The Star as Draft Horse, Hauling Parasites

March 12, 1995|By PETER A. JAY

Havre de Grace. -- In a drug-blurred conversation taped in 1962, Marilyn Monroe, not yet 40 but facing the simultaneous collapse of her health and her career, mused groggily on the transitory nature of celebrity.

''Fame will go by and so long, I've had you, fame. If it goes by, I've always known it was fickle. So at least it's something I experienced.'' A few hours later, she was dead.

It wasn't easy being a celebrity then, and it's even harder now. The lights are brighter than ever before, and when they turn away to shine elsewhere, the dark that rushes in must be absolutely terrifying. It's no wonder the no-longer-famous often turn to drugs or sexual adventure or crackpot religiosity in order to keep up their spirits.

Celebrities are at their most embarrassing when they're trying desperately to regain the attention of a public that has tired of them. They are then beyond humiliation. They will do anything, say anything, pay anything or deny anything to turn on the lights once again. ''It is a mark of many famous people that they cannot part with their brightest hour,'' observed the late Lillian Hellman, who was in a position to know.

But when they're at the height of their fame, and therefore of their market value, celebrities aren't to be envied. For one thing, they attract parasites the way a roadside carcass draws flies.

The endless murder trial of O.J. Simpson, with its preening lawyers and its swarms of media-savvy nonentities, is the perfect showcase for this malign magnetism. As the courtroom soap opera grinds forward, there's an overpowering sense that establishing the guilt or innocence of the defendant is secondary to most of the members of the cast, whose main concern is simply keeping the whole enterprise going. O.J.'s no longer a hero or a villain. His new role is that of a draft horse, hitched to a wagon whose occupants expect him to pull until he drops.

When Baltimore's Reggie Lewis died of heart failure two years ago, 27 years old and in the prime of his career as the captain and star of the Boston Celtics, it was generally viewed as a sad stroke of fate. Here was a young man with the world at his feet, a husband and father, a role model for children. How capricious his death seemed at the time.

Now the Wall Street Journal, in a brilliant piece of reporting, shows to what an extent Reggie Lewis -- like O.J. Simpson -- had become the property of external economic interests. And although he was valuable, he was also vulnerable. Because he was a celebrity, he received special treatment -- and that almost certainly assured his death.

Although hardly a word of this reached the public at the time, so fierce was the full-court press mounted by his family and the Celtics, it now appears highly likely that the heart damage that killed Mr. Lewis was caused by cocaine. Cardiologists who examined him three months before his death were virtually certain of that. But Mr. Lewis, who denied using drugs, refused to allow a urine test, and the Celtics backed him up.

His reputation for clean living, and his right to privacy, were reverently invoked. There was also the matter of public relations. It had been only a few years since another Celtics recruit from Baltimore, the University of Maryland's Len Bias, had died of a cocaine overdose. No one wanted to endure a replay of that.

But there were huge financial implications too. If Reggie Lewis were medically unfit to play, he and the Celtics would jointly receive more than $15 million in insurance benefits. If his illness were proved to be drug-related, however, the insurance claims would be denied. When it looked as though Mr. Lewis' doctors at New England Baptist Hospital were going to insist on discussing the possible causes of his condition, he and his wife fled the hospital in the middle of the night and found new physicians.

The condition that was to kill him was treatable, cardiologists told the Journal, but because of his superstar status he and his employers were able to withhold crucial information that would have made treatment possible. ''If he was just a guy off the street,'' one doctor said, ''he would probably be alive today.''

In a sad coda to this dismal tale, the Journal discovered that Mr. Lewis' mother, a 48-year-old Baltimore security guard, has a cocaine-caused heart condition, too. Inez ''Peggy'' Ritch said her son had at one point offered to pay for her treatment, but then reneged. She said he and his wife were afraid that if it came to public attention that he had a relative with a drug problem, it would be damaging to his image.

They might have been right about that. Anyway, they managed to keep his image as shiny as could be, until he collapsed and died on a basketball court at 27 years of age. Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be famous.

4( Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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