The weighty burden of fame

Voyeurism, it turns out, is not an entirely new pastime. A colossal example of this fact is on display at the American Dime Museum, in a replica of reluctant celebrity Daniel Lambert.

Ideas: Celebrity

July 23, 2000|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Sun Staff

As Time magazine was saying recently: We Like to Watch. The reference was to voyeuristic television featuring "real" people in "real" behavior -- a new thing under the sun or a truth old enough to have come from Daniel Lambert, who happens to be dead nearly 200 years.

Lambert has recently arrived in effigy at the American Dime Museum in Baltimore. Find him in life-size representation dressed in vest, waistcoat and knickers and perched on a settee on the lower level of the museum. On loan from the Maryland Historical Society, it's a cloth and foam rubber reproduction of a wax figure, the kind of figure that marched on after Lambert died, spreading his fame outside England to the world. The kind of figure seen at the Peale Museum in Baltimore in 1817.

Lambert became known in the early 19th century Western world for one reason: he was exceedingly fat. What's notable now is how he became so famous and how it is that nearly two centuries after his death he sits there on Maryland Avenue staring blankly at a world wired for video and computer surveillance.

To visit Mr. Lambert one might first pass the severed hand of a homicidal prostitute, a giant Peruvian mummy, a two-headed calf, a bed of nails and a box containing a mysterious creature called an Oojiboo. Museums are for musing, and so it goes at the American Dime Museum, which opened last fall as homage to museums and carnivals of days gone by.

For all its quaint eccentricity, the Dime Museum suggests hip ironic commentary in a world of such "realities" as "Survivor," "Big Brother" and the "Jerry Springer Show." Ambling through the various concocted natural wonders and historical oddities, you inevitably think about what's "real" and not "real," what is belief and understanding and how they're different. It's as if you're standing between two large quotation marks.

Making of a star

Who knows what Lambert would have thought of this? He never wanted celebrity but got it anyway. He had no Web site and there was no LambertCam, nor was there a ravenous marketing / media machine built to turn humans into commodities. And yet, Lambert became a commodity.

Lambert, who was not modern or even Victorian, cast his name widely as he sat in a settee at home. At his death in 1809, he weighed 739 pounds, 123 pounds heavier than the man previously known as Britain's fattest.

Born in Leicester, England on March 13, 1770, Lambert grew to be 5-foot-11. By all accounts, obesity did not run in his family, nor did he eat or drink to excess. As a young man, he was active and enjoyed hunting and swimming. Yet, for reasons that remain mysterious, as Lambert's teen years ended, he started gaining enormous weight.

In his early 20s, Lambert succeeded his father as keeper of the prison in Leicester. He became a familiar figure to the locals, who would see him sitting in a chair outside the prison gates smoking a pipe. Surely the sedentary work did not help matters, but this alone would not explain why, by the time he reached 23, he weighed 448 pounds, according to an account published this year in a book by British doctor Jan Bondeson called "The Two-Headed Boy and Other Medical Marvels."

When the prison closed in 1805, Lambert was given an annuity of 50 pounds as thanks for good service. It was a nice gesture, but Lambert was unemployed. He soon became reclusive, avoiding his two favorite pastimes, horse racing and cockfighting, because people were constantly gawking at him. Strangers who had heard about this wonder of nature would visit him at his home under one pretext or another in hopes of a glimpse.

As Time notes, we like to watch.

A growing reputation

Lambert's friends suggested he cash in on public curiosity by exhibiting himself for a fee, but he loathed the idea. Money was becoming a problem, however, as the weight prevented Lambert from working.

"With the greatest reluctance," writes Bondeson, "he decided to travel to London and exhibit himself for money there."

There were fairgrounds and taverns where such exhibitions would go on, but Lambert evidently preferred a more dignified venue. In the spring of 1806 he set himself up in an apartment in Picadilly. He printed handbills advertising himself. For a shilling, people would show up and hang around, have a look.

These appearances were not surrounded by the seedy and raucous atmosphere one might associate with a carnival sideshow. Newspaper accounts describe visitors in conversation with an affable Lambert, who entertained with grace and witty rejoinders in response to occasional heckling and rude questions. One day, nearly 400 people were said to have streamed through his home.

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