Originally published in the Summer 2014 edition of The Redwood Coast Review (vol. 16, no. 3), pg. 3
Famous and Forgotten
You know,” I said to Nicky, my grandson, who was born in 2003, “that guy used to be a very famous actor. He didn’t just own a food company.” I was pointing to the picture of Paul Newman on the label of a bottle of Newman’s Own Ranch Dressing. The lad nodded in response, that nod which is somehow simultaneously polite and dismissive, employed by him when Grandpa once again dispenses useless information.
I don‘t brood over little Nicky’s opinions, but this particular instance caused an idea to crystalize which had been rattling around in my brain for a few years. Now that the blasting roar of the twentieth century is receding to the point where one can think about those years rather than just respond to them, I sometimes find myself wondering, of all the thousands who became famous in that time, who will be remembered as the new century absorbs our attention?
The phenomenon I’m talking about certainly occurred during the twentieth century with respect to the nineteenth. That hundred years was filled with titanic events and saw changes which have had lasting impact, but for most people, only a few famous names endure from the nineteenth other than, say, Napoleon and Abraham Lincoln.
So, who will endure from my time, my century? I call it my century because I was born in 1942. Indeed, thinking about it, I’m startled to realize that I lived through more than half the twentieth century.
Has Harry Truman, for example, already lost the status of general, instant recognition? He is the first President I remember. In my mind’s eye, I can still see my parents sitting before the radio, their excitement growing as the votes came in and it became apparent that Truman, despite predictions, was going to win a second term in 1948. In a few years, I would feel a personal connection with him, when I had to start wearing glasses. My father, who felt far worse about this than I did, consoled me by pointing out that the president, too, wore glasses.
But the memories of a generation end with that generation, and even people who had enormous impact in their time become mere figures in history. Or so it has always been. My century differs from all those preceding it in that it produced a super-abundance of images. Photography was invented in the nineteenth century but the mass reproduction of photos in newspapers and magazines didn’t become commonplace until the twentieth, soon followed by cinematography and then, television. Surely, my century produced more people who will remain famous than the centuries preceding it.
Maybe not. I’ve recently became fascinated with clips I’ve found on YouTube from What’s My Line?, a 1950s television game show I sometimes watched. I have no interest in the major portion of the show, in which a panel tries to
The memories of a generation end with that generation, and even people who had enormous impact in their time become mere figures in history.
guess the occupation of a guest—a female judo instructor, a diaper salesman, an industrial chemist whose duties include testing the effectiveness of underarm deodorants. No, what intrigues me are the Mystery Guests, people so famous that the panel must be blindfolded for their appearance.
What has begun to catch at me is how obscure almost all these celebrities have become. Many are actors, singers, comedians; some, outstanding figures from other fields. Anyone near my age will recognize just about all of them, but when, at a recent family gathering, I ran clips from the show for my children, both of whom are intelligent, well educated and under thirty-five, I got admissions of ignorance for, among others, Gary Cooper, Edmund Hillary, Everett Dirksen, Jack Benny, Ava Gardner, Rosalind Russell, Jacqueline Susann, Althea Gibson, Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper.
The failure of young people to recognize figures we older folks know so well is no reflection on them. They have their own concerns, their own history to live through, their own figures to admire or despise.
In sports, I think the name and image of Babe Ruth will remain iconic among Americans for a long time to come,
but to any younger person without a particular interest in
the subject, how long will it be before Muhammad Ali is as obscure as Joe Louis? In other fields of human achievement —Charles Lindberg, maybe, but Richard Byrd? How about Sergeant York or Audie Murphy?
Of course there is the odious Hitler, so famous that even actors with no resemblance to him are understood to be portraying him if they slap on the mustache. His Fascist contemporaries have faded from the general consciousness, except perhaps in their own countries—Mussolini, Franco, Tojo. Outside of the former Soviet Union and China, do people recognize Lenin? Mao’s image may endure for some time. He is still promoted in China, and for some reason, perhaps having to do with that Warhol portrait, his image is sometimes used in Western ads, though what’s chic about a man who caused the deaths of millions escapes me.
Churchill’s image will endure, certainly in the Western world, but it’s sobering to consider that the only reason he is famous is because of his opponent.
Closer to home, what about American presidents as global iconic figures? JFK comes to mind, and maybe FDR (though a surprising number of people seem to have him confused with the Roosevelt on Mt. Rushmore). And that is an instructive pairing. FDR led the nation through more than a decade of particularly turbulent history, much of which he himself made, while JFK was, tragically, unable to accomplish much, and almost none of that survives. The kind of fame I’m talking about isn’t something that occurs for concrete, predictable reasons.
Ronald Reagan may fare well for some years, and it’s too soon to tell about Clinton, but most of the others, including Nixon and Johnson, seem destined for the obscurity that has already enveloped Wilson, Taft, Hoover and the rest.
I’m not talking about the most influential people of the twentieth. A great many people, particularly in science, technology, and medicine, made contributions that changed the way we live, but even Edison’s image isn’t particularly well known today. Henry Ford? Didn’t he invent the auto- mobile or something? Alexander Fleming? Jonas Salk?
Certainly, Albert Einstein will retain his fame even though most of us, including me, don’t really understand Relativity. In fact, Einstein’s fame is now established in law. A US District ruling in a case about the use of his like- ness found that Einstein “is the symbol and embodiment of genius. His persona has become thoroughly ingrained in our cultural heritage.”
Other than Hitler and Einstein, the question of just who will retain the status of instant recognition a hundred years from now is a matter for highly subjective speculation. Everyone will have his/her nominations. Gandhi? Picasso? Martin Luther King? Elvis comes to mind. I don’t know
of any Court ruling confirming his fame, but the fact that
no one reading this will think, “Elvis who?” suggests his identity will endure. The Beatles? If you’re anywhere near my age, you remember the tremendous excitement they generated. Who could have imagined they would begin to fade within a generation?
Others? Maybe Humphrey Bogart because of that picture of him in his white Casablanca dinner jacket. Possibly the Little Tramp, although only hard-core movie fans sit through Chaplin’s films, even the shorts. John Wayne, but then he was so much more than an actor. On some half-conscious, irrational level, people seem to believe that he really did win the West and World II, in both cases many times. Marilyn Monroe may have made it into the global gestalt, though it’s not clear whether as a symbol of sexiness or as a parody of it. And if fame is nothing more, finally, than a cosmic joke, the proof would be Lucy and Desi. I Love Lucy has been in continuous, global television syndication for over fifty years. By report, the daffy redhead and her exasperated husband are known by people just about everywhere in the world, with, I suppose, the likely exception of North Korea.
All in all, it’s really enough to give one pause and perspective. With very few exceptions, nothing and no one lasts for long. The turbulence of the twentieth century was absorbing, frequently horrifying and sometimes hilarious, but recognition of the transience of all things has its consolations, particularly as one grows old.
Maybe I’ll put a copy of this essay in an envelope and give it to little Nicky’s parents to give him when he goes off to college, with instructions not to open it until he turns fifty or maybe sixty. It will be about time by then for him to hear from Grandpa again. Of course, by then he’ll know a lot of things Grandpa didn’t, including who remains famous from that long-ago time, the twentieth century.