Find your next favorite book

Become a member today and read free for 30 days
The Politics of Fame

The Politics of Fame

Read preview

The Politics of Fame

255 pages
2 hours
Dec 21, 2018


Celebrities can come from many different realms: film, music, politics, sports. But what do all these major celebrities have in common? What elevates them to the status of household names while their equally talented peers remain in relative obscurity? Is it just a question of charisma, or does fame depend more on the collective fantasies of fans than the actual accomplishments of celebrities?
In search of answers, cultural historian Eric Burns delves deep into the biographies of some of the most famous figures in American history, from Benjamin Franklin to Fanny Kemble, Elvis Presley to Gene Tierney, and Michael Jordan to Oprah Winfrey. Through these case studies, he considers the evolution of celebrity throughout the ages. More controversially, he questions the very status of fame in the twenty-first century, an era in which thousands of minor celebrities have seen their fifteen minutes in the spotlight.
The Politics of Fame is a provocative and entertaining look at the lives and afterlives of America’s most beloved celebrities as well as the mad devotion they inspired. It raises important questions about what celebrity worship reveals about the worshippers—and about the state of the nation itself
Dec 21, 2018

About the author

Eric Burns, a former NBC News correspondent and Today Show pundit, appears regularly as a commentator for Entertainment Tonight and hosts A&E's Arts & Entertainment Revue. He was the former host of Fox News Watch and has won an Emmy for media criticism. He is the author of Infamous Scribblers and The Spirits of America and lives in Westport, Connecticut.

Related to The Politics of Fame

Related Books
Related Articles

Book Preview

The Politics of Fame - Eric Burns

The Politics of Fame

Also by Eric Burns


Broadcast Blues

The Joy of Books

The Spirits of America: A Social History of Alcohol

Infamous Scribblers: The Founding Fathers and the Rowdy Beginnings of American Journalism

The Smoke of the Gods: A Social History of Tobacco

Virtue, Valor, and Vanity: The Founding Fathers and the Pursuit of Fame

All the News Unfit to Print: How Things Were … and How They Were Reported

Invasion of the Mind-Snatchers: Television’s Conquest of America in the Fifties

1920: The Year That Made the Decade Roar

The Golden Lad: The Haunting Story of Quentin and Theodore Roosevelt

Someone to Watch over Me: A Portrait of Eleanor Roosevelt and the Tortured Father Who Shaped Her Life

When the Dead Talked: How the Smartest Minds in the World Fell under the Spell of Psychics


The Autograph: A Modern Fable of a Father and Daughter

Mid-Strut: A Novel



Rise and Fall

The Politics of Fame


Rutgers University Press

New Brunswick, Camden, and Newark, New Jersey, and London

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Names: Burns, Eric, author.

Title: The politics of fame / Eric Burns.

Description: New Brunswick, New Jersey : Rutgers University Press, [2019] | Includes bibliographical references and index.

Identifiers: LCCN 2018003443 (print) | LCCN 2018028895 (ebook) | ISBN 9781978800618 (cloth : alk. paper) | ISBN 9781978800700 (epub) | ISBN 9781978800694 (web pdf) | ISBN 9781978800687 (mobi)

Subjects: LCSH: United States—Civilization. | United States—Social life and customs. | Popular culture—United States. | Fame—Social aspects—United States. | Celebrities—United States—Biography.

Classification: LCC E161 .B87 2019 (print) | LCC E161 (ebook) | DDC 306.0973—dc23

LC record available at

A British Cataloging-in-Publication record for this book is available from the British Library.

Copyright © 2019 by Eric Burns

All rights reserved

No part of this book may be reproduced or utilized in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission from the publisher. Please contact Rutgers University Press, 106 Somerset Street, New Brunswick, NJ 08901. The only exception to this prohibition is fair use as defined by U.S. copyright law.

The paper used in this publication meets the requirements of the American National Standard for Information Sciences—Permanence of Paper for Printed Library Materials, ANSI Z39.48-1992.

Manufactured in the United States of America

To Linda Konner

Who made an exception for me;

I don’t know where I’d be without it

Fame is a bee.

It has a song—

It has a sting—

Ah, too, it has a wing.

—Emily Dickinson


A Note to Readers


Part 1

1. Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Fame

2. The Celebrity with a Cause

3. The Cultural Commodity

4. At Long Last, Class

5. Circulation Wars

6. The Press and the Immigrants

7. The Deviancy of Adulation

Part 2

8. The Decreasing Literacy Rate

9. The Leveling Forces of Democracy

10. The Declining Importance of Faith

11. The Acceleration of Haste

12. The False Intimacy of the Media, or You Don’t Really Know Oprah Winfrey




Source Notes



A Note to Readers

Most books about fame tell of the people who possess it—athletes and actors; singers and comedians; politicians and news readers; and those who cannot be categorized except as celebrities, their pedigrees uncertain, their reality shows unreal. This book is different. It is, as much as possible, the story of those who bestow fame, and why. The Politics of Fame looks back on shifting trends in the culture and shifting currents in the human psyche that have compelled so many Americans to kneel before the thrones of so many strangers in so many different ways for so many years past and so very many more to come.


Naples, National Archaeological Museum, Alexander Mosaic. Berthold Werner. Licensed under CC BY 3.0.


Alexander the Great was the world’s first celebrity, identified as such by his name and trained as such by two of the greatest figures of the ancient world. His father, Philip II of Macedon, was an esteemed soldier and leader of troops, possessed of uncommon wisdom, organizational skills, and the bearing of a man who expected to be obeyed. After the battle of Chaeronea in 338 A.D., which Philip’s forces won, he governed more people than had ever been under the rule of one man before: In effect [he] had a stranglehold on the Aegean Greek world and deprived the Greek cities in his power of their cherished freedom and autonomy. Such ruthless application of power made Philip a controversial figure, far more despised than admired.

His son would be a leader of a different sort.

Among the reasons was that, beginning at the age of thirteen, his mentor was Aristotle, the most scholarly of Greek philosophers at the time. He found a young man uncommonly curious about the world around him, an informal student of plants and animals and the infrastructure of legislation. Aristotle gave his pupil needed breadth, making of him a humanist, a man with respect for culture and learning—and not just the culture and learning of his own people.

The curriculum that the philosopher devised for the boy was far-reaching, ranging from morals to politics, and from metaphysics to medicine. Alexander became especially adept at the latter: For when any of his friends were sick, he would often prescribe them their course of diet, and medicines proper to their disease.

Aristotle also encouraged his student’s military ambitions. It was a matter of faith with Aristotle, writes the historian David Fromkin, that Greece could rule the world if it were politically united.

When his son was twenty—having already been a fighting man for four years, and at times a vicious one—Philip was assassinated, and Alexander became the Macedonian king. Despite his youth, he was prepared by then not only to unite Greece but also to conquer all the other peoples over whom his father had one day planned to reign. It would be no small feat, as the empire bequeathed to Alexander now extended well beyond Greece, reaching all the way east to India. Nonetheless, Aristotle’s star pupil set out to establish his authority, subjugating a number of populations who were diverse, rambunctious, and to all appearances mutually repellant.

Even though his goals were imperialistic, becoming all the more so in the years remaining to him, Alexander would remain as devotedly studious as he had been as a boy. For my part, he wrote to Aristotle from one of his many encampments, I had rather surpass others in the knowledge of what is excellent than in the extension of my power and dominion. If he exaggerated, he did not do so by much. Plutarch wrote that Alexander had a violent thirst and passion for learning, and this increased as time went on.

Sometimes Alexander would don the garb of his new subjects who had just fallen to his sword, to show that—the strenuousness of his struggles with them notwithstanding—he held the traditions of his vanquished peoples in high regard. At times he would grant audiences to some of them, usually men of lower station. He would treat them with regard, explaining the goals of his administration, answering their questions, and making them feel as important as their nominal superiors in the conquered nation’s hierarchy. He would insist on lenient sentences for people who had committed crimes out of desperation, reduce taxes in a year of poor crop yields, and authorize both the time and expense for public works projects when he believed they were needed. It was important to him that the lands he governed be fairly treated—even more fairly, if possible, than they had been under their native rulers.

As a result, when the men who governed in his name did so unjustly, he punished them, banished them from his kingdom, or both. There was a humanitarian side to Alexander not usual in a fighting man, a willingness to dispense mercy as well as vengeance. He wanted to be commended as much as respected, respected as much as feared.

There was also a literary side to Alexander not usual in a fighting man, a craving for knowledge constantly encouraged by Aristotle. When Alexander "was in upper Asia, being destitute of other books, he ordered Harpalus [a long-time friend who, being lame, could not follow Alexander into battle] to send him some; who furnished him with Philistus’ History, a great many of the plays of Euripides, Sophocles, and Aeschylus, and some dithyrambic odes, composed by Telestes and Philoxenus. For a while he loved and cherished Aristotle no less, as he was wont to say himself, as if he had been his father, giving this reason for it, that as he had received life from the one, so the other had taught him to live well."

To this unique man there was a unique reaction. Prayers were uttered both for and to him. Chalices were raised, toasts offered, and parades organized. Some people even wore rings that bore the great man’s likeness, and they were the most coveted pieces of jewelry of the age.

But there was a problem. For few people knew what Alexander looked like; they were not even sure of such basic facts as whether he was tall or short, fair-haired or dark, stocky or slender. Arguments about his appearance were common. Most of the people over whom he held dominion had never seen him and, in fact, never knew anyone who had seen him; and as several historians have pointed out, Alexander was too busy reconfiguring the planet to sit still for an artist. Clive James, in a late twentieth-century study of fame, explains the effect that this ambiguousness has had through the centuries: The physical image of Alexander the Great has thus altered from age to age. The sixteenth-century Paolo Veronese’s Alexander looks rather like the sort of cultivated Venetian nobleman who might have known Paolo Veronese. This tendency of Alexander’s image to match the passing moment has culminated, in recent times, with our belief that Alexander the Great looked and behaved like Richard Burton: big head, barrel chest, short legs, weeping because he has no more worlds to conquer, Wales has lost to England [in a soccer game] at Cardiff Arms Park and the beer has run out.

But this very lack of knowledge promoted the renown of Alexander all the more, especially in his own time, for it enabled those who idolized him to envision him on their own terms—to build a mental image that suited their own particular longings, as if they were constructing a model of their ideal human from a customized kit.

In a sense, these needs were satisfied all the more by Alexander’s premature death, which occurred one month before his thirty-third birthday. Some people believe he was poisoned by foes within his own ranks. More likely, he died of an infection exacerbated by prodigious consumption of alcohol. Regardless, as Gloria Steinem has opined, personalities and narratives projected onto the screen of our imaginations are far more haunting—and far more likely to be the stuff of conspiracies and conjecture—if they have not been allowed to play themselves out to their logical or illogical ends. Which is to say that people who die young, enabling us to fantasize about what the rest of their lives might have been like, are more compelling than those who are subjects of lengthy historical records.

It goes without saying that Alexander did not want to die young. Nor did his subjects want to lose him so early. But there is no doubt that he would have approved of the response to his early demise. He might have been a kind and considerate ruler, the greatest history had yet known, but in his own personal storehouse of virtues—a capacious structure—there was little room for humility. Writes the classicist Peter Bamm, fame and its golden shadow, posthumous fame, were always regarded by the ancients as worthy of the highest endeavor. Alexander, who was an intelligent and well-educated man, lamented the fact that there was no Homer to hymn his achievements.

But with or without a versifier, Alexander was determined to cast his golden shadow, to remain as imposing a presence in death as he was in life. As the end neared for him, he distracted himself as best he could by planning all the ceremonies and artifacts that would commemorate his departure from mortality—what they were to be and how they were to be exhibited. His coffin, for instance, as described by his biographer Mary Renault, was of beaten gold, the body within it embedded in precious spices. Over it was spread a pall of gold-embroidered purple, on which was displayed Alexander’s panoply of arms. Upon all this was erected a golden temple. Gold Ionic columns, twined with acanthus, supported a vaulted roof of gold scales set with jewels, topped with a scintillating gold olive wreath which flashed in the sun like lightning. Many were those who saw the display, the most lavish ever bestowed upon a deceased mortal. Alexander’s funeral procession wound through most of that vast empire of his and drew together many spectators; for from every city it came to, the people who came out to meet it, and followed beside it when it went away, never wearied of their pleasure in the sight. Week after week, month after month, at the pace of its laboring mules, preceded by road makers and pausing while they smoothed its passage of fifteen, ten, or five miles a day; stopping at towns where sacrifices were offered and epitaphions sung, the huge gold shrine, ringing and glittering, trundled across a thousand miles of Asia, the shock absorbers, whose construction has defeated scholars, protecting in death the body so careless of itself in life.

When Alexander’s body at last reached its final resting place, it was put on public display for as long as the embalmers’ handiwork would allow such a show in the blistering Mediterranean heat. Those who stood in line, baking in that heat for hours to see the gold sarcophagus in which the body lay, were grief stricken at Alexander’s passing. Of that there can be no doubt.

But it may also be that they were comforted, to some extent, by the proximity of the lifeless monarch. After all, if he were still alive, he would have been ensconced in a fortress somewhere far away or fighting battles equally distant, and those who so venerated him would not have been able to get within a hundred miles of him. This was their chance, at long last, to direct their adulation at its specific target. Alexander might not have been aware of the adulation, but those who dispensed it were finally able to feel the release, the relief, the contentment to the core of demonstrating their feelings for the great man within a few feet of where he lay.

It is another way of saying that fame has as much to do with the worshipper as with the worshipped.


Portrait of Benjamin Franklin by Anonymous.


Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Fame

The first American celebrity was Benjamin Franklin. Yet it was overseas, not at home, that Franklin’s fame reached its apogee. Dispatched to Paris in 1776 by the various colonial governments, he found himself admired, adulated, lionized. No advocate of false modesty, Franklin was delighted by his reception.

Franklin’s assignment was to enlist French support for the colonists in the Revolutionary War. He was seventy years old at the time, and most of his life was behind him. Never before, though, had a human being filled his days with such astonishingly varied productivity.

There were his inventions: bifocal lenses; a primitive storage battery; a copperplate press to print currency; a phonetic alphabet; a stove that bore his name and that could, because of its unique arrangement of flues, heat a room twice as effectively as a conventional stove while using a quarter of the fuel; designs for both copy machines and hot-water systems; a chair that turned into a stepladder and another chair with one arm extra wide so it could serve as a writing surface; a musical instrument called the armonica, for which both Beethoven and Mozart would compose pieces; and—of all things—swim fins, for whose invention Franklin was honored by being the only Founding Father inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame.

For those who did not know how to swim and thus had no need for fins, he also had a plan: In a long letter that conjoined the physics of floating bodies, the psychology of desensitization to fear, and the pedagogy of new tricks to old dogs, Franklin laid out a concise program for basic drown-proofing. And because his brother John was suffering from the use of a conventional catheter to pass urine, he invented the first flexible catheter known in America, and made certain that his brother received one as quickly as possible: I went immediately to the silversmith’s and gave directions for making one (sitting by till it was finished) that it might be ready for this post.

And, of course, he also thought up a government like no other in human experience. Obviously, he had help with the latter—a great deal of it, going all the way back to Cicero, the greatest statesman of the Roman Republic, whose ideas proved influential to many of the Founding Fathers. Nonetheless, Franklin’s role in creating

You've reached the end of this preview. Sign up to read more!
Page 1 of 1


What people think about The Politics of Fame

0 ratings / 0 Reviews
What did you think?
Rating: 0 out of 5 stars

Reader reviews