was accurate as a prediction, it certainly matched the temper of the times. Look at Andy. If anyone ever looked like nobody, it was Andy Warhol: and think how far he had gone.
And think how far Neil Armstrong was going. He was an American astronaut and he was going to the moon. The same could have been said of Buzz Aldrin or Michael Collins, the other crew members on the mission. Or it could have been any other name from the whole team of astronauts on the project. Armstrong was chosen to be the man who would actually step on to the moon first for two main reasons. The first reason was not necessarily for publication: he was the dispensable one. If anything went wrong, the others knew how to get the mission home without him. The second reason was the one fed to the media. Armstrong was held to possess the right qualities of utter dependability and dedication.
But all the other astronauts possessed those qualities too. They were all long on virtue and short on individual characteristics. As personalities they barely registered. A better candidate would have been Captain James T. Kirk of the Starship Enterprise. In real life he was the actor William Shatner, but for the television audience across America, across the world, and perhaps one day across the galaxy, Kir was the only way an astronaut should be. He said great things: ‘Beam me up, Scotty.’ He did great deeds. He wore, as space-time went by, an increasingly famous wig.
Unfortunately Kirk was fiction and NASA was stuck with the facts. Armstrong did his best to rise to the historic moment. He prepared a line which he would say when he stepped on to the moon’s surface: ‘That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.’ He blew the line. He said ‘man’ instead of ‘a man’. Since ‘man’ and ‘mankind’ are the same thing, what he said was strictly meaningless. But it didn’t really matter what he said. He didn’t need eloquence. He didn’t even need a personality. Neil Armstrong was the century’s most illustrious example of the Fonck Factor, the law by which, if the French aviator René Fonck had beaten Charles Lindbergh across the Atlantic, he would have got the glory. Armstrong could have been someone else and the result would have been the same. He was world-famous without ever having emerged from obscurity.
The man with the personality was there to welcome the moon hero back from space and bathe in the reflected glory. JFK had set the project up and Nixon reaped the reward. Nixon was not as flagrant as LBJ, who had been so keen to be associated with orbiting astronauts that he would have caught them in his outstretched arms when they returned to Earth if he had been allowed to. Nixon knew how to play the scene. Cynics said that Tricky Dick was up to his usual games. But maybe the bad guy was the right guy for the job. If America could conquer space, it might, with Nixon at the controls, work the other trick, and bring all those other boys back home from the mud. Suddenly Nixon was looking like the man. With no good name to lose, everything he could bring off was a plus. More scrutinized than any President in history, thrown on to a bonfire of bad publicity, he had risen from the blaze like a Phoenix. The most famous man in the world, he had nothing left to fear — unless of course, not that it was likely, he did something stupid.