On Those We've Lost This Year
When famous people—or infamous, or near-famous, or almost forgotten-people die, they make you remember. You remember headlines, movies, songs you danced to, games you watched. They remind you of the life you’ve lived. If you’re fortunate enough to work in the media, it gets more personal than that: you remember meetings across a table, in a hotel room, voices over the phone.
Just by way of example, I had the chance to talk with the lovely British actress Jean Simmons, small, dark-haired and demure, in San Francisco when she appeared in a road company of “A Little Night Music” decades ago. She was diminutive, still lovely, with a classic British accent that made you almost feel compelled to kiss her hand, which she had offered. You shook it lightly instead.
Simmons, a quite gifted actress, (see “Elmer Gantry”) was known for her heroine roles in blockbusters like “The Egyptians” and “The Robe,” and as the woman loved by “Spartacus.” Those things you remember too.
We remember in Georgetown, like a hundred other reporters, staking out the home of John and Elizabeth Edwards after he was picked to be Senator John Kerry’s running mate—a fleeing glimpse, children in tow, heading toward a black limousine down a cobbled street.
So it goes. (Kurt Vonnegut’s line always sits well on the obituary, and it worked for him two years ago or so.)
In Washington, the whole community and the mourned the death of Dr. Dorothy Height, at the grand fine age of 98. Height, the president of the National Society of Negro Women, was a front-line civil rights activist in the years of strife and turmoil in the South, right alongside Dr. Martin Luther King and the other legends and stalwarts. She was the founder of the Black Family Reunion, a celebration of family held every year on the National Mall and throughout the country. She wore wonderful hats. Her passing and funerals, including a grand funeral at National Cathedral, drew regular folks from the city, as well as presidents, including Clinton and Obama, amid a sea of black women’s churchgoing hats.
Here is a brief look at other notables lost to us and the world in 2010:
Alexander Haig — Former presidential candidate, National Security Adviser under Ronald Reagan, famous for his “I’m in charge” (not) quote in the aftermath of the assassination attempt on the president.
Dennis Hopper — The classic Hollywood outsider who became a movie star in spite of himself—“Easy Rider,” “Blue Velvet,” a boy in “Giant,” wonderfully crazy and weird.
Senator Robert Byrd — The classic Southern Democratic giant of the Senate from West Virginia and a great fiddler, to boot.
J.D. Salinger — The hermetic author wrote “The Catcher in the Rye,” the classic slim novel of disaffected American youth, still catching.
Mitch Miller — Following the bouncing ball and sing along from your living room.
Don Meredith — The first Dallas Cowboy, a twangy charmer and foil for and to Howard Cossell on Monday Night Football.
Fess Parker — Davy, Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone too, and a tycoon in the end.
Kathryn Grayon — Beautiful soprano who graced MGM workings of “Kiss Me Kate” and “Showboat.”
Leslie Nielsen — The joys of a doofus screen star, proving that comedy really is harder than tragedy in “The Naked Gun” and “Airplane” (Which also featured Peter Graves who passed also passed away).
Dixie Carter — Designing woman star, she showed her stage mettle at the Washington Shakespeare Company in Oscar Wilde plays.
Kevin McCarthy — Forever running in “Invasion of the Bodysnatchers.”
Harvey Pekar — the working class stiff who redefined comic books and autobiography as he documented his commonplace life throughout his ongoing comic series “American Splendor.”
Art Linkletter — He asked the questions when Kids Said the Darndest Things.
Tony Curtis—Aka Bernie Schwartz, the kid from Brooklyn who became a huge matinee idol, movie star, Janet Leigh’s husband, terrific actor.
Eddie Fisher — Before there was Angelina and Brad three was Liz and Eddie, and “Oh My Papa” and Debby Reynolds and all that jazz.
Ted Sorenson—One of the last of the Camelot knights, he was JFK’s speechwriter, noted author of “Kennedy” and “Ask not.”
Howard Zinn — He wrote history from the people’s standpoint—meaning native Americans, workers, the under-reported of American history.
John Wooden — Maybe the greatest college basketball coach ever—the UCLA Bruins’ streak of 85 straight wins still stands, as of this writing, until the Connecticut Women’s Basketball team breaks it soon.
Jinny Dean — Country songs and sausages.
Joan Sutherland—The opera diva owned the mad scene from “Lucia Di Lammermoor”
George Steinbrenner—he made the Yankees his own, in more ways than one.
Ellie — The world’s ugliest dog dies at 17.