Famous for Being Famous

Daniel J. Boorstin? Andy Warhol? Charles Godfrey Leland? Marshall McLuhan? Raquel Welch? David Brinkley? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Achieving fame required some significant accomplishment or impressive quality in the past. Now it seems that people are deemed notable for absurd reasons. Here are three phrases describing the self-referential nature of modern celebrityhood:

  • Famous for being famous.
  • Well-known for being well-known.
  • Notorious for their notoriety.

This concept has been attributed to historian Daniel Boorstin and Pop-Art fabricator Andy Warhol. Would you please explore its provenance?

Quote Investigator: Intriguingly, this notion was mentioned back in the nineteenth century. In 1896 U.S. humorist Charles Godfrey Leland published a collection of re-told stories titled “Legends of Florence”. A character named Flaxius employed the saying while commenting on the motivations of some extravagant people. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

. . . whole life and highest aim is really not to win gold for real pleasure, or even for avarice or aught solid, but merely to live in its glitter and sheen—to . . . jingle jewels, in a kind of fade ostentation, as doth a professional beauty or an actress famous for being famous, nothing more . . .

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1939 several U.S. newspapers used a negated form of the expression to describe a town in Belgium: 2

La Panne, a little Belgian seaside resort near the French frontier where folk go to rest and not to be disturbed with lots of things to see, claims to be famous for not being famous!

In 1940 the German-American novelist Hans Otto Storm published “Count Ten” which included an instance of the saying: 3

Three generations of the Vitans family had been first-named Bellamy. A name you’d heard about but didn’t know what for. Famous for being famous.

In 1962 historian Daniel J. Boorstin published “The Image or, What Happened to the American Dream” which included a discussion of celebrityhood. Boorstin contended that the characteristics of fame changed with the advent of technologies capable of the precise recording, transmission, and dissemination of images and audio: 4

The celebrity is a person who is known for his well-knownness.

His qualities—or rather his lack of qualities—illustrate our peculiar problems. He is neither good nor bad, great nor petty. He is the human pseudo-event. He has been fabricated on purpose to satisfy our exaggerated expectations of human greatness.

Boorstin believed that the subjects of contemporary magazine profiles and popular biographies were often figures of little accomplishment: 5

If their lives are empty of drama or achievement, it is only as we might have expected, for they are not known for drama or achievement. They are celebrities. Their chief claim to fame is their fame itself. They are notorious for their notoriety.

Consumer products also embodied a hollow type of fame: 6

The nationally advertised product is a celebrity of the consumption world. It is well known for its well-knownness, which is one of its most attractive ingredients.

Boorstin even applied his intellectual framework to universities: 7

Universities, the traditional refuge of timelessness, nowadays look for big names, and enlarge their public relations and press relations departments to make the university itself a celebrity, known for its well-knownness.

When Boorstin’s book was examined in “The New York Times” the reviewer found its primary catchphrase memorable: 8

. . . the celebrity, whom Mr. Boorstin defines, nicely but too often, as “a person who is known for his well-knownness . . . a human pseudo-event.”

Also in 1962 an essay by prominent media theorist Marshall McLuhan titled “The Electronic Age” appeared in the collection “Mass Media in Canada”. McLuhan referred to Boorstin’s book and discussed its thesis: 9

But it is true that with photography and electronics it became possible to bypass the consumer phase in fame. One could simply become famous or celebrated for being famous or celebrated, without going through the tedious process of discovering and peddling some marketable commodity or entertaining stereotype.

In 1966 actress Raquel Welch who was known for her beauty employed the self-effacing remark while talking to a columnist of “The Los Angeles Times”: 10

“I am famous for being famous” she remarked. “I’ve had so much attention here I’m afraid the press is convinced I can only be a terrible actress.”

In March 1967 popular columnist Herb Caen visited Gstaad, Switzerland, a popular location for wealthy individuals. Caen employed the saying while crediting Boorstin: 11

And there are more celebrities per square foot than any place this side of Gstaad’s bitter rival, St. Moritz (a celebrity, as Daniel Boorstin puts it, is somebody who is well-known for being well-known).

In July 1967 a columnist for an Indianapolis, Indiana newspaper applied the expression to actress Jayne Mansfield and socialite Zsa Zsa Gabor: 12

Miss Mansfield was the creation, pure and simple, of a particular kind of publicity and promotion which can make a person famous for being famous. Zsa Zsa Gabor is an example. Does anybody know what Zsa Zsa is famous for except being famous?

In 1970 “LIFE” magazine applied the expression to the famous wit Oscar Wilde: 13

Oscar Wilde was perhaps the first self-made celebrity—a perfect case of a man famous for being famous.

The saying is linked to Andy Warhol because it was often applied to him. For example, in January 1974 “The Guardian” of London printed the following: 14

Warhol is the last dandy, a tycoon of passivity, the pale master. To describe him, it is necessary to invoke the twin ghosts of Duchamp and Baudelaire. “Famous for being famous, he is pure image.”

In April 1974 the journalist David Brinkley applied the saying to himself and other news anchors: 15

I believe the television anchorman becomes famous, but not for his power to influence uncritical masses of people, and not for his ability to change the social or political order or to elect a candidate or defeat one. So what is he famous for? Mainly, he is famous for being famous.

In 2004 “The Oxford Dictionary of Idioms” contained an entry for the phrase: 16

famous for being famous
having no recognizable reason for your fame other than high media exposure.

In conclusion, humorist Charles Godfrey Leland employed the phrase “famous for being famous” with the modern sense in 1896. In 1940 novelist Hans Otto Storm also used the phrase with the modern sense. In 1962 Daniel J. Boorstin popularized this notion of fame with his book “The Image”. He made the statement: “The celebrity is a person who is known for his well-knownness”. In addition, he used the phrases “well known for its well-knownness”, “fame is their fame itself”, and “notorious for their notoriety”.

Image Notes: A picture of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa together with onlookers from Free-Photos at Pixabay.

Notes:

  1. 1896, Legends of Florence: Collected from the People and Re-told by Charles Godfrey Leland (Hans Breitmann), Second Series, Chapter: La Via del Gomitolo del Oro, and How it got its Name, Quote Page 229, Macmillan and Company, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  2. 1939 September 5, The Evening Sun, Famous For Not Being Famous, Quote Page 5, Column 5, Hanover, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1940, Count Ten by Hans Otto Storm, Part Four: Force, Quote Page 388, Longmans, Green and Company, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)
  4. 1962 (Copyright 1961), The Image or, What Happened to the American Dream by Daniel J. Boorstin, Chapter 2: From Hero to Celebrity: The Human Pseudo-Event, Quote Page 57 and 58, Atheneum, New York. (Verified with scans)
  5. 1962 (Copyright 1961), The Image or, What Happened to the American Dream by Daniel J. Boorstin, Chapter 2: From Hero to Celebrity: The Human Pseudo-Event, Quote Page 60, Atheneum, New York. (Verified with scans)
  6. 1962 (Copyright 1961), The Image or, What Happened to the American Dream by Daniel J. Boorstin, Chapter 5: From Ideal to Image: The Search for Self-Fulfilling Prophecies, Quote Page 221, Atheneum, New York. (Verified with scans)
  7. 1962 (Copyright 1961), The Image or, What Happened to the American Dream by Daniel J. Boorstin, Chapter 4: From Shapes to Shadows: Dissolving Forms, Quote Page 168, Atheneum, New York. (Verified with scans)
  8. 1962 April 8, The New York Times, Section: The New York Times Book Review, Wanted: More Events, More Heroes by Martin Mayer (Book Review of “The Image: Or What Happened to the American Dream” by Daniel J. Boorstin), Quote Page BR3, Column 2, New York. (ProQuest)
  9. 1962, Mass Media in Canada, Edited by John A. Irving (John Allan Irving), Chapter: The Electronic Age by Marshall McLuhan, Quote Page 196, The Ryerson Press, Toronto, Canada. (Verified with scans)
  10. 1966 May 30, The Los Angeles Times, New Beauties Hit Hollywood Screen by Charles Champlin, Section IV, Quote Page 18, Column 1, Los Angeles, California. (Newspapers_com)
  11. 1967 March 26, Honolulu Star-Bulletin and Advertiser, Section: Aloha Magazine, Herb Caen of San Francisco, Quote Page 2, Column 17, Honolulu, Hawaii. (Newspapers_com)
  12. 1967 July 3, The Indianapolis News, She Wasn’t Just a Plain Jane by Fremont Power, Quote Page 21, Column 1, Indianapolis, Indiana. (Newspapers_com)
  13. 1970 February 6, LIFE, Reviewer’s Choice, (Short review of “Oscar Wilde” by Philippe Jullian), Quote Page 10, Column 1, Time Inc. New York.(Google Books Full View)
  14. 1974 January 31, The Guardian, Just Dandy by John Coleman (Book review of “Stargazer: Andy Warhol’s World and His Films by Stephen Koch), Quote Page 9, Column 3, London, England. (Newspapers_com)
  15. 1974 April 1, The Washington Post, Television: The Role Of the ‘Anchorman’ by David Brinkley, Quote Page A22, Column 4, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest)
  16. 2004, The Oxford Dictionary of Idioms, Edited by Judith Siefring, Second Edition, Entry: famous, Quote Page 101, Oxford University Press, New York. (Verified with scans)