Professor Sharon Marcus on Books, Fame and Her Ideal Dinner Guests

Sarah Bernhardt, Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn and Maria Callas would be there. It would not end well. 

Caroline Harting
July 09, 2019

In The Drama of Celebrity, Sharon Marcus, Columbia's Orlando Harriman Professor of English and Comparative Literature, challenges longstanding narratives surrounding our culture's obsession with fame. Drawing from diaries, scrapbooks and fan mail, Marcus traces the cult of celebrity back to its 19th-century roots, painting a vibrant picture of an endlessly fascinating phenomenon. Elaine Showalter in The New York Times calls it an "inventive, stimulating book" and says Marcus "is a brilliant theorist and analyst of theater history."

Marcus is also the editor-in-chief, along with Caitlin Zaloom, of Public Books, a digital magazine that publishes interdisciplinary, scholarly work on art, ideas and politics, with the goal of breaking down walls between academia and the public. Columbia University Press recently released, Think In Public, an anthology of the best pieces from Public Books' first five years.

Columbia News caught up with Marcus earlier this month to chat about books and her ideal dinner party. 

Q: What book are you reading now? Why are you reading it?

A: I’m reading Quant by Quant, the autobiography of British fashion designer Mary Quant, who helped to define the 1960s. Mary Quant was a great innovator: she invented the miniskirt and waterproof mascara, was the first designer to use PVC as a clothing material and came up with the idea of selling makeup trays that combined eyeshadow, lipstick and blush. She published her memoir in 1966, the year of my birth. I’m always curious about what was happening during that year, since I can’t remember it but it helped to form me.

The words drama of celebrity written across a book cover several times.

Q: What books would you recommend to someone interested in learning about the cult of celebrity, besides yours of course?

A:  Theodor Adorno’s The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture and Daniel Boorstin’s book The Image are classic dismissals of celebrity culture as exploitative, deceptive and superficial. Richard Dyer’s book Stars complicated that view by arguing that celebrities appeal to us because they help to reconcile social contradictions: Marilyn Monroe, for example, embodied the 1950s ideal that femininity be both innocent and seductive, naive and knowing. But celebrity, as my book argues, is participatory and sensational, so the best way to understand it is to go to a live event or spend some time on social media and experience how celebrities, media and publics interact.

Q:  Alive or dead, what celebrities would you invite to a dinner party?

A: I’d invite some of the performers I most admire from the last 150 years: Sarah Bernhardt, the international star who provides the through-line forThe Drama of Celebrity; Katharine Hepburn and Bette Davis, both of whom resembled Bernhardt in their eccentricity, independence and longevity as actresses; Margot Fonteyn, the ballerina; Maria Callas, the opera singer; and Joni Mitchell, singer-songwriter. Lots of strong personalities, with everyone except Fonteyn vying to be the center of attention—it would be a terrible party.