What was it like to live in the 1940s and ‘50s? You can get clues by watching TV shows like “Leave It To Beaver,” or you can read old newspapers from the period and see how celebrities were covered in life and death. Celebrities’ personal lives were often completely missing from their obituaries. For example, when W.C. Fields died in 1946, the New York Times’ obituary had nothing – absolutely nothing – on his alcohol problem. Five years earlier, Life magazine practically made light of Fields’ drinking, showing the comedian/actor with a drink of pineapple and rum. Hit and miss. In the 1940 and ‘50s, the public was often unaware of famous people’s personal lives – whether it was drinking or womanizing or anything else.
Today, all bets are off. Dennis Hopper, the great actor who passed away earlier today, is defined in the third paragraph of the New York Times’ obit by his relationship to drugs and alcohol. Actor Gary Coleman, who died last night, received the same treatment by the New York Times. Here’s the lead sentence of Coleman’s obit:
Gary Coleman, the former child star of the hit television series “Diff’rent Strokes,” who dealt with a well-publicized string of financial and personal difficulties after the show ended, died on Friday in Provo, Utah.
One can argue whether it’s a sign of progress that, upon a star’s demise, the media exhumes the behind-the-scenes details of their personal lives. Needless to say, the Internet is full of innuendo, gossip, and trashy items about celebrities. (Fields’ Wikipedia entry has a whole section on his alcohol issues.) But the fact that the New York Times – a paper with a more distinguished reputation than, say, TMZ.com – also trafficks in these sideshow facts is worthy of debate. The zeitgeist? It’s there in the obits of the paper of record. In the media food chain, there’s now no place to hide for a star of any kind. Their foibles – even in death – will be on display for all to see and ponder.