“Fame at Last” by John C. Ball and Jill Jonnes

A lethally serious book tells who scores a New York Times obituary and why.

Topics: The New York Times, Books,

It’s scarily easy to imagine that in the future, like next spring, universities will establish “fame studies” departments. Sober, scientific, statistical work will be done, in which academics will create microcategorized and further specialized subfields. They will deliver dry papers delineating the complex shifts of public opinion toward Pamela Anderson. They will construct Matchbox 20 tour date bar graphs. They will delineate into topological patterns the American perception of Casper Van Dien.

And here is the first fame studies textbook: “Fame at Last: Who Was Who According to the New York Times Obituaries” by John C. Ball and Jill Jonnes. This oddly serious, pseudo-sociological study of success and fame forebodes an awful future in which we have taken our notions of success and fame way too seriously, making them appear permanent and fundamental, worthy of uncritical, boring study, like air or anatomy.

“Fame at Last” bills itself as “the first book to look at success, fame and accomplishment in America through a detailed analysis of almost 10,000 obituaries.” Ball, a sociology professor, and Jonnes, a historian, have compiled a database of Times obituaries from 1993 to 1999. They’ve ferreted out pertinent information on each individual (race, sex, religion, education, occupation) and grouped their achievers into chapters — pioneering women, millionaires, inventors, actors and entertainment industry professionals, criminals and “free spirits,” among others. The book is filled with tables — most common occupations, education level, etc. — meant somehow to nail down how exactly one wins a spot in the Times obituary section, which the authors take as an unquestioned constant of success and fame.

Most important, Ball and Jonnes include tables in each chapter called the “Apex of Fame” that list individuals in their field with the longest, and therefore most successful, obituaries, culminating in an Overall Apex of Fame — those individuals of the world with the longest obituaries in inches. Richard Nixon tops the list with an obit length of 510 inches, followed by Frank Sinatra at 236 and Jackie Onassis at 210.

The wittiness of the title and playfulness of the book’s cartoonish cover are nowhere to be found within its pages. Ball and Jonnes, armed with a faithful reverence for the Times’ system, do not cheekily poke fun, examine the history of obituaries or shed light on the power structures that might reveal what’s behind the Times’ selections. Nor do they even consider the nature of our desperate fascination with fame. Instead, the chapters are filled with thumbprint obituaries and portraits of prominent people, like Rell Sunn, the first female surfer, or astrologer Linda Goodman, who descended into homelessness after the publication of her first bestselling book. Though they are interesting, these excerpted obits give off a kind of cheap VH1 effect. Like that television network’s slew of “top 100 greatest songs” specials, the chapters pretend to have substance when they are simply edited highlights of pre-written lives.

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The authors’ studies elicited a few notable tidbits. It turns out that criminals have the second-largest obituaries, behind members of Congress, and that philanthropists are the only category in which the number of male and female achievers is equal. But for the most part the information remains as predictable as you’d expect from an unchallenged institution like the Times: Men predominate, minorities are marginalized, the rich are prevalent. The authors seem surprised that privilege and position are factors in determining a person’s likelihood of scoring a Times obituary. “The aggregate pattern shows the incredible advantage of the elite education,” reads a comment on the findings of the education table, as if we’re being offered a suggestion about how to die successfully.

Opinionless about the engine of fame, Ball and Jonnes fill the chapters with inane, broad statements that remind you of those bland high school social studies books with titles like “The American Tapestry”: “For writers, success can take two forms. They can be critically successful … or they can be popular successes … Sometimes important books are also popular successes.” “Inventors are incredibly creative people who are constantly driven to design new and useful products.” “If higher education is important to one’s development as an actor, it is not obvious.”

We learn about some oddly captivating people — Robert Switzer, inventor of Day-Glo, or Suzanne Railey, socialite and professional dinner party hostess for Christies — but their individual stories seem almost beside the point. “Fame at Last” shows nothing so much as that we have now entered the strangest phase of all: Fame has become boring. We already knew that fame was just another business; we read Variety and listen to Mary Hart measure success by box-office status. But November 2000 marks the moment in which fame became a completely, gaspingly dull nonsubject, one that could easily inspire students to doze off in lecture halls across the nation.

Mike Albo is a solo performer and writer who lives in Brooklyn. His most recent work is The Junket.

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