Not long ago a woman stood in the sunshine and said to me, "I want to be famous."
I thought about this for a long moment and then said the only thing that came to me.
The woman did not hesitate.
"I have a good life and plenty to be happy about, but I'm just a housewife," she said. "I want people to know who I am. I want to be admired."
We stood together, quietly thinking our own thoughts. I cannot tell you what the woman was thinking -- maybe she was imagining an appearance on Letterman, or her face on the cover of Vanity Fair, or a Caribbean tryst with John Mayer -- for she was smiling slightly.
I thought of the little prince.
For better or worse, we dwell in a Celebrity Age. The better or worse part is for you to decide, but the cult of celebrity is a fact. One does not need to be expert in such matters to know that Lindsay Lohan is in the news 24/7 (although it seems longer because the reports are so boring), her alleged demands for Adderall in rehab broadcast to the world.
For better or worse, the reporters, bloggers, and gossip readers (namely, all of us) of today are simply continuing a long history of fascination with Fame, Fortune, and Lives-That-Are-Not-A-Damn-Bit-Like-Ours.
"Movie stars fill the same role in today's society that the gods did for the Greeks, and royalty and nobility did in early Europe," says my friend Martin Turnbull. "We all have the need to look up to somebody, which isn't necessarily bad. There's a basic human need to have a hero."
How Lindsay Lohan fits into this I don't know, but my friend Martin knows much about celebrities, celebrity fascination, and celebrity history. He works as a private tour guide showing people the movie studios, Beverly Hills neighborhoods, Hollywood Hills vistas and, as he puts it, "where all the bodies are buried." In the course of researching and writing two excellent books ("The Garden on Sunset" and "The Trouble With Scarlett"), Martin has become something of a celebrity encyclopedia.
Martin is smart and witty and his years of research have provided him with a healthy sense of celebrity perspective and the many facets of Fame. Once he took me on a tour of Beverly Hills, where we parked alongside a curb. The air was that perfect temperature that exudes no temperature. Grass, flowers, and precisely culled shrubbery gleamed in the sun.
We were interested in a hedge. The hedge was across the street. It towered into the sky like a green tsunami, nearly swallowing a gate that closed off a driveway. The driveway, gate, and hedge belonged to Barbara Streisand.
"Look," said Martin.
I looked at Barbra's hedge.
"See the wall?" Martin said helpfully.
At the foot of the hedge was a low, lovely stone wall.
"That wall used to be enough," said Martin. "Look what we've gone from, a three foot fence to what, a fifteen foot hedge to keep the world out?"
"Would you want to live their life?" I asked.
Like many thoughtful people, Martin often redirects questions in philosophical fashion.
"Do you think Elizabeth Taylor was ever inside a Ralph's Supermarket?" he asked. "Do you think she ever had a normal day like you and me?"
I would pose a related question. How many people know who Elizabeth Taylor was?
Fame's fleeting kiss is everywhere.
A professor specializing in culture and mass media once opined, "If you don't have people asking who you are, you're nobody."
Antoine de Saint-Exupery's "The Little Prince" is one of my favorite books for many reasons. One of them is the author's ability to whip the mask off our vainglorious ways. The little prince visits a planet inhabited by a conceited man. The conceited man recognizes the little prince as -- but of course -- an admirer. The first thing he does is teach the little prince the one skill he needs to know. Clap your hands, one against the other.
I do not fault the conceited man, just as I do not fault the woman who would like to be famous. Beneath the various sheens, our needs are all very much alike. We all crave reassurance, the knowledge that a scrap of us will last beyond the flare of our life. For many, this assurance is called children. But there are certainly other means of reaching for a gossamer scrap of immortality, perhaps why Elizabeth Taylor gives up the chance to ever walk down a supermarket aisle, perhaps why an otherwise content woman stands in the sunshine and wishes she was famous and admired.
It is a deep-seated fear, to be forgotten, and neither celebrities, nor housewives, nor writers are beyond it.
But we should also ask ourselves the question the little prince poses to the conceited man when the clapping is done.
I admire you, but what is there in that to interest you so much?