Profiles of celebrities, from Piaf to Kardashian

One morning in 1957, Truman Capote arrives at the Miyako Hotel in Kyoto to interview Marlon Brando. The press-shy star was in Japan shooting “Sayonara” for Warner Bros. The film’s director, Joshua Logan, had caught wind of Capote’s plans and, upon seeing the short, piccolo-voiced writer at the reception, took him on like a disobedient poodle and threw him out. Capote later returned with a bottle of vodka and found Brando in his hotel room, surrounded by dirty socks, coat hangers, and books on Buddhism. Left alone with Capote, Brando sniffed apple pie and cigarettes and talked — about his “inability to love,” how he did “Sayonara” for money, about his alcoholic mother — and Capote listen. He left at two in the morning.

The result, “The Duke in his Domain”, took place in the new yorker this November, at some fourteen thousand words, giving audiences the kind of harrowing and myth-piercing portrait of a rare celebrity at a time when the studio system kept its stars on an inaccessible pedestal. Brando, Capote concluded, was not so much a deity as a “young man sitting on a pile of sweets”, by which he meant the trappings of fame. Brando had begged Capote not to publish the article, pleading that his innards would be “festooned with harlequin streamers for public reflection.” When the story came out, the star raged at its director: “I’m going to kill him!”

“It’s too late,” Logan replied. “You should have killed him before you invited him to dinner.”

As Method’s preeminent actor of the decade, Brando redefined what a movie star was: not a suave personality with a Mid-Atlantic accent, but a mumbling, imploding mess of a human being, as vulnerable as he was. an open wound. But Capote, drawing inspiration from the stunning Lillian Ross New Yorker pieces on Ernest Hemingway and John Huston, was also innovative, giving a celebrity portrait the depth and detail of fiction. (Unfortunately, this detail included Capote’s grumpy descriptions of Japan and his “sneering” daughters.) Discuss Brando’s mission with The New Yorker editor, William Shawn, Capote had argued that certain genres of journalism could be elevated to art. “Let’s take the lowest possible form of journalism: an interview with a movie star,” he said. “I mean, what could be lower than that?”

This week’s issue explores the magazine’s archives to show how the lowest form of journalism can reach the heights of non-fiction prose. This selection of profiles, essays, Talk of the Town articles and even fiction offers extreme close-ups of cultural titans, spanning seven decades. Together, they tell how the very concept of celebrity evolved, from the dawn of Hollywood to the democratizing advent of Instagram. (We’re all celebrities now, with the right filter.) They also trace the idiosyncratic spirit of the magazine’s celebrity cover, driven less by the winds of popular taste than by writers’ enthusiasms. The oldest piece in this issue, by AJ Liebling, is an encounter with singer Edith Piaf in 1947. The most recent, by Lauren Michele Jackson, is a 2020 deconstruction of Kim Kardashian’s birthday party that flouts the pandemic and the resulting discourse on “privilege”. People like Kardashian are often said to be “famous for being famous,” but stars have always had a look that transcends the craft. Consider silent film ingenue Louise Brooks, who helped invent the image of the Jazz Age freewheeling clapperboard. Kenneth Tynan’s 1979 profile captures his ineffable magic, as Tynan watches his old movies in a reverie, before introducing us to seventy-one-year-old Brooks, arthritic and reclusive but still fascinating.

Fame is, among other things, a way of marking time. Who were we when Bob Dylan was a rising folk singer in 1964, the year Nat Hentoff profiled him? Or when Missy Elliott burst onto the hip-hop scene in 1997, the year Hilton Als captured her brash and dazzling rise? These writings are time capsules but also destinations of the mind, inviting us to return. ♦

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