COLUMN

Fifteen minutes of fame

Allan Fotheringham January 21 1985
COLUMN

Fifteen minutes of fame

Allan Fotheringham January 21 1985

Fifteen minutes of fame

COLUMN

Allan Fotheringham

Everybody misunderstands Andy Warhol (for which you can be forgiven). He did not say that everyone in the world eventually will be famous for 15 minutes. What he did say, and there’s a difference, is that everyone should be famous for 15 minutes. It was an empathetic statement. As one who has tasted the bitch goddess of fame, who has seen its good side, Warhol was saying that it would be nice if the cleaning woman and the bus driver could be famous for just a quarter-hour. Like, share the wealth. Spread it around. He has too much fame to bear, so why not lay off the action a little?

Dole it around, like a thin layer of peanut butter.

Bernhard Hugo Goetz instinctively recognizes the theorem. Goetz automatically qualified as the first 15-minute famous person of 1985 when he calmly plucked a silverplated revolver from wherever one conceals silver-plated revolvers and plugged four young black men on a New York subway. He is the instant hero of the post-Orwellian year.

To make it complete, he actually did the deed three days before Christmas (a Scrooge with a Saturday Night Special?), but his fame has expanded on the exponential scale as 1985 has advanced.

Bernhard Goetz fills a yawning vacuum in American 15-minute celebrity time. The genre begins with Lee Harvey Oswald and continues on down the line with the demented young men who gunned down Bobby Kennedy and John Lennon and who almost got Ronald Reagan. One of them, I believe his name is Hinckley, still makes the papers every few weeks with his incessant and boring demands from prison as to his human rights and his demands to get back into the Warhol Law. One supposes we could go back to John Wilkes Booth, the mediocre actor who couldn’t cut it on the stage and therefore achieved immortality by killing Abe Lincoln.

The New Yorker filled the obvious vacuum because he became a “good” gunman. The baddy category had be-

Allan Fotheringham is a columnist for Southam News.

come crowded. He has become the vigilante hero of a city terrified of crime, in a nation plagued by crime, because when the four youths approached him, supposedly demanding money, he methodically shot each of them, one of whom is now paralysed and, at the time of this writing, is in a coma. Money has poured in for the Goetz defence fund, graffiti in New York sing his praise, and editorials analyse him.

Goetz was sent to one of the most expensive private boarding schools in Switzerland, near Lake Constance. In a Sound of Music setting of equestrian

and ski trails and flower-decked homes in an old cathedral town, Bernhard spent his high school years, at $12,000 in fees each year. His father made a fortune in Florida real estate. Young Goetz became an electronics specialist, his company’s president and sole employee, a “genius,” according to one of his clients, a man who had received top-secret CIA clearance because of his work with nuclear operations, according to the camp followers of the media who wanted all the entrails on this reverse hero, the gunman who done good.

One niggle remains. What would such a successful man, 37, be doing riding the New York subway, domain of all the lower species of mankind? The answer, probably, is that in 1981 Goetz was mugged in a subway station while carrying $1,000 in electronic equipment. The suspect, a 16-year-old, was kept in criminal court for V-k hours. Goetz was detained for six hours. Three weeks later he spotted on the street the man who

had mugged him mugging a couple, aided by a companion.

Something obviously snapped. Has this well-fixed young bachelor—kind to his neighbors and his neighbors’ children, according to his neighbors—been stalking the subways ever since, waiting his chance for the Warhol Law? One would think so. One of the young layabouts (19, oldest of five children, all but two of whom were fathered by different men, a ninth-grade dropout, a cocaine addict, father of a child by a mother he no longer lives with) claims the sharpened screwdrivers with which he and his companions were found were merely for breaking into video machines, their daily living, and that they had only asked Goetz for $5 as panhandlers so they could plug into the machines. Other witnesses say the products of the subhuman South Bronx housing project that looks like bombedout Beirut were already running away when Goetz took aim with his stubby handgun and carefully shot them all. It little matters, in the age of Warhol.

Celebritydom is both precious and trivial. Warhol and, say, Frank Sinatra can testify as to the latter. They have more than they can handle, would willingly farm out some of their fame to the marshmallow salesman who makes it into the record books by punching out Billy Martin in a bar one forgotten night. Sinatra is one who has had more fame as a person and a womanizer and a puncher-of-photographers than he really needs, when all that was required was the deserved acclaim for his tonsils. There are some—Michael Jackson, Carl Lewis—that fame kills off before they can really establish their right to it. Before they become immortal, they become bores. Joe Clark was famous for nine months, an extended state of euphoria that will haunt him the rest of his life. Jimmy Carter has never recovered from his brief moment in the sun, rendered that brief partly because of the intrusion of a Warhol example even more tragic: Billy Carter and his beer can and Libya. History is very sloppy—and very unforgiving. Bernhard Goetz is this month’s Warholism.