Celebrity Conquers America


Washington died in 1799. In the next century the drags on American celebrity began to be removed. The telegraph and the rotary press increased the immediacy and the reach of print. Whereas in 1776 the Declaration of Independence took five days to reach New York from Philadelphia, in 1863 Americans learned about Gettysburg and Vicksburg the day after they happened. The twentieth century added images and voices to the media mix as well as quantum leaps in speed and extent, so that certain celebrity events —such as heavyweight prizefights—must now be artificially embargoed or else anyone with a television could follow every uppercut as it happened. In the next century we’ll be able to follow them on laptops, phone screens, twoway wrist monitors, or whatever else we have by then.

Improved transportation brought celebrities to more people. Atlantic crossings became so much easier that celebrity Englishmen made the trip not because they were impelled to preach God’s word, like Whitefield, but simply to read their own words, like Charles Dickens. At the time of Dickens’s first American tour, in 1842, the world had grown so small that he felt entitled to complain about American copyright laws. The American reaction so displeased him that he wrote the American chapters of Martin Chuzzlewit. By the time of his second trip, in 1867-68, the copyright situation had been smoothed out, and so had his temper. Now the world is small even for celebrities as minor and specialized as the globe-trotting academics of David Lodge’s novels.

We all intuit that these companions are never really with us, and so we prefer them wasted, addicted, or dead.

The explosion of media and the contraction of the world 1 improved conditions for celebrity. Two other factors, internal to celebrity itself, also changed, one having to do with process, the other with content. Celebrities were discovered by marketers. Whitefield and Washington had not pursued their careers for the money, and famous entertainers, such as the great actors from the days of the Globe Theater on, had made money only for themselves and their companies. What was new in the nineteenth century was the impresario of the career of others, the figure whose profession was promoting celebrity. The American archetype was Phineas Taylor Barnum. After several unsuccessful careers (a stint in journalism was cut short by a libel suit), Barnum took up showmanship. His first great attraction was a fraud: Joice Heth, a black woman whom he billed as more than 160 years old and as George Washington’s nurse. When Heth died in 1836, it was discovered that she had been no older than 70. Barnum kept moving. Some of his stars were the genuine article. Jenny Lind, the “Swedish Nightingale,” had a truly lovely soprano voice; Chopin described it as “surrounded not only by an ordinary halo, but by a kind of northern lights.” Barnum made her undoubted talents the focus of a sensational two-year American tour (1850-52), during which he guaranteed her one thousand dollars per performance, plus expenses. Lind and Barnum made out handsomely; the fact that he was paying her so much was part of her appeal.

By Barnum’s time there had already been a shift in what was thought proper to know about celebrities. In America this shift occurred first in politics. (The British wanted to know about the life of Lord Byron; America had produced great statesmen but no great poets.) The first elements of the lives of politicians revealed under the new rules of celebrity were the skeletons in their closets, and the first victim was President Thomas Jefferson. In 1802 the Richmond Recorder ran a precedent-setting story by one James T. Callendar: “It is well known that the man whom it delighteth the people to honor , keeps and for many years has kept, as his concubine, one of his slaves. Her name is SALLY [Sally Hemings, of course]. The name of her eldest son is Tom. His features are said to bear a striking though sable resemblance to those of the president himself.” All the elements of American celebrity gossip are here: the air of certainty ("it is well known that"); the reality of rumor ("his features are said to bear"); good old sex. Only the italicized Bible quotation seems old hat. Interestingly, Callendar’s first big scoop, five years earlier, had been a story accusing Alexander Hamilton of a corrupt connection with a pair of crooks while he had been Treasury Secretary. Hamilton replied, in self-defense, that his connection with the lowlives had been based merely on blackmail and adultery. At the end of the eighteenth century, public money was more important, to accusers and accused alike, than private lust. But the Sally Hemings story put the zipper alongside the pocket in American public life.