Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Six degrees of Tab Hunter

Yesterday I got around to reading the autobiography, Tab Hunter: Confidential. And while reading it I ran into the phenomenon of six degrees of separation—the idea that any two people on earth are at most separated by other people. Basically it assumes that A will know B who may know C and with six steps or less you will be in touch with the target person.

Consider this example to illustrate the point: my target individual is the novelist Vladimir Nabokov (one can play this with people living or dead). I can immediately think of a relatively short chain of acquaintances between myself and Nabokov. There are several people I know fairly well who were close friends with novelist Ayn Rand. Rand, like Nabokov was from St. Petersburg, Russia. And Rand was friends with Olga Nabokov, Vladimir's sister. Of course, given that Rand would have visited Olga it is possible she also meet Vladimir. At most this is four degrees of separation perhaps just three.

And this is what I noticed in the Tab Hunter autobiography, these sorts of links where I knew I could figure out the degrees of separation between myself and Hunter.

I was friends with a brillant young man, John, whose political views I shared. John was a Los Angeles resident and had a fling with Anthony Perkins, of Psycho fame. And Perkins was romantically involved with Hunter for years. Three degrees of separation.

I could go at this another way: when I lived in San Francisco I was acquanted with Terry Anderson, Terry's partner was the novelist Armistead Maupin and they lived around the corner from me. Terry also co-wrote the screenplay for Maupin's novel The Nightlistener, which is a bizarre story in and of itself. I know that Maupin was acquanted with Rock Hudson, but never asked Terry if he was, but I assume that was the case. And Hudson knew Hunter and they lived on the same street in Los Angeles. Through this route there is at worst four degrees of separation, perhaps just three. I don't know how well one must know the first acquantance for it to count. While I spoke to Terry on numerous occassions I only had one conversation with Maupin. If that counts I can go to Maupin, to Hudson, to Hunter.

Yet a third such chain of connections became apparent to me while reading the book. I had something of a fling with a friend from Holland, A.B. A.B. was in university in Los Angeles and ended up working as a personal assistant to George Maharis, of Route 66 fame. Maharis knew Hunter.

So, I began to play this game with various names and found connections quite easily. But then I asked myself whether this means very much and concluded it doesn't. The reason it doesn't is that the tendency people have is to use celebrities as the main name. We know quite a bit about their lives making it relatively easy to find the connections in one way or another. The hard part is finding links to completely unkown people.

I could pick almost any well known political figure and just a few degrees of separation. I know numerous people who knew Reagan or know Thatcher, through that link I can connect to almost any politician in the world.

But would this work the same with someone who, for instance, may be a baker in some small village in Nepal? I have my doubts.

When we play the six degrees of separation game we have a natural tendency to play it with well-known figures in mind: such as the six degrees of Kevin Bacon, or in this case, six degrees of Tab Hunter. No one couild possibly play the game with a total unknown in mind. So the game is skewed to confirm its thesis.

One of the more interesting twists on the game was one that appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's Presents, the third season, 1958. Hitchcock weaves the tail of a crime buff, Tommy Greer who is convinced that a completely random murder can't be solved by the police. With sufficient degrees of separation, between killer and victim, it is assumed the killer can't be located. With a bet at stake a name is randomly picked from the phone book and a victim located. Of course the killer is horrified to discover that nothing is that simply in the universerse of Alfred Hitchcock. If you are interested in this clever story, I have it embedded below.