"He was the Tiger Woods of his time..."
April 23, 2013 5:34 PM   Subscribe

What are some examples of people who were incredibly famous in their day but are virtually unknown today?

I'm looking for people who would have been household names at the time. Not one-hit wonders or has-beens who a had few successful efforts and then faded from the spotlight, but those who were considered true greats of their field by their peers.

Folks whose accomplishments were acknowledged in their day but ignored by history (ie. the opposite of Vincent Van Gogh).
posted by hamsterdam to Society & Culture (37 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
Bill Bonthron doesn't even have a Wikipedia entry:
Bill Bonthron was so beloved for lifting American spirits in the 1930s Great Depression that one popular version of Cole Porter's song "You're the Top" had the lines, "You're the top! You're a Roosevelt smile. You're the top! You're a Bonthron mile." He first topped Ironman Glenn Cunningham, Gene Venzke and the rest of that vintage era of the American mile with a world record 1500m, 3:48.8, in 1934.
posted by djb at 5:44 PM on April 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

The only thing I can think of right now is the fictional character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. He was pretty big back in the 20s, but Disney lost the rights to the character until a few years ago. He has had a little bit of a resurrection in the video game, Epic Mickey.
posted by FJT at 5:48 PM on April 23, 2013

Alexander Woollcott was a huge media star in his day. He was best friends with Harpo Marx, who talks about him extensively in his autobiography.

Rose Wilder Lane, the daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder, was the highest paid female magazine writer of her time (back when magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post were in their golden age, before the advent of television) and was way more famous than her mother for most of their lives.
posted by Melismata at 5:48 PM on April 23, 2013 [6 favorites]

Eva Tanguay, one of the biggest stars of vaudeville, was as big as they got back in 1901.
posted by briank at 5:52 PM on April 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Gorgeous George.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 5:55 PM on April 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Joe Penner.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 6:00 PM on April 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

I am assuming from your post title that you are referring to Calvin Peete.

[I caddied in the same foursome as him during a Canadian Open Pro-Am. He had just come off several wins. Spectacular golfer - completely ignored by the (all white) members at the club I worked at who all followed Fuzzy Zoeller, who hadn't won anything in ages, instead. Also his caddy wore no shoes and walked directly across the Credit River rather than taking the foot bridge and it was the first time I ever drove anything (a golf cart at the end of the round).]
posted by srboisvert at 6:03 PM on April 23, 2013 [3 favorites]

Fred Allen is probably an even better example for your purposes. In his time he was one of the best known and most popular radio comedians in the country.

But these days hardly anyone knows who he is, despite being responsible for such quips as, "I'd rather have a free bottle in front of me than a prefrontal lobotomy."
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 6:06 PM on April 23, 2013 [3 favorites]

I wouldn't say that he's been entirely forgotten, but you don't hear "Who do you think you are--Barney Oldfield?" too much anymore.
posted by hydrophonic at 6:10 PM on April 23, 2013

Gaby Deslys was the Madonna of her day, and kept her day up for years.

Wilson Mizner has always been a favorite scoundrel of mine.

(BTW, the variant "I'd rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy" is attributed to a bunch of people, including W.C.Fields, Dorothy Parker, Steve Allen, and Dean Martin. Also Tom Waits.)
posted by BWA at 6:25 PM on April 23, 2013

Edwin Booth, considered one of the finest American actors of his time, now mostly known as John Wilkes Booth's older brother.
posted by bettafish at 6:31 PM on April 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

This might not be as obscure as you'd like, but I was always mystified as a kid that the original Trivial Pursuit had so many questions about this Herman Wouk guy.

There are a million authors like this, but my favorite is James Branch Cabell, who was the focus of a famous obscenity trial but who seems to be forgotten today. Which is too bad, because he's brilliant.
posted by selfnoise at 6:35 PM on April 23, 2013

Marie Prevost. She made 121 films in the silent film era. (Although Nick Lowe did write a song about her)
posted by SisterHavana at 6:46 PM on April 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Hoagy Carmichael. I only know who he is because Ian Fleming described James Bond as looking like him.
posted by tomboko at 6:50 PM on April 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

Edward Everett was a well-known orator and politician in the first half of the nineteenth century. Orators were really popular in the nineteenth century, kind of a combination of public intellectuals and entertainers. Good oration was highly prized. Everett's known now mostly for speaking (for two hours) before Lincoln at Gettysburg.

William Jennings Bryan was a turn-of-the-century politician who ran for President three times. He's mostly known now as the guy who argued for creationism in the Scopes monkey trial, but he was a prominent national politician. He would have been sort of like, hmmm, John Kerry or John McCain, maybe- he wasn't ever President, but he prominently influenced the national political conversation, and you had probably heard of him even if you didn't know much about his positions.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 7:21 PM on April 23, 2013

Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle was one of the best known silent film stars of his day and had a dramatic fall from grace that eclipsed anything Tiger Woods has done. In a modern light, it is very likely Arbuckle was wholly or mostly innocent but since sex and death were involved in the scandal, he was vilified, his career came to a halt and he died in relative obscurity and remains so to this day for the most part.
posted by kuppajava at 8:00 PM on April 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

Lone Star Swing is a Scotsman's account of going to Texas in the late 1990s to learn more about Bob Wills, a composer and performer of western swing music. IIRC, the author is astonished that somebody as hugely popular as Wills was in his day (at least in the American South) becomes all but forgotten. A really fun read, too, with its guy-from-Scotland-trying-to-grok-West-Texas angle and all.
posted by Rykey at 8:13 PM on April 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Franz Liszt was basically the world's first Attractive Male Musician to Flip Out Over - think Justin Bieber or Timberlake... in the 1800s.
posted by Tomorrowful at 8:21 PM on April 23, 2013

Edward Payson Weston was apparently the most famous athlete of his day, so, very comparable to Tiger Woods.
posted by Jon Mitchell at 8:24 PM on April 23, 2013

Might I suggest the Memory Palace podcast. It is chock full of stories of people who were super famous for their time but now have mostly been forgotten.
posted by mmascolino at 8:35 PM on April 23, 2013 [3 favorites]

Major Taylor was more renowned in Europe and America than Lance Armstrong has been lately, without the notoriety.
Hopefully, in decade or so, Lance himself will be in this category, and Major Taylor will be better remembered.
posted by TDIpod at 9:22 PM on April 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

The Biograph Girl, Florence Lawrence, considered by many to be the first movie star.
posted by marsha56 at 11:24 PM on April 23, 2013

I know of Bix Beiderbecke only because he's a local boy from my hometown. Even there, I think most people think of him as "the guy the race is named after" and don't really know much about him except that he was an early jazz musician. He was someone musically influential in his day (1920s), but it was especially his tragic and untimely death at the age of 28 that fueled a sort of iconic status in the popular imagination the 1940s-60s that I think has largely disappeared from common knowledge today.
posted by drlith at 3:50 AM on April 24, 2013

I always think of something along these lines when we go to the Hollywood Brown Derby restaurant at Disney World.

Walls covered with replicas of the caricatures (hundreds if not thousands) from the original Brown Derby and I only recognize less than a handful of them.
posted by dforemsky at 6:23 AM on April 24, 2013

Robert Green Ingersoll, the Great Agnostic, was the most well known orator in America at the end of the 19th century bringing in standing room only crowds on the speaking circuit. Today he's known among many in the atheist community but has little to no wider public recognition.
posted by audi alteram partem at 7:04 AM on April 24, 2013

Walter Lippmann.
posted by StephenF at 7:10 AM on April 24, 2013

John Bunny was the first huge (not just in size) worldwide silent film comedian until his sudden death in 1915.
posted by Devoidoid at 7:23 AM on April 24, 2013

You know what's weird? That the names of a great many of the winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature are not generall recognized today. Check out the list. How many have you heard of?

I can't claim this as an original observation. It's one of the many things that stuck out to me from Nassim Nicholas Taleb's book The Black Swan.
posted by Dr. Wu at 7:34 AM on April 24, 2013

There's a pretty good book covering some of these called Banvard's Folly
posted by cosmicbandito at 7:44 AM on April 24, 2013

Samuel Smiles?

By the time of Smiles' death in 1904 it had sold over a quarter of a million. Self-Help "elevated [Smiles] to celebrity status: almost overnight, he became a leading pundit and much-consulted guru". Smiles "suddenly became the fashion and he was deluged with requests that he should lay foundation stones, sit for his portrait, present prizes to orphan children, make speeches from platforms... George Bernard Shaw, in his Fabian Essays in Socialism (1889), called Smiles "that modern Plutarch".
posted by kmennie at 7:46 AM on April 24, 2013

Booth Tarkington "was an American novelist and dramatist best known for his novels The Magnificent Ambersons and Alice Adams. He is one of only three novelists (the others being William Faulkner and John Updike) to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction more than once."
My repeated listenings to episodes of the Best Show on WFMU pays off again.
posted by mean square error at 9:35 AM on April 24, 2013

Being a product of the 70s, I'd say Evel Knievel. He was a household name only 30 years ago.
posted by JoeZydeco at 10:47 AM on April 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

How about Tom Mix? He was the King of the Cowboys in the era of silent films, even made some 'talkies' but most of his movies were made with that nitrate film-stock that self-destructs over time.
posted by Rash at 12:03 PM on April 24, 2013

Seconding Banvard's Folly as a good place to jump in if you're interested in this sorta thing.
posted by dogwalker at 12:15 PM on April 24, 2013

Robert Smith Surtees won a half century of fame for a series of comic novels about a "cockney sportsman" named Jorrocks. Certain bits of The Pickwick Papers make more sense once you realize that it began as young Dickens' attempt to cash in on a public craze for sporting cockneys.
posted by Iridic at 1:06 PM on April 24, 2013

Jesse Livermore?
posted by JohnnyGunn at 6:16 PM on April 24, 2013

I was just reading that Julian Eltinge, a female impersonator, was HUGE in about 1920. I had never heard of him before.
posted by cda at 7:16 PM on May 2, 2013

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