A large portion of the sadness over the death of John F. Kennedy Jr. this past week needn't be attributed to the fact that he was the son of a martyred president or the scion of a great American family but to the fact these made him a megacelebrity in a nation of celebrity worshipers. Like a movie star or athlete, he graced magazine covers, and his exploits were routinely reported as if he were a star and not a magazine editor, which was his profession. Yet, even while he lived, one could recognize that Kennedy was a different breed from the garden-variety celebrities who clot our airwaves, newspapers and magazines.
We have long become accustomed to arrogance, self-promotion, transgression and incivility in our public figures. We accept that, along with their fame, they will assume an air of superiority and the license to do exactly as they please. We are never surprised to read about their infidelities or drug addictions or public indiscretions or scrapes with the law. In fact, this license to misbehave is no longer just a prerogative of celebrity. In the late 20th century, it is frequently a source of celebrity: witness Joey Buttafuoco, Lorena Bobbitt, Tonya Harding and even William Kennedy Smith.
In some respects, Kennedy was a throwback to an earlier form of public figure, one who existed before the media age. In his new book "The Horizontal Society," about social hierarchies in the modern world, Stanford law professor Lawrence M. Friedman makes a distinction between fame and celebrity. The essence of celebrity, according to Friedman, is "high visibility." The essence of fame is being well-known. These are not the same thing.
There are people--Friedman cites as an example Japan's former Emperor Hirohito--who were well-known but didn't qualify as celebrities because they were seldom seen. These people "project no familiar images; they have no fan magazines and are never written up in People." In many case, like Howard Hughes, they willfully avoid this sort of attention.
In the 19th century, the balance clearly tilted toward fame, if only because there were so few outlets in which one could be visible, even after the advent of photography made the replication of image possible. Most public figures were aloof, distant, well-known without being pushy about it. The idea that someone might hire a publicist to get attention, de rigueur for a celebrity now, would have been unconscionable then. Indeed, fame was less likely to be sought than imposed as a consequence of accomplishment or office. In effect, it was a mantle one wore, not something one chased.
It is difficult for people today to comprehend a fame that is not celebrity because we live in a society in which the only value of fame seems to be that it automatically confers celebrity. The whole point of being famous nowadays is visibility: being seen on the right pages and at the right places with the right people. To hold yourself aloof seems pathological.
In this environment, Kennedy was that rarest of oxymoronic creatures: a reluctant celebrity. He couldn't very well escape his fame, and he opted not to be some churlish recluse, but he never actively sought the limelight either, except when it would promote a pet cause of his. Rather, he seemed to recognize the foolishness of the public's obsession with his life, and he would have, no doubt, viewed the frenzy over his death with the same wry bemusement, which may be why he requested that he be cremated. Or put another way, he brought the attitude of fame to the performance of celebrity.
Once upon a time, we called this kind of graceful acceptance of one's role dignity, and it is certainly in short supply now. Dignity doesn't bring visibility or celebrity; it is the antithesis of these. In most precincts, one isn't really a celebrity unless one can act like a boor: the degree of shamelessness in direct proportion to the degree of the stardom. That's why rock artists can trash hotel rooms. In the 19th century, the famous operated with noblesse oblige. In the 20th century, the celebrated operate as if the whole world is obligated to them.
By some miracle, Kennedy managed to avoid both the self-aggrandizement of the modern celebrity and the condescension of the old nobility. He was a regular guy in the role of an extraordinary one. He lived too short a life to leave many legacies, especially if his quirky political magazine, George, fails to survive him, but he did leave us one we are not likely to forget. Kennedy showed how one could be a bona fide celebrity without also being an ass.