Celebrities in the Ancient World

Celebrities in the Ancient World

Larry Holzwarth - September 14, 2020

In ancient times, philosophers, religious leaders, soldiers and statesmen, and even some slaves attained the level of fame connected with celebrity. Often it was fleeting. Celebrity meant constant attention, and in ancient times the attention of the government was often not welcome. It was Socrates’ fame which led to his trial, and an eventual quaff of hemlock. Athenians tended to celebrate philosophers and statesmen, Spartans soldiers. The ancient Egyptians included magicians and sorcerers among their celebrities, as depicted in the Biblical Book of Exodus.

Celebrities in the Ancient World
Socrates worked to establish his own celebrity in Athens. Wikimedia

In Rome, several gladiators reached celebrity status. Julius Caesar acquired his celebrity through his military victories in Gaul and used it to launch the civil war which brought an end to the Roman Republic. In later years, the term celebrity came to refer to those who acquired fame through entertainment or the arts. Some became celebrities simply through flaunting their style of life, and the idea of fame for the sake of being famous took hold. The idea of using celebrities to enhance one’s personal wealth began in the 19th century, and continues through the present day. Here is a sampling of celebrities through the ages.

Celebrities in the Ancient World
The Death of Socrates, by Jacques-Louis David. Wikimedia

1. Socrates

The ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes first presented his play The Clouds in Athens around 420 BCE. A major character in the play was an Athenian teacher and practitioner of rhetoric, presented as driven by greed. His name was Socrates. As shocked members of the audience whispered to each other, asking about Socrates, the real Socrates rose to his feet, displaying himself to those of the audience who did not recognize him. Socrates openly sought the recognition of his fellow citizens as well as visitors to Athens, an early example of the pursuit of fame for fame’s sake.

There were many other citizens of Ancient Greece who were celebrities during their lifetimes, including soldiers, politicians, philosophers, and storytellers. Most of these were chronicled by others. Socrates sought fame among his contemporaries and achieved it through his students Plato and Xenophon. Eventually, his celebrity deteriorated into notoriety, as he became an opponent of democratic government following the defeat of Athens by Sparta. His positions led to his eventual trial and sentence of death. Throughout his life, Socrates concentrated his waking hours on the discussion of philosophy, earning a wide reputation as indifferent to work or the acquisition of wealth.

Celebrities in the Ancient World
Milo of Croton being attacked by a lion. Wikimedia

2. Milo of Croton

Milo of Croton gained fame in Ancient Greece by winning the wrestling prize as a boy circa 540 BCE, and following that as a man in five straight Olympic Games. His career as a wrestler spanned more than two decades. The level of his celebrity in Ancient Greece is attested to by the number of legends, myths, and other tales of his prowess and prodigious strength. He was said to devour raw bull meat in the face of his opponent, drinking the blood of the animal before the match began. Like other champion athletes in Ancient Greece, he was frequently treated to free food, lodgings, and other amenities in return for his endorsement of the vendor.

Much of Milo’s life outside of his wrestling achievements is disputed, including whether he was related through marriage to Pythagoras, the mathematician and philosopher. He may have married the daughter of Pythagoras of Samos, whom some historians claimed was an athletic trainer, not a philosopher. Others believe the two were the same person. It is generally believed that Milo was killed by wolves, though most dispute that he attempted to separate the two halves of a tree he found with wedges driven into it. When he attempted to separate the tree with his hands the wedges fell out, pinning his hands within, and leaving him helpless prey to wolves.

Celebrities in the Ancient World
Bas-relief of opponents engaging in pankration. Live Science

3. Lucius Septimius Flavianus Flavillianus

Lucius first gained fame in the Roman Empire as an athlete, winning championships as both a wrestler and in the rough and tumble sport known as pankration. The latter was a sport of man-to-man combat, with literally no-holds-barred. Participants kicked, gouged, boxed, choked and used any form of hand-to-hand combat to immobilize the opponent. The winner was, literally, the last man standing. The sport appeared in Ancient Greece in the Olympic Games in 648 BCE, and was common and popular throughout the Ancient World in the Mediterranean region. Lucius first won championships as a boy, and his fame spread throughout the Roman Empire.

In one of the earliest known instances of celebrity endorsement, Lucius used his fame during his Army service to induce new recruits to join Rome’s Legions. Lucius appeared throughout the region of modern-day Syria, demonstrating his skills and implying those who entered the military rolls could expect to develop similar prowess. An inscription on a statue in the Ancient Greek city of Oenoanda (in modern-day Turkey) describes some of his achievements. Although it is possible there were others before him, Lucius was likely the first athlete to use his fame to both benefit a third party, and at the same time extend his own celebrity.

Celebrities in the Ancient World
Several Roman gladiators became celebrities in their lifetimes. Wikimedia

4. Priscus and Verus

Priscus and Verus were gladiators in Rome in the first century CE. They were selected by Emperor Titus to fight each other in the inaugural games for the newly completed Flavian Amphitheatre (today known as the Colosseum) in 80 CE. Priscus was a newly arrived gladiator and a Celt, while Verus was a well-known gladiator in Rome. Their combat was scheduled as the highlight of the first day of the inaugural games, and well-publicized throughout the city. Whether both were slaves is unclear, though likely. A fictionalized documentary depicted both as slaves, there is evidence Verus was born a free man, and developed his gladiatorial skills in the arena.

Their combat was recorded in a poem by Martial, a poet from Hispania and a witness to the affair. Priscus and Verus fought to a draw, with neither agreeing to yield and neither able to dispatch his opponent. According to Martial’s account, the large crowd roared its approval of both fighters and implored the Emperor to end the combat. Titus did so, and “to both Titus sent wooden swords and to both palms. Thus valor and skill had their reward”. Both gladiators were declared victorious, an unprecedented event. Both were given their freedom by the Emperor, to the approval of the crowd, and both became celebrity figures in Rome.

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Celebrities in the Ancient World
Hendrik Van Loon drawing of Marco Polo viewing the Great Wall of China. Wikimedia

5. Marco Polo

Though many myths surround the life and travels of Marco Polo, there is no disputing he achieved widespread fame in Europe during his lifetime. His journey to the Orient was not so much a trip of exploration, but an investigation into strange lands, cultures, and peoples. A Venetian, Polo traveled with members of his family, as well as Papal legates, to the realm of Kublai Khan. He remained there for 17 years, serving as an envoy for Kublai in India, Burma, and Southeast Asia, including the Vietnamese Empire. His publication of his journeys and adventures in manuscript form spread throughout Europe in the early 14th century.

Marco Polo grew wealthy as a merchant and investor. He remained famous during his lifetime and long after his death, particularly among seamen interested in voyaging to the East Indies and China. Christopher Columbus owned a copy of Polo’s manuscript, and carried it with him on his first voyage to the New World in 1492. Polo’s celebrity continued for centuries, though the claim that he introduced Italy to pasta, which he found in China, is a false one. Arabs introduced pasta and the durum wheat to produce it to Sicily while occupying the region nearly four centuries before Marco Polo and his party left on their journey to the east.

Celebrities in the Ancient World
Actor and writer William Shakespeare, in a portrait, believed to have painted in life. Wikimedia

6. The emergence of acting troupes in England

In the mid-to-late 16th century, several acting ensembles formed in England, principally around London. They consisted of players including actors, musicians, singers, and acrobats, known at the time as “tumblers”. Many were sponsored by members of the English nobility, including one group known as Lord Strange’s Men. When their patron became the Earl of Derby following the death of his father, the troupe became known as Derby’s Men. A tumbler with the group. John Symons, achieved celebrity sufficient to attract the attention of Queen Elizabeth. In 1588 Symons left the troupe, taking most of the tumblers with him, and formed another at Her Majesty’s court, Queen Elizabeth’s Men.

Following the defection of the tumblers, Derby’s Men focused on the production and presentation of plays. During the summer and fall of 1592, they presented almost two dozen plays, among them William Shakespeare’s Henry VI, and several scholars believe Shakespeare himself performed with the troupe. The 1593 plague forced the group to leave crowded London, and they toured throughout the country, with sold-out performances testifying to their celebrity outside of England’s largest city. Though actors were still held in ill-repute by churchmen of nearly all religions of the day, many gained fame sufficient to attract audiences regardless of the play presented.

Celebrities in the Ancient World
Moliere (left) with the poet Peire Godolin. Wikimedia

7. Moliere

Born Jean-Baptiste Poquelin in January, 1622, he took the stage name Moliere as an actor, and published plays under that moniker for the rest of his career. His plays, particularly his comedies, remain popular, especially The School for Wives, The School for Husbands, and Tartuffe. The latter drew the condemnation of the British Parliament and the Vatican for its treatment of religious hypocrisy, which prevented its presentation in both Catholic France and Protestant England after just a few performances.

Tartuffe was so popular, (and remains so in France) that its title became a synonym for the word hypocrite. The suppression of Moliere’s play by Louis XIV, who personally enjoyed it but responded to pressure from the Church, affected only public performances. It was allowed to be presented in private, and Moliere produced altered versions for public showing. He was feted throughout the French-speaking regions of Europe, enjoying the privileges of his fame. Moliere’s personal life drew the attention of scandalmongers and those who regarded themselves as the target of his satire. He was never far from the center of gossip in Paris and French society. His celebrity grew following his death from tuberculosis in 1673. Today his plays continue to be performed in their original French, and in nearly all languages of the world.

Celebrities in the Ancient World
Mozart at the age of 13. Wikimedia

8. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Long before Mozart gained fame as a composer he achieved celebrity as a performer. He learned to play on the clavier beginning at the age of three. By the time he was six, he performed in the great houses of Europe and Britain, playing before the nobility and their courts and entourages. His fame spread quickly through Europe as a child prodigy, and the tour which began in 1762 continued off and on for eleven years. He began composing during his tours, and he became less of a child prodigy and more of a serious composer. During the period of his travels, he performed before the Emperor of Austria, the King of France, and in the presence of Johannes Sebastian Bach in London.

Mozart was an early celebrity, though he was a celebrity among the rich and well-connected, rather than among the common people. Not until late in his short life was his music readily available to the people; opera and symphony performances were too expensive for those of the lower classes. Still, from a very young age, he was talked about among the nobility of Europe. His fame naturally drew the enmity of some he offended, including rival musicians and the husbands of women he was alleged to have seduced. He was buried in a common grave, meaning he was buried in the grave of a commoner rather than one containing many corpses. As was the custom of the time, the graves of commoners were reopened after a period of ten years, an indignity not imposed on the graves of the nobility.

Celebrities in the Ancient World
Pocahontas, painted by an unknown artist and likely after her death. Wikimedia

9. Pocahontas

Before her life became enshrouded in legend Pocahontas, which was not her real name, enjoyed celebrity in Britain. The daughter of the Principal Chief of the Powhatan Confederacy of tribes in Virginia, she was addressed as Amonute. How she obtained the name of Pocahontas, which loosely translates to English as “playful one”, is disputed among historians. In 1613, during a war between the colonists and Powhatan, the former captured her and held her for ransom. During her captivity, she adopted Christianity and the name Rebecca. Following her marriage to John Rolfe (which helped cement a period of peace), she was known to the English as Rebecca Rolfe. In the spring of 1616, Rebecca and John Rolfe sailed for England at the behest of the Virginia Company, which intended to use her to demonstrate the company’s success at converting the Indians to Christianity.

Pocahontas found herself the target of immediate celebrity in London. For the King and his court, she was regarded as a member of the nobility. Officials of the Church of England accorded her courtesies as well. But to the common people of England, especially in the Middlesex village of Brentford where she resided, she was considered simply an oddity. The following spring Rolfe and his wife prepared to return to Virginia, where he was one of the more successful planters. While they were still in the Thames, with the ship working its way toward the ocean, Rebecca was stricken by an illness of an unknown nature. Brought ashore at Gravesend, she died shortly afterward and was buried there on March 21, 1617.

Celebrities in the Ancient World
Portrait of Franklin painted in France in 1778. Wikimedia

10. Benjamin Franklin

When Benjamin Franklin arrived in France in December, 1776 as part of the first commission to represent American interests there, he immediately observed a trend which separated him from his fellow commissioners. To his French hosts, Franklin was a celebrity. To Franklin, it was apparent as he journeyed by coach to Passy, outside Paris, the French regarded him as a homespun genius of simple tastes. Though far from true, Franklin was nothing if not wily, and he exploited the image held by the French. The brocaded and opulent suits packed for the mission disappeared, and Franklin presented himself to the French court in the manner the French expected. His celebrity only grew, much to the annoyance of fellow commissioner John Adams.

Franklin’s almost shameless representation of himself as a man of simple tastes and humble virtue belied the luxuriousness of his accommodations in France. Throughout Paris, and in the villages and towns of France, he was regarded with almost awe by the smitten French people. To the women of the Court of Louis XVI and among the nobility he played the image to the hilt, while in the back rooms he engaged in intrigues and political maneuvers. He persuaded the French to aid the Americans with money and weapons, and eventually enter the war on the American side. He remained in France until 1785. Upon his return, over $100,000 of Congressional funds entrusted to him as commissioner were unaccounted for. He never did account for them, further annoying Adams.

Celebrities in the Ancient World
Giacomo Casanova made fraud and seduction an art during his lifetime. Wikimedia

11. Giacomo Casanova

Casanova, whose name became synonymous with the term womanizer, was a Venetian trained in his youth in the practice of law. His true pursuit was a career focused on the seduction of women, often the love interests of the various elderly men he developed as patrons. He served the Church for a short time, including composing love letters for a Cardinal in Rome. He tried the military, found it boring, and decided a career as a professional gambler was more to his taste. When that aspiration failed to produce income sufficient on which to live, the musically trained young man decided on a career as a musician. Finally, he treated a member of an influential Venetian family who had suffered a stroke. Although the treatment Casanova prescribed likely had little influence over the favorable outcome, he earned another patron, and an influential position as his clerk.

After further adventures, Casanova went on the Grand Tour of Europe’s capitals, beginning in 1750. The tour led to him becoming known throughout Europe, ostensibly as a wealthy gentleman, but he left in his wake frustrated creditors and husbands angry at being cuckolded. In 1755 he was imprisoned in Venice for crimes against the church. His subsequent escape and successful flight to Paris added to his legend, and he wrote a book about it three decades after the event. He traveled throughout Europe over the course of his life, serving as a spy, duping the wealthy in scams, and enjoying his celebrity. In his memoirs, Casanova described his approach to life. “Cultivating whatever gave pleasure to my senses was always the chief business of my life; I never found any occupation more important”.

Celebrities in the Ancient World
Brummell was said to spend five hours per day attending to his appearance. Wikimedia

12. Beau Brummell

George Bryan Brummell established himself as a celebrity in early 19th century London through the simple means of his manner of dress. He was well educated and inherited a small fortune when his father, a government functionary, died. Brummell served in the 10th Royal Hussars at the time of his father’s death, the personal regiment of the Prince of Wales, He ingratiated himself so thoroughly that the future King George IV spent hours watching the fastidious Brummell dress. It was Beau Brummell who developed the high white stock as well as popularized the wearing of long pants, often tucked into high boots. He recommended the boots be polished with champagne.

From a home on Mayfair’s Chesterfield Street, Brummell became the undisputed dictator of male fashion in London society. His friendship with the Prince of Wales notwithstanding, his reign did not last. By 1813, Brummell and the Prince had fallen out, and three years later Beau’s unpaid, and unpayable, debts forced him to flee to France to avoid prison. In France, the former peacock gradually grew less concerned with his appearance, particularly as his funds rapidly depleted and his prospects to gain more grew slim. In 1835 he was briefly imprisoned in France for unpaid debts. Friends in England, remembering his former celebrity, had him released. He died in 1840, penniless, from complications of syphilis.

Celebrities in the Ancient World
Oliver Hazard Perry, one of the several US Naval officers to become celebrities in the 19th century. Wikimedia

13. Officers of the United States Navy

During the first two decades of the 19th century, the small but effective US Navy participated in three international conflicts. A naval war with revolutionary France saw American victories over their former ally. It was followed by the war with the Barbary Pirates, as they were called, which included the United States Marines landing on the “shores of Tripoli”. Finally came the War of 1812 with Great Britain. In each the new United States Navy acquitted itself well, winning stirring victories in ship-to-ship actions in the Atlantic, wresting control of the Great Lakes from British Canada, and ravaging Britain’s whaling industry in the far Pacific. The young officers of the United States Navy became America’s first action heroes.

Across the nation, the officers were celebrated and honored. Their images appeared in posters and miniatures, on porcelain and in pewter, decorating plates, bowls, drinking vessels, vases, and more. Streets and plazas were renamed in their honor throughout the country. Towns and counties adopted the names of America’s new heroes, including Decatur, Illinois and Decatur county in Indiana, both hundreds of miles away from ocean breezes. Montgomery, Alabama named several streets for early naval heroes, including Hull Street, Decatur Street, Perry Street, McDonough Street, Bainbridge Street, and Lawrence Street. Their celebrity boosted morale and placed the Navy in a favorable light before the public.

Celebrities in the Ancient World
Franz Liszt in 1886, long after Lisztomania ended. Wikimedia

14. Franz Liszt

In the 1840s Franz Liszt toured throughout Europe as a concert pianist. Appearing up to four times per week on his several concert tours, he rapidly gained fame for his virtuosity. Though he was composing at the time, his primary focus was on concert appearances throughout the 1840s. His fame spread across Europe. His concerts were routinely sold out, and reviews from music professionals and others consistently praised his abilities. By 1842 Liszt could not appear in public without being beset by lovers of his music. German poet Heinrich Heine described Liszt’s physical appearance as “how powerful, how shattering…” Heine also coined a new term to describe the effect the composer had on fans, especially female fans. He called it “Lisztomania”.

As later happened to four young musicians from Liverpool who had a similar term coined to describe their effect on their fans, Liszt became a prisoner of his own celebrity. Women, in particular, mobbed his coach, attempted to snip locks of his hair, and tore at his clothes. On several occasions, his gloves were stolen. Other times he found women snatching at his handkerchief, his hat, or his walking stick, in hopes of obtaining a souvenir. Liszt tired of the constant adulation and the assaults on his person, and in 1847 he retired from the concert stage as a pianist at the age of just 35. He appeared as a conductor and concentrated on composition thereafter, though he did continue to give piano lessons to fellow professionals for many years. Lisztomania rapidly faded into oblivion.

Celebrities in the Ancient World
John Wilkes Booth was a well-known actor and celebrity before he assassinated Abraham Lincoln. Library of Congress

15. John Wilkes Booth

John Wilkes Booth was born into a celebrity family. His father was a prominent Shakespearean actor who migrated to the United States from England, bringing along his mistress, John’s mother. His elder brothers Edwin and Junius were noted actors in antebellum America, and John Wilkes followed in their footsteps. John first performed onstage in a production of Shakespeare’s Richard III in 1855. Within three years he was the most well-known actor in American theater, eclipsing his brothers not in acting ability, but in the eyes of his fans. He was called the most handsome man in America. Before the onset of the Civil War Booth was famous, wealthy, and an outspoken supporter of the south and slavery. As such he was a national celebrity, often decried in the North, and idolized in the South.

During the war he remained in the North, for the most part, continuing to appear in theaters performing both Shakespeare and more contemporary plays. Wherever he appeared he arrived at the theater to be greeted by stacks of fan mail, mostly from female fans. Booth’s first appearance at Ford’s Theater, in November 1863, was attended by Abraham Lincoln. The President sat in the same box in which Booth assassinated him in 1865. By then, Booth had parlayed his considerable celebrity into endorsements, including for an oil company in which he invested. At the time of the murder of the President, Booth was one of the most famous and celebrated men in America, easily recognizable throughout the North and South. Afterward, he was regarded in both regions as America’s most notorious and vile murderer.

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Celebrities in the Ancient World
Lily (sometimes spelled Lillie) Langtry circa 1882. Library of Congress

16. Lily Langtry

Born in Jersey, one of the Channel Islands, Emilie Le Breton became a socialite upon her arrival in London. A sought-after guest by hostesses and she became the companion of several notable men in the capital of the British Empire. Among the many men with whom she was alleged to conduct affairs were the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII. In 1874, at the age of twenty, she married a widower named Edward Langtry. Her earliest bout with fame was through the marketing of her image in portraits, copied on postcards. It was her friend Oscar Wilde who suggested Lily enter acting, and she became popular with the general public, though critical reviews were often dismissive of her abilities. In 1882 she arrived in the United States on her first tour. She set tongues wagging with her barely concealed extramarital affairs and her physical appearance.

Langtry later used her influence and much of her first husband’s money to enter into horse racing, and continued to perform as an actor, writer, and producer of plays. She invested in a California winery and became an American citizen. Following her divorce from Langtry she remarried and continued to engage in extramarital affairs. She used her celebrity to earn additional income from endorsing a line of cosmetics and became the first woman to publicly endorse a commercial product. She used her well-known ivory skin to market soap, though not Ivory Soap, but rather Pears Soap, then made in London. Langtry died in Monaco in 1929.

Celebrities in the Ancient World
Charles Chaplin poses with hosts in Japan in 1932. Wikimedia

17. Charles Chaplin

By 1918 Charles Spencer Chaplin was arguably the most well-known celebrity in the world. His silent films and the persona of the Little Tramp were popular in the Far East, throughout the British Empire, in Europe, and in the United States. His activities were followed avidly by fans, in newspapers and magazines, and in a new process contributing to celebrity, the newsreel. During the 1930s he resisted the new genre of movies with sound, called talkies by the press, until he saw they could sway public opinion. In 1940 he satirized Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini in a film he wrote, produced, directed, and starred in, The Great Dictator. According to a German refugee who fled Nazi Germany, Hitler watched the film twice, alone.

Following the Second World War Chaplin squandered much of his celebrity with reports of numerous extramarital affairs and supposed communist sympathies. An affair involving a paternity suit was furthered with leaked information from J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. When Chaplin married 18-year-old Oona O’Neill, the daughter of another American celebrity, playwright Eugene O’Neill, public backlash over his morals was harsh. Chaplin went to London to premiere his film Limelight in September 1952. The day following his departure the United States revoked his re-entry permit, effectively banning him from the country. He resided in Switzerland for the rest of his life. In 1972 he was allowed to return to the United States to receive an Honorary Academy Award, after which he returned to Switzerland, where he died in December 1977.

Celebrities in the Ancient World
Amelia Earhart in the late 1920s. Wikimedia

18. Amelia Earhart

Amelia Earhart gained worldwide celebrity for her feats in aviation, becoming an admired representative of women’s rights. She met with presidents, prime ministers and royalty. She was a popular speaker and lecturer, on the subjects of flying and on women’s roles in society, marriage, home, and the workplace. Earhart used her celebrity to raise money, endorsing products of all sorts. She became a spokesperson for aviation-related products and consumer products, largely to raise the money to support her flying. She endorsed cigarettes, which caused a considerable backlash at a time when women smoking in public was still frowned upon. It was also well-known that Earhart did not smoke, in part due to sinus trouble that plagued her in adulthood.

She also endorsed Beech-Nut chewing gum, tomato juice, malted milk tablets, clocks and watches, motor oil, and luggage. The luggage was her own line, manufactured by the Orenstein Trunk Company. Later she added her own line of women’s fashions, designing many of the clothes herself. Her celebrity was such that she was one of the most famous women in the world at the time she vanished over the Pacific. Her celebrity did not disappear with her. She has since been the subject of dozens of books, hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles, and several films and documentaries. Memorials, plaques, statues, and other honoraria dedicated to her memory are found across the world.

Also Read: Recent Discoveries End in Disappointment and More Mysteries in Earhart Disappearance.

Celebrities in the Ancient World
Merv Griffin with his sidekick and announcer, Arthur Treacher. Wikimedia

19. Merv Griffin

Merv Griffin was more than just a celebrity. He created celebrities. He was a big band singer, the first American performer to record on magnetic tape, and a popular nightclub act. After his act was watched by America’s darling, Doris Day, she arranged a film tryout for him in Hollywood. He became a television game show host in the late 1950s, and a talk show host in the 1960s. In 1964 Griffin created a new game show, in which the answers were presented to the contestants, who had to come up with the correct question. Called Jeopardy, its original host was Art Fleming. Griffin used his musical training to compose the show’s iconic theme music.

In 1984 Griffin revived the canceled Jeopardy for syndication, and hired little-known Canadian game show host Alex Trebek to host. Trebek’s run on the show made him a considerable celebrity as well. Griffin also created the game show Wheel of Fortune, which ran on daytime network version from 1975 to 1991. In 1983 Griffin created a nighttime version of the show, for syndication, starring Pat Sajak and Vanna White. Griffin eventually amassed a fortune which included not just his television properties but resort hotels, an Irish estate, and thoroughbred race horses.

Celebrities in the Ancient World
Zsa Zsa Gabor in 1959. Wikimedia

20. The Gabor Sisters

Magda, Zsa Zsa, and Eva Gabor were socialites, though each attempted an acting career with marginal success. What they really excelled at was marriages, or at least getting married. Magda, the eldest, was married six times. Middle sister Zsa Zsa said I Do nine times. Eva married “only” five times. Zsa Zsa and Magda even shared the same husband, British actor George Sanders, who married Zsa Zsa first. After their divorce, he later married Magda, a union which lasted but one month. The sisters first exploded into celebrity status in New York’s social scene, spurred on by their mother.

Zsa Zsa attempted to use her marriage to George Sanders to launch a film career. Though she appeared in several films she never became a major star. Eva had a successful rural comedy on television, Green Acres. The sisters remained celebrities by appearing as themselves in numerous television programs, always as the socialites they were. Zsa Zsa famously remarked, “I am a marvelous housekeeper: Every time I leave a man I keep his house”.

Celebrities in the Ancient World
The Mercury 7 were overnight celebrities after being selected as America’s first group of astronauts. NASA

21. The Mercury 7

In the late 1950s, after an extensive program of medical, psychological, and physical evaluation and testing, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration announced the names of America’s first group of astronauts. Overnight the seven men were national celebrities. They were offered a lease on a new Corvette for one dollar a year. All but John Glenn took advantage of the offer. They received the equivalent of $4.4 million dollars from Life Magazine for exclusive access to their homes and families, dividing the money equally among themselves.

Long before any of them flew into space they were in demand for television appearances. NASA approved of their appearances as a means of generating public support for its ever-increasing budget. After Glenn’s first flight, America’s first manned orbital flight in 1962, NASA refused to consider sending him back into space, afraid that an accident involving Glenn – then America’s greatest hero – would set back the space program irredeemably. The Mercury 7 remained celebrities throughout the Mercury Program, which ended in May 1963. By then other classes of astronauts had been selected, though they never achieved the overnight celebrity enjoyed – and exploited – by the first seven.

Celebrities in the Ancient World
The Rat Pack frequently performed at The Sands in Las Vegas while filming Ocean’s 11. Wikimedia

22. The Rat Pack

The original group of celebrity friends which called themselves the Rat Pack included Humphrey Bogart, Nat King Cole, Elizabeth Taylor, Lauren Bacall, Robert Mitchum, and many others. They usually met in Bogart’s home in Holmby Hills. The more famous 1960s version included Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford (until Sinatra cut him), and Joey Bishop. Other famous performers sometimes associated themselves with the group, including Norman Fell and Don Rickles. The Rat Pack was all-male, though Marilyn Monroe, Shirley MacLaine, and Angie Dickinson were sometimes part of their antics. As a candidate for President, so was John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Kennedy was feted by Sinatra, who provided him with his campaign song, a revamped version of the tune High Hopes.

The group often performed together in Las Vegas, building upon their individual reputations as womanizers, heavy drinkers, and gamblers. Using language considered politically incorrect on a later day (such as referring to women as “broads”) they crashed performances and appeared to drink heavily on stage, performing planned skits and ad-libs to amuse the audience. Martin nearly always slurred his words and pretended to be drunk. In actuality he usually drank apple juice on stage, pretending it was Scotch Whisky. They made several movies together, including the original Ocean’s 11. They were celebrities playing on their own celebrity, exaggerating their public image for their own benefit. Their millions of fans ate it up.