ii Winchell's Progeny

By the 1930's, the new institution created by Walter Winchell had been firmly implanted in the United States and had spread to England on its way around the world.

Evelyn Waugh's novel Vile Bodies (1932) introduces us to two young aristocrats, both of them trailing clouds of titles:

At Archie Schwert's party the fifteenth Marquess of Vanburgh, Earl Vanburgh de Brendon, Baron Brendon, Lord of the Five Isles and Hereditary Grand Falconer to the Kingdom of Connaught, said to the eighth Earl of Balcairn, Viscount Erdinge, Baron Cairn of Balcairn, Red Knight of Lancaster, Count of the Holy Roman Empire and Chenonceaux Herald of the Duchy of Aquitaine, "Hullo," he said, "isn't this a repulsive party? What are you going to say about it?" for they were both of them, as it happened, gossip writers for the daily papers.

A real-life aristocrat did become a gossip writer in London about that time and a true crown jewel for the Beaverbrook press. He was for a while, it was said, the most widely read writer in Britain. His name was Valentine Charles Brown, Viscount Castlerosse, sixth Earl of Kenmore, and he liked to say that "if you are descended from a famous scoundrel you probably belong to a good family". He was especially proud of one of his forebears, an 18th century Irish bishop who, when he had lost heavily in gambling with his dinner guests, would put on a black mask and mount a black horse to follow them when they left for home, then hold them up at gun point on some blasted heath and relieve them of their purses.

Castlerosse himself shared both the passion and the inept gambling techniques of this ancestor. Once in Lord Beaverbrook's suite at the Ritz, he challenged Ben Smith to a game of dice. This was the Ben Smith known as the Great Bear of Wall street, the man who had panicked the Wall Street stock market on Black Thursday in 1929 by howling over all the din, "Sell 'em all, they ain't worth a nickel".

Beaverbrook, and Smith himself, tried to dissuade Castlerosse from this rash enterprise. He didn't stand a chance, they told him, a pennyless journalist shooting craps against a man who had gambled millions of dollars in and out of his pockets. They were right, but an Irish peer could not show himself to be a craven. He lost all his money after a few rolls. He then excused himself, came back a little while later with a couple of hundred pounds in his pocket, grabbed the dice again, lost all the pounds, excused himself a second time and repeated the whole performance. Gentlemen do not ask one another where their money comes from, and it was only later that it was learned that Castlerosse had picked up five hundred pounds from the Ritz cashier, instructing him to charge it to Lord Beaverbrook's account.

Stories like this tend to make Castlerosse somewhat more interesting than the people he wrote about. The same cannot be said for the generality of the profession.

it can hardly be said that the name of any gossip columnist has been successfully transformed into a household word. The sheer mass of the contenders guarantees that none will stand out in the crowd.

There are now hundreds if not thousands of self-styled gossip columnists in operation, and the columns themselves have swollen into whole magazines -- lowbrow tabloids like the National Enquirer, middlebrow gawkers like People, highbrow glossies like Vanity Fair -- and day-long television programs and best-selling autobiographies.

The term "gossip columnist" is no longer strictly accurate, these people are probably better described as free-booting press agents. As in the days of Winchell in the Stork Club, it is the celebrity or would-be celebrity who comes, with appropriate genuflections, to offer the material that will be squeezed into precious inches of newsprint or seconds of air time. Or if not the celebrity in person, then the celebrity's press agent or the celebrity's friends.

Efforts have been made to turn Hedda Hopper and Lolly Parsons, the ranking tattletales of Hollywood, into amusing characters, and they were photogenic in an unpleasant sort of way. But since they had nothing to write about except who was sleeping, or going phfft, with whom in Hollywood, and since those whos and whoms were never terribly interesting in the first place and are now largely forgotten, the columnists are now largely forgotten too.

Celebrities, it is true, have been known to object when their publicity takes forms they are unable to control, they may deplore the decline of civility in modern life, they may threaten suits for libel, they may punch an obtrusive photographer in the nose. But it may be counted among the laws of the Medes and the Persians that there is no such thing as an unwilling celebrity. If you want your name in lights, you have to accept the consequence that lights will be shining on you wherever you go, your walls will be of glass, and your most intimate actions and confidential whispers will find their way into the bowels of someone's computer.

You and I, we tell ourselves, would never want to live in that cruel glare. That is not quite true. The most modest light hates being hidden in a bushel. The most modest and insignificant of us are born with some instinct to climb, to excel, and to receive some recognition for doing so, to become a celebrity. Four centuries ago Montaigne compared his fellow-countrymen the French to "monkeys, who clamber up a tree, from branch to branch, and stay not until they have reached the highest branch, and, when there, show their hinder parts".

Today we have such monkeys climbing the trees all over the world, and who is to blame the gossip columnists for clustering in the lower boughs?