Ages ago now, when I was first convalescent, I read Deborah Davis’s account of Truman Capote’s famous black and white ball, Party of the Century. It was exactly what I needed at the time, a really fun and easy to read book, gently engaging, full of interesting cultural history and a cast of technicolour characters. What I found most intriguing and surprising was that only the penultimate chapter actually deals with the ball. The rest of the book covers Capote’s life, his shameless self-publicity in the run up to In Cold Blood coming out (the party was a kind of promotional event, only masked, like his guests), the stories of some of the famous celebrities who attended it and lots of tales about the organization of the event (for instance, having bid his guests to wear masks, the few designers in town who could provide them nearly worked themselves into early graves to satisfy the demands of 500 partygoers). It really was like the literary equivalent of a big night out – the interest is all in the build up, with the celebration itself being something of an anti-climax. I imagine that feeling the eyes of the world upon them, Capote’s guests behaved themselves, or if they didn’t, then they knew how to do discretion back then.
What I found particularly appealing was the innocence that surrounded the cult of celebrity back in the 1960s. I very much enjoyed the chapters concerning Capote’s ‘swans’ a gaggle of society beauties whom he holidayed with, hung out with and counselled in times of need. Each one had a story to tell about how they made it into the ranks of the rich and beautiful, some by sheer graft and clever marriage, some by opportunism, some because they were born into that world and had to struggle against bankruptcy or an alcoholic partner to keep their places in it. There was something delightfully old-fashioned and charming about these women who lived life as if it had been written by Sidney Sheldon, and it had to do with a certain compassion that emanated from Davis’s account. There was respect for their suffering as well as for their triumphs and it made me think about how low we have sunk today in the representation of celebrity by the media.
The current situation makes me wince for my culture. We’re surrounded in the UK by television programmes like I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here, and Big Brother, all of which seek to provide entertainment by torturing individuals one way or another, with the understanding that it is more pleasurable to see familiar faces on the victims. I think this is why the definition of a celebrity has become so feeble and all-inclusive, because a ‘celebrity’ is really another word for cannon fodder, and as such it is better that they have no actual skills or talents. Nobel Prize winners (few of whom could be named by the ‘man on the street’) have better things to do with their time, for instance, than engage in human lab rat experiments. A couple of hundred years ago, women used to knit by guillotines, public floggings were all the rage, witches were dunked for the edification of their communities, and the village stocks were always full. It’s this unkindly gleeful element of the human mentality that such programmes cater for, and it makes me very, very uneasy. Even something ostensibly civilized like Strictly Come Dancing has message boards for the public crammed full of what is effectively hate mail against the competitors who fail to win public affection. Our delightful media has clearly led the way here in validating a form of behaviour that is, to my mind, a form of psychosis. How many times do we see in the press a journalist evacuating their negativity onto some public figure (think Britney Spears) in a way that is wholly excessive and unwarranted but which allows them to maintain the sense of their own innocence? The moving finger of guilt so rarely turns around and aims at the person who has claimed a public platform from which to dole out harsh judgments. Yet I don’t believe that such journalists are exemplary figures themselves, far from it. I feel that judgment has become an issue like risk, in our contemporary culture, about which we’ve lost all sense of proportion. No one likes to be judged, and so schools and work places are now tightly regulated so that judgment cannot be passed where it might actually be useful; instead the culture encourages the public at large to go home and switch the television on or open a newspaper and vent their spleen on some two-dimensional cardboard cut out of a ‘celebrity’. Well, you can call me a party pooper if you like, but I think it’s unfair, unreasonable and ugly. I’m all for extending a little compassion to every individual, famous or not, because if you’ve noticed, it makes the stories they have to tell just so much more interesting.
On a completely different note – do visit Cam’s blog and join in on the roundtable discussion there on book blogging. Imani, Emily, Smithereens and I have set the ball rolling, now come along and have your say!