Mae to Mao: Celebrity Degrees of Separation

It turns out that the world’s most Famous have had a virtual Facebook all their own which began about a century ago and continues on, cutting across the mortal limitations of time, moving in and out of the present to the past, from fundraisers and rallies to dinner parties and costume balls, weddings and funerals, concerts and conferences – across state lines, oceans, political philosophies, personal faiths, social status and professional reputation.

Just like the rest of us, those in this Facebook of the Famous were and are on familiar terms, but they’ve almost never been real friends. They do like to pose for pictures together, be they heroic athletes, convicted felons, megalomaniac millionaires, admired royalty, trendy pop stars, wise humanitarians, rotten dictators, popular politicians or beloved screen legends, as if the small supply of that invisible magic powder that translates luck into fame can only be found by their rubbing elbows with each other.

This chain of acquaintance and chance meetings not only incarnates into connections among the most contradictory of bold-faced names, but does so with shockingly brief degrees of separation. Consider that only two people stand between a woman imprisoned in 1927 for “corrupting the morals of youth” after writing and starring in a play called Sex about a prostitute and a man who, at that very same time, was leading a violent peasant uprising and launching the Red Army. He caused the death of about 70 million people. She kept dozens of lovers. He was the father of China’s Communist Revolution. She was the godmother of America’s Sexual Revolution. Yet there’s only three degrees of separation between Mae West and Mao Tse-Tung.

A drawing which illustrates the concept of Six Degrees of Separation, by Daniel Walker

Six Degrees of Separation, the novel and play by author John Guare, and its 1991 film adaption of the fictional story, widely popularized the concept that any one person on earth is connected to any other person on earth by their personal acquaintance with no more than six individuals between them. Becoming a serious field of study within sociology and physics, and a central concept in the world of “Network Theory,” on which Facebook and other Internet sites are based, it was first posited not by a math-science type, but a creative. In a 1929 collection of his work, Everything is Different, Hungarian writer Frigyes Karinthy included the short story entitled, “Chains.” Although it was fiction, Karinthy’s characters carry out their own little experimental game based on one of them suggesting that communications technology was so quickly connecting the people on earth that it would take one person to go through only five people to find themselves connected to any stranger, any where.


Mae West-Cary Grant-Gerald Ford-Mao Tse-Tung


Mae West and Cary Grant in the late 50s.

Appealing to high-hats and the unemployed alike during the Great Depression with her vulgar class and wit-skewered irony, Mae West often told the story of sitting in a Paramount studio office discussing what actor would be ideal as her foil in She Done Him Wrong, her first starring film. She looked out the window to see a handsome Englishman walking across the lot. “If he can talk,” she quipped, “I’ll take him.” She got him, or as she said, “I had him twice” – meaning he also co-starred in her next film, I’m No Angel. They remained friends until her death in 1980.

Both were invited to the White House state dinner for Queen Elizabeth, hosted by President Gerald R. Ford in July 1976, to celebrate the American Bicentennial, but West regretted, saying it was “too far to go for dinner.” The now-white-haired Grant, however, went, forging a friendly acquaintance with Ford. A month later, the otherwise bipartisan Grant introduced Betty Ford at the 1976 National Republican Convention.

Mao meets Susan Ford, daughter of President and Mrs. Ford who stand in background.

A year prior, Ford became the second incumbent American President to visit China. Although the man whose face was on every wall and matchbox throughout the vast nation was now ailing, Mao was trotted out to meet and greet Ford, who noted how the old boy stirred up at the sight of Ford’s vibrant college-age daughter Susan.


From here on out, moving outward from Mae and Mao will be sequences from this Facebook of the Famous that build into the larger lineup. Worried comedienne Woody Allen to cruel tyrant Saddam Hussein? War Secretary Don Rumsfeld to stripper Gypsy Rose Lee? Justin Timberlake to Lawrence of Arabia? Susan B. Anthony to Lady Gaga?

Anyone is possible,

Categories: Betty Ford, Celebrity Degrees of Separation, Facebook of the Famous

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