The Painter, the Veteran, the Actress and the Singer
People—famous, a little or a lot—sometimes die in bunches, if not in proximity. There are years of age, gifts either used fully or not, and lives either lived fully incompletely that separate a quartet of famous, not so famous and marginally famous people who passed away in the last few days. Here then, lost to us and in one case to herself, are a world-famous and outsized painter, a Polish immigrant who rose to the pinnacle of the military profession, a great beauty and cinematic near-star, and a 27-year-old rock-and-pop star and Grammy Award winner.
LUCIAN FREUD, 88
Freud, by all accounts, never stopped painting, and achieved living-artist fame and status with prices for his work that were once associated with a Picasso.
He shared avidity for live experience and younger women with the great Spanish cubist, although as artists, their work couldn’t be more different. Everything Picasso stripped down and turned into clean lines, Freud put back in: flesh defying gravity in epic terms, folds and rolls of skin mountains, roundness interrupted by defaults and fault lines, the colors and veins and bits of hair and caves of navels. Confronted by a Freud portrait, small or often large, there was a resistible urge, but urge nonetheless, to somehow make contact. He painted celebrities—Kate Moss and an expressively skin burdened Queen Elizabeth II—as well as fat men from behind, and women with pendulous breasts. Beautifully-ugly, ugly-beautiful were combo words that came up often in out-loud contemplation.
He was that other Freud’s grandson, which may have accounted for his own tendency to confront fleshly truths with bravura and thick paint strokes. He was also a fountain of fecundity, apparently, according to one obituary, fathering some 40 illegitimate children which gave full meaning to the idea that he understood flesh intimately.
His portraits—the New York Times obituary said he “redefined portraiture”—shocked some, awed others. His work was in a Phillips Collection exhibition of several seasons ago called “Paint Made Flesh,” which included a generous dollop of Freud and Francis Bacon, his mad peer, who took the concept of ugly-beautiful a little further than Freud.
Two of his works, a huge man, in folded flesh, sitting broadly naked (Freud always said “naked” not “nude”) and a Reubenesque nude (not naked) woman stretched out over layered sheets and canvasses, were characteristic, and astonishingly moving.
JOHN M SHALIKASHVILLI, 75
John M. Shalikasvilli was a native of Warsaw who survived all the harrowing dangers of World War II, emigrated with his family to the United States, joined the army as an enlisted man and in an astonishingly full career would eventually become the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Bill Clinton’s administration, the first enlisted man and foreigner to achieve that rank.
In pictures, he looked wiry and scholarly, but he was the kind of military man who didn’t need to put on a camouflage uniform to look soldier. He was a Universalist: in the “peacetime” post-Soviet-Union-collapse world, he oversaw U.S. participation in the Balkan conflicts that came after the disintegration of Yugoslavia. His interest lay in the use of military forces and resources to help assist huge numbers of people displaced by wars including the Kurds in the wake of the Gulf War.
That kind of effort came out of a general who understood—perhaps better than anyone—the wrenching effects of war, the vast displacements, the great suffering.
LINDA CHRISTIAN, 87
The life and death of Linda Christian, who died of colon cancer, says something about the ephemeral nature of fame, but also about its stubborn durability in the information age.
The headline on the Internet news read: “Linda Christian, TV’s First Bond Girl, Dies at 87.” This probably means that these days James Bond is certainly better known than Tyrone Power, who in his time (late 1930s to mid-1950s) was a mega-movie star, handsome and almost pretty, who played Zorro and other swashbucklers, Jesse James, and King Solomon almost (he died of a heart attack on set and was replaced by Yul Brunner).
He also married Linda Christian, a gorgeous Mexican beauty with minor acting chops but great cheekbones. They produced two beautiful children before divorcing in 1956.
She made a few unremarkable movies, including one I happened to see a very long time ago called “Slaves of Babylon,” an epic without epic moments in which I believe she played Jezebel. She was also in “The VIPs,” which starred Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.
The Bond thing? Turned out it was an episode of the live television series called “Climax,” the first but not last version of “Casino Royale,” in which James Bond—played by Barry Nelson—was called Jimmy. There is a YouTube clip of a black-and-white scene from the show featuring Nelson, Christian and an actor named Michael Pate. I met Nelson once when he was doing “Forty Second Street” at the National Theater. He never mentioned that he had played James Bond. How strange.
AMY WINEHOUSE, 27
The first thing that should get you is number, 27. Not because it’s part of some rock and roll curse which caused other big name, substance abusing icon rock icons like Jim Morrison, Jimmie Hendrix, Smells Like Teen Spirit Kurt Cobain and Janis Joplin, to die at age 27.
The number is itself alone: dead at 27. Dead in her sleep. The difference between Winehouse and the other members of that club—and rockers die pretty much across the spectrum from puberty to the old age of Rolling Stones—is that she lived in this time where trouble-in-mind-and-body is naked and songs are see-through-reflections of a life on the world-wide web—which containeds a website called WhenWillAmyWinehouseDie.com.
Winehouse was a singular sensation with her eagle’s nest beehive, the sharp scars of her eyebrows and eye-liner, the burning dark eyes, the funky looking body, the tattoos up and down her arms. She could sing, no question. Her album “Rehab” unexpectedly won a number of Grammies which probably surprised hard-core rockers and gave her a certain amount of cred which she proceeded to flounder like Lindsay Lohan under house arrest.
Watching and listening to her sing “Rehab” or “Love is a Losing Game,” you hear and see her could-have-been-future, mixing jazz and soul with a tough yet vulnerable bluesy quality. But there was all that other stuff—the drugs, the booze, the addicted husband, the slurry comeback, and finally there is the end and flowers in front of her house.
She reminds me most of Joplin, who died of a heroin overdose, whose energy on stage and vinyl was undeniable and who always broke your and her heart with “Ball and Chain” then surged off to somewhere in the final, gurgling, blues sounds of “Bobby McGee.” Winehouse’s father said she was all about love. So was Joplin. Neither one seemed to think they deserved it.