Thursday, May 28, 2009

Famous Childhoods

Watching eight adorable children tumble across the TV screen puts me in mind of earlier versions of the same thing. I sometimes wonder what America will be remembered for. Will it be Coca Cola or baseball or will it be famous children? They are the quintessential American product.

It's a familiar story: a family hoping to change its luck thrusts the cute youngster on the stage. Child saves the family farm. Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney putting on a show in the old barn were only re-enacting their life stories. Garland started at age two, Rooney at 17 months. Being famous can be a terrible burden on the very young, but is stardom any worse than being poor? Some children thrive on it. Some adjust. Some never find their feet in life. Shirley Temple turned out all right, protected by a remarkable and practical stage mother. Shirley was the most famous person in America at age 5. The worst disillusionment occurred at age 7 when a department store Santa asked for her autograph. But years later, there she was, bright as paint and adorable as ever, on the album cover of Sgt. Pepper. As if she'd never grown up.

America didn't invent the child star. Mozart was one, playing the piano for crowned heads before his feet could reach the pedals. Christopher Milne was an ordinary shy London child, neglected by his society mother, adored by his nanny, observed from a discreet distance by his father who wrote comic verses for Punch. "Hush, hush, whisper who dares/ Christopher Robin is saying his prayers." Then there were the clever books about the boy's adventures with a stuffed bear. None of it went down particularly well when Christopher Robin went away to school, but his toilet training wasn't available on DVD.

Playwright James Barrie befriended a family of little boys in a London park. He gave them gifts and told them stories and played games with them, behaving very unlike a respectable London adult. When their parents died he adopted them. He wrote a very famous play about the youngest one, named Peter, imagining a boy who never grows up at all. But they did grow up, and all their ends were tragic. Biographers have suggested that Barrie corrupted them, but there is no real evidence. The story reminds us of another former child star who lives a strange, secluded life at a California ranch called Neverland. When the whole world is paying attention to you it must be very hard to grow up normal and average and happy. But there are cases where it's been done.

These and other famous childhoods are included in A Book of Ages.

No comments:

Post a Comment