The folks over at TIME magazine are all buzzing over their year-end tradition: the selection of the famed “Person of the Year.” They assembled an all-star cast to make their proposals and defend their nominee. Brian Williams, Emilio Estavan and Adrianna Huffington were invited to the offices of TIME. Their lively conversation was recorded.
The predictable names came up – George W. Bush (the President is almost always a front runner), Al Gore (for his Nobel Prize winning efforts to broaden global awareness of an inconvenient crisis) and Iran’s President Mahmud Ahmadinejad (the nominee is not necessarily recognized for a positive contribution) among others. And then both Williams and Huffington proposed persons who are not persons at all.
Williams proposed that TIME’s Person of the Year be “You.” Huffington, a bright, accomplished woman who makes an attempt, at least, to be rational, made an even more daring suggestion. Her Person of the Year? “Reality.” That’s right. Reality.
Williams made his defense in a nearly sermonic tone. We are, as a society, preoccupied with You, he said. We aim our marketing at You. Self-help is a cottage industry. This laser beam focus on the immediate gratification of You is killing us, he added. Something must be done. So let’s call “You” Person of the Year.
Huffington went a step farther – “Reality” should be Person of the Year, she said, because Reality always trumps fiction. The fabricated, popularized version of the truth so often embraced will forever be exposed as the perpetrated fraud it is; and Reality wins out. There you have it – “Reality” – Person of the Year.
Ever since TIME copped out on naming a real live human being (up until 1999 it was “Man” of the Year), the whole notion of what it means to be human, much less a “great” human, has been up for grabs. In 1982, TIME named the Computer as “Man of the Year.” When Henry R. Luce died in 1967, something of the hard nosed common sense died with him. What would he think if he listened in on this post-modern, new millennium, de-gendered discussion of his cherished “Man of the Year”?
So it was that Ms. Huffington raised the question of reality, elevating it to the status of personhood. It conjures up to our memories that biblical moment when Pilate pondered the fate of the accused Rabbi who stood before him. “What is truth?” he asked. Hypothetically. So, Adrianna, what is reality?
Walter Scott was born in Kentucky in 1872. Adventure drew him west. Outgoing, flamboyant, he honed his skills as a promoter traveling with the Buffalo Bill (Cody) traveling wild-west show. But the prospect of discovering gold pulled his attention away from the corral and grandstands and on up into the hills. Turn-of-the-century wealth wet the appetite of investors to chase after the dream; and Scotty was there to help. He convinced one investor, and then others to fund his chase in the bluffs over-looking Death Valley on the hunt for the mother lode.
Investors wrote checks. But Scotty just couldn’t help himself. Discipline was never his strong suit. The money went for other things – like week-long parties in San Francisco, dazzling apparel and extravagant cuisine. Appearances and Wild West excess and aw-shucks stories won him more investors. Scotty was on the road to legendary status.
Albert M. Johnson, a Chicago Insurance magnate, became the only real gold-mine Scotty needed. As the money poured in, Scotty convinced Johnson to set up camp just down-stream from the most productive natural spring in the entire Death Valley region. Convinced that the gold in those hills was plentiful, Johnson continued to pay all the bills Scotty submitted; and then some. When Johnson made his first long trip from Chicago to Death Valley, it was love at first site. Johnson convinced his wife – they would build a winter home in the hide-away oasis hidden above the valley floor.
And what a home it was. The twenties were roaring back in the Windy City and Johnson’s insurance company exploded. Johnson poured two million dollars into the project (imagine the value today) and the result was a collection of towers and adobe structures with desert charm – gardens and palm groves and green lawns surrounded the “Castle.” Albert’s wife Bessie came to visit; her aches and pains went away in the dry desert air. They moved a theater organ into the great room and arranged evening concerts for their guests. They filled the rooms with exquisite treasures from all over the world.
Scotty convinced the world that the magnificent property was his. All of Death Valley and California believed the money to build came from a secret gold mine in the hills above the spring. But there was no mine. There was no gold.
The house introduced hundreds, maybe thousands of guests to the wonders of the desert. They were entertained by fine cuisine, surrounded by art and music and books. They would wander through the gardens and in the afternoon hear a Bible lesson from the indefatigable Bessie Johnson. At night, they would listen as Scotty spun his yarns – with stories of bandits and gold and heat-stroke and mirages and critters and the days when Buffalo Bill Custer ruled the west.
To this day, historians, visitors, Park Rangers – all speculate. Did Johnson know that Scotty was a fake? If he did, when did he figure it out? Scotty was a world-class fraud. But Johnson never complained.
He kept the secret. In 1947, when Albert Johnson the insurance magnate died, the secret went into his grave with him.
Scotty’s Castle, as it is called to this day, stands as a monument to the mystery.
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It’s Monday morning. You are a leader. If you are like me, it bothers you when TIME side-steps the challenge and names something other than a person as “Person of the Year.” It’s a worthy goal, I think, to identify someone who has made an indelible mark on world events. Give us a name. Give us a human being.
Toward the end of his life, as speculation grew over the truthfulness of Scotty’s extravagant claims, Johnson was asked point blank, “Is Scotty indebted to you?”
Johnson smiled and replied, “No. Not at all.”
Then a pause.
“Whatever he may have owed me, he’s more than repaid in the currency of laughter.”
Copyright Kenneth E Kemp, December 2007