Searching for Intimacy With the Gods of Fame

I happened to be away from New York during the third week of July. When I left, it was a city in the United States. When I got back, it was a city in India. The Kennedy residence on N. Moore Street has become a Hindu shrine.

These outpourings take place in southern Asia all the time. Once when I was in India, the English-language papers had a story about some villagers who had found a cobra and a frog living peacefully together in a tree in the forest. Anything impressive or even strange becomes holy there. Overnight the cobra-frog house was transformed into a site of religious pilgrimage. Entrepreneurs with food carts flocked to the spot to serve the visiting multitudes.

Thailand is filled with spirit houses-little shrines placating the deities that still thrive below the official level of Buddhism. Driving through Bangkok after dark, I saw one extra-large spirit house, blazing with light, on the grounds of a hotel. Several workers died in accidents when the place was being constructed. The house was built on the site to appease the angry spirits who had killed them. Afterward, Thais kept coming to the house, 24 hours a day, to ask for happy marriages and winning lottery tickets.

Or maybe New York has moved to Mexico. (Many of the visitors to the Kennedy shrine are Hispanic.) I like many aspects of Mexican culture, none more than the cult of Our Lady of Guadeloupe. The story of her appearance to the Indian whose cloak she filled, first with roses, then with her image, is just the kind of thing the Virgin Mary would do. But it was the genius of Catholic missionaries to take pre-Christian elements and transform them. When they survive untransformed, they are quite grim. Who wants to live in a nation of peasants who believe in witchcraft?

It is fashionable to call America postmodern and postindustrial. It is also post-Protestant. Our idols are not the gods of fertility and crop rotation, but of celebrity. We study their comings and goings, not in the changing seasons or the migrations of birds, but in the pages of People .

John F. Kennedy Jr. belonged in this pantheon by virtue of beauty and family. The rights of beauty are a subset of the rights of excellence. Any honest man acknowledges them. (Every man defers to them.) A friend of mine who freelanced for George got in a typical publishing tiff with its editor in chief. “I’m the envy of every woman in America,” she said ruefully. “I’ve been screwed by John Kennedy Jr.”

The family connection is harder to take-not because Americans are too egalitarian to endure family dynasties (Roosevelts? Rockefellers? Astors?). It’s just that his family was-well, never mind. You’ve been reading the same timelines of Kennedy history that I have: Half the tribulations are instances of their own recklessness, while most of their supposed achievements (e.g., Teddy’s senatorial career) are bread and circuses: the charity of parvenus for slobs.

Beauty and bloodlines once conferred exactly what they were worth: admiration and power. Now they confer celebrity: worship in life; candles, bouquets and letters in death. Celebrities re-enact our life cycles on a large but intimate stage. As toddlers give names to their raggedy stuffed toys, and as Hugh Hefner gave hobbies and opinions to his Playmates of the Month, so we look for faces in the clouds of loneliness and desire. Celebrities are points of contact in the churn of events and the blather of information.

Except-there is no real contact, and no intimacy. Their lives are not our lives. Yes, we all die, but few of us die in our Piper Saratogas on a hop to the Vineyard. Yes, we are vain, silly and unhappy, but we don’t marry the Prince of Wales. Yes, we eat too much, but we never record “I’m All Shook Up.”

One product of the gap between us and our imaginary companions is that we resent them as much as we admire them. That explains another phenomenon of celebrity: the sick joke. I could quote some about the Kennedy plane crash, but there is no need. You have heard them already. Maybe you have even repeated them. If we don’t make sick jokes about celebrities, we surely focus on their ailments, aging and death. Envy is the tax that admiration levies on fame.

I prefer to think of John Kennedy for his career. The premise of George was odd. Is politics stylish enough to make style the focus of a political magazine? Isn’t it the Faustian bargain of power that those who climb the greasy pole must shed other encumbrances, including the desire to be cool? Of course, politicians have image consultants and media advisers, but the threshold of presentability in that game is awfully low. Just think of all the blow-dried hair helmets in Congress. Goblins like Barney Frank and Jesse Helms succeed without even that.

But given its premise, the magazine always surprised you by being better than you expected. That is a better surprise than all the magazines that manage to find new ways of being ever worse. John Kennedy Jr. took his celebrity and put it to work-getting his publishers to back him, getting celebrity soulmates to give him interviews. If George had failed, he would have moved on to some other media berth. As a life, it sure beat partying, or inflicting liberalism on some besotted electorate.

The only time I ever almost met him was at a party for George . The paparazzi boiled outside the restaurant like koi in a pool. Inside was Donald Trump, and bodyguards the size of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Also present were Al Sharpton and Larry Flynt. If style is the criterion, any style will do, even the grotesque and the wicked. But nobody lit up the room like Kennedy and Carolyn Bessette. Tina Brown would have been envious. Not a bad job.