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Five Lives

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All five of these figures warmed their hands around a common fire: the public performance of morality. Fatherlessness seems to have frozen them in a kind of permanent adolescence. They answered adult questions (How should one behave?) prematurely and exaggeratedly, then stubbornly clung to those answers for life. Their careers were built entirely on bad manners—whether excoriating them, glorifying them, or reveling in them. They sacrificed their lives to oversize visions of righteous living. And while they all have their own special failures and triumphs—that’s what makes them fit for biography—the saddest figures, to me, for precisely opposite reasons, are Rimbaud and Hefner. The French poet burned through his world-stomping revolutionary phase in less time than it takes most people to finish college. By 19, he was facing a whole second lifetime of pure sad, unheroic frustration: He wound up in Africa, trying unsuccessfully to get rich, and died of very painful cancer at 37. Hefner, on the other hand, still clings to his adolescence. At 82, he brags of being a “babe magnet” and collects young platinum-blonde “girlfriends.”

Etiquette offers, as a central maxim, “Try to do and say those things only which will be agreeable to others.” As a young husband, Hefner organized strip poker with other couples, slept with his sister-in-law, and made a porn film starring himself. Rimbaud wrote “Shit on God” all over the walls of his hometown, sunbathed naked, pretended to fling his lice on people, and broke his Parisian hosts’ china. Lennon stole from charity bake sales, laughed at the disabled, and publicly excoriated former bandmates. And yet it’s fascinating to watch these figures, as they age, slide down the continuum from rebellion to convention. Rimbaud’s African co-workers knew him as “a pleasant guy who seldom speaks”; Lennon and Eminem (a surprisingly lovable figure) both proudly gave up music to raise children; and Hefner tried marriage again. (It didn’t work.) Even Emily Post had a little of the rebel in her. As a 4-year-old, enraged by getting a miniature tea set for Christmas, she took it outside, smashed it on rocks, and threw the shards into her uncle’s pool. “I is another!” one can imagine her screaming.

Rimbaud: The Double Life of a Rebel
By Edmund White.
Atlas & Co. $24.

Emily Post: Daughter of the Gilded Age, Mistress of American Manners
By Laura Claridge.
Random House. $30.

Mr. Playboy: Hugh Hefner and the American Dream
By Steven Watts.
Wiley. $29.95.

John Lennon: The Life
By Philip Norman.
Ecco. $34.95.

The Way I Am
By Eminem.
Dutton. $40.


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