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Reviled, revered: Gandhi, Taylor, Wintour March 27, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben was struck by this weekend’s Wall Street Journal coverage of three disparate but unforgettable characters who all share the good fortune/misfortune of being both reviled and revered: Mohandas Gandhi, called Mahatma, “Great Soul;” the movie legend Elizabeth Taylor; and Anna Wintour, the stylemaker and editor of the American edition of Vogue magazine.

It may seem inconceivable to contemporary readers that anyone could revile Gandhi, the architect of the nonviolent Ahimsa movement and the figure behind India’s achievement of independence and self-rule. For most of us, it would be like throwing stones at Mother Teresa.

Yet Gandhi the man was indeed a bit different from Gandhi the icon, as a new biography points out. In Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India, Joseph Lelyveld reiterates well-known but usually suppressed facts about the man behind the legend: Gandhi’s numerous sexual peculiarities; his inherent, unvarnished racism (especially towards Blacks and what were then called Untouchables); his cruelty towards his long-suffering wife, relatives, and followers; his endless self-promotion. Our friend Ben is not about to belabor any of these in detail; this is a PG-rated blog, after all. But should you wish to see the truth for yourself, buy the book or at least read the review on www.wsj.com (“Among the Hagiographers” by Andrew Roberts). 

Let’s take on Anna Wintour next. Ms. Wintour, for those like our friend Ben who might not be aware, is the scion of a powerful British publishing family and the prime determinor of who’s hot and who’s not in the world of fashion, fashion writing, fashion photography, and modeling. She is herself the model for Meryl Streep’s character in the film “The Devil Wears Prada” and its inspiration, a book by the same name by a completely unlikeable ex-assistant of Ms. Wintour’s (rendered adorable for the film by Anne Hathaway).

Ms. Wintour, who wore Prada to the film’s premiere, comes across in the article (“The Business of Being Anna” by Joshua Levine) as a consummate businesswoman with an eye always fixed on the bottom line. With her perfectly plastic 20-year-old—oh, wait, that would be 61-year-old—face, lush pageboy wig, and trademark outsized Chanel sunglasses, it would be easy to dismiss Ms. Wintour as a ludicrous parody. But this would be a gross injustice, given her acumen as a business tycoon and her ability to make her own vision of fashion become everyone’s (or at least, everyone who counts) vision. This has doubtless contibuted to her enduring presence in a field where “ephemeral” is typically a better descriptor.

Mr. Levine points out Ms. Wintour’s finer qualities: her unshakeable loyalty to her industry friends, her dedication to Vogue, her tireless efforts to promote causes she believes in, from raising money for New York’s Metropolitan Museum to filling the coffers for then-future President Obama’s campaign. He also sums up her attitude towards her underlings in a trenchant quote that goes a long way to explaining “The Devil Wears Prada:” “Work is work.”

And he shows that loyalty and sensitivity can be very far removed, as in her comment on hearing of her protege John Galliano’s firing from the House of Dior for making repeated, hateful, drunken anti-Semitic comments in public: “This is all so tragic.” (Speaking of Galliano’s downfall, not his comments.)

Another popular icon that people loved to love or loved to hate was Elizabeth Taylor, the stunningly beautiful movie star whose personal life ultimately eclipsed both her beauty and her movie roles. (Our friend Ben’s parents revered Ms. Taylor, the glamorous movie star, but our friend Ben chiefly recalls her from perennial National Enquirer headlines—“Liz to remarry!”—and can’t recall seeing her in a single movie role.)

Ultimately, our friend Ben has no idea if Elizabeth Taylor the movie star or Liz Taylor, the beautiful, feckless socialite, will endure in the public imagination. But I feel certain that something will endure. Like Ms. Wintour, Ms. Taylor’s loyalty to such dubious characters as Michael Jackson and Larry Fortensky as well as to friends and fellow actors like James Dean, Montgomery Clift, and Rock Hudson is legendary. And like Ms. Wintour, she stuck by her favorites in good times and bad.

But unlike Ms. Wintour, though her behavior shocked a nation brought up in the straightlaced ’50s and not ready for female stars like herself, Marilyn Monroe, and Ingrid Bergman who went their own way, Liz Taylor was never once viewed as a cold, heartless monster. A spoiled, degenerate, drunken sexpot, maybe. But never an ice princess, power-mad and devoid of humanity. The diminutive actress was truly larger than life, in every sense.

Roger Ebert says in his WSJ tribute to Ms. Taylor, “What Stars Make Us Swoon? First Loves,” “Most of us choose our favorite movie stars before we turn 18.” Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood beg to differ. Before we turned 18, our favorite movie stars were Mr. Magoo, Vincent Price, Black Beauty, Old Yeller, Peter Sellers, Basil Rathbone, Bela Lugosi, Peter Lorre, and Groucho Marx. Not that we have a bad thing to say about any of them now. But Alan Rickman, Gabriel Byrne, Geoffrey Rush, Johnny Depp, Helen Mirren, Cate Blanchett, Kate Winslet, Hugh Jackman, Morgan Freeman, Robert Downey Jr., Hugh Laurie, Rowan Atkinson, James Earl Jones, Geoffrey Holder, Jeff Goldblum, Christopher Lee, Michael Caine, and many others would have remained shadow figures were Ebert’s comment true. Instead, we’ve added them to our list of faves as we’ve enjoyed their performances through the years.

True, our perception of Ms. Taylor will always be colored by our parents’ veneration of her. Our perception of Ms. Wintour, unjust as it may be, will always bear that tinge of “The Devil Wears Prada.” And our view of Gandhi will always be seen through the lens of his wife, forced to adapt to deprivation, hard work, and celibacy by default, and humiliated daily by the very public bizarrities of her celebrity husband. 

What, ultimately, matters? The umatched beauty and great heart of Elizabeth Taylor, the loyalty and empire-building of Anna Wintour, the international recognition and freedoms gained by Mahatma Gandhi?  Or their all-too-human failings? Our friend Ben deplores cruelty, ambition, weakness, and vanity in all their forms. But I also believe we all fall prey to these lowly, degrading human traits, or others like them. For those like Ms. Taylor, Ms. Wintour, and Mahatma Gandhi, who can turn personal weaknesses into global triumphs, our friend Ben can only say, onward and upward! Would that we all could overcome our personal failings and transform them into service for the good of all mankind.

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Comments»

1. mbjesq - March 31, 2011

My take on the controversy generated by the dickish Roberts can be found in Doing History Wrong. Happy reading!

MBJ

Thanks for the link and for a beautifully written and thoughtful post, MBJ! I’m happy to have found your blog. And, of course, I loved your Good Gandhi/Bad Gandhi art! Wish I were clever enough to pull off something like that!


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