THE PERILS OF THE CELEBRITY
THE PERILS OF THE CELEBRITY
by William H. Benson
February 9, 2012
On February 9, 1864, George Armstrong Custer married Elizabeth Bacon, a girl from his hometown of Monroe, Michigan. Libby’s father did not approve of the match, because Custer was the son of the village blacksmith, but she loved this dashing general, the youngest in the U.S. Army.
After the Civil War ended, Custer proved himself an adept media personality, carefully polishing both his boots and his image. He wore a sharp Army Uniform and a slouch hat, his wavy blond hair dangling out in ringlets. So that newspapers would publish reports of his adventures fighting Indians on the Great Plains, he invited journalists along on his daring military campaigns.
Brash, impulsive, a showboat, “a vain dandy,” he eventually flamed out. Thinking himself invincible, he flirted with disaster, assumed too much risk, put himself in harm’s way, and his enemies cut him down. His widowed wife then wrote three books of his adventures, slanting them all towards promoting his memory and his image as a gallant hero. One can safely call him America’s first star.
Over 2400 stars are etched into the sidewalk on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, along Hollywood and Vine. It is rumored that the first person to receive a star was Joanne Woodward, on February 9, 1960, for her portrayal of a woman with multiple personalities in the movie The Three Faces of Eve. Actually, she was just one in that first group of 1500 to receive stars, but she was the first to arrive on Hollywood Boulevard with a cameraman. All kinds of stars have subsequently been honored, such as Billy Graham, Woody Woodpecker, Lassie, and Joanne Woodward’s husband, Paul Newman.
On January 29, 1958, Newman married Woodward, and two years later they fled Hollywood and settled in Westport, Connecticut where they raised their children. In 2006, a reporter asked Paul Newman how he and Woodward had stayed married for so long, and he answered, “I have steak at home. Why go out for hamburger?” He also said that, “It’s absolutely amazing that I survived all the booze and smoking and the cars and the career. . . . It’s been a privilege to be here.”
Along the way he learned to check his risk-taking impulses, settled down, enjoyed his family and his home, worked at his film career, and steered clear of the Hollywood party scene. The couple celebrated their fiftieth anniversary on January 29, 2008, and eight months later on September 26, Paul Newman passed away at the age of 83, due to lung cancer.
Achieving stardom comes with a monumental cost, the loss of anonymity. Lindsay Lohan at the age of eleven was adorably cute in the remake of The Parent Trap, but ever since, she has tried repeatedly but failed to handle her celebrity status. In May of 2010 a judge gave her a new script to memorize: weekly alcohol education classes, an alcohol-monitoring bracelet, and random drug tests.
Daniel Radcliffe was also eleven years old when he was cast as Harry Potter and was propelled into fame, and he too started drinking nights after filming days. Now at twenty-two, he admits that when filming some of the scenes in the Harry Potter movies, he showed up mornings at the set drunk. “I can point to many scenes where I’m just gone. Dead behind the eyes.”
Achieving fame, as difficult as it is, is really the easy part. The hard part is when it happens, knowing how to handle it properly, maintaining respectability, and exercising self-management. Someone once said of Elvis Presley, “On a scale of one to ten that measures a person’s ability to handle fame and stardom, Elvis was at most a two.”
Mary Moody Emerson told her nephew Ralph Waldo to “Turn up your nose at glory and honor,” but years later, Ralph advised his readers to “Hitch your wagon to a star.” Elizabeth Bacon did just that, and George Armstrong Custer’s star fizzled.
Like cars and trucks, human bodies break down with high-mileage living. The fast Hollywood celebrity life-style cuts years off the back end of a person’s life, and people have known this for centuries. To paraphrase St. Augustine, who wrote in a different context, some aspiring actor might write, “Lord, give me fame, but do not give it yet.”