IN THE LATEST People magazine there is an account of what was billed as the marriage of "Burt Reynolds' pal" to "David Janssen's widow." It was a wonderful story, full of captivating quotes (He: "She really lit me up") and poignant insights (She: "And then I realized David wasn't coming back from location"), but more than that it is a terrific example of what could be called derivative fame. That the ceremony was not performed by Billy Graham's cousin in Marilyn Monroe's former house had to be sheer oversight.
You will notice that so far I have not mentioned the name of either the bride or the groom -- or, for that matter, the horse the groom rode in on (he and Reynolds rode to the ceremony on horseback). This is because neither the bride nor the groom (nor the horse) is the reason People magazine lavished such space on the wedding. The reason is Burt Reynolds. He has the rare ability to bestow fame.
This is testimony to his enormous popularity. Up to now maybe only Frank Sinatra could do this. There are lots of people who are known for nothing more than being Sinatra's friend. This is the case, for instance, with Jilly Rizzo, the New York restaurateur who is known and indeed is famous for being Sinatra's friend. No one ever mentions his food.
So spectacular is Sinatra in this regard that his friendship robs people of whatever else their claim to fame might have been. Thus Peter Lawford is not an actor, or a former actor or even (and this is in itself derivative) the former brother-in-law of the former president, but Sinatra's friend. The same holds for Joey Bishop who is Sinatra's friend and not a comedian and for Juliet Prowse, a former dancer to be sure, but ultimately and most importantly a former Sinatra girlfriend.
Derivative fame should not be confused with famous-for-being-famous. This is a brand of fame for which the fame is totally unaccountable. The classic example of this is Zsa Zsa Gabor, who is famous soley for being famous. There is hardly a person who can cite a single play or movie she has ever been in. It goes without saying that all celebrities on the Hollywood Squares are famous for being famous and some of them are not even famous for that. And then there is Rula Lenska.
The all time famous-for-being-famous person is Arlene Francis. She was once in movies, it is true, but her fame nowadays does not rest on that. It rests, instead, on her fame. This became true also for Faye Emerson (though she began as a derivative by marrying Elliott Roosevelt) and it was true for a long time for Gloria Vanderbilt who has gone from being famous for being famous to famous for jeans. Before Gloria Vanderbilt, there were Julia Mead and Betty Furness who were introduced always as if you were supposed to know them from some other field where they were truly famous. There was, however, no other field.
Derivative fame is a wholly different matter. It is reflective and is based on the belief that fame can be transferred or, macabre as it might seem, taken. This is what Lee Harvey Oswald and Sirhan Sirhan did -- they took. They became famous by killing someone famous. Other people have become famous by having sex with someone famous, by marrying someone famous, by working for someone famous or, best yet, by working for someone famous and then writing a shocking book about that famous person.
In politics, derivative fame is called coattails and it is not supposed to work. Everyone writes about it anyway. Presidents, though, can bestow fame on their friends. Richard Nixon did this for Bebe Rebozo who was known only as Nixon's friend and Ronald Reagan has done this for a clutch of California millionaires, some of whom were famous in their own right until their friend became president and they lost their identities. They are now all known by the generic name of Rebozo.
But before we all get too judgmental, let us recall that the most common form of derivative fame is ancestor worship -- genealogy. People who care not one whit for celebrities and even less for celebrities once removed, are quick to cite their pedigrees -- as if the fact that they are descended from someone famous makes them a better person. Is it better to be the great-great grandson of, say, some Revolutionary War hero or Burt Reynolds' friend? I, for one, would rather be Reynolds' friend. That way you get to meet David Janssen's widow.