They’re famous because we need them

WE WERE TALKING about famous people. “But how can you admire John McEnroe?” I asked my son the sportsman, who had just declared he did. “I know he’s a great tennis player, but he’s a nasty guy.”

“Correction,” my son returned. “He’s a great tennis player and he’s a nasty guy. He uses his nastiness deliberately to fluster his opponents. It’s part of his strategy. I think he’s terrific.”

“But tennis is a gentleman’s game,” I protested feebly, “isn’t it?” I liked the idea. More than once during my son’s 10 years as a tennis player, I had imagined him, lean and brown at 21, courteously correcting the linesman-’His point, not mine, I’m afraid, sir’- or leaping lightly over the net to congratulate his opponent. The control and good form he learned playing tennis would have moral as well as athletic uses, it seemed to me. Driving him across town in the summer sun or signing checks for racquets, I allowed myself an archaic, Dickensian thought: I am making a gentleman.

Now here he was, lean and brown at 21, an excellent tennis player, and he was extolling John McEnroe. I decided to be tactful: “John McEnroe is a juvenile, bad-tempered punk. How can he be a tennis hero?”

Winton grinned. “Oh, come on, Mom. Heroes are not all the same. He’s a punk tennis hero. He does what punks always do-he challenges the forms. That’s how he wins.” What I called a violation of the gentleman’s code Winton called admirable bravado and practical intimidation. In McEnroe, he saw what many young people want- a successful way to rebel against convention.

Who was right, my son or me? Maybe we both were. One person’s hero is another person’s punk. My infamous, like McEnroe, might be your famous. On my football field, the players would help each other up and apologize. Winton and I were saying less about McEnroe than we were saying about ourselves and about the years that separate us. I value the adherence to an idealistic and self-imposed code of behavior; Winton values the imagination and daring to turn the code on its ear.

But heroism is one thing, fame is another. To me, McEnroe isn’t a hero, though I grant he’s famous. We are bombarded with “famous people,” many of whom I’ve never heard of. In this country we are rapidly approaching the time Andy Warhol predicted when he said that in the future, everybody will be famous for 15 minutes. It will take real concentration to keep all these famous people straight. But that’s okay. We can’t spare any of them if we want to keep our options open.

I like a suggestion made by my friend A.C. Greene. He says all famous people should be required to wear identification buttons to help us place them. FAMOUS WHERE I COME FROM. FAMOUS, BUT YOU DON’T KNOW ME. The possibilities are infinite: FAMOUS IF YOU WATCH PHIL DONAHUE. FAMOUS, BUT I’VE BEEN SICK. FAMOUS IN X-RATED MOVIES.

Without these buttons, it’s unsettling to see how out of it one can sometimes be. Several months ago, I switched on the noon news while I munched a solitary sandwich, and happened to get live coverage of the Ms. magazine Woman of the Year Award Show. The reporter was interviewing a famous person who was a Woman of the Year-Cyndi Lauper her name was-and I had never heard of her. I’m a woman and here was a celebrated one of my sex, a Woman of the Year, and I hadn’t a clue who she was. I felt as unsexed as Lady Macbeth. Who was Cyndi Lauper? An astronaut? A doctor? A new Mother Teresa? How had I missed her name in the news? Was I losing my mind?

Fortunately, my friend Tim filled me in. “Don’t feel bad,” he consoled me. “You couldn’t know unless you listen to a lot of pop music. But she is famous.” A simple button, FAMOUS ON FM RADIO, would have helped.

MOST FAMOUS PEOPLE I don’t care about meeting at all. On the whole, I approve of the character in Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, a young man on his honeymoon who lights William Holden’s cigarette on a New Orleans street without a flicker of recognition. That way he proves to himself and to his little bride that he is every bit the man Holden is. And meeting the famous can be downright disillusioning, especially those for whom language is not the metier. At a small party I shook hands with Mikhail Baryshnikov-a dynamo, an angel, on the stage. My daughter refuses to believe it, but offstage he’s just a short, muscular man with a Russian accent.

Almost all of the famous people I have cared about have been writers. I may not know anything about Cyndi Lauper, but I know that Saul Bellow has been married four times and that Donald Barthelme is a neighbor of Grace Paley and that Margaret Drabble was married to an actor and that. . .you get the picture. I take a worshipful interest in people who write books.

This interest began early. Too young to swoon over Frank Sinatra, too old for Bea-tlemania, I somehow missed-my whole generation missed-the pleasures of being a teenager. Teenagers hadn’t been invented yet. We were just too young to be adults. Then one day we looked up, and there were teenagers, but we were too old. So we had to make do with more private passions than Frankie or Elvis or John Lennon. I had spent my uneventful, non-teenage youth with, as my mother always put it, my “nose stuck in a book,” so what could be more natural than to develop a devoted interest in the famous people who wrote them? At 16,I was in love with Keats, tragically ill; with Shelley, the ethereal and somehow also very sexy spirit; and particularly with witty, sardonic Byron.

I remember my initial encounter, if it can be called that, with a “real author.” I had transferred my devotion from “Sheats and Kelley,” as my jaundiced boyfriend called them, to Emily Dickinson. Then, as a freshman in college, I discovered Eudora Welty, more or less in the flesh, and set her beside the divine Emily in my pantheon. It hardly mattered that Emily Dickinson was a dead Yankee and Eudora Welty a living neighbor.

Miss Welty’s large, pleasant house with its shaded yard sat two blocks from the Mississippi state capitol, right across the street from the girls’ school I attended. Reticent as she was and still is, she nevertheless quickly became an idol of my bookish friends and me. We peered out of our dorm windows to study the activities in the house across the way, scrupulously following the comings and goings of Miss Welty’s mother, Miss Welty’s friends, the black maid, the postman, the dry-cleaning man and even Miss Welty herself. Every movement in that house and yard was for us suffused with magic. The secret that we needed to become great and famous writers ourselves resided there.

Occasionally, I would run into Miss Welty on an errand in downtown Jackson. I never introduced myself. Instead, without hesitation, silent and I hoped invisible, I pursued her. I would follow her at a distance along the quiet Southern streets, and look in store windows at displays of spring dresses or books, trying to see what she saw. When she caught the North State Street bus home, I followed her, sat behind her, gazed out the window at the big old houses, the little “colored” shacks, the ugly new brick moderns, the capitol grounds. Where was her secret? Then I’d sit in my dorm room and read her stories again and wonder how I’d missed it.

A quarter of a century later, a grown-up lady professor, I had lunch and an hour of private conversation with Miss Welty. 1 wondered: Should I tell her directly how considerably she had absorbed my girlish enthusiasm? Would she want to know, or would she feel crowded, encroached upon, however lovingly? When the moment came, I stifled the impulse. I had been right to conceal myself as a girl, I saw, feeling in her a reticence so strong she might have been wearing a button: FAMOUS, BUT DON’T MENTION IT.

SEVERAL SUMMERS ago, I got the same bug about the English novelist Iris Murdoch. To comprehend my strange behavior, you must understand that I have read every syllable ever committed to print by Miss Murdoch, which includes twenty novels, four plays, three books of philosophy and many essays. I thought Miss Murdoch possibly knew an even more profound secret than Eudora Welty.

In the summer of 1982,I had a job in England. As I made plans for five weeks in Oxford, I realized that Steeple Aston, where Iris Murdoch and her husband live, would be only 30 minutes away. Should I? Did I dare?

I dared, wrote her a little note in care of her publisher. Her response came promptly:

Thank you very much indeed for your kind letter. I am afraid I cannot manage an interview just now. I am very busy and trying to finish something and am going away shortly. I’m sorry! But I am “sure you will be in England again before too long, and then do write again. This is just a very full time.

The nicest possible brush-off, I thought, but it certainly left the door open for a second attempt, which I made the following summer. This time I got a tentative yes.

I shall be away for part of the second half of July I’m afraid. However I might be able to make some impromptu arrangement when you are here. Maybe you could telephone me when you are in England.

And she sent me not one but two phone numbers, one in Steeple Aston, the other in London. I decided she was willing and that I should persist.

As soon as I got over jet lag, I called the Steeple Aston number. A gentle male voice told me that Ms. Murdoch was in London. I dialed the London number and got the lady herself. Oh, yes, she remembered, she said calmly but not unenthusiastically. She couldn’t tell me anything just now. Could I call her in Steeple Aston later in the week, say about 8:15 on Friday morning? Then she would know more.

I could and did. She couldn’t promise me anything, but would I mind terribly phoning her in London the middle of the following week, say about 1:30 Wednesday afternoon?

I wouldn’t and did. Same song, second verse. The gentle male voice would redirect me; or Ms. Murdoch herself, in the nicest possible way, would make vague promises for 7:30 on Thursday morning or 12:25 on Tuesday. Her times were always very exact, but I got absolutely nowhere. This went on for five weeks.

It got pretty funny. I wasn’t angry, both because she was so nice about it all and because I knew I was being a nuisance. I felt guilty, but I didn’t stop. In fact, she didn’t seem to want me to stop. It might have been insulting to her if I had stopped. At some point in the third week, I began to find the whole thing terrifically amusing and exhilarating, like some elaborate philosophical “muddle” (one of her favorite words) in an Iris Murdoch novel.

But time was running out, my job was ending, and I could hardly stick around through August just to phone Iris Murdoch twice a week, enjoyable as it was. On the next go-round I leveled with her. “Look, Ms. Murdoch,” I said, “this is my last week in England. Please just say if you don’t want to talk to me. All you have to do is say no, and I will understand perfectly.”

A silence. Then, “Oh, no, I certainly couldn’t do that,” she said. Another silence. “Could you come out to Steeple Aston on Thursday?” Oh, yes. “But how will you get here? Do you know the bus schedules?” A friend will drive me. “But your friend-what will she do while we talk?” She likes old churches, I said. (And jails and tombstones and-and cricket fields, for Pete’s sake. I mean, what did I care? I could taste victory.)

Very well then. “Be here at 11:45 Thursday morning.” A pause. “No, make that 11:40.”

I won’t tell you all of the trials. How we chugged up the road to Steeple Aston in Kathy’s Morris Minor, which will make 50 downhill. How we got lost (Ms. Murdoch’s directions were another test for us) and found the place only when a very persnickety lady working in her yard directed us to “the untidiest garden in the village, you can’t miss it, it’s a disgrace.” How we found it 30 minutes late and Kathy let me out, alone and terrified at what my persistence had brought me to, and how, when after a long wait Ms. Murdoch came to the door, she had forgotten all about it!

I will tell you that it was worth it. We talked about her books and life and God and people. And she passed on some secrets: to work hard and to trust my dreams, and to be happy and to love my family and friends. Nothing, to be sure, I didn’t know already from having lived awhile myself. But these universally known secrets were certified for me, in Walker Percy’s term, as I sat in the comfortable, cluttered sitting room, balancing a small glass of sherry on my knee, taking in the chess board and the paintings, and the books overflowing the shelves and stacked on the floor and Iris Murdoch herself, who might have been wearing a button: FAMOUS BECAUSE I’M A SYMBOL.

Because of course that’s what famous people are for us, symbols of whatever we want most in our lives. What they symbolize depends on where we are, what we need: cutting loose from the conventions of gentility like John McEnroe, making it as a woman like Cyndi Lauper, seeing a familiar world with ever-new eyes like Eudora Welty. Through them, we leam to balance work and dreams and happiness and love, the rich brown liquor of life.


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