December 10, 2015

A painting of Sarah Bernhardt by Georges Clairin.

A painting of Sarah Bernhardt by Georges Clairin. Credit: Wikicommons

Who was the first celebrity? A star from the golden age of Hollywood like Clark Gable or Ingrid Bergman? Someone from silent film like Rudolph Valentino?

Sharon Marcus, the Dean of Humanities at Columbia University, thinks that you should look back just a little further.

Take Lord Byron, a poet, aesthete, and all-around “bad boy” of 19th century English literature.

Marcus points out that his celebrity wouldn’t seem so out of place today. In fact, “he had a lot of groupies. He had women sending him locks of hair, and not just from their heads… he cultivated this Romantic figure of being a genius and an outlaw, and he wanted people to be as interested in him as in his poetry, even though he often, of course, as many celebrities do, claimed he really wanted his privacy.”

He even, like so many modern celebrities, set fashion trends, with men copying his long, flowing curls and open shirt collars.

Or think about Sarah Bernhardt, “the most famous actress the world has ever known,” who reached the heights of her career in the mid-to-late 1800s.

“She had stalkers galore,” Marcus notes, “I found newspaper accounts of a man who was put into a mental institution because he was convinced he was her husband, a woman who was convinced Sarah Bernhardt had adopted her and then thrown her out on the street… women who kept altars to Sarah Bernhardt with objects that they had had managed to scrape from her dressing room. People would gather outside theatres to try and get an autograph from her.”

Even an actor like Edwin Booth (who’s now mainly known as the brother of Lincoln’s assassin) complained about the multitudes of women who flocked to the pharmacy he was buying his toothpaste at, hoping to catch a glimpse of him.

Though there isn’t an easy way to know who the “first celebrity” was, there was certainly an explosion of them in the 19th century. And this didn’t come about by accident. The rise of easily-distributed photography, a widely-available press, and a literate population all contributed. But Marcus notes another shift:

“In an earlier era, people worked out of their homes, they were really part of a community. The line between home and public life was a lot more fluid. But starting in the 18th century, people start to think of private life as truly private and sacred, and anytime you draw a boundary, people want to cross it.”

So when you groan at tabloids emblazoned with the travails of the Kardashians, just remember, celebrity obsession has been around for a long time.

Lord Byron, Sharon Marcus, Culture, Victorian

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