The outstanding American newspaper tycoon was William Randolph Hearst. He solved the problem of how to satisfy the insatiable public desire for reading about famous people. He did it by making more people famous, building up his friends as saints and branding his enemies as monsters. Later on, by a satisfactory irony, Orson Welles handed Hearst the same treatment by portraying him as Citizen Kane. Welles simplified Hearst’s character and travestied his long love affair with the actress Marion Davies, who was, in turn, much more talented than Welles portrayed her. But for most of us, Kane and his mistress are all we know of Hearst and Marion Davies. Fame simplifies. It was a process that Hearst himself codified and cashed in on.
It was Valentino. If he had been operated on in time, he might have been saved, but they couldn’t find a surgeon to match his prestige. It was the last farce of his life. His death was a theatrical triumph. People queued to get in. The funeral rites started in New York, where the queue to see his body became a riot. Valentino’s body crossed the country by train. The funeral in Hollywood was one of the film world’s events of the century, razzmatazz in mourning. But for millions of women all over the world his loss was the occasion of deep and lasting grief, which pundits preferred to call mass hysteria, rather than face the difficult question of how otherwise normal people could feel love for a dreamed object, passion for an illusion, and treat the life and death of a man who wore funny hats as if it was a matter of life and death. It was the death of innocence. Fame was a force, and the proof was in the coffin.