Cléo de Mérode and the Rise of Modern Celebrity Culture by Michael D. Garval (review)
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Cléo de Mérode and the Rise of Modern Celebrity Culture. By Michael D. Garval. Farnham: Ashgate, 2012. xii + 206 pp., ill.

Michael D. Garval’s book examines the fin-de-siècle public fascination with the dancer and celebrity Cléo de Mérode dite ‘Cléo’. Unlike some of her peers, most notably actress Sarah Bernhardt, Cléo was known less for her dancing skills than for being famous. As such, she illustrates that our own era, with its Kim Kardashians and Paris Hiltons, has invented nothing new. Garval’s captivating study delves into the origins of modern celebrity culture, focusing especially on life in the Parisian capital, which was, in Walter Benjamin’s famous words, ‘the capital of the nineteenth century’. In the first chapter Garval examines the fin-de-siècle cult of Cléo de Mérode, in particular the contemporary fascination with her beauty, including the intense interest in her hairstyle; the fact that her ears were covered led to rampant speculation about — and, indeed, fetishization of — those appendages. During the course of the following chapters Garval illustrates how Cléo herself contributed to her own cult of celebrity, in part by posing for various photographs, some of which were disseminated in the form of postcards. Celebrity culture of this time was thus closely linked to the burgeoning visual culture of the age. Cléo’s fame became so great that it spread across the Atlantic, although her American audiences found her less dynamic than expected. Garval’s discussion of Cléo’s reception in the United States not only tells us about images of France in America at this time, but it also reveals that the exchanges moved in both directions. Most works on France and the United States at the fin de siècle have focused almost exclusively on the French reaction to figures such as Buffalo Bill. The American disappointment in Cléo also confirms another essential element of celebrity culture, namely, that the image created is often more ‘real’ and important to the public than the actual person. Cléo, by all accounts, was rather a dull young woman, not the tempting seductress who supposedly captured the heart of the king of Belgium. She was, however, a savvy promoter and knew exactly how to market her own image. Along with numerous secondary sources, Garval has also combed through French and American periodicals of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as well as iconography in archives on both sides of the Atlantic. The photographs and caricatures of Cléo are indispensable to the book. It would have been preferable, however, if Garval had engaged more directly with the increasing body of literature on celebrity culture, including the important volume edited by Edward Berenson and Eva Giloi, Constructing Charisma: Celebrity, Fame, and Power in Nineteenth-Century Europe (New York: Berghahn Books, 2010). Such engagement would have enriched his discussions of Cléo: how different was she from Sarah Bernhardt, for example, or from Benoît-Constant Coquelin, best known for playing the role of Cyrano de Bergerac? Nonetheless, this lively monograph recaptures a bygone era’s obsession with Cléo de Mérode and illuminates her place in the celebrity culture of the fin de siècle.

Venita Datta
Wellesley College
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