Celebrity Deaths

The Pattern and Price of Fame

While the feeding frenzy surrounding Michael Jackson's death may have prompted onlookers to reflect on the current state of society, it turns out that the fixation isn't so current. The 18,000 mourners who filled the Staples Center to grieve the late King of Pop weren’t surprising at all, according to Tom Payne, author of a new book on fame. "In 1827, Beethoven had 20,000 people following his hearse through Vienna," he writes in The Times of London. "There are stories of people snipping off bits of Beethoven’s hair, even before his death; and, in later years, following the custom for geniuses (Haydn, Einstein), Beethoven’s body was exhumed for further examination." When celebrities are alive, we cherish them, he continues, but when they die, "they are ours." This metaphor can be traced back even further, to Ancient Greece. At that time, sacrificial animals were cut up into equal portions, and "who got which bit was decided by taking lots (as were the tickets to the Jackson memorial)." If it all sounds a little gruesome—it is. And similarly, it seems, Michael Jackson’s death has fed the mob.