Some are born great, some achieve greatness,
and some have greatness thrust upon 'em.

William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night

A bird sings not because it has an audience but because it has a song.
(Chinese proverb)

Fame and Fortune as Goal of Life

      On 24 July 1995, Dick Assman was introduced by David Letterman on his late-night talk show. Letterman, who was apparently amused by his name, made him a nightly feature for about a month. Suddenly, a man who worked as a gas station attendant in Regina, Saskatchewan was a celebrity. He received a musical tribute from Tony Orlando, a verbal tribute from Joe Namath, and a visit at his gas station from the U.S. ambassador to Canada. A poll conducted two months later by Angus revealed that 49% of Canadians had heard of him.

      My generation - the focus of this book - is often called the Depression Generation. Our parents, anxious about money in those difficult times, instilled in us the virtue of thrift. Success was seen as the acquisition of wealth, which was somehow tied up with fame. Perhaps the only wealthy people they knew of were famous. Horatio Alger acquired his fame and fortune from writing stories of obscure and poor boys who acquired fame and fortune. I was inspired to come to Canada by a Hudson Bay ad Find fame and fortune in Canada's North. Fifty years later, with a little local notoriety and a MasterCard, I'd like to report that fame and fortune is a mixed blessing.

      My karass consists of famous people because information about their lives is available, and my concrete examples from their lives would not be as meaningful to you if you did not know them. Paraphrasing Shakespeare, Some are born famous, some achieve fame, and some have fame thrust upon them. Most members of my karass belong to the second category - they have achieved fame by excelling in some skill - acting (Donald Sutherland, Julie Andrews, etc.), singing (Luciano Pavoratti, Elvis Presley, etc.), writing (E. Annie Proulx, Carol Shields, etc.), sports (Floyd Patterson, Lester Pigott, etc.) and so on. However, when I had to indicate their "Claim to Fame" in the appropriate column in the Cast of Characters in Appendix A, I had problems with those who "have fame thrust upon them" and those who "are born famous".

      Dick Assman, described above, is a clear example of someone who has fame thrust upon him. A much more tragic case is Kitty Genovese. In the early morning of 13 March 1964, Kitty was attacked by Winston Moseley as she returned to her home in Queen's, New York from her job as bar manager at Ev's 11th Hour Sports Bar. Over a half hour, he killed Kitty with multiple stab wounds. Later investigation revealed that 38 individuals had heard her screams but no one had intervened or even called the police. The murder triggered scholarly studies of the bystander effect or the Genovese Syndrome and has since become the parable for public indifference.

      No one obviously wants such fame thrust upon them. What is not so clear is the downside of being born famous. Our three kings - Faisal II, Hussein I, and Kigeli V - and other members of Royal Families - Duke of Kent, cousin to Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain, and Princess Elisabeth, grand-daughter of King Christian X of Denmark. - were all born famous. Although many of us are motivated by the seeking of fame and fortune, it is clear that fame, especially unearned fame, is not an unmixed blessing. Those who are born famous have heavy constraints placed on their capacity to write their own script for their lives. The three kings all knew what they were going to be when they grew up. They had no choice. Note that our three kings are all dead and none of them died a natural death. Being king is dangerous.

      The two members of the Royal Families without dangerous duties had duties nevertheless. Looks like they performed their dull duties admirably but had little opportunity to develop interests of their own. Princess Elisabeth of Denmark was born on the same day as me - 8 May 1935. Though less famous and less fortunate than her, I got a better deal. Even her given name - Elisabeth Caroline-Mathilde Alexandrine Helena Olga Thyra Feodora Astrid Margrethe Désirée - sounds like a huge burden.1

      Other members of this category are those who have vicarious fame as a result of being related to someone who is famous. Two of our group - Maya Picasso, daughter of Pablo Picasso, and Sergei Khrushchev, son of Nikita Khrushchev - had to work hard to evade the shadow of their famous fathers.

      Maya Picasso remembers a father who was too preoccupied with his work to devote much time and energy to fathering. She was as much a model as a daughter. Frequently, he would demand "don't move" and rush off to get his tools. Her mother, Marie-Thérèse, who had been one of Picasso's many muses, committed suicide four years after Picasso died. Maya inherited 10% of Picasso's 23.4 million-dollar estate. So she had the much-sought fame and fortune. However, the huge shadow of her father hung over the rest of her life. She devoted much of her time to the authentication of his paintings and to representing him at various artistic gatherings.

      Kathy Cronkite, daughter of a famous person, describes it as being On the edge of the spotlight [CRONKITE] and Marilyn Funt, wife of another famous person, asks Are you anybody? [FUNT]. Those compilations of accounts by the children and spouses, respectively, of celebrities suggest that such reflected fame causes many personality problems. The titles of books written by wives of famous people - for example, Leftover Life to Live by Caitlin Thomas, widow of Dylan Thomas [THOMAS] and Off the Road by Carolyn Cassady, widow of Neal Cassady who was On the Road with Jack Kerouac [CASSADY] - suggest that there was a downside to sharing a life with such "geniuses".

      There is much evidence that people who have earned fame can deal with it better than those who have it thrust up them. If it has "taken forty years to become an overnight success" (as one famous person put it), then you have built up such a positive self-concept that it can be little affected by the public image. The fame is an incidental by-product of doing something well. Your positive self-concept is based on this solid competence rather than ephemeral fame.

      Some people actively seek fame directly cutting out the tedious "forty years to become an overnight success" required to acquire it as an incidental by-product. Television has created millions of voyeurs and thus a market for exhibitionists. Unlike the bird in the Chinese proverb quoted at the beginning of the chapter, Paris Hilton has an audience but no song. She is simply famous for being famous.

      The "fame" of ordinary people in an information society, in which much information is accessible about them is, of course, such unearned fame. There is much talk about the invasion of privacy on the internet but the important concern is the erosion of autonomy. Let us say that I do not know you and I have arranged a meeting with you. If I google you before we meet, I still do not know you but I know about you. On our first meeting then, you have lost the freedom to present yourself as you want. I have pre-judged you - it may be a positive prejudice but a prejudice nevertheless.2 You have the disadvantage of being famous without the advantage.

Return to the Table of Contents       Continue to Chapter 8.2

1   Friends of mine gave their child ten names so that she would have a wide choice. She chose Africa and dropped the other nine names. Africa's names were assigned to increase freedom, whereas Elizabeth's ten names look more like a limitation of freedom by acknowledging other members of the Danish Royal Family.
2   Famous people deal with this situation all the time. Leaving the Hog's Breath Inn in Carmel, California with a date, a big fellow at a corner table said "Hi, Pam." We went over and Pam said "Scot, this is Clint". I spent my time talking to his wife Maggie, while Pam talked to Clint Eastwood, because I knew how to talk to someone when I first met them but did not know how to talk to someone I knew about but did not know. Famous people have to deal with such awkwardness all the time.