Sunday, November 26, 2006

The Slow Decay

Mills of the gods

"The rich are different than you and I" Scott Fitzgerald famously said to Ernest Hemingway. A richer statement would have been "The famous are different than you and I." although since Scott and Ernest became quite famous, they could not have ended up different than themselves, so I guess the first statement will have to do. Other statements come to mind,"alcoholics are different than you and I" but Scott and Ernest both managed to do that too, so let's focus on famous.

I was out of town recently, and my family went to a bookstore that happened to be having a book signing by a woman named Paula Deen. My wife and daughter have watched her show on a minor cable channel for a couple of years, and we decided to get a signed copy of her cookbook. I had seen her show a few times but could not have told you her name. For some reason, I always think of her as Charlotte Rae. Rachel Ray is another woman with a cooking show and when I googled Charlotte Rae, I found that she was an actress that looks a bit like Paula Deen, hence, my confusion.

I was not surprised to learn that about 500 other people had the same idea as my family, regarding the autographed books. Ms. Deen, who travels and autographs her books with some guy that looks like a 60 year old Harley Davidson rider, that turned out to be her husband, sat at a table and autographed cook books for a couple of hours. The adulation toward her was amazing. About eight women showed up in black t-shirts with "Paula Deen sayings " on them. Men my age confided in me that they wanted their picture made with her. College students informed us that they were cooking Thanksgiving dinner based on her recipes. Except for the fact that no one tried to tear her clothes off, it was about like seeing one of the living Beatles.

It got me to thinking about fame, and for some reason, Crazy Guggenheim. Paula is seen in the afternoons every day by a fairly small number of people.Certainly less than a million. Crazy Guggenheim was a character played by Frank Fontaine on the old Jackie
Gleason show 45 years ago. He was seen every Saturday night by tens of millions. I doubt there was anyone under 50 living in those days who did not know Craz. In fact, there were damn few who did not do a pretty good immitation of him. "Hiya Joe, hello Mr. Donahee, he, he, he, he."I think about Crazy because I wonder how many people remember him now. He is a character who could not appear on television today. I thought that he played a retarded or brain damaged man who cleaned up at the bar where he appeared every Saturday night (he was always in the back). My wife thought that he was just an old drunk. The author of the well written Wikipedia piece on him straddles the line between these opinions, stating that he could have been a brain damaged drunk. Whatever. You could not have an alcoholic or retarded character on a show today whose presence depended upon his getting laughs based on his disability. As a society, we have just moved on. But that does not change the fact that Crazy Guggenheim was enormously popular, like the Fonz or Homer Simpson, and yet, when was the last time you heard the name of Frank Fontaine, or even Crazy Guggenheim mentioned ?

In ten years time there are going to be a lot of Paula Deen cookbooks in used bookstores. In 45 years time she will be lucky to have a Wikipedia article written about her. The people who stood in line for two hours to see her and get her to sign a book will all be gone, or unable to fathom why they did such a thing. At his point I am tempted to write that fame is the most fleeting of things. But too many others have written it before me. Famous people have written that. Real famous people ? Yeah, well name two. See what I mean ?

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