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Famously Sick

Ronald W. Dworkin

When Illness Goes Public
Celebrity Patients and How We Look at Medicine
by Barron H. Lerner
Johns Hopkins, 352 pp., $25

Today’s celebrity culture shares much with the pagan culture of antiquity. In Rome, the daily doings of the gods and goddesses, their tiffs, their spats and trials, were the talk of the town. Conflicting tales were told about these immortal beings—did the goddess Diana turn Actaeon into a stag to be hunted down by his own dogs because he saw her naked or because he mocked her hunting skills?—but that was the price they paid for being well known. The gods and goddesses commanded respect, but they were also high entertainment value.


The experience in celebrity culture is eerily similar. Certainly the ways to achieve celebrity status recall ancient days, when beauty worked as a ticket, in the case of Venus, but so did skill as a blacksmith: the god Vulcan, for example, being ugly and lame—kind of a nerd—but mighty talented with an anvil and hammer. Thus, in celebrity culture, both Julia Roberts and Bill Gates can be celebrities.


Like the immortals of yesteryear, today’s celebrities endure the same conflicting tales, even bald-faced lies, told about them, which the public eats up. Actors, politicians, and computer nerds ascend to celebrity status only to find that the most mundane aspects of their lives have become a source of public titillation.


The one glaring difference between today’s celebrity culture and the old pagan belief system is that the luminaries of old were immortal. Magic might have caused them to be turned into cows, echoes, or trees, but they usually landed back on their feet when the spells wore off, and they certainly didn’t get sick and die. In our celebrity culture, celebrities do get sick and die. Still, from an entertainment perspective, all this means is that the great mass of people have one more thing to gossip about to pass the time and enliven their humdrum lives.


Barron Lerner, a physician and professor of medicine and public health at Columbia, has given us a detailed account of what some of these modern-day gods and goddesses have endured in their fight for life. Had Dr. Lerner lived in ancient days, his work would have most resembled that of Hesiod or Pausinias, writers who recorded the life experiences of the gods and goddesses in minute detail. Lerner is, above all, a teller of tales, and he examines the lives of 12 famous people and shows how their respective struggles with disease resonated with the American people. Some of the celebrities are actors, a few are athletes, and one is a politician. A few of them are famous for no other reason than that they were guinea pigs for doctors’ inventions: Barney Clark, for example, the first person to receive an artificial heart. But all of them are (or at least were) well known—the sine qua non of celebrity status. It is their well-knownness that captured people’s attention and made people want to talk about them.


Although this is very entertaining, and in terms of writing style and investigative research Lerner’s methods far surpass standard tabloid fare, it is not particularly illuminating. It titillates, but little more. Indeed, it is as much a product of celebrity culture as the celebrities themselves.


Specifically, Lerner devotes each chapter to the trial of one suffering celebrity, with the last paragraph in each foretelling the looming crisis for the next celebrity. But the tie between the chapters is artificial; there is no real narrative. Reading the book, I didn’t see how Lou Gehrig’s struggle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in the 1930s stood at an earlier stage in the evolution of celebrity culture than Rita Hayworth’s struggle with Alzheimer’s Disease in the 1970s, at least not in the way that most historians define cultural change. Both figures were simply famous people who fell ill and were talked about.


To the extent that an evolution has occurred—for example, people’s growing appetite for gossip about celebrities—one gets a sense that the celebrity medical experience is not determinant in any way and that it parallels the larger cultural trend. Celebrity medicine is just one more expression of the popular desire to hear more. Celebrity books that once covered crumbling marriages, illicit sex, and bankruptcy proceedings now reserve extra space for diseases.


Still, the reader picks up some interesting facts. Did you know that when Lou Gehrig gave his farewell speech in 1939, thousands of seats in Yankee Stadium were empty, as many people thought Gehrig was announcing only a leave of absence from which he would eventually return? Did you know that when John Foster Dulles was dealing with the Suez crisis, the effects of which reverberate to this day, he was suffering with shaking chills and abdominal pain, which eventually led doctors to his diagnosis of colon cancer? Did you know that Rita Hayworth once slapped a stewardess on a flight to London?


What the book lacks is a strong thesis, putting the matter of celebrity patienthood in some kind of sociological perspective. Lerner makes some thoughtful comments about celebrity sickness in a democratic culture, but most of his observations are derivative: for example, the notion that the celebrity disease culture has further democratized the subject of illness (as if anything in our society was left to be democratized). The synthesis and analysis part of the book, the intellectual heavy lifting, could probably have fit into a single essay.


Even the worldview of the crank would have been better than nothing. Reading Lerner, I almost longed for some good old-fashioned vulgar Marxism: the idea, for example, that advertising agencies are in cahoots with the medical profession, and that celebrity gossip is used to deform class consciousness and distract workers (big buyers of tabloids) from attacking capitalists.


Then again, Lerner can be credited with not making a mountain out of a molehill. Today’s obsession with celebrity illness is probably nothing more than a reflection of people’s deepest fears about disease and death. The fact that celebrities now have stories of struggle with an open-ended story line (some of the celebrities here actually survive) may simply be a testament to the enormous medical progress made during the last century. We have gone quickly from a time when death from diseases like leukemia and other cancers was certain to a time when death from such diseases is no sure thing, thus making possible the heroic struggle, with a chance for victory as well as defeat, the source of all great drama, even drama in celebrity culture.


Dr. Lerner has written a good book, and one that probably comes close to the limits of what can be accomplished, given the subject matter. As a kind of hybrid between serious sociology and first-class gossip, it would be perfect for summer reading on the beach.


This article was originally published in the October 9, 2006, issue of the Weekly Standard.

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