“Celebrity is the chastisement of merit and the punishment of talent”*…
It’s easy to imagine that the fever pitch of celebrity consciousness in which we’re awash is a modern phenomenon, a function of reality TV, social media, and other trappings of our times. But consider the case of Lillie Langtry…
Known in the later 19th century as “the most beautiful woman in the world,” Langtry had her portrait painted by both John Everett Millais and James McNeil Whistler; and Oscar Wilde once said of her, “I would rather have discovered Mrs. Langtry than to have discovered America.” Married to a wealthy Irishman, she was mistress of the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII. Through her society connections she befriended Sarah Bernhardt, who convinced her to try acting; she made her debut at London’s Haymarket Theatre in 1881.
From her autobiography, an anecdote from 1874– before her turn on the stage:
One morning I twisted a piece of black velvet into a toque, stuck a quill through it, and went to Sandown Park. A few days later this turban appeared in every milliner’s window labeled “The Langtry Hat.” “Langtry” shoes, which are still worn, were launched, and so on and so on. It was very embarrassing, and it had all come about so suddenly that I was bewildered. If I went for a stroll in the park and stopped a moment to admire the flowers, people ran after me in droves, staring me out of countenance, and even lifting my sunshade to satisfy fully their curiosity. To venture out for a little shopping was positively hazardous, for the instant I entered an establishment to make a purchase, the news that I was within spread with the proverbial rapidity of wildfire, and the crowd about the door grew so dense that departure by the legitimate exit was rendered impossible, the obliging proprietors being forced, with many apologies, to escort me around to the back door.
Instead of the excitement abating, it increased to such an extent that it became risky for me to indulge in a walk, on account of the crushing that would follow my appearance. To better illustrate my predicament I may state as a fact that, one Sunday afternoon, a young girl, with an aureole of fair hair and wearing a black gown, was seated in the park near the Achilles statue. Someone raised the cry that it was I, people rushed toward her, and before the police could interfere, she was mobbed to such an extent that an ambulance finally conveyed her, suffocating and unconscious, to St. George’s Hospital.
* Emily Dickinson
As we slake ourselves on selfies, we might spare a thought for Clara Bow; she died on this date in 1965. Bow appeared in 46 silent films and 11 talkies, including Wings (1927; the winner of the first Academy Award for Best Picture). But it was her appearance as a plucky shopgirl in the film It (also in 1927) that brought her global fame and the nickname “The It Girl.” Bow came to personify the Roaring Twenties and to become its leading sex symbol. At the height of her stardom, she received more than 45,000 fan letters in a single month (January, 1929).
After marrying actor Rex Bell in 1931, Bow retired from acting and became a rancher in Nevada, where she lived, relatively quietly, for another 34 years.