“On a day of burial, there is no perspective.” — Antoine de Saint-Exupery

July 1, 2009



I noticed references to a public wake for Michael Jackson, and that got me to thinking about the manner in which previous celebrities of that magnitude have taken their leave, as it were.

I should qualify this observation immediately inasmuch as I’ve been hearing for several days that there has been no other celebrity of that magnitude — and today I heard the Chicago Tribune music critic say that there won’t be another, at least not among singers. These are meaningless statements, of course, because the magnitude of any person’s celebrity is affected by multiple factors, most of them subjective. Enrico Caruso, for example, was treated all over the world as if he were royalty — even by people who had never heard him perform, and 88 years after his death he is still the standard by which male singers are measured. His name, in fact, is a synonym for “male singer.”



A man whose status as an international celebrity was emerging just as Caruso died was Babe Ruth. He transcended the sport that his fame was based on to such a degree that Japanese soldiers during World War II, nearly a decade after his career had ended, would shout “to hell with Babe Ruth” as an insult to American servicemen. Like Caruso, Ruth remains the model to whom his successors are compared.

When Ruth died, he had been retired for 14 years. His body lay in state at Yankee Stadium where an estimated 100,000 people of every age and description bid him a solemn farewell. When Francis Cardinal Spellman celebrated Ruth’s funeral mass at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan, a crowd estimated at 75,000 filled the church and spilled out into the rain-swept streets.



It is likely that no outpouring of grief in this nation, at least, has exceeded that which followed the murder of Abraham Lincoln. In retrospect, the reaction was not out of proportion to the importance of his death; in some respects, one might argue, the country has not yet fully recovered, given the debacle of Reconstruction and its aftermath.

Contemporary accounts describe the American people, including many who recently had excoriated Lincoln and his policies, as either numb with shock or crazy with anger. Millions of people stood along the right-of-way as the funeral train carried Lincoln’s body over the 13-day journey from Washington to Springfield.



Perhaps the instance that will prove the best analogy for the case of Michael Jackson is that of Rudolph Valentino, the silent film actor whose life and career were as tumultuous and controversial as Jackson’s. Valentino died in 1926 at the age of 31 from complications after surgery for appendicitis and gastric ulcers. His funeral, which was something of a circus, attracted an estimated 100,000 people in the streets of New York, a large number considering the limitations on travel at the time. The crowd erupted in a riot that lasted most of one day and required more than 100 mounted policemen plus police reserves to restore order. Several of Valentino’s fans committed suicide and the actress Pola Negri sent to the funeral home 4,000 roses in an arrangement that spelled out her name. During the wake period, Negri announced that she had been Valentino’s fiancee — something no one else was aware of — and promptly collapsed on his coffin in a fit of hysteria. She followed the funeral train from New York to California and was composed enough to stand for photographs whereever the train stopped.




3 Responses to ““On a day of burial, there is no perspective.” — Antoine de Saint-Exupery”

  1. Hala Says:

    With all due respect I wouldnt say Valentino’s life was even NEAR as controversial as Michael Jackson’s. I agree this ‘never another one like him’ is a little silly. There was Al Jolson, then Elvis, now him. Each was the biggest thing in his own time, yet someone always came along bigger and better with new technology. Now we barely know Jolson. In 50 years we may barely know Elvis. In 100 years there will probably just be a few moonwalking heheing freaks attending some memorial ala Valentino’s kookies.

    • charlespaolino Says:

      Agreed. I can’t judge Jackson’s real popularity, but I doubt that it will endure outside of a certain niche in the population, and that niche will eventually age and die. There have been others besides those you mentioned who have been wildly popular in their own day but whose names are now virtually unknown.

  2. Penni Jo Says:

    I found your blog from a google search on Abraham Lincoln. Most thoughtful and well written. Thank you.
    Penni Jo

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