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The oldest famous people

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Andrew Gelman raises the to me interesting question of who are the oldest famous people ever?

In thinking about this, I realized I had never considered the extent to which fame itself is a complex concept. For example, we have at least a couple of important variables to take into account:

(1) Cultural contingency. Someone can be immensely famous within a particular subculture but largely unknown to the broader public. A couple of examples that come to my mind are the historian Jacques Barzun, who lived to be 104 — I guess for a while he was a name that your typical New York Times reader might have sort of recognized — and the economist Ronald Coase, who died recently at 102.

Also too, I think it’s difficult to get a firm grasp on how much the fame of certain people is a function of the socio-economic background of the audience that makes them famous. Gelman suggests that the most famous really old person at the moment might be Henry Kissinger, but how famous is Kissinger in broader American culture at the moment? What percentage of Americans could identify him? This isn’t a rhetorical question: I really have no idea. I do suspect that the percentage of Americans who could identify Kim Kardashian is a lot higher, however. She’s an example of an intensely famous person who will be almost completely unknown in 50 years, probably, while a lot of people, relatively speaking, will still recognize Kissinger’s name then.. So this is all very complicated.

This is most obviously true from a cross-national perspective. The most famous person in Thailand is somebody I’ve no doubt never heard of. Etc. So we’re talking from an early 21st century American perspective here.

BTW on a side note I had the uncanny experience a couple of weeks ago of watching Ariana Grande play a character in Don’t Look Up who was based on what I had previously termed the Ariana Grande Theory of Politics, at a time when I didn’t really know who she was. That was weird.

(2) Peak fame versus career fame, to riff off Bill James’s old concept of peak versus career value for baseball players. Somebody can be sort of famous for an extremely long time, while somebody else can be much more famous than the former person for a short period, but then much less famous over the long run. For example, Lee Harvey Oswald might have been one of the five most famous people in the world for a few weeks in 1963. Today I bet the vast majority of Americans don’t know who he was.

The second point reminds me of how transitory almost all fame ultimately is. History shows again and again that the vast majority of the most famous people of any era are almost completely forgotten within a couple of generations.

So Gelman’s question involves trying to meld a couple of deeply incommensurable variables — age, which is extremely well defined, and fame, which is an inherently fuzzy and moving target — into a single metric.

But hey that’s what the Internet is for.

Some other considerations worth thinking about here:

(1) Annual mortality is extremely high in the 11th decade of life. In perusing lists of famous — or “famous” — centenarians, I was struck by how the overwhelming majority died before reaching the age of 105

(2) Historically speaking, men are quite a bit more likely to be famous than women, but women are much more likely to live to a really extreme old age than men. Based on current mortality rates, an American female baby is three times more likely to reach the age of 100 than a male baby (relative odds: 3% and 1% respectively) and six times more likely to reach the age of 110 (relative odds: 19 in 100,000 and 3 in 100,000). So these two factors are pushing against each other when considering the oldest famous people. (This is period life expectancy, rather than cohort life expectancy. Period life expectancy means, what would the life expectancy of people in a cohort be if age adjusted mortality rates stayed the same for the entire lifespan of the cohort. Cohort life expectancy is the actual life expectancy in the cohort. Historically cohort life expectancy has ended up being a lot longer than period life expectancy, because age adjusted mortality rates almost always fall over time, though the 21st century may manage to reverse that development eventually).

(3) Being famous for being old doesn’t count.

OK, here’s my personal list:

The person I’ve found — again, from the perspective of current American culture etc. — who has the highest sustained fame to extreme age ratio is probably Olivia de Havilland. She died recently at the age of 104. She was extremely famous for a couple of decades, and still sort of famous when she died.

Bob Hope lived to be 100 and was probably more famous than de Havilland, but he only lived to be 100, and there’s a gigantic difference between 100 and 104 in this analysis. See also George Burns. Kirk Douglas lived to be 103, and is a better candidate than either of those two, but I don’t think he was ever quite as famous as de Havilland, plus 103 is less than 104, at least according to Critical Race Theory.

Anyway, I really can’t identify a single famous person that I personally recognized who reached the age of 105, although I’m sure that’s not true for many of you (subculture point again). The other famous 104 year olds I recognized were Barzun and Beverly Cleary. But that’s it.

I hope you have fun with this.

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