Dead Famous by Greg Jenner

Review by Basil Ransome-Davies

Andy Warhol (if it was he, who disowned the soft impeachment) was kidding when he said that in the future everyone would be world-famous for fifteen minutes, but the joke pointed up the rising swell of a global celebrity culture as well as signalling the often ephemeral nature of fame. Fame can have a cruel, addictive power. What if you crave it but it is withheld?  One thing you can do is kill someone famous, as Mark Chapman understood, making John Lennon a victim of fame. Warhol himself barely survived an assassination attempt. Chapman is now a long-serving convict whose parole hearings have repeatedly failed, a nobody. His headline role was very brief. His name is withheld from the passing reference to Lennon’s murder in Dead Famous.

This book has scored a hit with reviewers, The chorus of effusive endpaper quotes assembled by its publishers includes ‘clever vignettes and juicy tidbits’, ‘a fascinating, rollocking book’, ‘a magical mystery tour through the history of celebrity’, ‘zippy pen portraits’ and ‘colourful anecdotes’ but also ‘well-researched’, ‘wide range of cultural references’, ‘wisdom and wit’ and ‘learned’. There is an ample bibliography and a comprehensive (though somewhat defective) index. Numbered endnotes identify sources. Add-ons are asterisked footnotes, usually stray subjective comments by the author, sometimes cheeky or facetious. Main text is well over 300 pages and acknowledgements numerous. Jenner explains that it cost him four years’ work (bear in mind that as a ‘public historian’ he is busy, active player on several interrelated cultural fronts).

He hasn’t wasted his time. The blurbs are not wrong.  Jenner’s no chin-stroker, more a ringmaster. He piles in happily, writing to entertain, his tone is chipper and his approach is to pitch his writing in contrasting registers from the offhand, blokeish demotic to the soberly academic, mixing and matching his idioms with aplomb.  In his introduction, he freely shows his hand  to reveal how many cards he is holding and how he proposes to play them.

If the book’s structure is unorthodox, so is the range.

My research scope has been very wide – terrifyingly so – and I was aghast at how much material there was to pick from. With so much ground to cover… I’ve drawn a demarcation line at 1950… the threshold at which TV and pop music first appeared. Everything beyond this anniversary has been extensively covered by other writers. My aim is to tell you about the megastars you didn’t even know existed.

Terrifying? Aghast? Never mind. The response is intrepid. Jenner boldly confronts the intimidating dragon of optimal choice with a dynamic format that is certainly unorthodox, dodging back and forth in time to showcase a parade of famous figures, uninhibited at flouting his ground rules when it suits him.  The introductions are made with the professional eagerness of a tour guide showing agog visitors round a major museum or historical site, highlighting the unique attractions of each standout feature. Typical segues are ‘Let’s rewind back to Homer’, ‘Allow me to switch to a celebrated lion-watcher of the modern day’; ‘Okay, let’s look a little later and further to the east’. 

Clara Bow (via Wikimedia Commons)

The sequence of eight chapters from ‘Getting Discovered’ to ‘The Fandom Menace?’ first tracks the progress from anonymity to fame through a variety of concise case studies, then widens its perspective to present an omnium-gatherum of famous figures. Chapter three asks ‘What the Hell Is a Celebrity, Anyway?’ Definitions in the realm of culture are always open to contention, but Jenner resists the facile  popular concept of someone ’famous for being famous’, preferring to offer a five-point list of criteria, ranging from ‘personal charisma’ to ‘commercial marketplace based on the celebrity’s reputation’.  At this stage there is no mention of talent as a qualifier, though examples weighed against his criteria do include actresses (Clara Bow and Nell Gwyn), while poet-playwright Ben Johnson and career soldier-politician Julius Caesar both predate the author’s chosen stating line of 1700.

P.T.Barnum (via Wikimedia Commons)

In discussing the hectic burgeoning of a celebrity culture as the hinge of the next two chapters, ‘Image is Everything’ and ‘The Art of Self-Promotion’, Jenner opts for a gallery of spectacular feats of manipulation, largely through showbiz, print journalism and advertising, for fame’s sake. Gossipy and anecdotal, as befits the topic of  stunts and hoaxes, serving to capture public attention and build mass awareness of star performers, these sections breezily and amusingly related some of the promotional wheezes of Phineas ‘There’s a sucker born every minute’ Barnum. Subsequent chapters cover fame’s relation to capitalist systems and the intense, ambivalent relationship between superstars and the fanbases. A final ‘Epilogue’ headed by the putative Warhol quip, reflects on the present careering expansion of fame created by the internet and its multiplying brood of complications. 

All in all, Dead Famous is a box of goodies. Peter Frankopan recommends it as ‘a rollocking book in search of why, when and how fame strikes. Sit back and enjoy the ride.’ I wouldn’t argue much.  It doesn’t need to be read from cover to cover to repay attention. Anyone with an intelligent and critical interest in the current global dream machine of culture, fame, money and power, which is both ‘out there’ and in our heads, plus the stellar cast of institutions and personalities who inhabit and operate it, will find it a simulating pleasure to dip into. Ideal for a long train journey, now that such forays are allowed. 

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Before retirement Dr Basil Ransome-Davies taught American Literature & Film Studies at a number of institutions, finally at Edge Hill University. He is also a prizewinning poet & prose author & a recidivist crime fiction addict. He lives in Lancaster, walks for physical & mental health & visits France & Spain as often as possible.

Greg Jenner, Dead Famous (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2021). 978-1780225661, 278pp., paperback.

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