Gayle Stever, author of The Psychology of Celebrity, talks about colleagues and writers who inspired her interest in celebrity research.
While my area of study and scholarship is psychology, as I wrote The Psychology of Celebrity, I had the opportunity to delve into history, an area with which I have had limited study in the past. This was facilitated by discussions with professor Wayne Willis, my colleague from Empire State College/SUNY who is a full professor in history. When I first began the writing project, Wayne met me for lunch one day, equipped with a reading list of books that he had used in his own work on "celebrity presidents." It was a great introduction to the intersection between the psychology of celebrity and the history of celebrity.
Some of the most interesting and enjoyable books I read were written by David McCullough, a noted biographer and historian. He twice won the Pulitzer Prize as well as the National Book Award and was a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States' highest civilian award. I started with his biography of John Adams and soon became intrigued with the story of not only his life, but also the life of Abigail Adams. Reading about this famous couple, it occurred to me that the wives of presidents are an interesting category of celebrities. Most of these women were thrust into the spotlight of fame only because they were married to a man who was elected president. However, many of them went on to great accomplishments in their own right, and Abigail Adams is a sterling example of this. She chronicled many of her activities in letters that she wrote to her husband during the long periods where they were separated, first because of his assignment as the Massachusetts delegate to the continental congress in Philadelphia, and later his assignment to be commissioner to France. Her letters (and his replies) were filled with many discussions about both government and politics and also contained her eyewitness accounts of various events during the American Revolutionary War. In 1848, her grandson, Charles Frances Adams (the son of John Quincy Adams) had her letters published. The volume was immensely popular and was continuously in print throughout the rest of that century.
A second of McCullough's books that I studied extensively was his biography of Wilbur and Orville Wright. One of the distinctions explained in my book was the difference between fame and celebrity, with fame being a focus on the accomplishments of an individual, and celebrity being a focus on her or his private life. This was the most intriguing aspect of this account of the Wright brothers, that the focus was on their work and accomplishments with very little at all about their private lives. In looking at other sources and biographies, it became apparent that their private lives were not discussed because Wilbur and Orville didn't talk about personal things and made sure that publicity centered around their work. Given the way they were thrust into the public eye after the success of their flyer, it is impressive that they were successful in keeping their personal lives out of both the press and also books written about their lives.
Two books that were on Wayne Willis' reading list were the biographies of Walter Winchell (Winchell: Gossip, power and the culture of celebrity) and Oscar Wilde (Wilde in America: Oscar Wilde and the invention of modern celebrity). If one wants to look for the origins of celebrity in America, these two books offer insightful perspectives. Winchell was one of the originators of tabloid journalism, changing forever the way celebrity is covered by the news media. Wilde was one of the first to capitalize on "image" as a tool for self-promotion. Both are discussed in my narrative.
Andrew Robinson (Dirty Harry; Hellraiser) is a good friend from my days in the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine fandom, one of my participant-observer case studies. Andy played Garak, the Cardassian Tailor on this program and has subsequently written two books, one a novelization of his character, and the other, Stepping into the Light, where he discussed his career as an actor. As I spoke with Andy about his life in the public eye, he pointed out sections from his book that illuminated his experience both for better and for worse. These reflections are in my book, but the other major contribution Andy made to my writing process was to recommend the autobiography of Arthur Miller, Timebends: A Life. Both books (his and Miller's) were rich sources of material. Not only was Miller's account fascinating in its own right, but his four and a half year marriage to Marilyn Monroe, possibly the biggest star of the 20th century, put him in a position to talk about what fame and celebrity had done to her, and how in the end, it was her undoing.
Superstar fame on the order of Marilyn Monroe is more difficult to understand than was the fame of the celebrities I was able to interview, all of whom described themselves as middle-of-the-road celebrities. Each of the six Star Trek actors included in the book are famous enough to be recognized and to earn large appearance fees at science fiction conventions, but also not so famous that celebrity is a major intrusion into their day-to-day lives. To get that perspective, I had not only Miller's book, but also the autobiography of Ava Gardner, a mid-twentieth century film star, who not only recounted her own tales of fame, but also was married to Frank Sinatra, one of the biggest stars of the 20th century. Again this was rich source material for a window into the lives of the ultra famous.
Writing this book was one of the most enjoyable processes of my life thus far, and I look forward to exploring other topics in the future.