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Fame? Fuhgedaboutit

June 16, 2002

As crime bosses go, the dapper John Gotti was a double-breasted dummy. Even moviemakers know the Feds have listening devices everywhere. But Gotti blabbed on and on to what passed for pals in his line of work. And the tapes rolled from a transmitter planted at Gotti's favorite table in his New York clubhouse. (The untold story of how that historic bug got there, now, there's a movie.) So Gotti, his son, brothers and assorted captains end up in prison, where the street thug-turned-big tipper died of cancer the other day.

Gotti was well coiffed, well dressed and ruthless. After a Brooklyn neighbor accidentally hit Gotti's son with his car, killing the 12-year-old, the neighbor disappeared. One of many who crossed Gotti's path. So why our fascination with a murderous racketeer?

Americans, who, after all, began national life with a bloody revolution and enthusiastic sacking of Loyalist properties, have long been intrigued by rebels, nonconformists and downright bad dudes. Who but a nonconformist would see Plymouth Rock in September as an opportunity?

Although it's hard to picture Ben Franklin groupies, our history and fables are full of less-savory legends--characters such as Billy the Kid, Jesse James, Bonnie and Clyde and Al Capone; the compelling "Godfather" and "Sopranos" sagas; even the tangled nonfiction legal struggles of the doddering dons presiding over modern mobs. They all provide story fodder for the public. Some stories may even be true.

We don't have dukes and earls in America, so we grant levels of fame; it's more democratic. In fact, seeking, seizing and maintaining fame is now big business. But often in modern times, this process of celebrating celebrities has somehow become less a means of applauding and admiring accomplishments and more a mere entertainment through personalities, like popcorn for the mind.

Through quips, dress and style, Gotti made himself a celebrity. Watching gangsters, of course, makes no one an adherent. But with youngsters watching as we create, consume, savor and discard succeeding shipments of celebrities, many famous for misbehaviors, perhaps we should remind ourselves that celebrity used to have a socially unacceptable offshoot. It was called notoriety.

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