The price of fame

by Russ Roberts on May 18, 2004

in Prices

Bill Clinton has received an advance of about $10 million for his memoirs. Jonathan Yardley writes that U.S. Grant while dying, fought terrible pain to finish his memoirs to keep his wife financially secure. She sold them for $450,000, about $9 million in current dollars. True, she couldn’t buy any antibiotics or an iPod, but it’s interesting how similar the two numbers are. Fame remains very profitable.

The rewards of fame reminds me of Truman Capote. I recently watched Breakfast at Tiffany’s for the first time. The movie stars Audrey Hepburn, George Peppard and it’s very entertaining—Hepburn is delightful and it’s a weird portrait of the bohemian late ’50s, pre-1960s lifestyle.

Then I decided to read the book. I had never read much by Truman Capote. His most famous book, In Cold Blood, never interested me. It was the first of the fictionalizations of non-fiction—the story of a brutal murder in rural Kansas. Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a 111-page gem. It’s a haunting evocation of one’s youth, the lure of a woman who is apparently outside the bounds of conventional society and a haunting portrait of a woman who ceaselessly pursues pleasure, money, fame and sometimes, but rarely, contentment. In most dimensions, the movie follows the plot of the book, but they are two completely different works of art. One is a comedy (directed by Blake Edwards!), mostly. The other is tragicomedy. In the same volume with my edition of B at T is a short story, A Christmas Memory that may be the best piece of nostalgia without romance that I’ve ever read. Very beautiful.

Capote had a lot of Holly Golightly in him. His appetites appeared to have overtaken his talent, but perhaps that was the idea all along. Like his contemporary Norman Mailer, the siren song of celebrity was louder than the lure of literary immortality. In Capote’s case, he wrote very little and virtually nothing in the last maybe 15 years of his life, dying at 59. My memories of him from my youth were of a gossip who showed up on the Tonight Show and gossiped about his rich friends. He was a great disher of dirt which has little appeal for me. But many must enjoy it. His celebrity status may have produced more pleasure and money for him and his audience than his books did.

We think we live in an empty age of celebrity but Truman Capote and U.S. Grant remind us that celebrity has been part of the American cultural scene for a long, long time.

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