Monthly Archives: January 2009

Dead Folks: Trailblazers & Entrepreneurs

Dead Folks: Trailblazers & Entrepreneurs

A look at some of the notable individuals who passed away in 2008.

January 22, 2009


Albert Hofmann

If you can just get your mind together,

Then come on across to me.

We’ll hold hands and then we’ll watch the sunrise

Chemist Albert Hofmann, with the world’s largest hit of LSD, nicknamed “Liquid Universe.” (click for larger version)


From the bottom of the sea.

But first, are you experienced?

Have you ever been experienced?

Well, I have.

Sir Edmund Hillary (L) and Tenzing Norgay Sherpa in Kathmandu following their conquest of Mount Everest in 1953. (click for larger version)


Albert Hofmann didn’t say that; Jimi Hendrix did. But in the case of Dr. Hofmann, the Swiss chemist who first synthesized lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) in 1938, actions speak louder than words. His was the original experience, the first time being the accidental absorption through his skin of a small portion of the substance in 1943 at Sandoz, a Swiss pharmaceutical firm. After a few hours of colors and visions and other sensations he couldn’t describe, Hofmann determined that LSD had induced a temporary and profound psychological reaction. On April 19, 1943, Hofmann dosed himself with a small amount of LSD, then recorded in his lab journal that he began feeling the simultaneous sensations of “anxiety, and the desire to laugh.” Anticipating even stronger reactions, Hofmann returned home on his bicycle. It was some trip, and not a very pleasant one.

It wasn’t long before Sandoz was issuing samples of LSD to medical researchers, psychiatrists, and various experts in the field of mental illness. A body of research grew over the next decade, much of which indicated that LSD warranted further examination as a valuable tool in treating addictions, personality disorders, and various mental afflictions.

Meanwhile Hofmann’s research continued apace, leading to the synthesis of psilocybin, the psychedelic component in certain varieties of mushrooms, and the discovery of lysergic acid amide and lysergic acid hydroxyethylamide in a Mexican morning glory vine, Ololiuqui.

Dr. Ernst Stuhlinger and Dr. Wernher von Braun at the observatory of the Rocket city Astrnomical Association in Huntsville in 1956. (click for larger version)


All of that coincided with the emergence of a young counterculture that was questioning social mores, values, and the reliability of individual perception. The idea that taking an ostensibly harmless drug that assisted one in “breaking through to the other side,” well, that warranted further examination as well—according to Harvard psychologist Timothy Leary.

Leary’s promotional efforts for psychedelics may have been sincere, but the flamboyance—and often arrogance—with which he encouraged the use of drugs to achieve “higher consciousness” established ground zero for a new conflict: the establishment versus youth/drug culture. LSD lost that battle in 1966 when it was outlawed, and Leary’s subsequent catchphrase “Turn on, tune in, drop out” merely guaranteed that LSD would remain a controlled substance. Hofmann often expressed keen disappointment with that turn of events, once telling Leary in person that the self-styled guru’s exploits were responsible for the prohibition of LSD.

From his earliest research into psychedelic chemicals, Hofmann’s conviction was that the mystical and spiritual experiences either mimicked or induced by LSD and psilocybin should remain in the serious realm of a search for enlightenment. What he envisioned as a sacred journey, too many recreational users saw as a one-way ticket to wig city. Hofmann frequently adopted a capital R Romantic stance in this regard; he declared that the modern, materialist world was too much with us, and so this Wordsworth of the pharmaceutical lab urged the responsibly applied therapeutic principles of mind-blowing chemicals. He often urged friends and colleagues to take LSD and then contemplate flowers in a garden. He went so far as to suggest that psychedelics could ultimately reveal to the human race its authentic nature, “what we are supposed to be,” as he phrased it. Or getting back to Hendrix, “Not necessarily stoned, but beautiful . . .” (102, heart attack.) —DP

Wham-O co-founder Richard Knerr (R). (click for larger version)


Sir Edmund Hillary

On May 29, 1953, Edmund Hillary and Sherpa guide Tenzing Norgay became the first climbers to reach the summit of Mount Everest. This was later embarrassing for Hillary Clinton. She tried to convince a Nepalese audience that she was named for the famous explorer who didn’t really become particularly famous until six years after her birth.

Hillary himself was a lot more sincere in his devotion to the region. The native New Zealander continued adventuring right through the 1980s—including a flight with Neil Armstrong to the North Pole—but also spent much of his life financing the Himalayan Trust to benefit the people of Nepal.

Hillary enjoyed plenty of celebrity, beginning with a knighthood granted in the same year as his ascent. He always remained a favorite son of New Zealand and a popular international figure. Hillary also wisely marked his Everest triumph with a pithy quote, informing fellow climber George Lowe, “Well, George, we knocked the bastard off.” (88, heart failure) —JRT

Ernst Stuhlinger

Stuhlinger was one of hundreds of Nazi rocket scientists behind the German V-2 missile program who surrendered and emigrated to the United States at the end of Word War II. He played the somber, behind-the-scenes genius to the more flamboyant Wernher von Braun as the pair developed the Saturn V rocket that launched men to the Moon. Stuhlinger was essentially von Braun’s right-hand man, his most valued assistant. When America launched its first orbiting satellite, Explorer (in response to the Soviets’ Sputnik satellite), Stuhlinger created an ingenious timing device that allowed him to press the command button at the precise time needed to fire the second rocket stage that put Explorer into orbit. His contribution earned him the nickname “the man with the golden finger.” (94, natural causes) —ER

Richard Knerr

Richard Knerr and his pal Arthur “Spud” Melin, both USC graduates living in Pasadena and looking for the fast track to fame and fortune, started a toy/gadget company in Knerr’s garage in 1948. Their company, Wham-O Manufacturing, made a decent slingshot but not much else. It took about a decade for the entrepreneurs to realize it, but Wham-O’s future would be determined not so much by products as by demographics. The Baby Boom was working in their favor. Children were everywhere, and consumerism was in full force. Show the kids something neat, swell, or cool, and their money was yours.

Enter the Hula Hoop, first marketed by Wham-O in early 1957 and immediately recognized as an out-of-control fad. Knerr and Melin sold 100 million units in roughly two years, after which Knerr claimed they couldn’t give them away. By definition, a fad doesn’t last, but with almost $50 million in profits, Knerr was okay with that. The template was in place; wow your audience, and demand will take care of itself. (Knerr often claimed that the ideal product was any item that had kids screaming, “What’s that?!”)

By 1958, Wham-O was producing or marketing all kinds of “what’s that?!” gadgets. It was the golden era of being a kid, so sales were reinforced by ads on afternoon and Saturday morning TV and through displays at every dime store in the land. The price for most items made it easy for moms to acquiesce when a visit to Woolworth’s brought the inevitable request for a Slip & Slide, a Superball, Silly String, or a Frisbee.

With the market for fun practically in his lap, Knerr even found ways to bounce, as it were, Wham-O fads off other fads. California was ground zero for beach music and drag racing in the 1960s, so the Wham-O Wheelie Bar, ideal for the sleek new banana-seat Schwinn bikes, hit the stores just when Jan & Dean and the Beach Boys were hitting the charts. The Wheelie Bar TV ad and product package employed music and images associated with hot-rod culture. This kind of marketing dream lasted only as long as its demographic stayed young. Though it’s easy to regard much of Wham-O’s success as fad-driven, it’s worth noting that Knerr passed away after seeing the Frisbee mark its 60th anniversary. (82, stroke.) —DP

Wilbur Hardee

Hardee ended up earning little money from the Hardee’s restaurant chain he founded. He sold his share in his burger namesake (which included five franchise locations at the time) in 1963 for $37,000 amid rumors that he had lost controlling interest during a poker game with his new business partners. In 1960, already an established success with a dozen other restaurant ventures, he opened his first Hardee’s drive-in in Greenville, North Carolina. The place had no tables or waiters, and “char-broiled” hamburgers sold for 15 cents—the same price as his milkshakes. Hardee went on to earn a small fortune with other food enterprises. (89) —ER

Carl Karcher

The founder of the Carl’s Jr. fast-food hamburger chain got his start in the restaurant business when he spent $326 in 1941 to open a Los Angeles hot dog stand. In 1945, he opened his first full-service restaurant, Carl’s Drive-In Barbecue, in Anaheim, California. In 1956, he began opening Carl’s Jr. restaurants, which eventually numbered more than 1,000 worldwide. An outspoken political conservative, Karcher was often at war with the gay community after he urged the firing of homosexual schoolteachers and all who defended them. Karcher, who fathered a dozen children with his wife of 66 years, rubbed elbows with Presidents Nixon and Reagan, Mikhail Gorbachev, Bob Hope, and Pope John Paul II.

In 1981, Karcher took the company public, allowing it to expand from the existing 300 locations. He was later accused of insider trading. He forked over $600,000 in fines but never admitted any guilt. In 1993, after years of clashes with the company’s board of directors, Karcher was ousted as CEO. He could only watch from the sidelines as the company began running provocative TV ads starring Dennis Rodman and Paris Hilton that clashed with Karcher’s conservative beliefs. In 1997, Carl’s Jr.’s parent company, CKE Restaurants, purchased the Hardee’s chain. (90, Parkinson’s disease) —ER

Gary Gygax

Gygax help create Dungeons & Dragons, the seminal role-playing game where a fantasy universe evolved into actual role-playing instead of being confined to the pages of books such as those by J.R.R. Tolkien. An experienced creator of board games, Gygax later criticized interactive computer-based games because participants did not have to rely on their imaginations. (69, abdominal aneurysm) —ER &

Dead Folks: Celebrities

Dead Folks: Celebrities

A look at some of the notable individuals who passed away in 2008.

January 22, 2009

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi

He’s best known for associating with pop stars in the 1960s. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi infiltrated popular culture in broader ways, though, with his Transcendental Meditation technique challenging Erhard Seminars Training (EST) in the 1970s as the leading pop-psychology fad. That helped the Maharishi get on the cover of Time in 1975. By then, his biggest acolyte was Mike Love from the Beach Boys. That wasn’t a particularly hip association.

Earlier though, the Maharishi had been hanging out with The Beatles in India. The band members had studied with him in Wales, but the trip to the Maharishi’s home country played a big part in the Beatles mythos, with much of The White Album written during their stay. That includes the scathing “Sexy Sadie,” which John Lennon wrote in disgust after hearing that their spiritual leader had tried hooking up with student Mia Farrow.

Lefty Rosenthal, the inspiration for Robert De Niro’s character in Casino. (click for larger version)



Accounts continue to differ on those charges, but the other Beatles kept speaking highly of the Maharishi in the decades to come. The spiritual leader always maintained an American following, with his Maharishi University of Management prospering in Iowa. His big project for the past decade was constructing Maharishi Peace Palaces in 3,000 major cities, each with “Peace-Creating Experts who will create an orderly influence in the whole atmosphere of the city.” He was raising $1 billion for that endeavor, but the peace palace for New York City is out on Long Island. That’s probably why Manhattan hasn’t gotten orderly yet. (91, natural causes.) —JRT

Lefty Rosenthal

Mr. Blackwell. (click for larger version)

Not many people live to see their death portrayed on screen. For example, that’s supposed to be Lefty Rosenthal getting blown sky-high when Robert De Niro’s car explodes at the start of Casino. Just like De Niro’s character, Rosenthal survived the 1982 attempt on his life. Nobody was ever prosecuted for the bombing—most likely because Rosenthal kept his mouth shut. He left Las Vegas for Miami Beach the next year and enjoyed a uniquely long life for a guy who (unofficially, of course) ran some of Vegas’ biggest hotels/mob operations. (79, heart attack.) —JRT

A very young Yves St. Laurent. (click for larger version)



Mr. Blackwell

Richard Selzer left Brooklyn for Hollywood, and ditched his last name to become the notorious fashion designer Mr. Blackwell. He dressed a celebrity clientele with his House of Blackwell line in the 1950s, then retired in the 1960s to cultivate his celebrity status—although he did some work behind the scenes for “The Beverly Hillbillies.”

Blackwell’s role in pop culture began with his annual list of the Worst Dressed Women of the Year, first introduced in 1960. He was slightly ahead of his time. It took a while, but Blackwell eventually found his audience through shows like “Entertainment Tonight” and publications like People. He never said anything particularly daring, and he occasionally confused an actress’ costumes with her clothing. He was also quick to rise to the bait whenever Cher trotted out increasingly moronic outfits. Ultimately, Blackwell died as a pioneer of the snarky celebrity fascination that lives on in hundreds of showbiz blogs. (86, intestinal infection.) —JRT

Yves St. Laurent

On the basis of a few sketches 14-year-old Laurent made for a couture competition in Paris in 1952, leading designer Christian Dior hired the young fellow that week. In 1958, upon Dior’s untimely death from a heart attack, Laurent was thrust into international fame because, remarkably, the founder of the House of Dior had decided much earlier that Laurent would succeed him as head designer. After a bizarre turn of events that had Laurent conscripted into the French army, then placed in a mental institution for radical treatment (including shock therapy), the designer and his partner founded their own house with assistance from an Atlanta millionaire. The Rive Gauche stores followed in 1966, selling prêt-à-porter designs to both the general public and a fairly exclusive clientele previously devoted strictly to YSL haute couture (it is rumored that Catherine Deneuve was the first customer through the door).

A lot of fashion firsts followed: black and Asian runway models, re-creations of Art Deco period silhouettes, tailored tuxedo suits, and most significant, the profits from ready-to-wear exceeding that of the YSL haute couture line. YSL also established a new kind of society figure: designer as jet-set superstar. Decadence, drug dependence, and debauchery at Studio 54 and sundry international hot spots characterized the YSL persona from that point until his decline in health. It was time to pack in the scissors once models were propping up what appeared to be an intoxicated Laurent on the runway. It may have been simple fatigue. With some 6,000 designs under his belt, so to speak, Laurent had certainly earned a retirement. (71, cancer.) —DP

Christian Brando

Bobby Fischer. (click for larger version)



The eldest of actor Marlon Brando’s often troubled children, Christian Brando was best known for his run-ins with the law. He spent five years in prison on manslaughter charges following the 1990 killing of his half-sister’s boyfriend. They had scuffled over a gun during an argument about whether the boyfriend had beaten Brando’s half-sister, Cheyenne, while she was pregnant with the boyfriend’s child. Cheyenne committed suicide in 1995 after losing custody of the child. Christian once dated Bonnie Lee Bakley, who was shot to death in 2001. Bakley’s husband at the time, actor Robert Blake, was acquitted of the murder. (49, pneumonia) —ER

House Peters, Jr.

The bald Peters couldn’t have been blessed with a more appropriate first name, considering that he starred in commercials for the Proctor & Gamble household cleaning product known as Mr. Clean, which was also the name of his character in the ads. Often cast as a villain in various acting roles, the muscular, intimidating Peters will instead be primarily remembered for attacking dirt and grime in TV commercials during the 1950s and ’60s. (92, pneumonia) —ER

Sunny von Bülow

Martha (Sunny) von Bülow, an American heiress, spent her last 28 years in a coma. Her husband, Claus, a Danish-born society figure and man-about-town, was twice convicted and later acquitted of trying to kill her. She was discovered unconscious on her bathroom floor in 1980, and she never regained consciousness. Claus divorced Sunny in 1988 and currently lives in London. He and Sunny had discussed divorce, but it was noted at his trial that a divorce would have deprived him of the $14 million he stood to inherit from Sunny’s will when she died, instead leaving him with a paltry $120,000 a year. (76) —ER

Dock Ellis

Former Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Dock Ellis always claimed he was under the influence of LSD when he pitched a no-hitter against the San Diego Padres in 1970. Ellis, who eventually founded an anti-drug program in Los Angeles, said he didn’t know the Pirates had a game that day, much less that he was scheduled to pitch. He picks up the story in an interview that was published in Lysergic World in 1993: “I was in Los Angeles, and the team was playing in San Diego, but I didn’t know it. I had taken LSD . . . I thought it was an off-day, that’s how come I had it in me. I took the LSD at noon.” His girlfriend, who had also taken acid, was reading the newspaper and shouted, “Dock, you’re pitching today!”

“That’s when it cost $9.50 to fly to San Diego,” Ellis remembered. “She got me to the airport at 3:30. I got there at 4:30, and the game started at 6:05 p.m. It was a twilight-night doubleheader. I can only remember bits and pieces of the game. I was psyched. I had a feeling of euphoria. I was zeroed in on the [catcher's] glove, but I didn’t hit the glove too much. I remember hitting a couple of batters and the bases were loaded two or three times. . . . The ball was small sometimes, the ball was large sometimes, sometimes I saw the catcher, sometimes I didn’t. Sometimes I tried to stare the hitter down and throw while I was looking at him. I chewed my gum until it turned to powder.” Ellis reportedly talked the Pirates’ catcher into putting red reflective tape on his catcher’s mitt to provide him with a target. (63, cirrhosis of the liver) —ER

Bobby Fischer

It’s hard to believe now, but Bobby Fischer was front-page news while competing in the World Chess Championship of 1972. All of America got chess fever during his climactic match with the Soviet Union’s Boris Spassky. City parks were soon littered with players on the benches, and there was a great episode of “Columbo” with Laurence Harvey as a homicidal chess master.

As it turned out, America deserved a better chess hero. Fischer was a brilliant player, but he grew increasingly unstable in his daily life. He refused to defend his title in 1975, gave up competitive matches until a 1992 rematch with Spassky (Fischer won), and lived all over the world while making increasingly loony statements. His anti-Semitism reached a dizzy climax after 9/11, with Fischer cheering the terrorists while calling on the U.S. military to take power and “arrest all the Jews.”

He wasn’t too crazy about other chess players, either. He might be best remembered for creating the popular Fischer Clock that provides a time limit for players’ moves. (64, renal failure.) —JRT

Richard Fortman

Fortman was the world’s foremost checkers champion, writing the essential book Basic Checkers, among several others about the game. Fortman was renowned for winning games blindfolded, as well as effortlessly winning while playing up to 100 matches at the same time. (93, natural causes) —ER


Dead Folks: Writers


Dead Folks: Writers

A look at some of the notable individuals who passed away in 2008.

January 22, 2009

Studs Terkel

Studs Terkel.


Pulitzer Prize-winning author Studs Terkel wrote books that focused on his interviews with ordinary Americans. He called his style “guerrilla journalism” and is credited with establishing oral history as a viable genre. “The thing I’m able to do, I guess, is break down walls. If they think you’re listening, they’ll talk. It’s more of a conversation than an interview,” he has said of his interview approach. His interviews ranged from former slaves to Ku Klux Klan members. He acknowledged his time managing Chicago hotels popular with blue-collar workers as an indispensable part of his education as a writer and observer. He was blacklisted from radio and TV during the McCarthy red scare, but returned to radio in the mid-1950s for a 45-year run of his own show. (96) —ER


Dave Stevens’ creation, The Rocketeer. (click for larger version)




David Foster Wallace

An American writer of novels, short stories, and essays, Wallace is best known for his 1996 novel Infinite Jest. He later covered John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign for Rolling Stone and cruise ships, tornadoes, and state fairs for Harper’s Magazine. Wallace suffered from depression for two decades and, at the advice of his doctor, quit taking medication in 2007 because of the side effects. He hanged himself a year later. (46) —ER

Dave Stevens

Few cartoonists indulged their fandom like Dave Stevens. He started out drawing storyboards for music videos and Hanna-Barbera cartoons. Fortunately, Stevens had all the right pop-culture obsessions needed to become a visionary geek. In 1982 his comic book The Rocketeer paid tribute to 1930s cinema and pulp fiction. The folks at Disney eventually turned the series into the best comics-based film of the 1990s.

Stevens was also an early advocate for pin-up queen Bettie Page. The Rocketeer’s girlfriend was drawn as a Bettie look-alike, and Stevens created a popular series of Bettie Page portraits. He always claimed that he was setting aside royalties for the then-reclusive Page, and kept his word when Bettie finally reemerged in the 1990s.

In a blow against geek stereotypes, Stevens was a handsome man who was briefly married to B-film sex siren Brinke Stevens. His high standards kept him from being as prolific as lesser artists, so it was even more frustrating to lose him at a relatively young age. (52, leukemia.) —JRT

Roger Hall

A spy working for the Office of Strategic Services during World War II, Roger Hall wrote a 1957 memoir titled You’re Stepping on My Cloak and Dagger detailing his experiences at the OSS. The book pokes fun at military protocol while praising the dangerous tasks undertaken by undercover operatives. Among the goof-ups he recalls is his first mission: parachuting into Allied territory instead of Nazi territory because the OSS. had not been told that General Patton had pushed the Nazis back. He later refused an offer to join the CIA.

Working a variety of jobs as he struggled as a professional writer, he was once the public address announcer for Baltimore Colts football games until he was fired for announcing the following after a questionable referee call: “A seeing-eye dog has been lost. Will the owner please return it to the officials’ dressing room.” In later years, Hall reportedly took great delight when told that You’re Stepping on My Cloak and Dagger had become a vital component of CIA training. Instructors would hold up a copy of his book and inform new agents, “Never let this happen again.” (89, natural causes) —ER

Tony Hillerman

Hillerman authored 30 books, most famously the 18 that feature Navajo police detectives Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, which weave Native American lore into the mysteries so organically that the reader is not aware how much he is learning, not only about Navajo culture, but about the struggles of these people to deal with the dominant Anglo culture around them. The books are eminently readable, with a special kind of spookiness all their own. After the success of the books, Hillerman remembered that his first agent advised him that if he wanted to get published, he would have to “get rid of that Indian stuff.” (83.) —BG

Dave Freeman

A lot of inappropriate jokes were made when Dave Freeman fatally fell on his head while in his home at Venice, California. All the obituaries were obliged to note that Freeman was the coauthor of 1999′s 101 Things to Do Before You Die. (47, head injury.) —JRT