Reality television is big business in our society, evidenced by the likes of Paris Hilton and the Kardashian family, whose claims to fame are simply built on being famous.
A century ago, the coal region had its own personality who parlayed a well-promoted spending trip to New York City into a book and a national speaking tour. A New York Times writer once called Jay Jay McDevitt, a self-proclaimed humorist-philosopher from Wilkes-Barre, "the valiant hero of vainglory."
At 5-11 and weighing 170 pounds, sporting "high grade clothes," McDevitt was a striking public figure.
"I could make a hit with the fair sex if I so desired," he once boasted. "I also know that I take good care of myself, regardless of what comes or goes; I am modest and don't care to speak of my good qualities, and only do so herewith because they invariably have been overlooked in the past."
McDevitt didn't lack self-confidence. After one writer once asked him about his top three picks for greatest men of the century, he stopped after naming Mark Twain and Tolstoy. He said he didn't want his third pick "to become personal."
His claim to lasting fame was the book titled "Millionaire for a Day," a personal account of his free-wheeling trip to the Big Apple.
After that excursion a Tamaqua Courier writer referred to him as "almost world-famous." The writer also said that McDevitt had once boarded at the Mansion House on Centre Street in Tamaqua.
"Just what he was doing then, no one seems to know," the writer said. Still, he said that most people in town knew that "somebody important' was staying in town.
McDevitt was born in 1876 and because the coal mines were idled by a strike at the time of his birth he remained nameless through his first summer until his christening.
In his personal memoir, McDevitt relates how his father told him he was wheeled to Hazleton in a wheelbarrow for his christening since there were no baby carriages. A bright boy, McDevitt began school before his fifth birthday.
Like most boys, he began working in the mines at age 10, earning $8 a month for his 11-hour days (7 a.m. to 6 p.m.) spent in a coal breaker.
Since his father was the only one in the locale who could write a letter, it was always a matter of debate as to who was the smartest person in town – his dad or the local priest.
Like all mining families, McDevitt's family enjoyed few luxuries. He recalled being 12 before he saw his first banana and 14 before he tasted one.
McDevitt also recalled using the first dollar he earned to purchase 10 raisin pies. He considered this a luxury item since the family had it only once a week – on Sunday morning. Consequently, he dreamed of one day being able to afford all the raisin pies he wanted, as well as other luxury foods, such as store-bought cakes and dried herring.
After the 10-pie binge, however, he lost his craving for that flavor and never again ordered raisin pie from a menu.
McDevitt also recalled the importance of the town's Hibernian parade on March 17, a time when every Irish miner was obliged to get out and walk. His father once stressed the importance of that occasion, stating, "If they didn't walk on that day, they couldn't walk for months after."
On Jan. 12, 1912, accompanied by a troupe of newsmen and photographers, McDevitt embarked on his self-publicized "millionaire for a day" trek to New York City. The idea was to "have one big day of it" – spending money freely – and then returning home to chronicle and speak about the experience.
"I was indeed a novelty, and privacy for the next 24 hours was out of the question," he wrote of the whirlwind tour.
McDevitt was most impressed to see how free men were with their money. He said he never ran out of invitations "to have something to eat and drink."
"The fact is that when not engaged in the business world, the New Yorker feels that he must spend his time and money in going about eating, drinking and now and then taking in a show of some kind," he observed. "They are not an overly-critical lot and I find that it does not require much to amuse them, just as long as your act is not of the circus class."
Overall, however, his commentary about the typical New Yorker was not that glowing.
"The typical New Yorker is rather slow or dull from an intellectual point of view," he stated.
That analysis did not endear him to the city's newspaper fraternity, especially the New York Times writer who dubbed him "the valiant hero of vainglory."
The wealthy income class also took some sharp criticism from McDevitt.
"The mind of the philosopher bears no malice toward the wealthy class, only pity, and as for me, I am really sorry for the perpetual millionaires. They are a sad lot, a make believe class, garbed with a cloak of artifice and an assumed smile of happiness," he stated.
After his return to Wilkes-Barre – "having disposed of his own money and some of his friends" – McDevitt was much in demand as a speaker.
Cognizant of maintaining his stylish image, he summarized his 24-hour spending spree in New York by stating: "I spend my money with an air of a fellow who doesn't care; this counts and since we must spend, do it artistically."
Next: Cashing in on fame