I’ve been thinking a lot about celebrity worship lately. Every so often when I’m at the gym I catch a glimpse of the Michael Jackson trial—and people think the characters in Diva are bizarre! MJ’s family seems to be a lot more concerned about his welfare now that he’s dead. When MJ’s videos were in constant rotation on MTV, I remember being struck by how comfortable he seemed in his own body, at least when he was dancing. Although none of us realized it at the time, he was the opposite of comfortable—pathologically unhappy with his features and his skin color. And then you see his family, who all seem equally odd and plastic in their own way. The sight of his doctor, who is basically being paraded in the streets on his way to execution, is also a tragic figure. His expression—utterly defeated and numbed by grief and regret—makes me pity him, even while I know he didn’t need to be the one to say “yes.” (Someone would have, sooner or later, I think we all know that.) But it’s like the hit man who refuses to feel any guilt over accepting a job: “As soon as someone put a price on that guy, he was a dead man.”
Michael Jackson’s image, for a while at least, was orchestrated in the same careful manner as the Hollywood stars of old, the ones I fantasized about as a child—especially Errol Flynn, Cary Grant, and Stewart Granger. They weren’t the ones I was supposed to be mooning over at the time—Harrison Ford, Tom Cruise, Robert Redford. These guys were dead, for one thing, or at least retired and basically out of the limelight. When I was a kid watching Saturday morning matinees by myself in the basement with our beloved family dog—who was always thrilled whenever anyone spent extended time on the couch—Errol and Cary still had their reps pretty much intact. My mother assured me that Stewart (star of my favorite movie, King Solomon’s Mines) had been a macho brute and insanely jealous, and that Errol (Robin Hood, Captain Blood) had been into under-aged girls and binge drinking, but I didn’t care about the reality. She was always trying to burst my bubble. (“Handsome is as handsome does” was a favorite saying.) At that point Cary remained a jovial, charming figure, and the insinuations about his past—that he was bisexual and into LSD—didn’t come out until later. Hollywood used to be a lot better at managing its stars’ images.
I hate to think of how much my crushes on these mostly pretty messed up Hollywood hunks influenced my own choices. Fortunately I did eventually grow out of the handsome bad-boy stage. Besides, they were never all that bad—no criminals among them, at least not that I know of.
When Diva first came out, my father’s ninety-plus cousin—who is amazingly smart, a voracious reader and looks a lot like I will look if I live that long—told me she didn’t think Reade was a worthy partner for Debbie. I was taken aback. What was wrong with Reade? He was handsome, rich, generous, heroic. In her mind, as in the mind of my mother, this type was suspect. Their own experience had taught them that good men didn’t come in the handsome-rich-guy packages. (I also realize that Reade could use a little fleshing out, which he will hopefully get in future episodes of the Diva series. Of course there is no guarantee that he and Debbie will stay together.)
I started to wonder if, by perpetuating the tall-dark-handsome-rich-hero myth, I wasn’t carrying on the dubious tradition of making women want what wasn’t good for them.
I dated a few rich guys. One of them made more in a month than I make in a year, and payroll kept hounding him to deposit his checks in a timely fashion, since he couldn’t be bothered. I asked him once why he didn’t get direct deposit, but that’s a whole ’nother story. We were together for a long time (at least by either of our standards at the time). I was ecstatically happy for about two months and then mostly miserable for the rest of the years we spent together, although I wouldn’t have acknowledged it at the time. One of my friends is fond of saying, whenever I mention this guy, “We all hated him.” The rest of my friends weren’t exactly shy about giving me their two cents at the time, either.
One thing I never considered until recently—women weren’t the only ones searching for Cary Grant and coming up empty-handed. I have a male friend who is not exactly the epitome of exciting. However, he is presentable looking, kind, funny, and comfortable financially. He has never settled down, though I’ve seen him with several attractive women over the years. He finally told me how much he admired Cary Grant, a “eureka” moment for me. I believe his admiration is more akin to idol worship. Who wouldn’t come up short in comparison? (Cary Grant himself said, famously, “Everyone wants to be Cary Grant; even I want to be Cary Grant.”) In this guy’s case, his disappointment with himself has taken the form of self-loathing, one of the main qualities that makes satisfying relationships impossible. No wonder he can’t settle for a real woman; he dislikes himself too much. He aspires to be a paragon of male excellence—charming, handsome at any age, funny, warm, athletic, self-deprecating—in other words, a man too good to be true, who never existed beyond the silver screen. Woody Allen drove this point home in the heartbreakingly funny The Purple Rose of Cairo by splitting his leading man into two. The nice one was the screen character, of course.
So this is the interesting challenge for the writer. How do you create a man who is worthy of your heroine in the eyes of most? Most readers wouldn’t be too happy if you let your heroine walk off into the sunset with an Ernest Borgnine lookalike, even if he were the greatest guy ever. (Mr. Rochester, do you say? Has anyone noticed how Mr. Rochester never gets played in screen versions by ugly actors? Timothy Dalton! Okay, maybe Orson Wells, but he looked pretty good in that movie to me, and that voice … of course, I do have a weakness for beautiful voices.) Most of us prefer to shamelessly play into our readers’ (and our own) ridiculously unrealistic fantasies. Who wants her hero to be a solid but practical beau? I think of Jane Austen and the nice young men some of her heroines ended up with, after discovering the nasty truths behind the dashing soldier exteriors. I appreciate her novels now more than I did when I was younger. Hmmm … dashing soldier versus village minister, which would you choose? (Although Mr. Darcy was also a rich guy, and a snob to boot, and none of her heroines ended up exactly penniless.) At the same time I was reading The Complete Jane Austen, I was also devouring Rosemary Rogers’s latest opus. You can’t get much worse than Steve Morgan. Romance novels were largely bodice rippers at that point, with virginal heroines getting “ravished” upfront by the guy who would later turn out to be the hero. Talk about your unworthy protagonists.
Perhaps the key is giving the solid white-cake type of man a thin layer of devil’s food. Now that I’m older, I’m happily settled with a very nice guy who is far from being in the top 1%—you know, those insanely rich men who are so reviled these days by the OWS Movement but still the main quarry of the ambitious young single woman. Smart, talented, and especially kind, my beau is mostly white cake with a sponge-cake center and a top layer of devil’s food—a wicked sense of humor, a quality I could never compromise on. And he does, perhaps, bear a slight resemblance to Stewart Granger.