In 1896, the hottest new celebrity in Paris was a dazzling 21-year-old long-haired beauty called Cléo de Mérode: ballerina, nude model, and supposed lover of Belgium’s (61-year-old) King Leopold. Naturally, this coupling of stars acquired the irresistible nickname “Cléopold”. And soon after that, perhaps because Mérode had already publicly displayed every other inch of her body – on stage, in sculpture and through photographs – a peculiar fixation gripped the media: what did her ears look like?
For months, this bizarre question became an international obsession. Maybe they were huge, or tiny, or completely missing? Newspapers across Europe theorised feverishly on the subject, while purveyors of prints and postcards rushed out imagined images of the fateful lobes. By the autumn of 1897, when Mérode arrived in New York to begin an American tour, ear-mania had crossed the Atlantic. One local tabloid, the World, reported breathlessly that its correspondent, having “pleaded with her for a glimpse of her ear”, had been granted a brief flash of “a bit of rose-tinted flesh”. But it was scooped by its rival, the New York Journal, which triumphantly ran a full-ear portrait, sketched from life.
Celebrity, with all of its ridiculous excesses, is not a recent phenomenon. It predates television and photography, movies and pop music. According to Dead Famous, it began more than 300 years ago, and its first exemplar was a snooty, bewigged Tory clergyman called Henry Sacheverell, who in 1709 suddenly became the talk of the nation, after preaching an incendiary sermon. Between the early 18th century and the 1950s, hundreds of English and American artists, authors, politicians, criminals, courtesans, nurses and non-entities strove to achieve this peculiar kind of fame, or found themselves inadvertently catapulted into it. Greg Jenner’s engaging book packs in an astonishing number of their stories – it even, generously, finds space to include Clara the Indian rhino who, at 5,000lbs, was undoubtedly the biggest European celebrity of the 1740s.
As in his previous, action-packed bestseller, A Million Years in a Day, Jenner here moves back and forth through the centuries at a pace, as he examines different types of celebrity, the imagery of fame, tactics of self-promotion, the fascination with celebrities’ bodies, and the joys and pitfalls of fanhood. He is especially good on the economics of fame, that increasingly elaborate, corrupt capitalist machine in which individual celebrities are but small whirring cogs, trying to grab their own share of the profits before their time is up. Babe Ruth endorsed underwear, WG Grace lent his name to Colman’s Mustard, and Mark Twain started his own brand of tobacco. Gertrude Stein advertised Ford motor cars, while Charles Dickens raked in about £30m in today’s money from a single American book tour. Among the Mérode products you could rush out and buy in the 1890s were belts, nightgowns, fake flowers, cigars and dolls.
Because Jenner chooses to stop in the 1950s, Dead Famous never tackles the question of how exactly modern celebrity differs from its historical varieties. And though it is right that celebrity culture was born around 1700, we don’t get quite enough of an explanation of how and why it all kicked off then. All the same, the book draws on an impressively wide range of material, from the latest research by academic historians to the author’s own detective work in such unlikely places as the Journal of the Music & Entertainment Industry Educators Association and the Journal of Advanced Nursing.
The result fizzes with clever vignettes and juicy tidbits. Meet the Georgian literary forger William-Henry Ireland, who claimed to have discovered a trunkful of Shakespearean manuscripts, complete with a new play, Vortigern and Rowena. The journalist Maury Paul reinvented himself as the wonderfully named high-society chronicler ”Cholly Knickerbocker” (though he also liked to call himself, more simply, “Mr Bitch”). Who could fail to root for three-year-old Isabella Rudkin, the prodigy child harpist who upstaged Franz Liszt on his 1824 tour of Britain? Within a few years Liszt himself had become such a star that his fans wore his image on their hands and bodies, swooned to the ground at the mere sight of him, and fought with each other to possess his abandoned cigar butts, used handkerchiefs and even the dregs of his half-slurped tea.
It helps that Jenner is equal parts wide-eyed historical buff and sassy polemicist. Like some frisky, over-caffeinated lovechild of Dan Snow and Marina Hyde, he can’t help but entertain you, even as he’s pouring facts down your throat. It’s hard to resist an author who titles one of his chapters “The Fandom Menace”, or who describes Mick Jagger as a “narrow-hipped, geriatric strut machine”, Lord Byron as that “talented, pouty shag merchant with the lustrous hair”, or Gertrude Stein as “the modernist Miley Cyrus, minus the twerking” (trust me, it kind of makes sense). Florence Nightingale is introduced as “properly live-in-a-country-house, summer-in-Italy posh”, as well as being “a badass epidemiologist with a penchant for pie chart innovation”. The 18th‑century Irish novelist Laurence Sterne “hurled himself into his newfound celebrity with the panting eagerness of a spaniel leaping into the ocean of a scorching summer’s day”. George Washington, on the other hand, possessed “all the flamboyance of a bowl of porridge”. But even he, I suspect, would have enjoyed reading this joyous romp of a book.
• Dead Famous is published by W&N (£18.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p on all online orders over £15.