The Great Whom?

OK, quiz time. The Great Lafayette is or was:

A) The town right next to the Great Louisville and not far from the Pretty Decent Broomfield.

B) The French officer who assisted the Amazing Washington before running foul of the Astounding French Revolution.

C) The newest menu item at the Sun Rose Cafe.

D) Some guy I’ve never heard of who’s dead.

Ding-ding-ding! All of you who raised your hands for D, go to the head of the line. Any of you who remembered what was so “great” about this Lafayette can go out for sundaes afterward.

I’m guessing there won’t be a huge throng at the Dairy Queen.

For those ready to throttle me, the Great Lafayette was a magician. No, he was THE magician – the highest-paid magician of his day, which ended rather abruptly in 1911 with a bizarre theatre fire that killed him and a body double. (Yes, that proved rather confusing to investigators at first.)

He was an international celebrity, known especially for a trick of changing a person into a lion. He was loved. He was hated. He was devoted to a dog given to him by Harry Houdini himself.

And until an NPR story about the anniversary of the fire a few days ago, I had never heard of him. Outside of the professional magic community and a few historians, I suspect I’ve got a lot of company.

One hundred years. Enough time to go from “Him!” to “Whom?”

OK, that’s not a new thought. Heck, Percy Bysshe Shelley burnished his own immortality with the idea that fame need not be immortal. Some of you may even remember his poem, “Ozymandias,” about an inscription to a forgotten king by a fallen memorial:

And on the pedestal these words appear,

‘My name is OZYMANDIAS, King of Kings,

Look on my works, ye mighty and despair.’

No thing beside remains …

That’s usually meant to be a humbling thought. But it struck me that it can also be an oddly comforting one.

Think about it. Aren’t there some celebrities you would cheer to see forgotten in a century’s time?

It may be Justin Bieber. Or maybe Donald Trump. Perhaps David Blaine or Paris Hilton is the one who lights your ire, never mind the Charlie-who-will-not-be-named. It’s too much to hope that all their names would disappear from memory, of course. But even if just one or two devolved to some dusty recordings and the odd obscure history book … would that be so terrible?

So here’s to that fascinating, forgotten man, Sigmund Neuberger, the Great Lafayette. May he be remembered kindly as proof of the greatest magic trick of all: the ability to make a celebrity vanish into thin air.

Look on my works, ye mighty, and disappear.

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