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by Dusty Sklar
“Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done
and what I had toiled to achieve,
everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind;
nothing was gained under the sun.” —Ecclesiastes
MY GOOD FRIEND, Ruth Lilian, still elegant, witty and beautiful at 86, cannot give up her desire to be famous. She searched for the perfect orgasm in her younger years, for high culture among the Europeans in her twenties, and is now happily married to her third husband. Ruth taught painting at F.I.T. for many years. One of her stories won the Writer’s Digest International Competition in 1996. She received a fellowship to Virginia Cultural Center for Creative Arts in 2006. She was featured in my son’s documentary, Dusty and Friends: Living to Tell the Tale. Ruth says, however, that her life now is simply maintenance. The most exciting times occur in dreams, while she’s asleep.
Recently, we talked about her undying longing for fame.
DUSTY SKLAR: What does fame mean to you?
RUTH LILLIAN: Recognition — that I’m somewhat distinctive, special, noteworthy, someone whom people want to know about — with all the problems that go with it. If I go outside my own little life, some will probably dislike me. But fame would expand my life. Of course, I don’t want to become known for having murdered my aunt, but because of some positive quality in me.
DS: Can’t you feel special without being famous?
RL: Not in the way I’d like. We’re all special. Being alive and nice to my daughter and friends is beautiful, but it’s not enough. It doesn’t make me stand out, except to the few people to whom I matter. Not being perceived as someone special, one is in danger of being overlooked.
When I think about it, I know that it’s foolish to want to be famous. On the other hand, it would lead to meeting more exciting people, more contacts, more interests. I think most people want that. If you were famous and got sick, you’d likely get more attention than I get!
Some famous people, of course, get too much attention. For some, there’s never enough attention. Hedy Lamarr suffered when Frank Sinatra didn’t recognize her. Lana Turner was shoved aside when Laurie Anderson’s entourage came in. Joan Crawford, on seeing a picture of herself when she was older, said that if she looked like that, no one would want to see her.
DS: From where do you suppose the desire for fame arose in you?
RL: When I was a child, I felt on the one hand, a genius, on the other, a nothing. Then, I forgot about it, led a life. When I started to work as a commercial artist, I was jealous of people who got more recognition. I was still very naive.
In my sixties, I could no longer count on youth or good looks to get attention. I felt I needed accomplishments as a kind of validation to suggest that life hadn’t beaten me.
DS: Have you achieved any moments of fame?
RL: Between 1959 and 1961 there were wonderful plays produced weekly on PBS, “Play of the Week,” it was called. I drew the advertisements, which appeared in the New York Times. I drew all the famous actors and actresses for the series. I had to fight to put my name in the ad, but I won. Countless people saw the ads, and my name became known. I drew portraits for all the networks, for record companies, for Time, for Playbill. So many famous faces. Some complained that I hadn’t flattered them.
Another moment, from my twenties: I was in a nightclub in Haiti. Seated at a long table set up with flowers were about thirty young Cuban naval officers in their white uniforms. One of them asked me to join them. I was wearing a white dress with black beads. He took me by the arm and walked me to the table, and all the officers stood up. It was a high point in my life, a Cinderella high. My officer and I danced the bossa nova.
DS: What did you gain from those moments of fame?
RL: It satisfied the desire that children have: Look at me, notice me. The desire has recurred as I’ve grown old.
DS: Why should you be famous?
RL: That’s much trickier, much harder to answer.
DS: What prevented you from being famous?
RL: Lack of the ability to use people. I don’t mean in a nasty way, but the ability to go up to people and capture their interest, get them to publicize me. A certain amount of drive, or luck. If you’re lucky, then you don’t need drive, and vice versa.
DS: What do you imagine your life would be like if you were famous?
RL: I’d have more money.I would like that both for self-indulgence and to help out other people. It would counteract, to some degree, the ignominy of being old.
DS: Would you go to Africa, adopt children, help the starving masses?
RL: Sure, I’d give away some money. But pleasure, I want the pleasure of it.
DS: How would you conduct yourself in this interview if you were famous?
RL: I could be very modest.
DS: Do you have a plan for achieving fame?
RL: No. My art work is good, but it’s not flashy. I haven’t had the kind of devotion to it where it’s taken over my life. My writing could bring more recognition than I’ve had, which would satisfy me. I’m headed toward very, very old age and am in relatively good shape, so there’s a certain pride in that. “Eighty-six-year-old woman still drives her car into Manhattan, writes every day, still produces work.”
We’re in this small planet in this large universe like leaves of grass. Do we matter at all?
DS: Do you have reason to believe that famous people are happier than ordinary folk?
RL: One hears that they’re not, but I believe that they’re happier than they would be if they never had it. Family, friends, they think well of me. That’s not enough. Why is that not enough?
DS: Has the desire for fame interfered with your happiness?
RL: Wanting more, you’re never satisfied with now.
By the way, I’ve always thought that we should get applause when we’re old and on our deathbeds. We need that final curtain call.
Dusty Sklar is the author of Gods and Beasts: The Nazis and the Occult, as well as numerous stories and articles.