I recently heard that Andy Warhol had revised his infamous prediction. Instead of every man, woman and child in America being allotted 15 minutes of fame, it's now been cut to 15 seconds.
This is Peter N. Carroll's 15 seconds.
As the author of "Famous in America," he examines the lives of four celebrities: Jane Fonda, George Wallace, Phyllis Schlafly and John Glenn -- and attempts to draw some sort of conclusion about their individual and collective passion to succeed.
It's an intriguing idea. Four celebrities who, on the surface, have little in common except for their notoriety must be seething with the same burning desire for fame and recognition. What is it that drives them? What childhood ghosts still linger in their psyches? Why are they any different from the rest of us?
Unfortunately, we don't find out here. What could have been a compelling, behind-the-scenes peek at the private lives of public figures turns out to be nothing more than an aimless rehash of facts, quotes and conclusions culled from celebrity bios. Carroll, it seems, didn't interview the four subjects himself. As he says, "Perhaps the most obvious, yet startling aspect of fame in America today is the insatiable thirst for information about the private lives of public figures. There is, quite simply, an astonishing abundance of material relating to the subjects of this book."
This is one book you won't put down. It's so dull, it will land with a thud after you've nodded off, waiting for something to happen.
In fact, I started out liking it, especially after the first chapter on Fonda, in which we learn about the marriage of Henry Fonda and Frances Brokaw and the birth of their daughter, known as "Lady Jane." All visitors to the nursery, including the baby's father, were ordered to wear masks. No kisses were allowed. We also learn that when she broke her arm, she didn't tell anyone and throughout her life would "prove to be remarkably accident prone. But her stubborn refusal to communicate pain was itself a clue to her vulnerability."
Privileged and pampered, she felt she was ugly. She worried about becoming poor and fat. She found out her father was having an affair with another woman. After her parents divorced, her mother Frances was committed to an asylum, where she committed suicide by slitting her throat with a two-inch razor.
All this is boffo stuff, even if we have read it somewhere else, but just when our juices get flowing, Carroll switches gears and launches into the young life of George Corley Wallace, who isn't nearly as much fun as Fonda.
Born in a small wood-frame house with no electricity or plumbing, Wallace grew up pining for a Sears Roebuck cowboy suit and took out his aggression in boxing. At the age of 16, he won a spot as a page in the state Senate, and after his marriage to childhood sweetheart Lurleen Burns, he went back to the capitol as a state legislator. Heady with power, he eventually ran for president, promising his second wife Cornelia he would make her "the Jacqueline Kennedy of the red-necks."
From there we jump to Phyllis Stewart Schlafly, the least likable of the four subjects. Born to a modest, moderately pious Roman Catholic family in St. Louis, young Phyllis never had a store-bought dress or a bicycle. Somewhat repressed, she was interested in dancing and culture and eschewed athletics, fearful it would make her seem unfeminine. (She also had a fear of public showers.) She went to work, then met and married Fred Schlafly, an Alton, Ill., attorney. Intensely ambitious, she combined changing diapers with handing out leaflets and made her name as a conservative Republican, fighting first the commies, then the women's libbers. Republican national conventions, she once said, "are the most fun things I can think of."
John Glenn, on the other hand, was so apple-pie perfect he never fought for anything. He even won $15,000 on "Name That Tune." A friend once said, "John tried to behave as if every impressionable youngster in the country were watching him every moment of the day."
We know what became of all of them. fered, they saw friends desert them, ill-health took its toll, and people wrote terrible books about them.
"Ambition, aggression, anger -- these are clues for understanding success in America," Carroll writes.
Unfortunately, Carroll doesn't understand it any better than the rest of us. As theories go, actress Sissy Spacek has a good one. Her definition of success, she once said, was "being able to order anything on the menu."