28 February, 2011Issue 15.4Film & TVHistoryThe Arts

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Celebrity Gods

Tom Cutterham

A Short History of CelebrityFred Inglis
A Short History of Celebrity
Princeton UP, 2010
322 Pages
£20.95
ISBN 978-0691135625


Fred Inglis’s A Short History of Celebrity is an idiosyncratic book, less of a history than a hike along trails marked out by our common culture, throwing a glance here and there at the lives of cities and people far off, collecting thoughtful asides like herbs by the side of the road. It is “a book aiming to catch at visions”, and like Inglis’s 30-year-old hagiography of the British left, Radical Earnestness, it is mainly a collage of portraits in miniature. Such an approach touches immediately on some of the paradoxes of celebrity: its subjects are both larger and much smaller than life; they are both intimately close up, and untouchably distant.

Art and its ambivalent status—part of life and separate from it—is central to this account, and artists are the most important, as well as most numerous, category of celebrity here. The actors and actresses of 18th-century London are Inglis’s starting-point. Combining personal fame and a theatrical role, they inaugurated the ever-permeable boundary between performance and personality. Kings and queens could permit no such distinction in the performance of their own roles. But celebrity, by contrast, relies on the division normally being in place, because its whole aim is to dissolve it for magical effect. When with Byron, in the next century, “the life became synonymous with the work”, it was a transformation akin to a coronation.

This metamorphosis of private into public needs more than the individual, it requires a public (an audience) and a means of connecting to them. So the history of celebrity is as much about celebrity’s consumers as it is about celebrities themselves. Inglis’s story stretches to encompass the emergence of consumer society, from London’s coffee-houses through Hausmann’s Parisian boulevards, and more importantly the glass-fronted department stores that lined them, to the “crazy Byzantiums of New York and Chicago” in the gilded age. He offers an archaeology of leisure and spending that unearths more layers than we might have thought beneath today’s global and virtual high streets.

The cities are characters in this story too, and indeed they merge with the very celebrities who help create them in a symbiosis of grand scale and ambition. David Garrick’s name survives in the theatres that have borne it, while those of the robber barons adorn New York: the Waldorf-Astoria, Carnegie Hall, the Frick Collection, the Guggenheim Museum. Some writers illuminate the cities they inhabit, and find its image reflected back on them: Samuel Johnson’s London, Walter Benjamin’s Paris. In this constellation of representations, it becomes hard to distinguish between the structures that produce celebrity and the celebrities themselves. Artists, writers, even financiers can be part of either or both worlds.

Inglis does not ask who is responsible for the creation of celebrity, but through his account he does map an almost-impenetrable scaffolding behind the edifice of fame. Some of the characters who enter his story as celebrities in their own right do so as parts of the scaffolding itself: publishers like Pulitzer and Hearst, and the muckrakers and gossip columnists like Walter Winchell who populated their pages; chat show hosts like Oprah Winfrey who became more famous than the celebrities she interviews; even the publicist Max Clifford and the paparrazo Ron Gallela make their appearances here.

But Inglis’s real heroes offer something beyond the propping up of the world of celebrity itself: they are the stars atop the whole structure, whose role is somehow to

incarnate…the good person and her ideal personality. Or rather, this is the meaning, impossibly to live consistently, which the celebrity-manufacturers assemble on behalf of the public, and against which the actual life of the chosen victim is measured, and the inevitable discrepancy then used viciously as an instrument of redress.

To perform the role of the good person and to match up to it in real life is the impossible achievement demanded of stars. In their failures, they are salves to our own imperfections. In their successes, they perform the transformation that we look for in our own lives.

So often these heroes are the men and women of the silver screen, the golden era of the Hollywood studio in the middle decades of the 20th century. Inglis gives us James Stewart, Cary Grant, and John Wayne as exemplars. On John Wayne, Inglis writes “A star celebrity of his magnitude formed and still informs the life of a whole society in a way true of no other figures moving through its moral imagination.” Inglis argues that in the huge and complex modern world, meaningful action is almost impossible. People look to celebrities to enact sharable meaning, on screen and in their own lives. Celebrity “serves to pull those separate entities [public politics, civil society, private domestic life] together and to do its bit towards maintaining social cohesion and common values.”

This is to give celebrities quite some power and importance, but can it be easily denied? The outpouring of grief at unexpected celebrity deaths could provide one kind of proof of their power. Think of both Marilyn Monroe and John F. Kennedy (as the first television president, something more than just a politician), and later, Princess Diana, who looms large over the end of Inglis’s story. Could we go so far as to say that the death of a star represents the final transfiguration, the apotheosis of celebrity?

There can be no more division between performance and personality. In death, perhaps, celebrities come closest to becoming their own performance. Byron in his Albanian officer’s uniform, fighting for Greek independence in 1824. James Dean, forever embalmed in the public memory in his white t-shirt and black leather jacket. Can we deny that it is these celebrities who most define our idea of what it is to be a celebrity, something so radically apart from ordinary life? These stars, strange creatures, who shine their light, and hold back nothing for themselves.

Tom Cutterham is reading for a DPhil in American History at St Hugh’s College, Oxford. Tom is a senior editor at the Oxonian Review.