Monday, May 24, 2010

Fame and its Attendant Embarrassment; or what Amelia Earhart might have had to endure

I've been thinking about fame. About what it means to the rest of us. And what it must be like for that famous person who's just trying to go on about their business and live their life. I've been thinking about it because it's a theme of my novel. I write about Amelia, about what fame brought for her. It brought her the ability to be the person she most wanted to be and do the things she most wanted to do. It also made it impossible for her to have a private life. It's something that's much talked about, how you have to give up privacy and how hard it is, but also how little we, your public care. We want you to admit that losing privacy is worth it. I'm sure for much of the time it is. Who wouldn't want to be rich, or successful or admired. Who wouldn't want to be recognized for doing the thing one loved the most. And how wonderful to have that be financially rewarding. But there are downsides for sure.

Example numero uno; John Lennon. His murder was one of those moments that's seared into my consciousness. It was the end of innocence for me.I'd lived through all sorts of other horrible events, the King assassination, Bobby Kennedy, John Kennedy, yet I'd still managed to retain a bit of that belief in the good of humanity. Perhaps I was at an age when senseless loss hit me hardest, more likely it was just my visceral connection to Lennon, to his music and then his desire to seek privacy in the city I loved so much.

New York City is filled with famous people. Growing up, a true New Yorker knows what to do. When you see someone famous, you pretend you haven't. You give them space. You don't ask for an autograph. You don't make loud, rude comments. You let them live their lives. It's a good thing even if it's not particularly honest. It's not like we don't tell everyone we know who we saw, who we spotted on the street, or in a play, we just don't go up to them and embarrass them. To do that would be to embarrass ourselves.

Speaking of which, I did attend a play recently and a famous actress sat behind us. She was trying her best to hide, glasses, a hat. The couple nearby talked about her as if she was invisible. "That's that actress, you know, the one in that movie, you know the one with Bill Murray, see she's trying to hide but you know who she is." I wanted them to be quiet, I thought of turning around to tell them so, but I didn't. That seemed as rude as what they were doing. I wanted them to realize how horrible it was for her, because fame requires that you give up something vital. She was no longer just a person, she was a commodity.

Why does fame matter so much to the rest of us? I suppose it brightens our lives in some way. Look, we've seen, we've been, we matter. I've spent a great deal of time thinking about this and thinking about how Amelia takes it, when she comes back and no one recognizes her. It's unsettling, yet also liberating. She gets to just be herself again. We don't want to hear the famous complain about their lack of privacy, and yet as human beings we depend on it. We like to watch, to listen, to be anonymous. What if that was taken away from us for good? What then?


  1. This is something I think about pretty regularly. I feel for those that have to give up that vital part of their lives. They are human and they deserve some degree of privacy no matter who they are and what they do.

    We can honor then quietly, gracefully and respectfully.

  2. Yes. I so agree. On the other hand when famous people talk about how hard it is, there's little sympathy for them. It must be an odd dilemma. You have to be grateful, and you are grateful, yet on the other hand you feel like despite being grateful your whole life has changed in ways you never could have predicted.

  3. Thinking of your John Lennon example -- if Amelia misses the attention, at least she can console herself that she's no longer a target for cranks and worse, like the person unknown who tried to sabotage one of her planes by putting acid on some structural supporting wires.

  4. I also feel that fame is a really interesting topic. I've had my own fantasies and longings to become famous, and I've felt ashamed and embarrassed by these fantasies and longings. It seems stuck up to imagine myself as having the talent or intelligence that could produce something worthy of fame; and it also seems small and deluded to pine after fame. The fantasies and longings for fame have decreased dramatically over time and I am little troubled by them these days- chances are I will never be famous, and I am more satisfied with the miracle of being alive every day, less in need of a glamorous fairy-tale life, less in need of some glorious future to compensate for the "drab" days I have endured.

    My kids harbor some dreams of fame, like most kids I assume, and it seems endearing, and of course anything is possible. My ten-year old wants to be a major league baseball player, my daughter has auditioned for films, and they dream, and I tell them I believe in them, and I do. But I'm also hoping they don't develop a kind of psychological addiction to the dream of becoming famous that poisons their enjoyment of life. The odds are terrifically against any one individual becoming famous, and I feel that "non-famous" people are as valuable and important in the grand scheme of things as famous people.

    In the Reader's Digest "Quotes" page years ago I read a quote by Jim Carrey that struck me, and I just googled it up. Here it is: "I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it's not the answer."

    Thanks for your post roseduncan and bringing up interesting and relevant questions about fame.

  5. Thanks for these responses. I never knew that about Amelia and a rabid fan, but it hardly surprises me. It seems there's that love-detest pull with famous people in the public eye. We bring them high so we can bring them low. As for desiring fame, god knows I spent many a day in high school hoping for a magical cure to my anonymity. There's that sort of magical thinking, that fame is the cure all. On the other hand, whenever I go to a concert, (rock and roll) I think to myself, what fun it must be to be the one on stage, to have that kind of power over the audience. To be a god of sorts or at least a demi god for that moment . . .