One of my favorite bloggers reminds me that in December of 1969, Esquire invited twenty-five venerable celebrities to offer end-of-the-decade advice, most of it predictably platitudinous, to the magazine’s younger readers. Among the invitees, I rejoice greatly to report, was Louis Armstrong, who wrapped up his contribution to the symposium as follows:
Just want to say that music has no age. Most of your great composers—musicians—are elderly people, way up there in age—they will live forever. There’s no such thing as on the way out. As long as you are doing something interesting and good. You are in business as long as you are breathing. “Yeah.”
Very nice—and, as always, utterly characteristic.
What interests me more about the piece, though, is the list of contributors. In addition to Armstrong, it included:
Harry J. Anslinger
Lady Olave Baden-Powell
Lewis B. Hershey
Hyman G. Rickover
Harold C. Urey
My question is this: how many of those names do you recognize?
I knew twenty of them, but I’m sixty years old and passably well-informed, and Google and Wikipedia soon set me straight on Lady Baden-Powell and Messrs. Kekkonen, Rhine, Sagendorph, and Urey, all of whom struck me as quite worth remembering, though I’m not blushing at having come up short on their names. I couldn’t help but wonder, though, what the average score of a forty-year-old American would be—and how many more of Esquire’s now-deceased symposiasts will be totally forgotten ten years from today.
Rube Goldberg is already pretty far gone, enough so that it seems fair to call the still-common expression “Rube Goldberg machine” a stone-dead metaphor, while Maurice Chevalier, who used to be a name-above-the-title star, is now remembered by most people only for his appearance in Gigi. Will his name ring any bells at all come 2026? Or will he have gone the way of Lillian Gish and Hyman Rickover?
Posthumous fame is a fragile thing, of course, and now that the teaching of history has fallen to pieces, it grows more fragile still. I read last week that a fifth of all British teenagers believe Winston Churchill to have been a fictional character, whereas 47% believe that Eleanor Rigby was real. Needless to say, there is ever and always ample reason to despair, and my Despair-O-Meter came close to breaking last week for other, arguably better reasons. Still, anyone who thinks that Winston Churchill wasn’t a real person is, not to put too fine a point on it, an idiot—which suggests that we really are living in what Mike Judge calls an idiocracy.
All this notwithstanding, I continue to cling faithfully to the belief that most people will still know who Satchmo was come 2026. But I’m not sure how much of the rent I’d bet on it.
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The trailer for Idiocracy:
Something for Nothing, a 1940 General Motors promotional film featuring Rube Goldberg: