'Star-gazing' Jades Us, Drains Us

Alice Steinbach

June 10, 1991|By Alice Steinbach

HERE IS WHAT I LEARNED from a recent issue of People magazine:

That Arnold Schwarzenegger plans to donate his motorcycle for display at a soon-to-open New York restaurant; that Whoopi Goldberg will wear socks only if they are designed by someone named E. G. Smith; that Larry Hagman's new house has a bedroom so big it "could house a family of Salvadorans for five years;" that CBS morning show host Harry Smith can trace his broadcasting instincts back to the time "when I was 4 or 5, stood on a chair and demanded to be heard;" that Ali McGraw is now "living a more independent life than ever;" and that Mike Tyson recently showed up in Paris wearing turquoise-leather shorts.

Somehow I don't think this intense examination of the lifestyles of the rich and famous is what Plato had in mind when he observed that the unexamined life is not worth living. Still, I suppose by now we should be used to it: our national preoccupation with the public and private lives of celebrities.

Celebrity gossip, of course, is fun to read ("Cher's nails are so long she had to be retrained in the use of her hands") and fun to watch (Diane Sawyer to Marla Maples: "Was Donald Trump really the 'best sex you ever had?' ") So much fun, in fact, that celebrity news has become a huge part of our lives.

Indeed, the public appetite for this sort of thing has made it necessary to create new categories of celebrities. To the old-fashioned mix of, primarily, actors and the occasional athlete or politician, we now have elevated to Celebrityhood the sort of person who not so long ago would never have rated a mention in Liz Smith or Vanity Fair.

Now we read with regularity about the comings and goings of investment bankers, television executives, real estate developers, agents, fashion designers, restaurant owners, hotel owners, writers, magazine editors, cabinet members, State Department spokespeople, speech writers, journalists, and virtually all politicians.

Which brings up a couple of questions: Have we as a society become too invested in the Cult of the Celebrity? And is there a point at which our infatuation with fame -- even the 15-minute kind -- stops being harmless fun and starts instead to siphon off some of the national energy needed to address other issues?

A recent survey by the Times Mirror Center for The People & The Press cited demographic studies showing that the popularity of "the new lighter media forms -- from People magazine to A Current Affair" may be producing patterns that are not in our national best interest. Particularly troublesome were the findings that young people today know less about current events, are less critical of our leaders and institutions, and vote less than young people in the past.

I thought about how this glut of celebrity news may be affecting the way we look at the world after I finished a remarkable book about a woman who was neither rich nor famous nor beautiful. Born in 1875, Anne Ellis lived in the early mining camps of Colorado and her memoir, "The Life of An Ordinary Woman, is not only a personal story but a history of the 19th-century West as well.

Compelling and honest, Ms. Ellis' stories of daily life in the American West, of the hardships and adventures she shared with other pioneer women and men, have little to do with fame, celebrity or gossip. But they have everything to do with history and with the traits we like to think of as forming the American character: strength, courage, straight-forwardness.

Of course, Anne Ellis lived long before the advent of such star turns as Andy Warhol's diaries or Madonna's "Truth or Dare." But the voice we hear in her book suggests that were she alive today, her interest in exploring the lives of people who were not famous, rich or celebrated would remain the same. In letters to her friends, Ellis explains her decision to write this book:

"I have known in my life only the most ordinary people, and always like to read of them, so I can and will write of just such folks as myself. There are so many millions of this kind who never write memories, but believe me, they have thoughts, hopes and aspirations which they cannot express and are never given credit for."

Anne Ellis died in 1938. But I suspect that anyone reading her book will remember this extraordinary "ordinary" woman long after they've forgotten who Brooke Shields is or why we cared so much about a blonde named Madonna.

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