The Fame Game

Alan Brien

  • Hype by Steven Aronson
    Hutchinson, 198 pp, £5.95, May 1984, ISBN 0 09 156251 1
  • Automatic Vaudeville by John Lahr
    Heinemann, 241 pp, £8.95, September 1984, ISBN 0 434 40188 9
  • Broadway Babies: The People who made the American Musical by Ethan Mordden
    Oxford, 244 pp, £19.00, August 1984, ISBN 0 19 503345 0

Steven Aronson’s Hype, a guide to the latest techniques of mass manipulation, may have less impact on British readers than it has had on American. The word is a recent coinage, but since the days of Dickens’s American Notes or, even earlier, of Fanny Trollope’s Domestic Manners of the Americans, we have been accustomed to associate the practice of hype with what many Brits still call the Yank. For a century, in boys’ comics, thrillers, magazine humour, music-hall sketches and pre-war films, the American was a loud-mouthed, boastful vulgarian who always claimed that whatever he had must be the biggest, the rarest or the most expensive in the world. The Yank was never satisfied with a fair share, we thought, and I well recall hearing Tommy Trinder complaining on stage during the war that there were only three things wrong with the GIs – they were ‘overpaid, over-sexed, and over here’ – and how I cheered along with the rest of the uniformed audience.

This stereotype, based though it is on envy, resentment, snobbery and self-regard, contains some truth. Aronson argues that in America language is being continuously and routinely debased, so that the inhabitants find themselves increasingly in ‘a universe where everything is “FABULOUS!” so “nothing is anything.” ’ But this has long been true. When I first lived in New York in 1956, I frequently discovered an awkward, embarrassed pause when, after being shown a house, a view, a painting, a child or a salad dip, I responded only with ‘very nice’. I was taken aside by kind friends who demanded to know was I deliberately being offensive and hurtful, or what? I had to explain that ‘nice’ in educated Britishspeak did not mean just ‘adequate’ or ‘competent’ or ‘mildly pleasing’ but was a vigorous term of praise. As for ‘very nice’, that was verging on the fulsome.

Aronson concedes that hype, as a form of sales-talk, or bait for the sucker, is a central strand in the American tradition, tracing it through Melville’s ‘The Confidence Man’, Whitman’s ‘Song of Myself’ and Mark Twain’s delight in tall tales. But sometime, date unspecified, he believes a new thing happened: people began to take it seriously and believe it. His contemporary evidence for hype’s ‘essentially American origins’ is based on Gore Vidal; it hardly seems to square with what has gone before. Vidal explains what was apparently long a well-known American defect – difficulty in making conversation – by going back to Frontier days, when ‘it was really not considered good form to ask anybody where he was from or what he did or even what his name was, because he was probably “wanted”.’ I think I can confidently state that few Europeans encountering Americans travelling abroad, at least in the last half-century, have noticed any concern for good form that prevents them asking us where we are from, what we do and what our names are. If they display any insecurity about themselves, it is that they might not be wanted, here or at home.

Aronson’s book is put together in a rather looseleaf style and concentrates on a narrow sample of hype-users – the ad-business image-makers, gossip-columnists, society hairdressers, celebrity restaurants. He ends with three chapters – some forty pages, headed ‘Tough Mutton Dressed as Tender Lamb and Marketed as Romantic Mush’ – devoted to what turns out to be an only too familiar figure to British readers, Barbara Cartland. Some examples seem to have dropped out on the journey across the Atlantic – architecture, for one, since there is a picture of Philip Johnson, unmatched with any reference in the text – though this can hardly account for the absence of more than a passing reference to film-making and marketing, the prefabrication of the best-seller in publishing or the promoting of the politician. Some of Aronson’s best discoveries lie off his main track, in the hedgerows. I was gratified to collect Adlai Stevenson’s highly Orwellian pronouncement – that is to say, a comment so obvious, and so obviously true, that we all forget no one has made it – about American election practice: ‘a candidate has to render himself unfit for office in order to obtain it.’ I also relished his revelation of the disorienting effect of hype withdrawn, shown by the case of ex-Queen Soraya, ‘who as Empress of Iran had grown so accustomed to having crowds make way for her that as a private citizen she kept crashing into people in the street’.

But what exactly is hype in Aronson’s view? He defines it as ‘the merchandising of a product – be it an object, a person or an idea – in an artificially engendered atmosphere of hysteria, in order to create a demand for it’. This is quite good as a working rule, though it seems to me that Aronson has partly swallowed the bait in accepting that ‘a person or an idea’ is already a product. The definition would be more rigorous if it began ‘the merchandising as a product ...’ But then Aronson is not so antagonistic to hype as the production of a book tracking down its extreme forms might suggest. His book’s cover imitates rather than parodies it – the title expanding outwards and upwards, Star Wars fashion, over the reader, the subtitle proclaiming ‘The Best-Selling Exposé of the Fame Game’.

His style too frequently has the ring he recognises in the sound of the word itself: ‘sharp, shrieky, cheap, belligerent, predatory’. He strains painfully for epigrams, like a copywriter working towards an advertising slogan, reassembling the available properties until they provide the setting for a mechanical flourish of rhetoric. The career of the second husband of Cheryl Tiegs – America’s top model and Aronson’s chief example of how a star is born – has been arranged so that Aronson can sum him up as ‘an outdoorsman who times beyond number had slept beneath the stars; an irresistibly handsome adventurer who times beyond number had slept on top of them’. So pleased is he with this empty trope that he rearranges it several times within the next four pages. Elizabeth Taylor sitting up late at night is presumed to be ‘watching the falling stars with a certain sense of sympathetic identification’, while other guests show contempt on discovering that ‘Jagger, despite the waves of women he had rolled through, could not swim in simple water.’ As in all hype, words have become things in themselves, more important than the fuzzy reality they try to represent.

Aronson argues that hype need not always be unattractive or bad – indeed, can be ‘properly enhancing’. The book does not provide much evidence for this. Cheryl’s rise and rise is both ludicrous and shameful, since, apart from an ‘awesome’ body, her talents appear moderate, and Aronson nudges us at each new incredible reward she receives: ‘a five-year contract with Olympus (Cameras) which, in return for seven days of her time every 15 months, will net her almost two million dollars – repeat, two million dollars’. He fails to appreciate that the true obscenity lies in the way a public has been conditioned to grant someone what is almost the status of an immortal on earth. As Cheryl travels across America, crowds gather to shout: ‘I bought your camera,’ I buy your eyeliner,’ ‘I love your hair,’ ‘You have the cutest smile,’ ‘I’m your Number One fan.’ He reserves his praise for Kenneth, who has gained immense fame and fortune doing women’s hair, yet, Aronson believes, has managed to remain ‘proportionate’, owning ‘the world’s most flamboyant beauty parlour’ where, ‘remember, anybody, “absolutely anybody”, can walk through the door.’ He builds up ‘Suzy’, the gossip columnist who scorns social climbers and cannot be bribed by them, into the composite Woodward and Bernstein of the social world, fearlessly printing the truth no matter what the threats or promises. His lash falls on Barbara Cartland, who refuses to discuss Princess Di’ s periods, and Diana Trilling, who asks him an unwise favour to help polish her image. This seems not so much because of their evident vanities and occasional sillinesses but because they manage to survive his attacks, unscathed, protected by their own sense of themselves.

It is a relief to turn to John Lahr’s Automatic Vaudeville, 15 reprinted essays written over the last decade, which go far to confirm his rating as the Leavis of the popular, largely performing arts, though this collection also includes a snatch of reportage on Dallas – at once living legend and exploded myth – in which he displays his beady eyes and bat ears, as well as a suggestive, too short essay on fame. Lahr is better at making the words flow than Leavis but he has the same dedication to the dogmatic generalisation – ‘Musicals celebrate two things: abundance and vindictive triumph’ – which you feel challenged to see him argue out and justify. Like Leavis, he sticks close to the text, argues from point to point, and only occasionally succumbs to the allure of the bright idea. His feel for the shape, texture, timing and spirit of work on stage may be transmitted in his genes but in six pages he gives the best description and appreciation I have ever read of Dame Edna Everage.

This is not to say that Lahr is unchallengeable. One of his best qualities is his way of dragging you into the dispute, leaving you with the feeling that you, as well as he, would like to say more on the subject. Unlike most commentators on Stephen Sondheim, he becomes more critical as he becomes more serious, and makes several pointed and original observations. But in the course of analysing the American musical I wonder has he noticed that almost every one of its great practitioners is Jewish? Surely this is a cultural and social fact of key importance. And what is one to make of the discovery that hit me head on, fresh from Britain many years ago, covering the birth of a new and revolutionary musical: composer, director, lyricist and book-writer were all Jewish, all homosexual, and three had been members of the Communist Party? Like all good critics, Lahr leaves us with as many questions as answers. His essay on fame covers in a few pages most of the points in Aronson’s Hype. But now I want to know, not why so many people want to be famous, but why so few realise that fame is perhaps the worst wish the monkey’s paw could grant anyone.

Ethan Mordden’s Broadway Babies has a title and subtitle (‘The People who made the American Musical’) which over here would suggest that it is going to be what publishers call ‘popular’ and booksellers ‘unsaleable’. Over there, no one would be surprised to find this a serious yet enjoyable work, by a fan who is not ashamed to sound academic, by a scholar who is not worried by seeming enthusiastic. There is an audience in America which has a bigger appetite for opinions, any opinions, and facts, any facts, about the theatre than it has for going to it. Ethan Mordden’s alert and painstaking analysis of the entertainment in which America still leads the world caters for a superior version of this need. Some of his best observations, about unusual stars like Barbara Cook or Gwen Verdon, may mean little to British readers since the performers have not crossed the Atlantic, in the flesh or on celluloid. This makes Mordden’s inclusion of a lengthy ‘discography’, over forty pages, all the more useful since it will enable those intrigued or excited by his judgments at least to listen to such forgotten delights as Harold Arlens’s ‘House of Flowers’.