There is that old canard that the older we get, the first thing we read in the newspaper is the obituary page.
Thankfully, I don’t get a newspaper out here, so reading the obits is not a daily obsession. Nevertheless, I am fascinated whenever someone—in this case The New York Times—does a roundup article of the famous who have died in the past year (and who I will never have a chance of meeting, as unlikely a prospect that ever was).
Clockwise from top left: Anita Ekberg in “La Dolce Vita,” the 1960 film; Gov. Mario M. Cuomo on the campaign trail in 1994; B.B. King in 1972; Yogi Berra in 1956; and E.L. Doctorow in New York City in 1989.
In 2015 Obituaries, a Portrait of Eras Grim and Innocent
By William McDonald, The New York Times
December 29, 2015
Mary Keefe, to her great surprise, became an emblem of the American home front in World War II. A 19-year-old telephone operator in rural Vermont, she was the wholesome model for Norman Rockwell’s painting “Rosie the Riveter,” a can-do figure who rallied American women to show their patriotism not by taking up arms but by making them, in factories, for the fighting men overseas.
Guy Carawan gave a movement its anthem. A white singer and folklorist, he lifted an old hymn out of the dusty archives of American song and introduced it to a generation of civil rights activists, who seized on it and sang it out, arm in arm, as “We Shall Overcome.”
Frances Kroll Ring, the last personal secretary to F. Scott Fitzgerald, was surely the last surviving direct link to a distant, lyrical chapter in American literature. Having typed his drafts and paid his bills and cooked his meals until the bottle destroyed him, she wrapped up her service by making his funeral arrangements, then outlived him by 75 years.
All three died in 2015, but they had something else in common: Though their names may have rung few bells, their lives, when chronicled in the obituary columns, had the pungent effect of evoking eras long concluded. They were unwitting agents of a kind, briefly connecting the present with the past.
Another was Thomas R. Shepard Jr., the last publisher of Look, whose death conjured up the glossy heyday of big general-interest pictorial magazines.
There was Ruth Feldman, a precocious Quiz Kid a lifetime ago who in death embodied not just a game show but also the end of the radio age and television’s first, flickering moments.
And there was Irving Kahn, 109, who took us back to the last roar of the ’20s. A Wall Street survivor, he made his first stock trade in June 1929, then turned a neat profit four months later when almost everyone else had lost it all in the crash.
Some names harked back to the grimmest of times. A surpassingly modest Briton, Nicholas Winton, rescued 669 children from the Nazis and for half a century felt no reason to mention it to anyone. Wan Li, a reformist Communist Party leader, helped put an end to the widespread poverty and starvation of Mao Zedong’s brutally inefficient collective farming. Sir Robert Ford was the general in charge in 1972 when British paratroopers in the predominantly Protestant city of Londonderry, Northern Ireland, shot 13 unarmed Catholic protesters on Bloody Sunday.
Others reeled us back to the more innocent-seeming years of postwar America. There was the inventor Don Featherstone, whose pink plastic flamingo landed and planted its spindly plastic legs on lawns across suburbia, even in the tropics of Maine. And there was Jack Ely: If you’re old enough to recall “Louie, Louie,” a hit by the Kingsmen in 1963, then that rasping voice lodged in your mind’s ear was his.
The more recognizable names and faces in the obit columns could, of course, forge instant associations: Helmut Schmidt, West German’s Cold War struggles of the 1970s; King Abdullah, the mixture of oil riches and Islamic rule in Saudi Arabia; Lee Kuan Yew, the explosive rise of Singapore.
The same was true with American politicians. His ringing “city on a hill” oration in San Francisco came to mind the day Mario M. Cuomo died, and so did his agonized decision, played out in public, to stay put in Albany, his presidential dalliances, like the planes waiting for him on the tarmac, finally going nowhere.
With Edward Brooke, it was his Massachusetts victory that shattered a race barrier in the Senate; with the House speaker Jim Wright, having exhausted his well-used arsenal of procedural maneuvers, it was his resignation under an ethical cloud; with Fred Thompson, it was his grilling witnesses in the Watergate hearings, falling out of a presidential race and, by the way, starring in “Law & Order.”
Bess Myerson’s death almost passed unnoticed, but when it came to light, there she was again, Miss America, a television host, an able player in New York City politics, and a shamed defendant in a ruinous bribery trial.
When actors died, we pictured not just their faces but their most indelible scenes: Omar Sharif in the torrid desert (“Lawrence of Arabia”) and the Russian snow (“Dr. Zhivago”); Anita Ekberg, in a strapless gown, wading into the Trevi Fountain in “La Dolce Vita”; Rod Taylor fleeing an aerial assault in “The Birds”; Christopher Lee, fomenting wizardly terror atop a mile-high tower in “Lord of the Rings”; Maureen O’Hara sparring with a department store Santa Claus in “Miracle on 34th Street”; a goofy Dean Jones at the wheel in “The Love Bug”; the femme fatale Lizabeth Scott beguiling Bogart in “Dead Reckoning.”
Leonard Nimoy could be imagined as no one but Mr. Spock; Patrick Macnee as secret agent Steed in “The Avengers”; Donna Douglas as that Beverly Hillbilly Elly May; Jack Larson as Jimmy Olsen of The Daily Planet; Dick Van Patten as a harried dad (“Eight Is Enough”); Al Molinaro as a harried diner owner (“Happy Days”); Judy Carne as the sock-it-to-me girl (“Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In”); Martin Milner, in a split screen, as a police officer (“Adam-12”) and a bachelor road warrior (“Route 66”); Joe Franklin as, well, Joe Franklin.
And in Japan, where she was acclaimed and beloved, Setsuko Hara brought to mind not just the conflicted women she played in classic films there but also a puzzling void: Her fans had virtually not seen or heard from her for 54 years. For them, hers was a second death.
The deaths of filmmakers and playwrights had us see again what they saw: the lush landscape and emotional contours of Manoel de Oliveira’s Portugal; the nightmare that was Wes Craven’s Freddy Krueger; Brian Friel’s fictional village of Ballybeg, a spiritual barometer of Ireland, if not the world, contained on a stage; the documentarian Albert Maysles’s dark moments with the Rolling Stones and strange ones with a mother and daughter living alone in decayed splendor.
Writers, too, were remembered for their legacies: E.L. Doctorow’s kaleidoscope of characters drawn from history—Billy Bathgate, Coalhouse Walker, a reimagined William Tecumseh Sherman; Oliver Sacks’s cast of puzzling psychological case studies, not least the man who mistook his wife for a hat; Colleen McCullough’s lovelorn Meggie and Father Ralph from her megaseller “The Thorn Birds” (inevitably linked in memory to Rachel Ward and Richard Chamberlain from the megaseries); Günter Grass’s Oskar Matzerath, the curious boy who refused to become a man as he banged his tin drum and shattered glass with his cries in a morally stunted postwar Europe. (Mr. Grass himself could not be recalled without an image of the swastika emerging from his long-hidden past in the SS.)
More sparely wrought words came back to us when the poets died: Philip Levine’s evocations of the factory floor in his odes to Detroit; Rod McKuen’s new-age musings on love and loss, some in the songs he sang as a coffeehouse performer; C.K. Williams’s cries of anger and anguish over Vietnam and the four dead in Ohio, at Kent State (“fresh meat right mr nixon?”)
Playing Fields and Battlefields
Sports figures made glory years, big games and pivotal plays instantly retrievable from the still-vivid memories of fans. To think of Garo Yepremian, the standout Miami Dolphin kicker, was to remember his comically painful Super Bowl “pass”; the Philadelphia Eagle Chuck Bednarik, his ferocious tackle that put Frank Gifford on a stretcher and out of action for a year; the Knick Anthony Mason, his wars in the paint at Patrick Ewing’s Garden; the quarterback Ken Stabler, his wily improvisations with the bad-boy Raiders of the ’70s; Billy Casper, his nine-hole charge at the ’66 US Open, finally overtaking Arnold Palmer, the one who had always overshadowed him.
Ernie Banks, Mr. Cub, took us back to Wrigley Field, where even another losing season could not dampen his joy for the game. Yogi Berra, slugging dozens of homers and coining one-of-a-kind home truths, had us at the old Yankee Stadium again, where another World Series title was almost as predictable as spring training. We could see Gifford himself in two places—at the same Yankee Stadium, when it became a chillier, muddier arena in the fall, he in the role of the football Giants’ Sunday matinee idol; and later in the broadcast booth, playing straight man to the Monday night quarterback Dandy Don Meredith.
We could recall Dean Smith cutting down the net to crown another basketball championship season by his North Carolina Tar Heels; the mountainlike Moses Malone clearing the boards for the 76ers and the Rockets and triggering a fast break; the showmen Marques Haynes and Meadowlark Lemon making Globetrotter fans roar with delight and gasp in amazement at comic antics rooted in dazzling basketball skill. And in the ESPN studio, there was Stuart Scott, matching athletes in exuberance with a style of sports commentary he likened to hip-hop.
On other fronts in broadcast journalism, the intrepid war reporting of Bob Simon of CBS and Marlene Sanders of ABC resonated from afar—not unlike the impassioned printed words of their news-gathering cousins David Carr, with his must-read takes on the media business in The New York Times, and Claude Sitton, with his history-turning dispatches, also for The Times, from the Jim Crow South.
In music the connection was more aural than visual, of course. Percy Sledge and Ben E. King passed from the scene to the beat of rhythm and blues, Ornette Coleman and Phil Woods to the wails and honks of saxophones.
But musicians were not faceless to us. Though you may have heard Lesley Gore singing “It’s My Party” again, you probably pictured her ’60s hairdo as well, a kind of helmet with flips. In hearing B.B. King’s thrilling guitar again, you may have also imagined him clutching it, his curvaceous companion Lucille. And in remembering Jon Vickers, audiences recalled not just his powerful voice but also its physical manifestation on the opera stage. So, too, with Kurt Masur, the burly, bearded Teuton who could uplift the house when he made the New York Philharmonic soar.
Ellsworth Kelly’s late-December death summoned images of blinding color and geometric purity, paintings and sculpture that compelled the postwar world to see art afresh. The photographer Mary Ellen Mark came back to us through her arresting portraits of misfits on the margins of society, or of ordinary people, swallowed up in its great, gray middle, noticed only by her.
Architecture enthusiasts may have remembered Michael Graves for his Humana headquarters in Louisville, Ky., a granite-and-glass pile of postmodernism. But houseware consumers more likely recalled the pepper mills and tea kettles and other products of that fertile designer’s mind arrayed on the shelves at Target, Steuben and Disney stores.
Executives and entrepreneurs were recognizable for their brand names: Chuck Williams, Williams-Sonoma; Jean Nidetch, Weight Watchers; Satoru Iwata, Nintendo; Fred DeLuca, Subway; Thomas G. Stemberg, Staples; A. Alfred Taubman, Sotheby’s; and, not to forget, Gary Dahl, Pet Rocks.
The deaths of a handful of women with familiar names had the unavoidable effect of reminding us of men—those who had taken up so much room in their otherwise fruitful lives: Cynthia Lennon, Gail Zappa, Adele Mailer and Sarah Brady, who carried on her wounded husband’s fight for gun control.
The Debt to Science
Scientists made us thank them for what we have. We watch movies on DVDs and withdraw cash with plastic in part because of Charles H. Townes’s role in the development of the laser. Gene Amdahl referred us to our mainframe computers, Joseph Lechleider to our high-speed Internet service. And though for most people John Nash evoked the book and film “A Beautiful Mind,” economic theorists see his mathematical genius still shaping our understanding of an imperfect human world.
And then there were the medical pioneers. Carl Djerassi’s lasting impact could be seen in the birth control pill; Elisabeth Bing’s in widely accepted methods of natural childbirth; Howard W. Jones Jr.’s in the success of in vitro fertilization in the United States; Jean Lindenmann’s in the effectiveness of interferon in treating hepatitis C, multiple sclerosis and other maladies; Frederick P. Li’s in cancer research, where building blocks toward a cure have been made out of the links he discovered between cancer and genes.
Which brings us to Dr. Frances Oldham Kelsey. If there is a singular member of this roster—one whose window on the past had us reflecting as much on the present—it would be her.
A former family doctor in South Dakota, Dr. Kelsey was working as a medical officer for the Food and Drug Administration in 1960 when she refused to rubber-stamp a drug being sold to pregnant women in Europe for morning sickness. She had seen data about its safety that troubled her. The drug’s manufacturer, incensed that a midlevel bureaucrat could stand in its way, complained to her bosses. She persisted in what became a war of wills.
Within a year it became clear that the drug—known generically as thalidomide—was a horror: Thousands of babies around the world had been born with bodily defects, typically flipperlike arms and legs. But thanks to Dr. Kelsey, potentially thousands more had been spared that fate in the United States. Heeding her alarm, the F.D.A. banned the drug, and she was hailed as a hero.
Dr. Kelsey died at 101, leaving a double legacy. One was what happened after her victory: the passage of laws that strengthened protections against dangerous drugs. The other was what did not happen: an American medical catastrophe. The laws remain on the books, and an untold number of children who were born unharmed, and who grew into men and women, live among us, in health, today.
William McDonald is the obituaries editor of The New York Times.
Where talented people are concerned, I find it extremely difficult to turn the page on the past. Inevitably, we look to their sons and daughters to perpetuate what we most loved about their departed parents.
This photo appeared yesterday on Facebook, and I found it somehow appropriate for this post: the sons of the Fab Four.
Since Mr. McDonald wrote this piece, Natalie Cole also died. Her musical legacy cannot be forgotten.
I honor her and her father with this song.
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