You're nobody, right? Old Whathisname. The kind of guy everybody meets and says: "I recognize the face . . ." The kind of guy, you give a check to your own kid and he asks you to put work and home phone numbers on it. c
Then you turn on the tube and you're watching Johnny or Merv or Mike or Dinah and they bring out Zsa Zsa Gabor or Monte Rock. These people are famous, right? For what? Did they sell more aluminum siding than anybody else in the history of La Plata, Md.? Did they ever have three kids with the chiken pox at the same time? They didn't even write diet books.
These people are famous for nothing.
And you're nobody. It hurts.
But there's hope. It's at the National Portrait Gallery, of all places.
"How Fleeting Is Fame" is the name of the show, and it's about 44 celebrities of the 19th century: big-timers, household names, bigger even than Zsa Zsa or Margaret Trudeau, because back then you had to do something to be famous.
Artists, doctors, writers, scientists, male and female, black, white and Indian. What they have in common is that they were all glitterati, and you've probably never heard of any of them, except for, maybe, Salmon Chase, whose picture appears on any $10,000 bills you might have in your wallet. Hamilton Fish and Thomas Hart Benton are familiar, but that's because they had famous namesake descendants in Congress and the arts.
But what about the celebrated poet Fritz-Greene Halleck? And comedienne Malvina Florence?
These people were big! We're not talking big like Nick Adams being the biggest star in the history of Japanese science-fiction movies. We're talking big big. These people were so big that lithograph companies cranked out their portraits by the thousands and sold them the way they sell John Travolta or Cheryl Tiegs nowadays.
"This was before newspaper photographs and television," said Wendy Wick, who put the show together. "They were the bread and butter of every print shop. They sold for a few pennies to up to $1.50. Sometimes they called them 'furniture prints' to be sold as decoration."
Imagine it: You check into a motel and over the bed, instead of the painting of the kitten with eyes the size of toilet seats, you see a portrait of Ferdinand Rudolph Hassler, the first superintendent of the U.S. Coast Survey. Or Jessie Fremont, whose husband lost a presidential campaign to James Buchanan. These people were stars!
"People bought these prints because the subjects were news, or symbols of causes. Or the print was a souvenir," said Wick.
And fun for the whole family, these Victorian black-and-white faces that look like they've had a lot of experience repossessing furniture and firing people on Christmas Eve. There's Col. Elmer E. Ellsworth, of the First Regiment Fire Zouaves, with his hip cocked cutely in mid-century fashion. There's T. W. Dorr, who led an armed rebellion to take control of Rhode Island. "The drapery, tassels and column in the background of this portrait were intended to suggest Dorr's legitimacy as a politician," says the accompanying plaque.
Maybe these people didn't do much to brighten up a living room, but back then, not only big-eyed kittens but even landscapes were genres that hadn't become the dominant fare. Art had yet to bring us such advances as the paint-roller cityscape, in which vertical stripes are rolled to various heights to evoke a skyline.
Instead, our esthetically impoverished forebears had to look at pictures of human beings. This was the great age of phrenology, and the belief that people's characters could be read in their faces, as opposed to their brand of jogging shoe, or the kind of animal on their knit shirts. This was an age when Hannah Adams, 1755-1831, could be the Judith Krantz, the Jacqueline Susann of her time with her book: "Alphabetical Compendium of the Various Sects," which went through four editions here and was republished in England. s
It's easy to understand why some of them, though, could end up in fame's out-basket.
William Miller, a Baptist preacher, developed a national following by predicting that Christ's second coming was a mortal lock in 1842 or 1843. He was the comet Kohoutek of the clergy. (Nowadays, of course, he could make a comeback in the year-end prediction galleries you read in the supermarket tabloids. Unless, of course, he continued to predict Christ's second coming in 1842 or 1843.)
These people were like a magic trick of history: Then we saw them, now we don't, unless we take a stroll through this tangy, perverse exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery through Aug. 23.
We're somebody. They're nobody.
Zsa Zsa? Monte? You listening?