Fame, according to Milton’s poem, encourages “the clear spirit … To despise joys and live difficult days”. For Milton, this quest for lasting fame was an aristocratic pursuit, a “weakness of noble mind.” Michael Wolff’s new book begins with lamenting the “democratization of fame”: no performance is required by today’s self-promoting wannabes, and all that matters is visibility on social media. Yet the celebrities Wolff investigates retain a status he calls “semi-heroic” because they suffer the punishments of fame or disgrace, which include “humiliation, prosecution, imprisonment, even death.” Too famous begins with Hugh Grant dodging the inevitable flash of selfies by retiring into defensive privacy; it ends when Jeffrey Epstein dies in solitude in his prison cell.
Wolff himself became famous by writing three books with inflammatory gossip about the Trump administration. To capitalize on this success, he now reuses some early journalism and adds an unpublished account of the time apparently spent in Epstein’s Manhattan mansion, where – although he does not tell how or why he gained such indiscreet access – he intercepts as the predator’s companions say . him through a course of “media training” in the hope of alleviating his crimes.
Although Wolff ponders the “dark heart” of virulent America, he brightens the gloom by claiming that the antics of his rich, powerful, and infamous subjects are mostly showbiz, hyped up to satisfy the media’s “perceptual imperialism.” He advises Piers Morgan to be “more of a fake balloney” if he wants to be successful on American television; Steve Bannon, his bigotry overlooked, is hailed as a shrewd grocer. The cynical rule applies to Wolff himself. He watches Harvey Weinstein’s trial – which Weinstein, always the impresario, refers to as “the show” – “of pity and interest”. Interest of what kind? Probably financial: Weinstein guarantees Wolff a cool million if he writes a book about his downfall. This is a culture where pathological behavior is marketed as entertainment, and Wolff enjoys such a mad, amoral audacity too much to be bothered by condemning it.
Wolff is eager to qualify as a candidate and takes pride in being as ruthless as the moguls he interviews. Hence his alliance with Roger Ailes, the disgraced and now defunct CEO of Fox News. When Wolff called Ailes “the new American antichrist,” Ailes took it as a compliment and became friends with him; with a nonchalant shrug, Wolff adds that he later sold Ailes out. He eagerly accepts a magazine’s request for a “ritual cut-off” by Mike Bloomberg, who then ran for mayor of New York. “I whipped him,” Wolff exclaims, “with joyful cruelty.”
This evil is mainly directed at British journalists who are a little too famous for Wolff’s tastes. He mocks the “holiness” that their admirers wanted Christopher Hitchens and Alan Rusbridger, and mocks Tina Brown for not earning “fuck-you money”. The true monsters Wolff encounters receive more gentle treatment. He pays tribute to Trump’s “virtues”, calls him “fun-loving, even joyful” and enjoys his “happy joie de guerre”. He finds Epstein’s cave in New York cozy, not eerie, with nibbles and gratuities constantly on offer; he does not dispute when Bannon tells their host, “You do not look creepy at all, you are a sympathetic figure.”
Wolff even drools over Boris Johnson as an “almost Queen Mumish” object of worship. In a 2004 article, he sees the undressed national treasure go wrong in the clutter of his Islington house in search of his trousers, chases him to King’s Cross to catch a train already running from Liverpool Street, and traces his growing disorder throughout through. day, his shirttail flaps loose, his fly agape, his hair scattered. Wolff admires the chaos as “artistic presentation,” an exercise in “overdramatized fallibility,” and sees no reason to worry about the consequences of putting this hot, windy mess to run a government.
Devilishly entertained, Wolff notes that “a colossal cosmic joke” made Trump become president and made him “the destroyer of the worlds.” The American catastrophe was at least colossal and cosmic; our eco-disaster is less amazing. This is how the world ends for us, not with a thunderous hoax from above, but with a silly laugh and some supposedly witty Latin puns.