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Dawn of the well-behaved celebrity

But the days of our unqualifiedly celebrating the rowdy, libidinous, self-destructive artist may be drawing to a close.

By: New York Times | Published: March 16, 2014 12:41:12 am

BY: TEDDY WAYNE

Justin Bieber’s rap sheet over the past year would have been an afternoon’s work for Keith Richards. Yet for a number of factors — not least of which is that, in certain circles, Exile on Main St. is considered a slightly superior achievement to My World 2.0 — we excoriate Bieber for his misdeeds while glorifying Richards for his. And musicians aren’t the only ones expected to be on their best behaviour.

“If there was an arrest for drunk driving,” Robert J Wagner writes of old Hollywood in his new memoir, You Must Remember This, “there would be a nod, a wink, perhaps some modest amount of money changing hands, and that would be the end of it”. He added, “If an actor behaved the way that, say, Tiger Woods did — and believe me, it was not unusual — it was covered up.”

But the days of our unqualifiedly celebrating the rowdy, libidinous, self-destructive artist may be drawing to a close. What’s more, celebrities are no longer behaving all that badly.

Blame the Internet’s power to shame and memorialise. It certainly had an effect on Alec Baldwin, who has quit Twitter multiple times and bade a recent long goodbye to public life in New York magazine. And for every public figure accused of trolling for inflamed reactions with a controversy-baiting essay or tweet, there are probably several more who hold back their real opinions for fear of online censure.

Those chronicling the famous also have to mind their manners. A reporter who parties like Hunter S Thompson did in the 1970s is unlikely to be published regularly by Rolling Stone.

Cat Marnell, 31, is the rare journalist who seems to be written about more than she writes. The news media in New York, where she lives, have broadly covered her exploits with drugs. Marnell has written for a number of publications but has not stayed too long at any of them; she told The New York Post, “I couldn’t spend another summer meeting deadlines behind a computer at night when I could be on the rooftop of Le Bain looking for shooting stars and smoking angel dust with my friends and writing a book.”

“As somebody who’s overdosed and nearly died in September, I struggle with what kind of tone I want,” she said of her writing. She noted that heroin, back in the spotlight since Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death, has been verboten in the art scene since the 2009 death of Dash Snow.

Yet Marnell has written extensively about her drug use and acknowledged that “people do like me because I’m bad”. “Drugs are bad, but they’re still fun.”

Our cultural image of the writer has historically been of a thrice-divorced, whiskey-swilling chain smoker who brawls with his rival over a nasty review in a dimly lit Manhattan speakeasy. Now it’s a married yogi in a BabyBjörn who tweets exclamatory encomia from the kale section of a supermarket.

Coming of age, the writer Jay McInerney idolised what he called the “holy trinity” of American modernism — Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner, all with a noted fondness for alcohol — along with what he called “the silver generation” of hard drinkers like Norman Mailer, John Cheever and William Styron.

By the time McInerney published his debut novel, Bright Lights, Big City, in 1984, followed a year later by Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero — which depicted cocaine-hoovering Reagan-era Manhattan and Los Angeles, respectively — “drugs were part of a rite of passage” for young writers, he said.

In the early part of the decade, McInerney recalled, “I was hanging around with some friends who were discovering this nice little drug with me, and we saw an ad in The Village Voice for Cocaine Anonymous. It was the most hilarious thing we’d heard.”

McInerney, at 59, now writes a column for The Wall Street Journal about a less lethal inebriant: wine. He has just finished a draft of a new novel.“I’m glad I survived my excesses,” he said. “I feel like an extinct species.”

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