Stars in their eyes
Cosmo Landesman’s hilarious and compassionate memoir of growing up in a fame-obsessed, hippy household reveals more about celebrity culture than many a sociological tract.
At first glance, Starstruck: Fame, Failure, My Family and Me reveals its author, Cosmo Landesman, to be a man of contradictions.
Landesman, an American in Britain, who is the film critic for The Sunday Times, has suffered life-long embarrassment at the hands of his American parents, the well-known countercultural figures Jay and Fran Landesman. His parents’ decision to go public about their open marriage was particularly embarrassing. Yet now, Landesman has written a book that reveals a great deal about their affairs.
Landesman is critical of those who make a trade from revealing intimate details about their private lives. Yet in Starstruck, he revisits his well-publicised split with writer Julie Burchill who left him for another woman: an intern at The Modern Review, the magazine that Burchill set up with Landesman and Toby Young.
Landesman lambasts his father’s habit of name-dropping. Yet his book is filled with references to his own famous mates (including authors Moshin Hamid, Antonia Quirke and Sebastian Horsley), as well as hints at his many invites to celebrity parties and anecdotes of his various brushes with fame. Like when Johnny Rotten stopped by one of Jay and Fran’s alcohol- and drug-fuelled parties, or the time when Jay came home with a small piece of paper for Cosmo and his younger brother Miles. It said: ‘Stay cool, be groovy, Love, Jimi Hendrix.’
But all of this is forgivable. Firstly because the book is hilarious. And secondly because Landesman does not make himself the main subject of Starstruck. The book is, on one hand, a memoir of Landesman’s self-obsessed parents and their lifelong quest for success and acclaim, and, on the other, an examination of how fame and public recognition – be it for 15 minutes or a lifetime – have become the primary ambitions of our time.
Starstruck explores the shifting nature of celebrity culture, from the dawn of the television age in the 1950s to the recent emergence of online ‘me-media’. Yet Landesman shows that decades of cultural shifts and political upheavals could not budge the single-mindedness of two loud Americans who, now aged 91 and 82, are still dreaming of making it big.
Jay and Fran Landesman are the kind of people you’d love to know but would probably hate to have as your parents, especially if, like Cosmo, you grew up in north London in a bohemian household in the 1960s and 70s and most of your classmates were hippie-hating skinheads. While Cosmo looked at his parents (dad in plastic-leather trousers, sandals and painted toenails; mum in purple Afghan coat, bangles, beads and no bra) and saw freaks, Jay and Fran looked back at their straight son – who kept his bedroom immaculate and his Doc Martens spotless – and saw an ‘uptight, bourgeois, anally retentive fascist’.
Jay and Fran have led interesting and eventful lives that many would envy. They hung out with bohemians and beatniks in Greenwich Village in the 1950s, before starting a nightclub in St Louis, where performers included Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen and Barbara Streisand.
When they met in New York, Fran, a rebelling, pretty Jewish princess from the Upper West side, studied art and dressed in black. Jay, a rebelling, nice Jewish boy from Missouri, edited a magazine called Neurotica. Ahead of its time, the quarterly publication offered a psychoanalytic examination of American popular culture. Jay’s list of proposed article titles for Neurotica‘s first issue included ‘The New Look is the Anxious Look’, ‘The Castration Complex in Animals’ and ‘Can You Slap Your Mother? A Semantic Problem’.
The Landesmans experienced the Swinging Sixties and the Summer of Love in London, where, again, they hung out with artists, writers and musicians. While the middle-aged Jay and Fran embraced the hippie era, happily shedding their double-breasted suits and Vidal Sassoon-styled hair for the garish, hippy uniform of sandals, bangles and psychedelic-patterned bell bottoms, the teenaged Cosmo developed an acute case of chronic embarrassment. He would often come home to find his parents tripping on acid or sharing their separate beds and the family dinner table with their latest lovers. When Cosmo wanted parental advice and guidance, he was handed a martini and a joint and told to ‘go with the flow’.
Jay never had a job he hated and Fran has enjoyed considerable success as a songwriter. Both have published books, launched musicals and appeared in radio shows, documentaries and magazine features. Yet their craving for attention and affirmation never seems to be satisfied. Throughout his life, Cosmo has had to nourish their wounded egos after their kooky projects – poems, albums, plays, novels and biographies – failed to bring them the eternal fame they desired. He once asked his mother what she would like to have inscribed on her gravestone. She said: ‘It was a good life, but it wasn’t commercial.’
Clearly, Landesman did not want to write just another family memoir, or another book on pop and celebrity culture. With Starstruck, he interweaves both, treating his readers to a 356-page trip down pop-culture lane and a very funny chronicle of his parents’ bizarre transmutations.
As the Fifties fads of gestalt therapy, existentialism, neurosis and cynicism went out of favour so did the notion of the ‘charming failure’, the neurotic American anti-hero. The Fifties gave way to Sixties radicalism and, later, hippie dropping out-ism, for which ‘finding yourself’ – with whatever conscious-altering means you deemed necessary – was paramount.
Then the hippie-bashing punks came along. They showed that anyone could get up on stage, as long as you could strum a few chords on a guitar and smash it up at the end of your set. This idea that talent is not the preserve of the few took on new meaning in the meritocratic Eighties. Anyone could make it – but you had to work hard.
For Landesman, the 1980s US TV series Fame, set in New York’s multicultural School for the Performing Arts, is the perfect show for the Reagan and Thatcher years. It epitomised how the ‘democratic promise of postmodernism – anyone can do it – [met] the punishing demands of the Protestant work ethic’, he writes. As one of the teachers in the series says: ‘You want fame? Well, fame costs. And right here is where you start paying. In sweat!’
Alas, disillusion with the rat race, neon-coloured leggings and permatans soon set in. In the Nineties, Landesman writes, ‘turbo-capitalism was going all touchy feely’, the new zeitgeist was caring and compassion. America’s disenchanted young adults became known as ‘Generation X’, while in the UK the post-Cold War kids were labelled as the rather less hip-sounding ‘Major’s children’. These twenty- and thirtysomethings were sick of money and fast cars, a disaffection that lasts to this day, where Earth-friendliness and altruism are de rigueur status-markers. Just look at Madonna. The Material Girl went from wanting to be ‘as famous as God’ in the Eighties to wanting to reach God through Kabbalah, and to save both planet Earth and the black babies who wander on it, in the Noughties.
In the 1990s, it was no longer cool to make it to the top by nurturing your talents until you were soaked in sweat. Instead, just being an ordinary person navigating your way through life was celebrated; it could even bring you fame. In 1992, MTV’s Real World featured a group of unknown young people living together in Manhattan, paving the way for docu-soaps and Reality TV. Even Jay, after watching The Osbournes, the MTV reality show about Ozzy Osbourne and his foul-mouthed family, thought it worth pitching an idea for a similar show about the Landesmans. He relayed the idea to his consternated son during one of the many phone calls which start with Jay asking ‘have you got a minute?’ and end with Cosmo either begging his dad to give up on his latest crazy scheme for achieving stardom or despondently playing along with dad’s delusions.
Jay’s, Fran’s and Miles’ chutzpah and can-do attitudes are certainly admirable. With each buried project, a new one is born. Over the years, Jay even develops a special, playful relationship with failure. In the 1950s, he had a stand-up comedy routine called The Mystery Comic. He would talk to his audiences about his troubled childhood and problems with his mother. No one laughed. Jay claimed he was creating a new type of comedy: ‘laughter-free comedy’. In 1974, Jay set up the world’s first ‘anti-talent agency’, Creative Artists Liberated. Its motto was ‘We Take the Sting Out of Success and Put the Fun Back into Failure’.
The Landesmans’ other projects have included Jay and Fran’s musical Dearest Dracula (never made it to Broadway), Jay’s surreal novel Bad Nipple (unpublished), and memoirs (which Jay paid a friend to write). Then there were Miles’s many no-hit bands, including Renoir, Miles Over Matter, Jack of Hearts, Sapphic Sluts, Sure Gas, Neurotica, and Jozo & the Fiends.
Landesman’s portrait of his starstruck parents and his starstruck fellow Brits is, ultimately, a compassionate one. He denounces what he terms the ‘apocalyptic school’ which sees celebrity culture as a destructive force ruthlessly crushing old values (family, friendship, social solidarity, respect) and old ideals (heroism, excellence, talent, achievement). In this vision – expressed by members of the cultural elite – the public is ‘obsessed’ with celebrity. Landesman begs to differ with such pathologising of the masses. He believes that while many are fascinated with the lives of celebrities, we are not addicted to following their lives or fixated on being like them.
Landesman also holds the cultural establishment to account. He does not think celebrity culture has led to a general dumbing down, but to ‘the dumbing down of smart people’. The ‘gatekeepers of cultural values’ have welcomed reality contestants, rock stars and photo models on to front pages of newspapers, as guest editors of BBC Radio 4 programmes, and as columnists in highbrow magazines.
But why did the cultural and political elites open the gates in the first place? The watering down of culture and debate was never demanded ‘from below’. Neither did celebrities gatecrash editorial meetings and international summits. Rather, editors and politicians – fearing charges of elitism, paying heed to the ideals of relativism, and underestimating the intelligence of the public – have invited the likes of Bono, Shilpa Shetty and the Gallaghers of Oasis to join them in helping to shape their programmes and policies. Our politicians, having lost touch with the public, now seek authority from celebrities.
Landesman is concerned that our celeb-saturated society might encourage people to feel like nobodies, where all of us become Jays and Frans unable to satisfy our itching egos because, everywhere we look, there are people who are more successful, more beautiful and more famous than us.
He quotes the sociologist Chris Rojek’s notion of ‘achievement famine’, a ‘psychological condition that results from frustrated desires for material and romantic achievement of the sort the rich and famous enjoy’. He also quotes Oliver James, the psychologist who thinks people’s desire for stuff is a symptom of a disease called ‘affluenza’. Should I take back what I said about Landesman not pathologising the masses…? Most people want to look good, to own nice things, to live comfortably, to be admired. It is hard to imagine anyone who would strive for the opposite. Why should such desires be treated as symptoms of mental illness instead of positive ambitions? For James, Rojek and their peers, I feel I should borrow the words of Fran Landesman, who once wrote a song called ‘Piss Off, My Love’.
Perhaps Starstruck will make the Landesmans’ dreams of fame come true. Cosmo, who growing up found himself having to raise his unruly parents, must now appear to Fran and Jay as the perfect son. After all, he has given them everything a pair of starstruck parents could hope for: another shot at notoriety. The book is not always flattering, but as I’m sure Jay and Fran would agree, any publicity is good publicity – especially when it is as wittily and absorbingly written as Cosmo’s memoir-cum-sociological-study.
Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.
Starstruck: Fame, Failure, My Family and Me, by Cosmo Landesman is published by Pan Books. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)