Fame in the 20th Century  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Fame in the 20th Century was a 1993 BBC documentary television series and book by Clive James. The book and series examined the phenomenon fame and how it expanded to international mass media proportions throughout the 20th century. The 8 episodes were divided in roughly 8 decades, from the 1900s to the 1980s. Each episode highlighted world famous people during that part of the century. James delivered interesting and amusing comments about the portrayed celebrities and the various ways they became famous.

In the USA the series were broadcast on PBS.



James and his team developed the series as a study on the concept fame, and more specifically "world fame". They focused on over 250 people who are "undeniably world famous". Certain artists, musicians or sports figures became well known even for people who don’t know much about their field. Louis Armstrong is for instance world famous, even for non-jazzfans or experts. Pelé became the most famous soccer player, even in the US: one of the few countries in the world where the sport isn’t popular. People who nothing about art have heard of the name Pablo Picasso and know his style. People who are not interested in tennis have heard of John McEnroe, due to his bad behaviour on the tennis court. More people know Luciano Pavarotti than Placido Domingo.

Clive James focused on fame in the 20th century, because the arrival of mass media, film and television changed the ways people became famous forever. In the previous centuries people could only become famous by doing something that was remembered ages later. Julius Caesar and Napoleon Bonaparte conquered countries, Jesus Christ developed a religion,... In the 20th century people could become world famous in less than no time and without doing anything, thanks to the arrival of mass media. Movie stars like Charlie Chaplin, for instance, have become global stars due to the nearly universal reach of film. James cites Chaplin as the first truly world famous 20th century celebrity. The invention of the film close-up made people on film screens appear larger than life and thus increased the emotional involvement of the audience. This often led to mass hysteria and confusions between an actor's stage persona and the roles he plays on the screen (as in the case of Rudolph Valentino). Certain politicians in the century have used the media to promote their own image to the public, as for instance John F. Kennedy, who looked like a movie star, and Ronald Reagan who even was a former movie star.

People could become world famous in a matter of a few days. Orson Welles became notorious after his radio play War of the Worlds caused mass hysteria in the United States. Salman Rushdie, who was already known in literary circles, became a household name to the broader public due to the fatwa spoken out against him in 1989. Clive James sees the U.S.A. as the place where this new type of mass media fame was born. According to him international fame is only possible if the celebrity becomes famous in the USA. Cricketer Jack Hobbs was world famous throughout the British Empire in the interbellum, but unknown in countries where cricket was not popular, like the USA. Babe Ruth did however get internationally famous, even though baseball was hardly played anywhere else outside the US.

Other celebrities have been around for so long that the reason they originally became famous has been almost forgotten. Elizabeth Taylor has been cited by James as an example of someone who originally achieved fame as an actress, but later became more famous for her weddings and lifestyle. Celebrities like Frank Sinatra, Madonna, Michael Jackson, The Beatles never remained out of publicity and are nowadays famous for simply being who they are. Some people became famous due to their association with other celebrities. Examples are Yoko Ono (the wife of Beatle John Lennon), Lady Diana (who married Prince Charles in 1981) and Wallis Simpson (whose affair with Edward VIII caused his abdication). Another phenomenon examined in the series is the change of someone's fame during time and thanks to mass media coverage. Charles Lindbergh, first famous as an aviation pioneer, became, to his horror, even more famous when his son was kidnapped and murdered. Dwight Eisenhower's fame as a general in World War II helped him win the presidential elections a decade later. Joseph McCarthy used the media in his hunt against communism, but in the end the media also worked against him. Elvis Presley ‘s fame grew to legendary proportions after his death, when he sold even more albums than during his already successful lifetime.

When Clive James was asked by Charlie Rose in 1993 to name the three most famous people of the century he named: Elvis Presley, Mohammed Ali and Bruce Lee (and Adolf Hitler, "but the fact is the young Neonazis in Germany now don't really know much about Hitler. So that kind of fame not necessarily lasts.").

Famous moments

The television series made use of seldom seen archive material and world famous film and audio material where celebrities did or said famous things. Sometimes the footage wasn’t that famous, but used as a typical example of what the public associates with the celebrity. Examples are:

Celebrities portrayed in the series

Early 20th century celebrities who were already famous in the late 19th century

Clive James included them because these celebrities were internationally famous at the turn of the 19th century into the 20th century.

William Randolph Hearst, Thomas Alva Edison, Queen Victoria, Leo Tolstoy, Arthur Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling, Sarah Bernhardt, Isadora Duncan and Buffalo Bill.

Celebrities who became famous in the 20th century


Enrico Caruso, Wilbur Wright and Orville Wright, Louis Blériot, Marie Curie, Theodore Roosevelt, Florence Lawrence, Francis X. Bushman, William S. Hart, Theda Bara, Harry Houdini, Robert Falcon Scott, Roald Amundsen, Henry James, Jack Johnson, Wilhelm II ("der Kaiser"), Paul von Hindenburg, Ferdinand Foch, George V, Lloyd George, Lord Kitchener, The Red Baron, T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), Mata Hari, Lenin, Henry Ford, Douglas Fairbanks Sr., Mary Pickford, Rudolph Valentino, Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo, John Gilbert, Sigmund Freud, Pablo Picasso, Igor Stravinsky, Albert Einstein, Albert Schweitzer


Suzanne Lenglen, Anna Pavlova, Nellie Melba, Amy Johnson, Malcolm Campbell, Henry Seagrave, Jack Hobbs, Donald Bradman, Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Charles Lindbergh, Al Capone, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Josephine Baker, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, Coco Chanel, Noël Coward, Gertrude Lawrence, Al Jolson, Buster Keaton, Laurel & Hardy, The Marx Brothers, T. S. Eliot, Marlene Dietrich, Maurice Chevalier, Jeanette MacDonald, Nelson Eddy, Jean Harlow, Mae West, Cary Grant, George Gershwin, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Bruno Hauptmann


Benito Mussolini, George Bernard Shaw, Adolf Hitler, Rudolph Hess, Joseph Goebbels, Hermann Göring, Heinrich Himmler, Eva Braun, Johnny Weissmuller, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt, Mahatma Gandhi, Bing Crosby, Shirley Temple, Arturo Toscanini, Walt Disney, Gary Cooper, Howard Hughes, James Stewart, Henry Fonda, James Cagney, John Wayne, Errol Flynn, Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, Edward G. Robinson, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Walt Disney, Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Mickey Rooney, Ernest Hemingway, Franco, Orson Welles, Edward VIII, Wallis Simpson, George VI, Salvador Dali, Jesse Owens, Joe Louis, Max Schmelling, Neville Chamberlain, Joseph Stalin, Judy Garland, J. Edgar Hoover, Billie Holiday


Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle, Henri Pétain, Bob Hope, Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Hirohito, Hideki Tojo, Erwin Rommel, Bernard Law Montgomery, Lord Mountbatten, George Formby, Gracie Fields, Vera Lynn, Laurence Olivier, Douglas MacArthur, David Niven, Ronald Reagan, Frank Sinatra, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw, Harry James, Gene Krupa, Glenn Miller, Betty Grable, Rita Hayworth, Dwight Eisenhower, George Patton, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean Cocteau, Chester W. Nimitz, Harry S. Truman, Ava Gardner, Audie Murphy, Guy Gibson, Douglas Bader, Mao, Alfred Hitchcock, Charlie Parker, Margot Fonteyn


Liberace, Lucille Ball, Edmund Hillary, Tenzing Norgay, Roger Bannister, Elizabeth II, Richard Nixon, William Holden, Joseph McCarthy, Edward Murrow, Paul Robeson, Richard Burton, Gene Kelly, Sophia Loren, Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin, Marilyn Monroe, Joe Dimaggio, Arthur Miller, Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis, Brigitte Bardot, Diana Dors, Guy Gibson, Richard Todd, Kenneth More, Alec Guinness, Grace Kelly, Rainier III, Hugh Hefner, Doris Day, Rock Hudson, Miles Davis, Farouk I, Aga Khan III, Prince Aly Khan, Juan Manuel Fangio, Stirling Moss, Charlton Heston, Aristotle Onassis, Maria Callas, Evita Peron, Marlon Brando, James Dean, Bill Haley, Elvis Presley, Colonel Parker, Pele, Nikita Khruschev, Fidel Castro


John F. Kennedy, Jacqueline Kennedy, Elizabeth Taylor, Sean Connery, Christine Keeler, John Profumo, Sammy Davis Jr., D.H. Lawrence, Peter Sellers, Steve McQueen, Rudolph Nureyev, Yuri Gagarin, Lee Harvey Oswald, Lyndon B. Johnson, Diana Ross, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Brian Epstein, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Yoko Ono, Bob Dylan, Billy Graham, Che Guevara, William Calley, Muhammed Ali, Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, Leonid Brezhnev, William Shatner, Clint Eastwood, Neil Armstrong, Charles Manson, Andy Warhol


Henry Kissinger, Jane Fonda, Mother Teresa, Cher, Elton John, Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty, Robert Redford, Robert De Niro, Paul Newman, Raymond Burr (as Ironside), William Conrad (as Cannon), Peter Falk (as Columbo), James Garner (as Jim Rockford in The Rockford Files), Telly Savalas (as Kojak), The Osmonds, Gerald Ford, Mark Spitz, Bobby Fischer, Olga Korbut, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Jodie Foster, Roger Moore, Björn Borg, Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, John McEnroe, Abba, Bruce Lee, David Bowie, Baader-Meinhof, Patty Hearst, Idi Amin, Woody Allen, Dustin Hoffman, Barbra Streisand, John Travolta, The Sex Pistols, Jimmy Carter, Meryl Streep, Larry Hagman (as J.R. Ewing in Dallas), Ruhollah Khomeini


Lech Wałęsa, Margareth Thatcher, Mark David Chapman, Sylvester Stallone, Lady Diana, Michael Jackson, Joan Collins, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Madonna, Bob Geldof, Oliver North, Nelson Mandela, Mikhail Gorbachev, Donald Trump, Martina Navratilova, Colonel Gadaffi, George Bush Sr., Tom Cruise, Julia Roberts, Mel Gibson, Harrison Ford, Salman Rushdie, Václav Havel, Saddam Hussein, Norman Schwarzkopf, Luciano Pavarotti

More information

  • JAMES, Clive, Fame in the 20th Century, BBC Books, 1993

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