Jewish World Review Oct. 2, 2009 14 Tishrei 5770
Brilliance Often Doesn't Always Equal Virtue
By Roger Simon
The relationship between talent and virtue does not seem to be a strong one. In fact, there doesn't seem to be a relationship at all.
Take three examples: Jack Henry Abbott, Roman Polanski and Michael Jackson.
Not many people remember Abbott today, but once he was famous. Once he was all the rage. At age 37, Abbott had spent all but nine months of his previous 25 years in prison. Sent to prison for forgery and bank robbery, he stabbed and killed a fellow inmate.
But he began writing to Norman Mailer, and Mailer grew fascinated by him. Mailer was impressed with the quality of Abbott's letters, apparently believing that nobody who could write that well could actually be a violent and dangerous man.
Mailer took up Abbott's cause and used his influence to get Abbott's letters published. They eventually became the book "In the Belly of the Beast," Abbott's view of prison life, published in 1981. Other glitterati, like Jerzy Kosinski and Susan Sarandon, championed him. Abbott was on "60 Minutes" and in Rolling Stone.
Mailer pushed for Abbott's release. Abbott was paroled and entered the New York social whirl just as his book was becoming a national best-seller. Five weeks after he got out of prison, Abbott went into a restaurant, picked a fight with a waiter and in less than two minutes plunged a knife into a waiter's throat. The waiter, age 22 and a newlywed, died almost instantly.
Abbott was tried, convicted and received a sentence of 15 years to life. In 1992, Mailer said in an interview that his involvement with Abbott was "another episode in my life in which I can find nothing to cheer about or nothing to take pride in." In 2002, Abbott, all but forgotten, hanged himself in his prison cell.
Polanski, a creepy man of immense talent, did unspeakable things to a 13-year-old girl in Los Angeles in 1977, when he was 44 years old. Polanski pleaded guilty to having unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor and then jumped bail and fled to Europe, where he has lived comfortably ever since. A few days ago, however, Polanski was arrested in Switzerland on a U.S. warrant.
The United States is now seeking Polanski's extradition to Los Angeles for sentencing in the 1977 case. Some glitterati are outraged. Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen and David Lynch have signed a petition.
Whoopi Goldberg said recently on "The View" of Polanski's actions: "I know it wasn't rape-rape. I think it was something else, but I don't believe it was rape-rape." Peter Fonda said, "We should have been celebrating the arrest of Osama bin Laden and not the arrest of Polanski." One news service said "the world's cultural elite" were rushing to Polanski's defense.
Jackson was never convicted of any crimes, but in 1994 he settled a case of alleged sexual abuse with a 13-year-old boy for a reported $20 million. In 2003, Jackson was arrested and charged with seven counts of child molestation involving another 13-year-old boy. He was found not guilty following a jury trial.
When Jackson died suddenly in June, the media indulged in an orgy of Jackson coverage. His talent, his genius and his extraordinary achievements were talked about day after day after day. It was rare to hear even a mention of the troubling aspects of Jackson's life, even though doing so could have been a teachable moment for young people. It could have been a way to teach them to avoid being blinded by fame (even though their parents often were).
President Barack Obama was very careful in what he said after Jackson's death. "Michael Jackson will go down in history as one of the greatest entertainers," he said in an interview. "You know, I think his brilliance as a performer also was paired with a tragic and, in many ways, sad personal life."
Brilliant people can be tragic and sad. Brilliant people can do bad things.
Maybe Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec said it best: "One should never meet a man whose work one admires. The man is always so much less than the work."
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© 2009, Creators Syndicate