Friday, February 09, 2007

Celebrity, Be Not Proud.

So Anna Nicole is gone, a surprise if not exactly a shock. Not like when Steve Irwin died. Even given his adventurous passions, I'd once have put money on her demise occurring before his. Especially the whole stingray thing--that was tantamount to Smith being felled by a tainted Tylenol.

As a child, I had no direct experience with death, had never even gotten close enough to whiff its sulphur. I was too young to really process the passing of my last grandparent--grandma Busch, in '73, I think--so perhaps, until my dad's death a dozen years later, the closest thing I had was the ceasement of celebrities.

At my home, for most of my youth, we received three newspapers. Before school, I read the New York Daily News and the Post (over chocolate milk, ridiculously light toast--hot bread, mom called it--and a pre-bus-ride stomachache as reliable as an atomic alarm clock). Newsday was waiting when I returned in the afternoon. I began reading the papers regularly, and then more and more thoroughly, around 1979, at about ten years old or so. In the years before this, I suppose I learned of celebrities' deaths via the television news, or scanning the paper for a Social Studies assignment, or from my pee-wee pals dropping overheard current events into the shrill schoolyard palaver.

The first one I can remember is Arthur Treacher in 1975. I don't remember how I heard of it, but it meant something to me because my father had met him while overseas in the service. This fact would be mentioned by my mom whenever we drove past Arthur Treacher's Fish and Chips on Hicksville Road. When Treacher died, I wondered if the restaurant would close now that he wasn't there to run it.

The first obituary I can specifically recall reading (or, more accurately, looking at) was that of Anissa Jones, Family Affair's Buffy, August 8, 1976. The show was still syndicated, airing in the wee hours, and I watched it on those occasions when I crawled out of bed predawn in anticipation of a marathon of cartoons. I doubt I understood the idea of an overdose, but the part I really couldn't wrap my head around was her age. Sixteen? But she's littler than me! The obit had a picture of a girl who sure did look like a teen version of Buffy. I figured it had something to do with how her TV brother Jody also looked older on Sigmund and the Sea Monsters.

Last photo.

1977. I knew Peter Finch was from some big movie, but mainly knew him from dying. Burt Mustin, an old, old character actor that I knew well from his many appearances on my favorite sitcoms, inevitably succumbed at last, two weeks after Finch.

Gone thirty years, but on TV every day.

That very next day, the world of my evening viewing was further decimated by the suicide of Freddy Prinze. That one really puzzled me. I thought maybe I didn't understand what the word 'suicide' meant---Chico always seemed so happy. But there was no mistaking the meaning of putting a gun to your head and shooting it, like, on purpose.

I'm not sure how I knew of Diana Hyland, as she wasn't very famous. Of course I knew John Travolta (and Vinnie Barbarino even better), so I guess I knew she was his real-life girlfriend. In any case, two months after Prinze taught me of suicide, she introduced me to cancer, another mysterious fiend whose name must be spoken in whispers.

That summer, Elvis was laid out on the cover of the National Enquirer, his unmistakable profile serenely peeking out of his coffin. He was almost certainly the first dead person I'd ever seen. I was eight. He was already so unreal to me in life that it was mainly the spectacle surrounding his demise that made an impression, with no thought given to the death of the man. A living legend slips easily into death, an irony barely recognized and yet, I think, not lost on me. By simply not ending, life only erodes the veneer. So while others lamented his absurdly abbreviated life, to me it sort of made perfect sense.

The wax replica is displayed.

Far more affecting for me was the death of Groucho Marx, three days later. Shortly before his death, I had gotten a Disney magazine that came free when mom bought detergent or something off a display at Finast, my family's market of choice. It had an article about him, with a picture of Groucho looking thin and queer in his beret. I tried to reconcile that frail Groucho with the lively, grease-painted Groucho of some of my favorite comedies, and furthermore with the expired Groucho of a newspaper headline. (Gummo died four months earlier, a departure which made little impression on me.)

Missed Gummo.

Three days after that (and less than a year after Buffy), Mr. French tipped his derby, making Family Affair viewing bittersweet indeed...

That fall, Bing Crosby went, but left one last Christmas special which I remember dispiritedly watching. Then Guy Lombardo went, and now, too, New Year’s Eve would be a whit bluer. Then Chaplin on Christmas Day? The legends fell resoundingly, like Sitka spruces in decay.

1978. The sun last sets on Robert Shaw, a favorite from Jaws and in particular Swashbuckler (a now-forgotten movie which I got my mom to take me to twice). Jim Jones took a thousand with him in an event that took years for me to comprehend. Other deaths having an impact, or at least registering: Will Geer, Bob Crane, Totie Fields, Frank Fontaine, Pope John Paul I, Keith Moon, Edgar Bergen, Norman Rockwell.

1979. Jack Soo and Ted Cassidy passed in January, again making their respective sitcoms somber viewing for a time. Darla Hood of The Little Rascals left us in June, and when I learned this I was amazed she had been around so long--she was in black-and-white, after all. Sweet-voiced Minnie Riperton warbled her last in July, and I mournfully played her single. So long to The Duke, Ethel Mertz, Arthur Fiedler, Zeppo and the Tin Man.

1980. All going sweetly thereafter: The Schnozzola, Harry O and Tonto. Mae West, Hitchcock and Sellers. The guy who wrote "The Amityville Horror." Bobby Van. Tex Avery. The Shah. The Colonel. Steve McQueen.(Steve McQueen? How is that possible?) As a die-hard Our Gang fan, I probably felt the passings of Buckwheat and Farina most strongly.

The one that took the longest to sink in came that December. I was overdue for bed when I heard over the radio that John Lennon had been shot. The next morning on the bus I bragged that I learned the breaking news at the adult hour of eleven o’clock, while my little classmates were asleep. Four years later I would read the Rolling Stone issue devoted to the Beatles, learning about Lennon and his life, and I’d cry, feeling the loss for the first time.

The ever-tasteful National Enquirer, 12/30/80.

1981. Good lord, Stymie too? God took all the fat and funny-looking Rascals decades ago, and now He was apparently working his way through the minorities. The Man joined Chico. So did Sadat and Dayan, Bobby Sands and Bob Marley. Bill Haley and Harry Chapin (not far away on the Long Island Expressway, no less).

Together again, 11/25/81.

By the time Belushi speedballed from the mortal coil in March of ’82, I guess the strangeness of watching famous people expire had sort of worn off. There would later be deaths that startled me--River Phoenix, Phil Hartman, Chris Farley spring to mind—but now when I hear of another loss, I just get that tiny tinge of sadness that defies description. Is there genuine grief there? Who is it for?

As a child, when I saw my parents react to the deaths of their own icons, many of whom I didn’t know, I always thought the same thing: They’re getting older. They’re getting older and the people they’ve watched and listened to and read about, their contemporaries, are dying. I wondered what they felt. Now I watch my contemporaries die, and it’s no longer murders and suicides and accidents and dammit-they-were-too-young, it’s cancer and just plain wearing out and oh-well-it-was-their-time, and now I realize that maybe my parents didn’t exactly know what they were feeling either.

I do know that Anna Nicole Smith was a mess, and her life was rife for jokes, and I loathed and disparaged her every time I saw that show of hers, and when I saw that she had died, I know that I was sad.


Blogger MO'SH said...

Where to begin? Your most well-written piece since perhaps your short story in RTH about "lines" or your "brief biography of richard brautigan", short pieces that affected me strongly on frst (and following readings).
First, "the NY Post -- forever known to me as "the morning paper." We never subscribed - just the Daily News and Newsday.
Elvis - I remember being in the Garland's yard, on their swingset, and Linda's sister telling us about him. To me, celebrities were large and different, sort of like Jesus in my child-like perception.
And Lennon. I remember we had just gotten into the Beatles at Pius (well, I did at least), but you, me, jeff and chris each claimed one of the beatles as an alter=ego at one point (i'm sure this last no longer than one recess period). It was soon after that Lennon was killed. I think '80 also saw the departure of Bonham and Bon Scott. My dad, a folk-music fan, overshadowed those ranks that year as well.
Anyway, I am once again reminded why you are the most talented writer (fuck you!) of our gang.

Sun Feb 11, 12:34:00 AM 2007  
Blogger psaur said...

Thank you Brother. I'm glad you mentioned Bonzo; He was included in my original notes (which I scribbled down years ago) of the names and dates of any celeb death I recalled hearing of as a youth.

Omitted, for whatever reason, from this post:
1976: Jack Cassidy
1977: Joan Crawford, Zero Mostel
1979: Sid Vicious
1980: John Bonham
1981: Allen Ludden, Ross Martin, Melvyn Douglas, Natalie Wood
1982: Victor Buono, Hans Conreid, Harvey Lembeck, Paul Lynde, Warren Oates, Vic Morrow, Henry Fonda, Grace Kelly, Criswell, James Broderick, Dominique Dunne, Leonid Brezhnev, Marty Feldman, Will Lee (Mr. Hooper)
1983: Karen Carpenter, Tennessee Williams, Ray Vitte (From "The Quest," a favorite show).

Sun Feb 11, 12:59:00 AM 2007  
Blogger Brian Kunath said...

Really beautiful piece. I especially like the glimpses of a child's understanding of death and celebrity. You have an amazing ability to inspire sentimental feelings with writing that is completely unsentimental.

Why wouldn't it seem fitting and obvious when Elvis died? As a kid, you view the adult world with an outsiders acceptance, assuming that whatever happens happens for a reason. Outrage requires perspective, which requires experience. Children have only faith that the world is ordered and managed correctly. It's OK that he died, because obviously he needed to die to complete his Elvisness.

Besides, while everyone else was bemoaning Elvis's revatively early demise, I saw him as impossibly old.

Anyway, great piece. I'll second mo'sh that you're the top scribe.

Wed Feb 14, 06:11:00 PM 2007  
Blogger the feeb said...

if only the mainstream media would treat anna nicole smiths death with the dignity you did. but then i guess they'd have to get to work. an oddly touching piece.

that's what she said.

Sat Feb 24, 08:32:00 PM 2007  

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