Shakespeare didn’t make the cut, at least not as a playwright. Neither did Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, Vincent Van Gogh or Jane Austen. Vermeer had to wait two centuries to be known outside of Delft. Even Bach was only widely known posthumously. Yet people of no particular importance like Zsa Zsa Gabor, Paris Hilton or Kim Kardashian are household names…though not in this household.
Since many of our celebs today are products of pop culture, they usually transition from a place on the pedestal to one under the pedestal. Oxygen is in short supply at that high altitude. Athletes are handicapped by the adulation received. Many grow up burdened with a distorted self-image and some never grow up at all.
The Church assured celebrity status to the anointed ones by ennobling them as saints. But celebrity as we know it is a function of the mass market. Tabloids have kept certain names not quite dead with JFK and Marilyn Monroe sightings for sixty years. Of course, social media has stretched Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame, exponentially.
Conversely, real heroes such as Nobel Prize winners remain largely unknown. I recently came across a name I was familiar with but not fully aware of his achievements. Consider a man who taught high school English for seventeen years in which time he could count James Baldwin, Paddy Chayefsky and Neil Simon among his students. During his tenure at De Witt Clinton High School in the Bronx Abel Meeropol also wrote poetry. One of his most sardonic poems depicted the Jim Crow South and it resounds as an iconic memory in the Civil Rights movement.
Abel Meeropol’s words were set to music by Billie Holiday and became her signature song, Strange Fruit, which describes an image of a lynching he had seen. Nina Simone also made a powerful recording.
Writing under his pseudonym, Lewis Allan, Meeropol also wrote the lyrics to, The House I Live In, whose rendition by Frank Sinatra grew into a short film winning an Academy Award in 1945.
The song was set to music by Earl Robinson, another name lost to most. Robinson also wrote Ballad for Americans, Joe Hill and the movie, A Walk in the Sun. Robinson was the uncle of Alan Arkin.
Meeropol wrote the libretto for an opera, The Good Soldier Schweik, performed in 1958 by the New York City Opera Company.
In yet another act of compassion Abel Meeropol and his wife also raised and adopted the two boys orphaned by the execution of their parents, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.
His was a most notable life among many whose contributions to society are deserving of a place in our chronicle, now filled with names famous because they are famous.