Reviews — From the December 2013 issue


A theory of glamour

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Discussed in this essay:

The Power of Glamour: Longing and the Art of Visual Persuasion, by Virginia Postrel. Simon & Schuster. 288 pages. $28.

In the mid-1970s I was walking down Heath Street, a vertiginous road in Hampstead with the Heath at the top and the Hampstead Tube station and the high street full of fancy shops below. From the top of the hill I saw a bright glow down by the Tube, an aura of light easily outshining the daylight, dazzling, gleaming. People are always filming in Hampstead, using its quaintness to signify older times, when it was a village, in a garden of which Keats wrote “Ode to a Nightingale.” I supposed that was what was happening: floodlights and the strange mixture of limbo and fevered activity of a film crew on the street you are walking along when your day bumps into them. But about halfway down the hill I could see there was no technical equipment, just a small circle of regular-looking people standing around the origin of the illumination, two quite small figures. Closer still, the pair’s features became clear and the mysterious shimmer resolved into Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Or as we called them then, “Richardburtonandelizabethtaylor.” They had been taking a stroll around Hampstead and were waylaid at the station entrance by a handful of people soliciting autographs. These were the starriest stars I’d ever seen in everyday life, top-of-the-tree stars, and I still remember their physical presence as actually glowing. It struck me that they had absorbed and accumulated all the decades of spotlight and limelight that had shone on them, all the excitement of eyes that focused and peered at them, all the waves of attention, adoration, and curiosity that continually engulfed them, and now, like fleshy batteries, they radiated it back at the world. Without their core of specialness, they would have been a slightly overdressed (some priceless diamond or other glinting on her hand, his hair more tailored than cut), moderately handsome though plump couple of tourists, American probably, no different from the others who wandered around Hampstead on the same itinerary. With the light, they were Marc Antony and Cleopatra, the VIPs, Faustus and Helen, George and Martha; the Oberon and Titania of Hollywood, stepping out of the big screen into the small street and shedding some of their fairy dust over the pavement.

“Crystal Girl no. 41,” a photograph by Noé Sendas, whose work will be on view next year at Michael Hoppen Contemporary, in London. Courtesy the artist and Michael Hoppen Contemporary, London

“Crystal Girl no. 41,” a photograph by Noé Sendas, whose work will be on view next year at Michael Hoppen Contemporary, in London. Courtesy the artist and Michael Hoppen Contemporary, London

That was my only face-to-face encounter with indisputable glamour. Meeting ordinary famous people is different. They are what they do, what you admire or despise them for. They’re interesting or disappointing. You engage with them as experts or producers. This high glamour was electrical and electrifying. There was no way an onlooker could engage, only look and be amazed. I wondered whether there was an on/off switch: either they were lit up all the time (even when they were alone together, or alone alone?) or their lights clicked on as soon as they were recognized and hands reached out, ostensibly for autographs, but really to feel the tropical warmth of their glamour.

Virginia Postrel, in her book The Power of Glamour, would suppose the latter. Glamour, she tells her readers,

does not exist independently in the glamorous object . . . but emerges through the interaction between object and audience. . . . One may strive to construct a glamorous effect, but success depends on the perceiver’s receptive imagination.

According to Postrel, Mr. and Mrs. Burton’s light would be in the eye of the beholder. A member of the Yanomami tribe in the Amazon rainforest wouldn’t have seen their gleam, unless the missionaries and anthropologists had brought a copy of Cleopatra to his neck of the forest and given him a lecture on the cultural history of Western cinema. But what about that shimmer I perceived in the distance long before I had the faintest idea of its source?

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’s most recent book is What I Don’t Know About Animals (Yale). Her last article for Harper’s Magazine, “Unfaithful,” appeared in the January 2012 issue.

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