Ten years ago Lachlan Murdoch was studying philosophy at Princeton. Today his tutor Alan Hajek reflects on the nature of celebrity and the nice young man he met.
Celebrities exert a curiously powerful force on us. There’s serious street-cred to be gained from knowing someone famous, or even from just spotting a celeb in a shopping mall. It’s as if you can then bask in a certain reflected glory and get immediate validation: “If I can be connected, even fleetingly, to someone that important, then maybe I’m important too (despite all the evidence to the contraryS)”. Your stock, your personal capital, your clout, your juice (as they say in California) shoots way up the day you collide with Nicole Kidman as you step off an escalator at Myer’s, or the day you find yourself standing one urinal down from Shane Warne. As David Bowie said, “Fame makes a man take things over.” I have no idea what that means, but I’m sure it’s very deep.
I live in Santa Monica, not far from Hollywood, where star-spotting is about as popular a pastime as Kennett-bashing was in Victoria after he lost the election – until he recently stopped being famous. One day I was sitting in my favourite cafe. A beautiful woman entered the cafe, and sat down a few tables away from me. I began fantasizing about sauntering over to her, imagining opening lines that I might try on her: “Hey baby, don’t you just love those alfalfa-sprout shakes?”, and the like. Next thing I knew, she got up, and apparently fixing her gaze on me, she made a beeline across the room in my direction. “Carpe diem, Alan”, I thought, remembering The Dead Poet’s Society. “Seize the fish!” Provocatively stabbing the sushi on my plate with my chopsticks, I prepared myself for our encounter. I watched her walk right up to my tableS then walk right past, ending up beside the middle-aged man who was sitting at the next table. She said nervously to him: “I just wanted to tell you how much I admire your work, what a great fan I am of yours.” I thought: “Whatever he’s got, I want”. Then I looked at him more closely and realized: what I want is to be Al Pacino. She never said a word to me, but never mind-I was sitting one table down from Serpico. Instant juice.
I work at Caltech, a science-heavy university in Pasadena. The other day Bill Clinton came to unveil his new science funding initiative. After his speech I shamelessly jostled through the thronging crowd to make my way to give him a power handshake and to say exactly five words to him (they concerned subtle foreign policy issues that I can’t get into here). A photographer was on hand to capture the moment, complete with the back of Clinton’s head, and me barely visible in the corner of the picture. Never mind: I will frame the picture and hang it on my wall, as if it was just another representative moment of the life I lead. Of course it wasn’t, and that’s just the point. Famous people don’t need other famous people to get their kudos; or if they do, it’s only still-more famous people who can give it to them.
I did my Ph.D. in Philosophy at Princeton University about ten years ago. Princeton seemed to attract celebrities the way Michael Jordan attracts shoe endorsement deals. Jimmy Stewart was an undergraduate there, though he achieved his fame without any help from me. I more narrowly missed overlapping with David Duchovny during his time there, though he too has apparently done reasonably well for himself nonetheless. Being an Australian, I was invited to various functions for foreign students. At one of them, I remember looking down a list of the students there, alphabetically ordered by surname. There I was, listed under ‘H’ as
A bit lower down the page, listed under ‘O’ was
Of Greece, Princess.
When you’re that famous, you don’t need a name.
(‘Prince-ton’-indeed.) But the celebrity everyone was talking about was Brooke Shields, and when she took a course in the philosophy department, a number of my fellow male post-graduate students selflessly volunteered to be her tutor. Philosophy makes one altruistic like that.
My own brush with fame was to come a little later. In 1991, I was a tutor for a course called ‘Time Travel”, a survey of some central topics in metaphysics. If you’ve ever needed to know – and let’s face it, who hasn’t? – whether you could have killed your grandfather before you were born, this was the course for you. Quite a few of the students in my class struck me as arrogant, spoilt rich kids. But at the end of the first class, a softly spoken guy called Lachlan came up to me and asked me if I was Australian. I told him that I was. He said that he had strong connections to Australia too. We went and had a coffee together, and got nostalgic about the land of kangaroos, Ayer’s Rock, meat pies, and Philip Morris. During the term we had a number of such conversations. Throughout them all, I had no idea who he was in real life-he was just a good bloke who happened to be in my tute, and who made a welcome cappuccino companion. One day he asked me whether I went back home often. I said I did, during each summer break. He told me that he’d be going back that summer. “My family has a place up in Yass. You should come up while I’m there.” I said thanks, that sounded good. It was a kind invitation. Nice guy, that Lachlan. But I never took him up on it.
The penny didn’t drop for me for at least three years-I bet it hasn’t taken nearly that long for you (clever reader that you are!). It didn’t even occur to me that Lachlan Murdoch was Lachlan Murdoch. He wasn’t a household name yet. It was soon afterwards that he graduated from Princeton and started to become a force in the Murdoch empire. And then one day I was reading an article about Lachlan Murdoch’s time in Princeton, and how he’d studied philosophy. I nearly keeled over; the penny dropped so loudly you could hear it at Hayman Island. Soon after that I saw him on Four Corners, interspliced with reminiscences about him from some of his old professors. (They never interviewed me, I note with some chagrin.)
As I recall, I gave him a good but unspectacular grade for the course. But corny though it sounds, I thought he was an A+ guy. In a class that had more than its share of practitioners of onanism, he was completely unassuming and unpretentious. Nothing about his manner gave away the fact that he was an heir to one of the greatest fortunes in the world. And in a way, I’m glad I never twigged at the time who he was. If I had known who Lachlan Murdoch really was, it would inevitably have been on my mind over cappuccino, or when grading his papers. (“Big L, just how much do you want that A? Are we talking six figures or seven?”) It was the very fact that he was, as far as I was concerned, just another guy in the class that meant that we could have the relaxed conversations that we did.
Of course, there’s another part of me that wants to time-travel back to shake my younger self: “Look, you idiot. He is going to be one of most powerful media moguls in the world! When he invites you to their ‘place up in Yass’, he’s talking about the fabled Cavan estate, the Hearst Castle of Australia! You can’t get more street-cred than that!” Perhaps I could even have chatted with Rupert about the meaning of life, and whether life has more meaning if you personally have more money than several third-world countries put together. But it wasn’t to be.
So when next you read of one of Lachlan’s attempts to buy a sporting competition, just think: This is the same man who once pondered with me whether you can change the past, or whether someone can be two places at one time, or whether it’s really YOU who steps out of the teleportation machine. Little wonder he’s doing so well, with such marketable life-skills. Yes, I guess I would change the past in one respect – if only it weren’t metaphysically impossible, as I once pointed out to Lachie. Getting even a blurry photo of me going down a water-slide at Cavan would have been just fine. (I assume that any self-respecting media mogul has one. Failing that, a photo of me with the Murdoch family assembled beside a really big lava lamp would do.) That being said, life as a quite un-famous philosopher, who can only claim a couple of fleeting moments with celebrities and one slightly more personal connection with one, is treating me rather well. But just in case Brooke Shields happens to read this: Brooke, if you need a refresher course on all of the philosophy that you’ve forgotten, just call me.
Editors Note: Alan Hajek’s parents emigrated to Australia from Czeckoslavakia after WW11. His father built the chairlift at Arthur’s Seat in Victoria. Alan attended Peninsular Grammar and Melbourne University before completing his PHD at Princeton. He is now tenured in the Philosophy department at Caltech. But most importantly, Big Al has accepted the exalted position as “Crikey philosopher at large” and will write periodically about philosophical matters. He always was a bright boy. As a four old he could recite the capital city of every country in the world. When his wide-eyed primary school principal asked Al what the capital of Mongolia was, he replied: “Inner or outer?”