It was dark before Monday morning's dawn when the radio alarm kicked in for the Presidential Holiday news brief. Three celebrity deaths led the news cast. There is an old saying that deaths come in threes. All three individuals, though different in their careers, each contributed to the current cultural focus of the American Dream.
John Riatt's height of popularity occurred in the late 1940s and 1950s. He was a star in Broadway musicals when the New York stage was the revered stage. One had to master the three tools of a Broadway production: acting, singing, and dancing. He was from the era of actor's practicing the craft even when his popularity faded in the early 1960s by continuing to perform summer stock productions.
Sandra Dee was the teen girl-next door icon from the late 1950s and early 1960s. She is best known for her roles as Gidget and Tammy. Her roles helped define the early California pop culture of beach and surf movies. It made the cultural cues to Hollywood palatable to Main Street America. Madison Avenue would soon use the cues of California kids to shape the American experience in the minds of the consuming public.
Hunter S. Thompson was the rebel writer who led the vanguard of new journalism in the 1970s political turmoil. He often chased the American Dream in his surreal style of gonzo prose. He found that a carefully crafted venomous sensory phrase was as powerful as a bullet in his intended victim. As an author, he took great pains to craft his work to turn the perfect sentence.
Riatt's lasting legacy is his daughter, singer Bonnie Raitt. In his generation, the purpose of his work and success was to afford their children a better opportunity than their own. Such success is part of the American Dream.
Dee's career was over by age 26. She was a storybook icon that her name and image lasted into the next generation lexicon. Her ending sounded like a faded script of the lost starlet: alcoholism, a failed marriage, eating disorders, seclusion for years on end away from the public. The demons of sudden success attributed to the American Dream can literally haunt for the rest of one's life.
Thompson's career was a Great America rollercoaster ride. It had its ups and deep downs. He mastered the writing style of putting himself into the guts of the story, weaving the allegory images of drugs, alcohol and anti-establishment anarchy, to make his point. The purpose of putting yourself into the story was to help explain the subject matter to the reader. However, new journalism has spawned a new media staple: opinion based news coverage. It is more important what a reporter thinks is the spin than factual reporting the event.
Though Thompson's work was good copy, he himself was the exact opposite. He did not respond well to interviews, the publicity, or public appearances. Nor did his work translate well into other media. His best known work, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, turned into a jumbled bad movie. His life was a conflicted balance of opposite extremes. He was a forebearer of liberal Democratic party platform issues, but at the same time embraced conservative touchstones of guns, individual liberty, libertarian view of less government intrusion into one's personal life, and his own privacy. His last column for ESPN.com last week was discussing a concept of combining guns and golf into a new sport with Bill Murray, who played Thompson in the ill-received biopic, Where the Buffalo Roam. It was not the writing of a depressed man, but the vintage weirdness of a sports and gun fanatic. But it is odd in retrospect that he wanted to clearly give Murray and his friend, the county sheriff, credit for this last concept. In less than a week, he took a gun to his end in a Hemingway.
Riatt, Dee and Thompson's fame came from the acceptance of their talent from the American public. Their work is captured in music, films and books. Their collective passing on this President's Day took more television news time than reflections on past Presidents. It shows that the collective news judgment of the day is toward celebrity and entertainment features than historical essays. Though the past Presidents reached the pinnacle of the American Dream for their Time, today's news consumer is more interested in last days of semi-known, faded or lost cultural icons of their own generation as a measure of themselves. The cultural gold standard is name recognition, even in death.
February 22, 2005.