Some people, especially in today’s social media environment, crave public recognition. For those who actually achieve fame, it often turns out to be nothing more than “a barren reward” as it was characterized by the 17th Century English poet John Dryden. The recent deaths of three “famous people” illustrate that fame can bring a life of sorrow, and occasionally become a sanctuary for unadulterated evil.
The once-famous pop idol David Cassidy died in November. In the early 1970’s he was internationally renowned. With good looks, a pleasant voice, and the star of a popular television show, he performed before huge crowds across the United States, Europe, and Australia. At one point, his fan club was reportedly bigger than that of Elvis or The Beatles. He was the epitome of “rock star”, and among the most popular people in the world.
At the height of his fame, his father, a handsome but underachieving and dissipated actor, cautioned him that rock stars “blaze out” quickly and thus he would be better served focusing on his acting abilities. Basking in his role a worldwide idol, David ignored his father’s advice, which proved tragically prophetic. Before the decade ended, his career was essentially over, and he lived a life beset by bankruptcy, alcoholism, multiple divorces, and ultimately dementia. It was a depressing finale for the teen heartthrob who once crooned “I Think I Love You” to girls all over the world.
For a brief time in the summer of 1963, Christine Keeler was perhaps the world’s most recognizable woman next to Jackie Kennedy. Christine was the Monica Lewinsky of her day - a beautiful, enchanting woman in her early twenties who had an affair the year before with John Profumo, the British War Secretary (essentially equivalent to the American Secretary of Defense). At the same time, she was also having an affair with a Soviet agent stationed in Britain.
But the consequences of her affairs went far beyond that of Ms. Lewinsky and President Clinton. When the British press broke the story, Profumo went before Parliament. Initially he lied about the affair with Ms. Keeler, but she confirmed its truth, and Profumo was forced to resign from government. The scandal subsequently had global repercussions, because shortly thereafter the British Prime Minister also resigned, changing the balance of power in Great Britain and Europe.
At the height of the scandal, Ms. Keeler posed naked, straddling a chair suggestively, for an iconic photograph that has become internationally famous (the image has been recreated with Homer Simpson among others). Her name became synonymous not simply with a government scandal, but with British upper class hypocrisy and the dissolution of the postwar British Empire. Only after the JFK assassination and The Beatles’ emergence did people forget Christine Keeler and the Profumo scandal.
Christine Keeler did not fare well afterwards, not unlike Monica Lewinsky’s fate today. In 1989, a movie about the affair became a top grossing film in Great Britain (ironically the film’s less successful American release was done by Harvey Weinstein). By then, Ms. Keeler had became withdrawn and refused most interviews. The word “ victim” is bandied about recklessly today but she truly was a victim.Chain smoking gradually contributed to the dissolution of her beauty and eventually to her death earlier this month. She died alone in British public housing, and received a remarkably brief obituary on BBC Radio, considering her previous fame. Meanwhile John Profumo, once one of the world’s most powerful men, spent the last forty years of his life doing house chores and cleaning toilets in a London charity settlement house.
Last month, a man who achieved a different but unfortunately more lasting notoriety also died - Charles Manson, a failed songwriter. He outlived the victims of his “family’s” murder sprees by nearly half a century. Manson avoided the death penalty and spent much of his prison time breaking prison rules, granting interviews with the media, talking with admirers on illicit cellphones, selling drugs, and even striking a smirking pose with his fiancé for cameras. His fame long outlasted his victims’ memory.
Charles Manson should be universally despised, yet he had a fan club and contemporary musical groups freely borrowed his lyrics and his name. Bernadine Dohrn, once a leader of the radical Weather Underground and now a retired Northwestern adjunct law professor, once said of the Manson family, “Dig it, first they killed those pigs, then they ate dinner in the same room with them, then they even shoved a fork into a victim’s stomach. Wild!'’ The Weatherman salute became the three finger prong symbolizing a fork. And Tex Watson, one of Manson’s henchmen, fathered four children while in prison; actress Sharon Tate was eight months pregnant when she and her baby were stabbed repeatedly and killed by Watson.
Fame can be a curse. That was a warning issued to mankind by the Faust legend, The Bible, and even longer ago, by the Mesopotamian epic of Gilgamesh. The stories of David Cassidy, Christine Keeler, and Charles Manson, each in its own way is melancholy proof of that ancient warning.
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