Fame is a bee.
It has a song—
It has a sting—
Ah, too, it has a wing.
Let's begin with a pop quiz. Who are the following people and for what is each famous?
If you don't know, then you might turn the tables by challenging the question's premise. That is to say, whatever fame these people enjoyed has faded to a point that you have no reason to recognize their names or recall what they did. Do they deserve to be remembered? You might counter.
Andy Warhol asserted that everyone will be famous for 15 minutes. Singing, stinging, soaring, exploring—you get the idea—15 minutes in the limelight before the final curtain. Judging from her bee poem, Dickinson might have agreed even though she shunned fame herself. Some people's 15 minutes come in a single, dramatic moment as it did for Khizr Khan at the Democratic National Convention. Others claim their fame allocation piecemeal—a minute here, a minute there—a byline, an Eagle Scout badge, a following on Instagram, a patent, a Silver Star medal, a gig on television. Some like Rep. Jason Chaffetz lust after fame. Achilles fought for it at Troy. Caitlyn Jenner yielded to it. Tim DeChristopher and Kate Kelly use it to advance causes they hold dear. Fame snuck up on Sixto Rodriguez. For decades after his music was forgotten in the U.S., his songs were popular in South Africa without him knowing it.
Some instances of fame have found a voice in the English language. The Marquis de Sade's perversions have given us "sadist," and Thomas Bowdler's sanitized revision of Shakespeare's plays has yielded a verb, to bowdlerize. Movies that have been bowdlerized are popular in Provo but unpopular in Hollywood.
To be famous is not necessarily to be ennobled. Fame can be corrosive, as Monica Lewinsky has testified. Like gold, the quality of fame can be measured with a graduated scale. On the 24-karat end, you find people like Harriet Tubman or Pope Francis. On the fool's gold end is the likes of Bernie Madoff and the Kardashian clan. The latter is famous for being infamously banal to the degree that a newspaper account of an honor killing in Pakistan was headlined, "Pakistan's Kim Kardashian Murdered by Brother." Were I Kim, I'd make for the convent.
Dickinson's bee seems a quaint metaphor in the age of the AR-15. A moment of fame might sting no more than a snarky tweet, but an assault rifle in the hands of one who seeks fame in a spasm of killing—that is an obscenity. The French newspaper Le Monde no longer publishes photos of dead terrorists "to avoid posthumous glorification." You might not know that Utah native Philo Farnsworth invented television, but everyone knows Lee Harvey Oswald, Charles Manson and Sandy Hook Elementary School.
You might have forgotten Jonas Salk, the doctor whose polio vaccine eradicated the paralyzing disease that infected thousands of children before the mid-1950s. I have forgotten Serge Gainsbourg but not his girlfriend, Brigitte Bardot. He was a very popular singer-songwriter in the 1970s and '80s, "something of a French cross between Tom Jones and Johnny Rotten," according to a story in The New York Times. He died in 1991. His house in Paris has remained unoccupied and unchanged. The ashtrays are still full of his cigarette butts. The exterior walls of the house have become a canvas for graffitists. I have long wondered about people who take pleasure from defacing a public space with their names. A couple of empty buildings near Westminster College attract them. Is it fame they seek with a can of spray paint? Or does a warped ego equate vandalism with art?
I have a friend who is an unabashed "stage-door Johnny." He waits for actors to emerge from a back door of a London theater and imposes on them to stand alongside him for a photo. He has made 50 trips to England and has hundreds of photos of himself with the likes of Kevin Spacey and Angela Lansbury. Although it strikes me that posing such a photo is itself a pose—a staged deception—I suppose it is not that much different from an ordinary selfie. Such a photo intimates that fame rubs off like cat hair and sticks to you. I make a mental list of the famous people I have brushed up against. I once stood next to F. Lee Bailey at a urinal in a Boston restaurant. I recognized him as the attorney for O.J. Simpson and the Boston Strangler. We didn't speak. I did chat with Imran Khan, the world-famous Pakistani cricket player who was in Princess Diana's circle of friends, and also with Gen. William Westmoreland of Vietnam fame. The author of the bestseller, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, parked his SUV in my garage for six weeks. I gave a presentation to Gov. Mike Dukakis just before he ran for president. I lobbied Mayor Ralph Becker to build pickleball courts in the Avenues. My wife's close encounters include the Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie and Paul McCartney's sister-in-law.
No photo record exists of those brush-bys with the famous, and insofar as I can tell, no benefit has accrued because of them. My sole claim to fame is the byline on this column. If Jack Anderson—a famous newspaper columnist with deep roots in Utah and a Pulitzer Prize—has escaped your notice, there's no hope for me.