07/17/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Fame Fatale

You see their boldface names and bald numb faces in the tabloids, and on all the glitzy infotainment shows (if you can bear to watch them). They are the nouveaux reachers, the celebutantes, the Cling-ons. Some are famous in their own right. Some seek out fame like moths around a flame, singeing their wings hoping to become butterflies. Some are fodder for internet forums, reality TV. Some show up depressed and contrite on Oprah or Tyra. Not a day goes by when one doesn't read about the latest suite of lovers checking into the Paris Hilton (and who sometimes don't check out) -- or the revolving door at the Cristiano Ronaldo rodeo, or the latest exploits of Angelina Jolie, who used to be known as the daughter of that guy who starred in Midnight Cowboy, but who is now just half of an overused, nonce word: "Brangelina."

Then there are the carny types: the chic geeks, the cheeky freaks. And the before-and-after side shows. Chastity Bono is having a sex change. Is this really news? Or anyone's business? Please, change the channel.

It seems that nowadays all it takes to be infamous is gobs of cash, but little cachet, a tenuous link to some nepotistic dynasty in Hollywood or Motown, or pseudo-glam parents. It helps to be the spawn of some overused jock who flaunts his plastic surgery rather than his Olympic gold medals. It doesn't hurt to be a former has-been. One used to ask, "Whatever happened to so-and-so?" The Danny Bonaduces and Scott Baios of this world? Now one yearns for ignorance. Take Wacko Jacko's ear. Or what's left of it. When Van Gogh cut off his ear, he did it for love. When Michael Jackson did, it was to replace his nose.

Once upon a time we dreamed about the love lives of the rich and famous, now we debate whether they purposely leaked their porn films to the press. When a video of Bret Michaels getting banged at the Tonys showed up on YouTube recently, I couldn't help but think of a much more viral video out there. No lip-synching in that one!

We live in strange times. When legitimate actresses like Chloe Sevigny are seen giving, I mean, getting ahead in the film business, is it any shock that High School musical prodigies or stately beauty queens find their private pix on the internet for all the world to see? The same goes for gay screenwriters. It's become a free for all, baby. It used to be that film mogul bashes featured stag loops of a young Joan Crawford in blue movies, or so Kenneth Anger had us believe in Hollywood Babylon.

Today producers and directors are deliberately inserting X-rated scenes into legitimate films. It's no longer necessary to hire body doubles. We've entered a prurient Poe-pourri realm of self-exposure. Michael Pitt and his Pendulum. Hollywood's no longer a game of Kiss and Tell. It's show me the money shot.

Mind you, I've got nothing against sex, hard or soft, in films. But I think it's taken some of the edge out of going to the flicks in the first place. One used to fantasize about...well, about size. Was Jayne Mansfield really...that real in the flesh? Could Victor Mature actually be that um...victoriously mature?

Today all you have to do is go online to any of the various celebrity nude forums and find out in a flash. Remember the Rob Lowe scandal? People actually sent in hard-earned checks to buy that video! Today it would be on Perez Hilton for free. A generation used to dream about Dolph Lundgren of Rocky fame, and ponder if what Grace Jones had said about his notable attributes was true. Today the evidence suggests she needed reading glasses.

And where are the femmes fatales of yesteryear? One thinks of pesky Paulette Goddard who married four times, thrice to famous men: Charlie Chaplin, Burgess Meredith, and Erich Maria Remarque. Or Rita Hayworth who wed Orson Welles, Dick Haymes and Prince Aly Khan. These were ladies of the world who thrilled us with their high-flying amorous adventures.

Think of Peggy Hopkins Joyce who had the itch seven times and made millions from scratching it. She didn't need Lotto to become a household name. Today rather than social-climbing, the stars are millionaires out slumming, prospecting for fool's good. Think of Madonna and Jesus Luz. Or Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher. Or that fashion designer and, well, never mind. That's another thread.

Even in the jet set -- what's left of it thanks to frequent flyer miles -- things just ain't what they used to be. A few decades ago one gasped about the glam doings of Denise Hale, the stylish last wife of Vincente Minnelli. Today one gulps at the exploits of laptop-tossing Denise Richie, who sadly has lost her Sheen.

These catfighting, catwalking sex kittens of today are all a far cry from the magnificent Mona Strader Schlesinger Bush Williams Bismarck Martini, above, a grand horizontal of the old school. A horse-mad girl from blue grass Kentucky, she rose to become the quintessential "American Idle," trotting through Paris, Palm Beach, Capri and her Syrie Maugham-styled Manhattan manse. Which country girl is her match today? Taylor Swift? Miley Cyrus? Last I heard the latter was still recovering from a brief affair with an underwear model who got bumped off some reality TV show. Hardly the stuff upon which legends and/or fortunes are made.


I guess I'm drawn to the subject of fame and its follies because my grandfather ran off with Jessie Reed, above, a legendary Ziegfeld star of the Roaring '20s. Jessie Reed was a notorious gold-digger, married numerous times (the exact number is a matter of debate). She clawed her way out of a cracker factory in Houston to become the highest paid Follies showgirl. Her first husband, a black-face comedian, shot and killed her chauffeur paramour, but miraculously walked. The jury acquitted him on all counts, citing the unwritten law. She then had a wild affair with Russell G. Colt, who was married at the time to Ethel Barrymore. My grandfather, a flying ace in World War I, was her last husband. They survived only a few years together. The good times came to an unhappy end. Jessie died broke in a Chicago charity hospital in 1940. She was only 43. Her sad demise led to headlines across the country. But while she was fodder for the scandal rags, she was never tabloid trash.

That's the difference between then and now. The rich and famous of yore earned their notoriety. They exuded élan. What's missing today is talent. Plus a touch of class. Not to mention allure. Think of those wonderful lyrics from Sondheim's "Liaisons":

Where is style?
Where is skill?
Where is forethought?
Where's discretion of the heart?
Where's passion in the art?
Where's craft?

Aye, there's the rub. Today's renown is fleeting. No legs. Just airheads. Second-rate ditz and glitz. Notoriety is a poor cousin to réclame. Today's stars are merely filler between pop-up ads and product placement. Wake me up in fifteen minutes when it's over.