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"What it Cost Me To Score One Big Success" from Cosmopolitan

by Ellis Parker Butler
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from Cosmopolitan
What it Cost Me To Score One Big Success
by Ellis Parker Butler

When I was a young fellow I knew just what I wanted to happen if I was to be the happiest man in the world. First, I would get out of the wholesale grocery line and give up selling navy beans and canned corn and currycombs, and then I would give all my time to writing. For a while I would write pretty good stuff and be able to make my living at it. Then I would write mighty good stuff, and I would feel as if some one were putting a plush-lined hat on my head and I would look up and see that the eager populace was pressing on my brow the crown of Fame.

And when I had got that far I would cock the crown of Fame over one ear and bend over my desk and dash off some of the greatest novels and essays the world had ever seen and, all of a sudden, I would feel something soft and pleasant on my shoulders, and when I looked up I would see that an admiring world had placed on me the garment of Glory.

Ellis Parker Butler published in 1925. Photo by Robert H. Davis

Then I would stick a big cigar in my mouth and walk down Main Street with my crown of Fame on my head and my robes of Glory trailing out behind me and the people would pick me up and carry me to the Opera House and give me seven million dollars and elect me Ambassador to England while the band played "Annie Rooney."

Well, up to date I've managed to stop selling navy beans and to win a crown of Fame of the Ninth Grade, Class C, that looks a good deal like a $1.98 straw hat in its third season in a town that has no hat cleaners. And, incidentally, I've nearly worked my head off winning it, so that there is hardly anything left but a nubbin to wear the crown on. I have about as much chance of getting that robe of Glory as I have of buying the original Noah's ark for a houseboat. And I'm just about that eager to get it.

I've turned a little sour on this Glory idea and I'm about ready to desert Fame on the 101st ballot and cast the entire vote of the delegation for Money in the Bank. As I feel now I wouldn't go across the street for a robe of Glory unless it was made of Turkish toweling and I could wear it as a bathrobe.

Fame, you understand, is the favorable celebrity that is handed to a man who has made folks think he has done something better than the ordinary; Glory is the widespread praise and honor accorded to anyone by common consent. They are two of the most widely advertised articles ever put on the market. If, in a general way of speaking, Fame is the red seal of merit pasted on a man's brow, then Glory is three coats of scarlet paint, rubbed down and varnished and touched up with gold leaf.

Robert Fulton, who ran the first steamboat, for example, is famous, but Christopher Columbus is a glorious character. Steve Brodie, when he jumped off Brooklyn Bridge, won fame, but the Light Brigade at Balaklava won undying glory.

In some respects it looks as if the higher you flew the harder you fell; Steve Brodie took his fame and started a saloon with it and made a good living, but when the Light Brigade had finished its charge and had won glory it was to a large extent deceased and ready to be buried. And about every ten days for twenty years or so, I read in the papers that the last survivor of the Light Brigade was now an aged man and begging his bread in the streets of London.

Fate seems to think, somehow, that if she gives you enough glory she need not bother to give you food. That is one reason why I think Glory has had far too much favorable press-agenting that might better have been given to sawing wood. As a lot of its wearers know, a crown of Fame, whether broiled or stewed, is mighty poor feed for a hungry man.

What I would like to know is this: If you happened to be going along the street and saw a red flag hanging out, and the auctioneer was just yelling, "Step up! Sale is just beginning! Now, folks, what am I offered for this elegant robe of Glory and crown of Fame?" what would you bid?

You know what you have to offer, and I don't. Maybe you have a quiet and obscure life as the local dentist over the First National Bank, where you can pull teeth till the cows come home, and nobody outside the town will ever know you are alive and some of those inside will wish you weren't. Would you trade that for the Glory of Bonaparte and the Fame of Wagner? What is Fame worth to you? How much is Glory worth?

My advice, and you can take it or leave it, is that if anybody offers you Fame or Glory, or both, the thing for you to do is to turn your back on him and get as far from him as you can just as soon as you can. If anybody offers you Fame or Glory and offers to deliver it at your house free of charge and carry it upstairs and put it in your bedroom absolutely without expense, tell him to get away from you before you give him a poke in the eye.

In my own line of business Fame is worth a little something, because if it is handled right a bright writer is able to cash in on it to some extent, but Glory is not so good because no author is ever glorious until he is dead and by that time his copyright has run out. And I don't know that Fame is worth so much to a writer, either.

When I began to write I paddled along in a pleasant, easy-going way and for years nobody knew me but the editors. When I sent in a story and it was good, an editor bought it, and if it wasn't good, he sent it back. For all the public cared the story might have been signed "Ethelbert Persimmons" or "Amelia Overshoes Blatz." If it was a good story they liked it, and if it wasn't good they didn't like it, and that was all there was to it.

Then, unexpectedly, I wrote "Pigs is Pigs" and the next day I received by express, charges collect, bill attached, my Class C, Ninth Grade, tin-plated crown of Fame. Instantly I was one of the minor celebrities and as famous as the runner-up in a county golf championship.

Instantly, also, the editors began sending back better stories than I had ever written before, saying, "We like this but prefer something like 'Pigs is Pigs' from you." When I published in book form a story written three years before I had ever thought of "Pigs is Pigs," the reviewers said. "This is another example of a poor fish who has gone absolutely wrong. This man used to write decent stories but this one is nothing but a sickly attempt to imitate his 'Pigs is Pigs'."

Until you are famous nearly everyone is eager to help you; the minute you are famous one-half of the dear old crowd can't be happy unless it is taking a slam at you. Blessed is the frog that stays under water, for he doth not get a whang on the top of the head. The only thing I am thankful for is that I have never become really famous; if I had, some one would have tacked a new amendment on to the Constitution of the United States making it a crime for me to write anything whatever; when I had to get a little short story out of my system or bust, I would have had to go down cellar with a fountain pen hidden in my hair and bootleg the story in the shadowy depths of the coal bin. And there is no nourishment in that.

I am inclined to believe that the man who is getting along fairly well in obscurity is the lucky man, and that Fame and Glory are the laughing-gas Fate lets a man sniff when she means to knock him on the head with an ax. The Roll of Fame and the Garland of Glory are crowded with the names of men and women who rose high in order to be easy marks for trouble. It is a thousand to one shot that if you know the name of a man who became famous or was glorious, you know the name of the man who got just about the worst the world could give him before his light went out.

Back in Rome, in the year 54 B. C. there was a man in the fruit and vegetable business, just around the corner from Main Street. He had begun as a banana peddler, carrying a basket from house to house, and presently he had a little two-by-four shop with the name "George the Greek" over the door. No one knew him except the people who lived in that neighborhood. A matron would say to her daughter, "Aurelia, take a dime out of the teapot and run down to the Greek's and get a head of lettuce," and George the Greek would make six cents profit and not have to deliver the goods to the home.

By the time 50 B. C. arrived George the Greek, who had come to the country as a poor emigrant, was able to let his eleven children wear sandals every day and his wife had a real hat.

By 48 B. C. he had quite a little money in the bank and owned a second-hand tin chariot and two half-horse-power horses, and on Saturnalia and other holidays he could be seen taking his family out for a ride and be heard telling the traffic cop he had mistaken the signal. By 45 B. C. this humble citizen owned a very nice house in Gracchus's Addition to Janiculum Manor, had a new iron-tired chariot and four unspavined horses, owned the building in which his store was located, had five clerks and a lady bookkeeper who was a peach.

By this you can see that George the Greek was a fairly substantial Roman citizen and able to keep his children in school right along, pay his taxes and have his winter coal shot into his bins along about the first of July and pay cash for it.

On the fifteenth of February, 44 B. C., George took a day off to see the big doings. He shaved carefully, polished his sandals, put on his best necktie. His wife was all rigged out for the party and the children were as neat as new sesterci.

"Now, listen, folks," George said. "I'm going to try to squeeze the chariot in where we can get a good view of everything that goes on, but there is going to be a whale of a crowd downtown, and maybe we'll have to park the old bus on a side street and walk to the party. If I have to do that I want you kids to keep tight hold of each other's hands, and not get lost in the crowd. Understand? And I want you all to keep your eyes open and see all you can, and remember it, because this is going to be a big day in Roman history."

Well, come to find out, he couldn't get the chariot within a half mile of Main Street, because some of the populace had been there since sunset the evening before, but George and his folks did manage to squeeze through and get a good place on the edge of the sidewalk. And it was worth the trouble. The parade was a dandy. Headed by the 18th Legion Brass Band it came swinging down Main Street, the triumphant standards glittering in the air. First came the City Council in chariots, then the Fire Department, then the Veterans of Foreign Wars, then twenty-four elephants, five hundred war chariots with all the horses' tails braided and tied with blue ribbons. Following these were five hundred schoolgirls strewing roses, and then, in a chariot of solid gold, with coal-black horses all rigged up with platinum harness set with diamonds, rode the illustrious hero of the occasion, Caius Julius Caesar, the greatest conqueror Rome had ever known -- the greatest the world had ever known.

"There he is! Get a good look at him, kids!" George the Greek cried, all excited. "That's Caesar. That's the man who has won glory. There's the most glorious man the World has ever known. Oh, boy, I wish I was Caesar!"

"Why, papa?" asked little Alexander.

"Because," said George, "when the parade gets to the City Hall what is going to happen? A committee is going to give him that crown we saw in Quintus Mallius the jeweller's window, and make him emperor of Rome, and till the end of the world already he is going to be the most famous man for folks to talk about. And me, your papa, who is going to remember I run a fruit and vegetable store? After I am dead ten years who is going to remember I was selling strawberries and Brussels sprouts? Nobody!"

That was February 15, and when the parade reached the City Hall and the diadem was offered to Caesar he cast an eye around and, behind every pillar, he saw some mean cuss with his fingers crossed -- Brutus the Bolshevist, and Cassius the Anarchist, and Casca the Communist, and the whole lot of them -- and he knew they were dead sore on the whole program, and what did he say?

He said, "Well, folks, I'm much obliged for this compliment, but to come right down to plain talk I don't believe Rome is ready for an emperor yet. I pass."

And, in spite of that, on March 15 the leaders of the Irreconcilables got together and punched Rome's most glorified man full of holes, using daggers for the puncturing.

It seems to me, taking everything into consideration, that it is better to be a live fruit and vegetable dealer with a whole hide than a glorified near-emperor so full of dagger holes that you could use him as a sieve.

Christopher Columbus, the most glorious discoverer of all time, had a father who was a wool comber near Genoa. The business must have been fair to middling, because Christopher received a fairly good education for that day; but wool combing wasn't good enough for him, so he discovered America and was immediately glorified and thrown into prison, riveted in chains, and spent his last years in poverty and neglect. Henry Hudson, the most glorified of English discoverers, who found the Hudson River and the mighty Hudson Bay, ended by being put adrift in a small boat in the great bay he had discovered, and that was the end of him. The Forest of Trouble is full of men who reached for Fame or Glory and got it while the common citizen was going about his regular business and enjoying three good meals a day. Napoleon ended in hock at St. Helena. The Kaiser is ending in hock in Holland. Galileo, the father of modern astronomy, got his trouble from the Inquisition. Lincoln was assassinated. Socrates was given a hemlock cocktail, the forefather of wood alcohol whisky. Cleopatra hugged an asp. The list would run to thousands.

I do not say that Cleopatra should have given up her throne and taken in washing on a back street in Alexandria; I merely try to show that carrying on in a way that has made her the most glorified vamp of all ages brought her nothing but trouble in the end. I am trying to show that an ordinary wife and mother, when she sees a picture of Cleopatra reclining on her luxurious barge with colored girls fanning her, need not envy Cleopatra. Life, when the sock basket is so full of undarned stockings that it looks like a horn of plenty, may seem tame to the ordinary wife and mother, but to my notion her job is a happier one -- take it from end to end -- than Cleopatra's, even if none of Cleopatra's family ever wore a stocking.

It does not do, I admit, to crowd any analogy or example too far and hard. My desire merely is to make clear that Fame and Glory are greatly overrated and that their real value to the man who has them is mighty small -- so small that they are more often a nuisance and a cause of sorrow than an aid to happiness.

There was one question Permanent Chairman Walsh asked oftener than any other at the late Democratic Convention that broke all world's records for longitudinality. The question was, "For what purpose does the gentleman arise?"

I'd like to ask for what purpose any man seeks to arise from a safe, sane and happy obscurity unless it is to have 589 out of every 1098 yell "Boo" at him. There is more genuine happiness in a fat bundle of Liberty Bonds tucked away in a safe deposit box than in a page and a half in Who's Who. In the long run the figures on a paycheck that arrives regularly read more genuine content into a life than a half-column article -- with retouched photograph of the hero -- in the Sunday edition.

Don't envy the famous; when you think of the glorified men of history shed a tear for them. When you wish you were as well known as Irv Cobb, so that when you write an article on food the whole nation sits up and takes notice, remember that one of the principal results of that article was that some one sent Cobb a turkey that decayed in the mails and reached him in a condition not mentioned in polite society. Practically all the free turkeys won by the famous and glorious arrive in that condition. I can't speak for Cobb with authority but I'll bet him a dollar against a doughnut that the best turkey he ever ate was one he got in exactly the same way you get one -- by buying it with money earned on the job.

A man is different from a soap. It is an advantage for a soap to be -- so to speak -- in everybody's mouth. When a soap becomes famous it is remembered when people want to buy soap, but when a man is famous he is remembered principally at two times -- 1: When some one wants to throw something, and 2: when somebody wants something for nothing. If a man is lucky he gets born, and if he is reasonably fortunate he lives a certain length of time, and then he vacates. Between the first and the last he must find all the happiness, success and satisfaction he is to have on this earth, and I maintain that he can get all of these by finding his job, working at it with a desire to do what he has to do in the best way he can do it. and letting Fame and Glory take care of their own affairs. Fame is like a pup -- the minute you give it a pat on the head it wants to climb into your lap and slobber all over your face and take all your time and then bite you. The way to treat Fame is to turn your back on it, forget it and, if it annoys you, turn around and give it a kick.

To care a hang for Fame is fatal. I'd like to have someone take a census of the young fellows who haven't done a stroke of work since they came within ten of winning the Pool Tournament down at Casey's Pool and Billiard Parlor, and who will never win a pool tournament in their lives. How many immortal statesmen came down here to New York to get nominated for the Presidency of the United States -- and what good did it do them? As I understand it the two leading candidates of the two great political parties, and the candidates for the Vice Presidency as well, are men who have taken their jobs as they came along, plugged at them hard and honestly, and thus left the famous fellows away back yonder at the starting post. I can't see a chest-sweller in the lot of them. They seem to me to have got where they are, not by using their crowns of fame as megaphones but as paperweights.

The next time you are down East here I wish you would hunt up one of the main traveled roads and take a look at the thousands of automobiles that crowd them. When there is a two-minute traffic block the cars line up by hundreds, and then they start on again. Take a look at the people in the cars. Here will come six hundred and thirty-seven cars, coupes, sedans, touring cars, limousines, motorcycles and every other kind. In six hundred and thirty-seven of them you will see men who are enjoying being out in the car, with the family or with friends. These are the people Fame has not touched. Then will come the six hundred and thirty-eighth car, probably a huge limousine, and on the rear seat will be a man well past middle age, leaning back against the cushions with his eyes closed, his face drawn and tired. There is nothing interesting in anything outside his car for him; there is nothing interesting outside his head for him. He looks weary, and he is weary. He can find no fun in the things that are fun for the rest of us. He is the Famous Man.

As the limousine starts again, when the traffic jam ends, he does a characteristic thing -- he throws his half smoked cigar out of the car window. Just then George the Greek, with seven-elevenths of his family crowded into his car, throws in his clutch and starts too. He has between his teeth the stub of a cigar he has smoked so close to the end that he has to keep his upper lip raised.

"Lookit, mama!" he says to his wife. "Ten thousand cabbages in that field, I bet you. Maybe some of them I sell over my counter before they are through. Everywhere a man goes he sees something, yes?"

That's the life! No Fame to nurse, no Glory to bid for; able to enjoy your cigar to the end and taking pleasure in your work even when you are on your Sunday afternoon outings. Honestly, sometimes I wish I had obeyed my youthful impulse and become a blacksmith.



Saturday, October 07 at 1:12:00am USA Central
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