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.

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  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

We Attend the Openings of Envelopes

Andy Warhol? Sylvia Miles? Wayland Flowers? Jack O’Brian? Rex Reed? Olivia Goldsmith? Ivana Trump? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The opening of an exciting theatrical production or an innovative art museum can be a prestigious event with an impressive guest list. Yet, many openings are weary exercises in public relations with unremarkable attendees. A self-promoter who showed up at a large number of openings delivered the following gently mocking line:

I would attend the opening of an envelope.

The same barb has comically been aimed at a well-known performer:

That person would attend the opening of an envelope.

The famous pop artist Andy Warhol and the Academy Award nominated actress Sylvia Miles have been linked to these lines. Would you please explore this family of quips?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in the Broadway gossip column of Jack O’Brian in 1974. The actress Sylvia Miles was the target of an elaborate version of the jest. The ellipsis in the following appeared in the original text. Boldface added to excerpts: 1

A carbonated Sylvia Miles of course turned up at Cue Mag’s salute to Debbie Reynolds; Syl turns up at all openings; last week the madcap mummer attended half a dozen openings, including one envelope, two appendectomies and a cellar door . . . It’s not a good opening if it’s Miles-away.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1974 January 23, The Jersey Journal, The Voice of Broadway: Comics take Brando’s tango by Jack O’Brian, Quote Page 30, Column 4, Jersey City, New Jersey. (GenealogyBank)

In the Future Everyone Will Be Anonymous for Fifteen Minutes

Banksy? Andy Warhol? John Leland? Graham Greenleaf? John Hilvert? Neal Gabler?

Dear Quote Investigator: The rise of the hacktivist group “Anonymous” reminded me of an artwork I saw by the graffiti provocateur Banksy. He (or she, or they) created a pink television set with a screen that displayed this message:

In the future everyone will be anonymous for fifteen minutes

Lasting pieces of art are always ambiguous, and I am not certain what motivated Banksy. Maybe the proliferation of pseudo-celebrities has flattened the notion of fame. Thus, in the future each person will become an interchangeable semi-star.

Perhaps the loss of privacy from ubiquitous cameras, internet tracking, and DNA fingerprints means each of us will be able to retain our secrets and autonomy for only fifteen minutes. Possibly each one of us will join some protest group like “Anonymous” but only for a quarter of an hour.

Naturally, Banksy, himself or herself, has been anonymous for much longer than fifteen minutes. Can you determine who first spun Warhol’s famous prediction to create this new statement?

Quote Investigator: As the questioner suggests, this saying is a twist on a famous pronouncement attributed to the Pop artist Andy Warhol concerning the velocity of modern fame:

In the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes.

The earliest instance found by QI of a saying similar to the one in Banksy’s artwork was printed in the music magazine Spin in 1989. It appeared in a hostile profile of the singer and songwriter Richard Marx by the journalist and critic John Leland. In the following text the term “the 90s” referred to the near future [SPRM]:

A success story for the 90s — when everyone will be anonymous for 15 minutes — Marx is rock’s invisible man. No one has sold so many records and made so little impact on the culture. Even his press kit, the expensive, glossy cardboard portfolio of a major star, reads more like a corporate annual report than the story of a life.

The passage above is about the transposable and indistinguishable elements of fame. By May 1996 an interesting variant quotation was circulating that was aimed at another topic: the computer-mediated invasion of privacy. This maxim had different implications because “cyberspace” was substituted for “the future”. The periodical “PJ: Privacy Journal” reported on the saying and credited a legal academic [PJGG]:

“In cyberspace, everyone will be anonymous for 15 minutes.”

Graham Greenleaf, associate professor of law at University of New South Wales and member of the New South Wales Privacy Committee in Australia.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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