Monthly Archives: January 2010

Dead Folks: The Icons

Dead Folks: The Icons

Remembrances of notable individuals who passed away in 2009.

Walter Cronkite (click for larger version)
January 21, 2010

Walter Cronkite
For two decades, Walter Cronkite commanded the attention of families in homes across America as the anchorman for “The CBS Evening News.” From 1962 to 1981, Cronkite’s calm, reassuring demeanor made him one of TV news’ biggest celebrities in the heyday of network TV. He delivered reports with a dignity rarely found in today’s loudmouth pundits. Lauded by many as “the most trusted man in America,” Cronkite sought objectivity and wanted nothing more than to tell the story. “I am a news presenter, a news broadcaster, an anchorman, a managing editor—not a commentator or analyst,” he told the Christian Science Monitor in 1973. “I feel no compulsion to be a pundit.”

He was hired by radio station KCMO in St. Louis to read news and broadcast football games under the name Walter Wilcox in the 1930s. While reporting for the United Press during World War II, he rejected an offer from Edward R. Murrow to work at the CBS Moscow bureau. In 1954, CBS chose Cronkite to host the short-lived “Morning Show” when the network went head to head with NBC’s popular “Today Show.” From the outset, he irritated primary sponsor R.J. Reynolds by grammatically correcting its popular slogan to “Winston tastes good as a cigarette should.”

The evening news broadcast had been a 15-minute program, but beginning in September 1963, CBS lengthened it to half an hour. Cronkite broadcast from an actual newsroom instead of a studio set, as done by his predecessor. He also coined his famous “And that’s the way it is” sign-off that ended each broadcast. Richard S. Salant, president of CBS News, hated the line, mainly because it used four seconds of air time.

Cronkite’s influence on the nation was well understood by President Lyndon Johnson. After CBS aired a documentary that Cronkite taped while reporting from Vietnam in 1968, Johnson turned off his White House television in anger and said that losing Cronkite—who declared the war unwinnable—meant the loss of support from middle America. (92, complications of dementia) —Ed Reynolds

Andrew Wyeth
“I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape—the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it; the whole story doesn’t show.”

Andrew Wyeth (click for larger version)

So says one of the most famous American painters about his own work, which often conveyed all kinds of wintery moods—and rarely revealed the whole story behind what was depicted. Yet for all their mystery, or their peculiar way of suggesting an emotionally charged story not yet told, Wyeth’s stunningly intimate landscapes and portraits are as instantly recognizable as Georgia O’Keeffe’s flowers or Andy Warhol’s soup cans. His most famous painting, “Christina’s World,” which depicts a slender woman partially reclined in a grassy field and looking toward an aged farmhouse, is an iconic American image on par with Grant Wood’s “American Gothic,” Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks,”

and Winslow Homer’s “The Gulfstream.” Using more shades of grays, browns, yellows, tans, and whites than one suspected even existed, Wyeth captured the starkness and stillness of rural Pennsylvania and Maine—more often than not in the dead of winter.

As far as art critics and East Coast cultural elites were concerned, Wyeth was guilty of three almost unforgivable sins. First, he chose to be a representational realist—according to many, practically an illustrator—during the rise of abstract expressionism and other parting-with-the-past movements. Second, he did not engage in progressive politics, going so far as to support Nixon and Reagan. Third, he enjoyed tremendous mainstream popularity and the requisite financial success. Oddly enough, even as his detractors vaguely hinted that he was no more a “serious” artist than Norman Rockwell, Wyeth had no trouble in getting his work into major exhibitions around the nation.

“Christina’s World” by Andrew Wyeth (click for larger version)





That may have been in part due to a kind of cult of personality that developed around the painter, no doubt because his famous father, illustrator N.C. Wyeth, created an intriguing romantic lore concerning the family’s life at their home and studio in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. It was an authentic, larger-than-life scenario, but it had the same effect as a full-scale publicity campaign. Life got even larger when it began to imitate art in 1985, after Wyeth’s “Helga paintings” came to light. The world learned that the artist had secretly painted almost 250 portraits—some of them nudes—of his neighbor Helga Testorf.


Paul Harvey (click for larger version)

The portraits had been done over a period of 15 years, and the secretive nature of this huge body of work led to talk of an extramarital affair. The story made the cover of Time magazine, and the furor and rumors were quietly observed by Wyeth and his wife, Betsy, who had managed almost every aspect of the artist’s career. Allowing outsiders to fuel gossip about the Wyeth family once again had the effect of a publicity campaign, leading to a National Gallery exhibit of the Helga paintings, a national tour, and a massive sale price for the collection. Whether this was a sly business move by the Wyeths remains a topic of speculation. (91, natural causes) —David Pelfrey

Paul Harvey
Conservatives mourned Paul Harvey when he died, but few of them paid much attention to his final years. Harvey was pretty much forgotten as one of the original right-wing voices on national radio—back when he was targeted by the likes of Lyndon Johnson while the Democrats were still scheming up the Fairness Doctrine. By the end of the 1980s, Harvey was just a charming folksy newscaster with long . . . pauses . . . between . . . his . . . words, and a tendency to tut-tut some of America’s more idiotic leanings. He also read his commercials among the news, although those were defined clearly at the top of each page. He’d say, “Page . . . Two,” for example, and then tell us about the great deals at Tru-Value Hardware.

Harvey’s 1952 book Remember These Things—which includes musings from his radio show—is pretty much the right-wing Leaves of Grass. Here are the closing lines, where Harvey shows himself to be a prophet. Also, check out those fine ellipses that re-create the original Harvey heaviness:

Now, my learned contemporaries of high degree . . . I am aware that my recommendations for hanging onto your Republic with both hands circumvent most of your geo-political considerations. You speak for the architects . . . I’ll speak for the builders . . . the men who can straighten rusty nails and build this all over again. Here in the hills and plains are the builders . . . wherever their towers rise. And to know them is to understand why God so often chose the simple ones . . . to confound the wise. (90, natural causes) —J.R. Taylor


Les Paul (click for larger version)





Les Paul
No one is more is responsible for the startling direction music took in the second half of the 20th century than Les Paul. An incredibly talented guitarist and inventor, he backed Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong, and the Andrews Sisters, among others. By the 1950s, he and wife Mary Ford had a string of million-selling hits.

His invention of the solid-body electric guitar made his name universal. His first electric guitar was built in 1940 when he added guitar strings and two electronic audio pickups to a wooden board that included a guitar neck. He dubbed it “the log” and once said of its plucked strings: “You could go out and eat and come back and the note would still be sounding.” The Gibson Corporation began manufacturing the Les Paul guitar in 1952.

Not stopping there, Paul’s innovations in recording techniques also revolutionized the music industry. His invention of multitracking and overdubbing allowed musicians to accompany themselves by preserving a previously played track while recording additional instrumentation or vocals on other tracks. In the garage recording studio of his Los Angeles home, Paul modified sounds with the addition of reverberation and the repositioning of microphones at various distances from the sound source. He created the first eight-track recording device in the late 1950s, which launched the era of modern recording.


Marilyn Chambers (click for larger version)

The most often repeated story regards Paul’s permanently bent right arm, the one used to pluck the guitar strings. He and his wife were touring in 1948 when their car slid off an icy bridge, leaving the bones of his right elbow splintered. When his doctor told him that he would have limited mobility in the arm once it healed, Paul requested that his arm be set bent at a 90-degree angle so that he could continue to play, which he did publicly until his death. (94, pneumonia) —Ed Reynolds

Marilyn Chambers
Many a proud American pulled his lever to Marilyn Chambers’ body of work. But if you lived in Utah during the 2004 presidential election, you could have voted for the former porn star as a vice presidential candidate for the Personal Choice Party. It was a typically strange career move for the former Ivory Snow model. The detergent boxes that featured her posing with a baby became collectable after Chambers made her X-rated debut in 1972′s legendary Beyond the Green Door. The savvy young lady—whose previous big-screen role was in the Barbara Streisand comedy The Owl and the Pussycat—received a then-unprecedented $25,000 for her starring role, and even got a cut of the profits.

Chambers followed Linda Lovelace into porn-chic prominence, and beat out Sissy Spacek for the lead role in David Cronenberg’s 1977 Rabid. Porn didn’t get so chic that Hollywood was ready for Chambers, though. She was back on the hardcore scene by 1980, and later produced her own line of videos with an emphasis on older women and—uniquely—older male sexual partners.

She was also the former owner of the Survival Store gun shop in Las Vegas. That explains some of her Libertarian politics. (“I want to be able to shoot [criminals]. I also want to be able to protect my country.”) Chambers was a tough businesswomen, but also a gracious lady who could carry on an interesting conversation for hours. Her legacy has not been followed by today’s porn stars. (56, cerebral hemorrhage and aneurysm) —J.R. Taylor


Dead Folks: Film


Dead Folks: Film

Remembrances of notable individuals who passed away in 2009.

January 21, 2010

Jennifer Jones
A dark-haired beauty with prominent cheekbones and perhaps the most expressive eyes ever captured on film, Jones often portrayed mercurial, emotionally fragile characters ideally suited for romance and melodrama. Portraying young women who could gush with joy and plunge into despair in the same breath may not have always been a stretch for Jones. Her private life, which was seldom private despite her resistance to interviews and publicity events, was emotionally harrowing.


Jennifer Jones (click for larger version)





In other words, as went the whims of Hollywood mogul David O. Selznick, so went the career and personal life of Jennifer Jones. As a fledgling actor attempting to find a permanent place in motion pictures, Jones apparently acquiesced to the Svengali-like will of Selznick, carrying on an affair with him while being groomed for roles in the early 1940s. By the time she was wowing audiences in The Song of Bernadette (for which she earned an Oscar), the 25-year-old mother of two was already separated from her husband, actor Robert Walker. Amazingly, during that separation the couple were cast by Selznick as the young, naïve lovers in Since You Went Away, a moving and superbly executed drama about life on the WWII home front. No one has disputed the rumor that Selznick was attempting to emotionally destroy the depressed, hard-drinking Walker, who was ultimately institutionalized after his divorce from Jones. Hollywood lore also suggests a stranger theory, namely, that Selznick—who had been obsessed with Jones from the day he first saw her auditioning for a play in New York—was slyly preparing her for roles that required an intrinsic understanding of overwrought melodrama. That’s easy to believe. Anyone who has seen the romantic mystery Love Letters, the landmark fantasy film Portrait of Jennie, or Since You Went Away recognizes that Jones’ screen presence was both mesmerizing and slightly unsettling.

On the other hand, it was common knowledge that Selznick was fully in love with the real Jennifer Jones; they were married in 1949 and apparently remained happy until Selznick’s death in 1965. Shortly afterward, a comatose Jones was discovered on Malibu beach, having “accidentally” consumed too many pills and too much wine. She recovered from the coma, and over the years more cynical Hollywood gossips wondered if the entire episode hadn’t been pre-directed by Selznick. (90, natural causes) —David Pelfrey

(click for larger version)

Karl Malden
Three generations of TV and movie viewers probably have distinctly different memories of this excellent actor, whose commanding voice and penetrating eyes once made him an impressive screen presence. The youngest may see Malden simply as the voice and face of American Express Travelers Cheques: “Don’t leave home without them.” The persona for that ad campaign (one that remains in the collective mind of another generation) was derived from Malden’s no-nonsense detective Mike Stone in the long-running 1970s TV police drama “The Streets of San Francisco,” co-starring a young Michael Douglas.

All of that transpired in the latter stages of Malden’s seven-decade career. He began with something of a bang, working with the powerful new directors and actors of the 1950s (Elia Kazan, Montgomery Clift, Eli Wallach, Marlon Brando), very quickly earning accolades for his roles in On the Waterfront, Baby Doll, I Confess, and A Streetcar Named Desire, for which Malden won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. (97, natural causes) —D.P.

Jack Cardiff (click for larger version)

Jack Cardiff
With very few exceptions, the list of films Cardiff directed will have any serious student of cinema wishing that Cardiff had remained strictly a cinematographer. The British filmmaker helmed the risible The Girl on a Motorcycle, a swinging ’60s fantasy with pop chanteuse Marianne Faithfull that attempted to be way out but was merely way out of touch. Still more inept was The Long Ships, a Moor-versus-Viking adventure yarn with Sidney Poitier and Richard Widmark disgracing themselves in the respective roles. The thing is, both pictures were often lovely to behold, if impossible to take seriously.

Cardiff possessed a preternatural gift for appreciating—and controlling—the effects of light and color as cast onto a motion picture screen. When film scholars speak of “painterly” cinematography, they invariably have Cardiff in mind. His Technicolor (and other film processes) wonders include The African Queen, Topaz, Death on the Nile, and Conan the Destroyer. Moreover, the three pictures Cardiff shot for Michael Powell (A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus, and The Red Shoes) have no analog in modern cinema (nor many contemporary equals). Many scenes in those marvelous fantasies still have film students and technicians wondering exactly how Cardiff managed it. His autobiography, Magic Hour, ostensibly reveals certain techniques, but like any good magician, Cardiff ultimately tells us nothing. (94, natural causes) —D.P.

John Hughes (click for larger version)

John Hughes
We can be angry with the multi-talented filmmaker for writing the screenplay for Class Reunion and directing Curly Sue, or we can admire the box office success of the Home Alone films, which Hughes wrote and produced. However, the former National Lampoon staffer and gag writer for Rodney Dangerfield and Joan Rivers leaves behind one undeniable cultural legacy. Behold the Brat Pack comedy/dramas that defined youth cinema of the 1980s. Hughes directed Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Weird Science, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and he produced Pretty in Pink. All the screenplays were his as well. Those films made stars and/or pop icons of numerous young actors, at the same time providing the MTV generation with official soundtracks and no small amount of entries into the popular lexicon (Bueller? Bueller?). (59, heart attack) —D.P.

Patrick Swayze (click for larger version)

Patrick Swayze
According to People magazine, Swayze was the sexiest man alive in 1991. For the kind of people who read that publication, he probably was. His leading role in Dirty Dancing made him a household name, and his turn opposite Brat Packer Demi Moore in Ghost established Swayze as a universally recognized heartthrob. His remaining résumé largely consists of roles as macho bad-ass types, which was no mean feat for a 5’9″ dancer. There again, an athletic Texan who raises horses, carries an instrument-rated pilot’s license, and studies martial arts makes good box office as a man’s man. Then there’s Swayze’s sense of humor about his status as a sex symbol and tabloid regular: witness his brilliant self-deprecating skits on “Saturday Night Live,”


Dom DeLuise (click for larger version)

or his irony-rich turn as the scary-as-hell motivational speaker in Donnie Darko. His final days were a grim deathwatch that functioned as tabloid fodder after Swayze was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. (57) —D.P.

Dom DeLuise
A plump, boisterous comedian, DeLuise possessed an overbearing persona that was a favorite of Mel Brooks, who cast him in several comedies, including Blazing Saddles. DeLuise teamed with pal Burt Reynolds in Cannonball Run and Smokey and the Bandit II. He got his start in television during the early 1960s as Dominick the Great, an inept, bumbling magician whose magic tricks never worked. His appearances on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” and “Hollywood Squares” made him a household name. An accomplished chef, he later performed culinary demonstrations on television as his film career wound down. DeLuise once claimed that the toughest role of his career was being cast as a penny in a school play. “The part called for me to roll under a bed as soon as the curtain went up and stay there until I was found in the very last scene,” he recalled in the book Who’s Who in Comedy. “It was my hardest role to date. I detested having to be quiet and out of the action for so long.” (75, extended unidentified illness) —E.R.

Ricardo Montalban (click for larger version)

Ricardo Montalban
Khan, Captain Kirk’s arch nemesis in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Mr. Roarke on the 1970s TV series “Fantasy Island.” Damon West on the medical drama “Dr. Kildare.” These are just a few of the many roles played by actor Ricardo Montalban throughout his career as one of the most visible Hispanic actors in post-WWII Hollywood. Born in Mexico City, he moved to Hollywood as a teenager to foster his dream of becoming an actor.

Montalban starred in 13 Spanish-language films before breaking into the American film scene in 1947, cast as a bullfighter opposite Esther Williams in Fiesta. He was under contract with MGM at the time, and said he quickly realized the studio’s portrayals of Hispanics at that time were “very insulting.” Montalban took up the cause of changing Hollywood stereotypes of Latinos, one he championed throughout his career by serving as president of Nosotros, an organization he founded for the advancement of Hispanics in the entertainment industry, for two decades. Despite this, Montalban had a friendly rivalry at MGM with Fernando Lamas as the studio’s resident “Latin lover,” a contest Bill Murray immortalized in a “Saturday Night Live” skit.

Known as a distinguished gentleman with a smooth accent, Montalban became the spokesman for Chrysler and Maxwell House coffee. He made guest appearances on countless TV shows, recently doing a voiceover on the animated series “Family Guy.” The deeply spiritual Montalban, a Catholic, was named a Knight Commander of St. Gregory, the highest honor bestowed on non-clergy in the Roman Catholic Church, by Pope John Paul II in 1998. (88, congestive heart failure) —Christina Crowe

James Whitmore (click for larger version)

James Whitmore
Like plenty of young Broadway actors, James Whitmore watched as movie stars took over roles that he created on the stage. He wasn’t a typical leading man, but his own move to Hollywood landed him a few starring roles as a kind of ersatz Spencer Tracy. He was morally sound while getting radio transmissions from God in The Next Voice You Hear, and sadly corrupt as a career criminal in The Asphalt Jungle. He also landed a great genre role when he took on giant ants in 1954′s Them!


Richard Todd (click for larger version)





Whitmore became a constant presence on television through the 1960s and ’70s, and also kept working steadily in films—favoring offbeat roles such as the lead in 1964′s Black Like Me and a simian turn in Planet of the Apes. He managed a final classic with a prominent role in 1994′s The Shawshank Redemption. A lot of people still knew Whitmore best from his years of commercials for Miracle-Gro Plant Food, and the avid gardener frequently used the sponsorship as an excuse to show up at florist events. (87, lung cancer) —J.R. Taylor

Richard Todd
The handsome, stern Irish-born actor was a popular figure in post-WWII British action films. Having distinguished himself as a paratrooper in the Allied D-Day operations, Todd made a believable war hero, most famously in The Dam Busters and The Longest Day. The Scottish burr Todd cultivated on the stage in Scotland, along with his fairly intimidating demeanor, rendered a memorable man’s man who might have been an ideal James Bond. Ian Fleming certainly thought so; Todd was his first choice for the role of 007. (90, cancer) —David Pelfrey


Dead Folks: Celebrities and Entertainers

Dead Folks: Celebrities and Entertainers


Remembrances of notable individuals who passed away in 2009.


January 21, 2010

Susan Atkins
As the cutest of the Manson Girls, Susan Atkins became an overnight sensation in the wake of the 1969 murder of Sharon Tate and her unborn child (as well as the next night’s murder of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca). The San Francisco native first met Charles Manson when she took a trip down to Los Angeles. They turned out to be kindred spirits, since Atkins was one of the few Manson Family members who hadn’t emerged from conservative suburbia. The lovely brunette had been raised among the budding San Francisco counterculture. Her pioneering hippie upbringing helped make her a natural thrill-killer. It also made her the least believable of the girls to later renounce Manson in favor of Christianity.

Atkins was still believable at one attempt in revising the Manson Family history. She always insisted that prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi was wrong to believe that Manson ordered the Tate-LaBianca killings to start a race war. Atkins maintained that Manson had another motive for framing the Black Panthers for the murders. The idea was to cover up Atkins’ own involvement in the earlier killing of a local drug dealer. She was certainly the most likely member Charlie would trust with that information.

Manson family member Susan Atkins. (click for larger version)

It was less believable when Atkins claimed that she was at the scene of the crimes only because she had a child that Manson was holding hostage. (Linda Kasabian—who had refused to kill anyone during the Tate murders—avoided imprisonment with the same story.) She also kept insisting that she hadn’t really killed Sharon Tate and her unborn child. Atkins continued to get letters from addled fans praising her revolutionary mayhem. She died behind bars, of course—in the same year that fellow Manson Girl Squeaky Fromme (who had tried to kill President Gerald Ford) was released from parole after 34 years in prison. (61, brain cancer) —J.R.T.

Reverend Ike
In the beginning, he was a flamboyant evangelist who looked pretty cool on Atlanta TV back in the 1970s. Reverend Ike—known more formally as The Rev. Frederick J. Eikerenkoetter II—worked the stage like a rock star, and preached that one does not wait for one’s pie in the sky by and by. Rather, one is to enjoy the riches of Earth as God wishes. To make his point, Rev. Ike wore lots of expensive jewelry paid for by his predominantly black congregation.

Reverend Ike (click for larger version)

He had a national audience, but Reverend Ike mostly leeched from thousand of parishioners at the United Church Science of Living Institute. His lack of a Southern accent kept him from receiving the disdain heaped on an Ernest Angley or Jimmy Swaggart. He also conned the national media with something called

“positive self-image psychology.” That didn’t sound any worse than EST. Ike peaked in the 1970s, when his broadcasts could be heard on 1,500 radio stations, but he kept preaching until a merciful stroke in 2006. His death, incidentally, was announced by family spokesman Bishop E. Bernard Jordan—who runs his own scam where he’ll charge $365 for a full year of saying prayers for you. Ike’s sad legacy lives on. (74, complications from a stroke) —J.R.T.

Fred Travelena
2009 was a tough year for impressionists. Danny Gans—whose hugely popular Las Vegas act featured his repertoire of voices—passed away last May. Fred Travelena—who passed away a month later—was a bigger name back in the 1970s. He wasn’t as famous as Rich Little, but Travelena was a regular presence on game shows like “Match Game” and “Super Password.” His broad style—with impressions from Kermit the Frog to Frank Sinatra—was never considered hip, and he was later replaced on the talk-show circuit by the likes of Dana Carvey.

He kept working, though, often secretly re-recording the flubbed dialogue of name actors in major motion pictures. Travelena also kept touring smaller venues. His assorted illnesses (including prostate cancer) inspired old fan David Letterman to bring him on as a guest in 2006. (66, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma) —J.R. Taylor

Altovise Davis
Sammy Davis, Jr. left behind more than a wife and child when he passed away in 1990. His widow also had to deal with a tax debt estimated at up to $7 million, plus a $2.5 million mortgage and a late husband’s will that included plenty of charitable bequests. Frank Sinatra reportedly helped Altovise out with a quiet gift of $1 million. She still passed away owing nearly $3 million in back taxes. It’s notable that Altovise never cashed in with a tell-all book. She had seen plenty of decadence during her days with Sammy. We would go into more gossipy detail, but it’s not safe just because the Rat Pack is dead. Shirley MacLaine is still out there. (65, stroke) —J.R.T.


Dead Folks: Writers

Dead Folks: Writers

Remembrances of notable individuals who passed away in 2009.

January 21, 2010
John Updike
Much of John Updike’s work proves the adage that writers write best about that of which they know. This two-time Pulitzer Prize winner had inauspicious beginnings, growing up in small-town Pennsylvania in a stone farmhouse on 80 acres of land. The area became the setting for many of his novels about middle-class life. Most popular was the “Rabbit” series, including Rabbit, Run and Rabbit Redux, based on the character of the small-town athlete Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom.Updike wrote from an early age, working for the high school newspaper and excelling in school; he earned a scholarship to Harvard University. There he wrote and drew satirical cartoons for the Harvard Lampoon. The year he graduated, summa cum laude, he wrote and sold a poem to The New Yorker. While studying for a year at Oxford’s Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, in London, Updike met E.B. and Katharine White, The New Yorker‘s editors, who encouraged him to apply for a job at the magazine. Updike moved to Manhattan and became a staff writer, a position he maintained for only two years (though he contributed to the magazine throughout his life). Moving his family to Massachusetts, Updike adhered to a strict six-days-a-week writing schedule from his home. Rabbit, Run was Updike’s second novel. His publisher, Knopf, feared that the frank description of Rabbit’s sexual adventures could lead to prosecution for obscenity, but the book was published to widespread acclaim without legal repercussions.

John Updike (click for larger version)



In 1963, Updike received the National Book Award for his novel The Centaur, a modern myth inspired by his childhood in Pennsylvania. The following year, at age 32, he became the youngest person ever elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters and was invited by the State Department to tour Eastern Europe as part of a cultural exchange program between the United States and the Soviet Union. Updike’s novel Couples created a national sensation with its portrayal of the relationships among a set of young married couples in the suburbs. During the 1970s, Updike continued to travel as a cultural ambassador. Rabbit Is Rich and Rabbit at Rest were published in 1981 and 1991, respectively. He published 60 books in his lifetime, working in a wide range of genres from essays to criticisms to poetry. (76, lung cancer) —C.C.

Paul Hemphill
Birmingham native Paul Hemphill wrote of a world filled with stock cars, college football, preachers, whiskey, and all-around hell-raisers that defined Southern culture. Hemphill’s newspaper columns were among his most controversial, condemning racism at a time when the subject was frequently overlooked in the Deep South. He had a knack for capturing the essence of the underbelly of Dixieland, where he admittedly consorted with prostitutes and moonshine swillers.

Paul Hemphill (click for larger version)



A former intern at the Birmingham News, Hemphill found work as a sportswriter after his semi-pro baseball career fizzled out. Eventually, he became a daily columnist for the Atlanta Journal, where his columns about the common man became a hit with readers. He authored The Nashville Sound: Bright Lights and Country Music, which is viewed as one of the best accounts of the country music world. Hemphill wrote with simple, blunt honesty as he described the sins of his native region, including a memoir of the strained relationship with his racist, truck-driving father called Leaving Birmingham: Notes of a Native Son. (73, throat cancer) —Ed Reynolds

William Safire
William Safire, presidential speechwriter, political columnist, and author, had the unique misfortune of being both a speechwriter for Richard Nixon and a target of national security wiretaps authorized by the former president. Safire was best known for his syndicated column in the New York Times, his regular appearances on TV’s “Meet the Press,” and his writing on language and etymology. A college dropout, he entered politics by way of public relations; while exhibiting a model home at an American trade fair in Moscow in 1959, Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev debated there (in what later become known as the “kitchen debate”) over the merits of capitalism versus communism. Safire photographed the event and later joined Nixon’s 1960 and 1968 presidential campaigns. In 1973, he became a political columnist for the New York Times. In addition to writing several books and novels, from 1979 through the month of his death, Safire wrote the “On Language” column for the New York Times Magazine. (79, pancreatic cancer) —C.C.

Frank McCourt (click for larger version)

Frank McCourt
Although he spent most of his life as a teacher, it is for his memoir, Angela’s Ashes, that author Frank McCourt will be remembered. McCourt was born in Brooklyn, but his family returned to Ireland soon after his birth, where they fell into even deeper poverty. Angela’s Ashes recounts those years spent in the shadow of his father, an unemployed alcoholic whose habits kept the family broke. Three of McCourt’s six siblings died of diseases brought on in part by squalor and malnutrition; McCourt himself nearly died of typhoid fever at age 10. His book describes the awful circumstances of his daily life in Ireland, yet manages to inject humor and lightness throughout the tale. At 19, McCourt returned to the United States only to be drafted into the Korean War; on his return he talked his way into New York University (despite having never graduated high school). He graduated and got a job teaching creative writing in the New York City Public School system, which he did for 27 years. It was at his students’ urging over the years that he began writing and sharing his work with his classes. He finally wrote his memoir, which was published in 1996. It has sold more than 4 million copies, been translated into dozens of languages, and won the Pulitzer Prize for biography. (78, meningitis) —Christina Crowe

Dominick Dunne
Crime writer Dominick Dunne could be considered the forefather to such celebrity “news” outlets as TV’s E! network or His life took him from wealth to the throes of addiction, from fatherhood to the grief of outliving his own daughters (two of whom died in infancy), from New York to Hollywood, all the while developing a career in investigative journalism. This born-rich Irish Catholic boy grew to become a TV executive and film producer in mid-1970s Hollywood, where he nearly crashed from alcohol and drug addiction. A period of self-exile from society resulted in his first book, The Winners. The murder of his daughter, TV actress Dominique Dunne, and the subsequent trial of her killer resulted in the legal journalism for which Dunne would come to be known.

He wrote an article titled, “Justice: A Father’s Account of the Trial of His Daughter’s Killer” for Vanity Fair, after which he became a contributing writer for the magazine. In the same genre, Dunne took several real-life murders, such as that of department store magnate Alfred Bloomingdale’s mistress, and fictionalized them in what became best-selling books. On the now-defunct CourtTV cable network, Dunne hosted a series called “Dominick Dunne’s Power, Privilege and Justice,” in which he covered celebrity trials including those of Phil Spector, the Menendez brothers, O.J. Simpson, and Michael Skakel, among others. In 2008, at age 82, Dunne traveled to Las Vegas to cover O.J. Simpson’s kidnapping trial for Vanity Fair. Clearly not wishing to be forgotten in death, Dunne wrote several memoirs and autobiographies and produced a film about his own life. (83, bladder cancer) —Christina Crowe

Donald Westlake
“Whatever Stark writes, I read. He’s a stylist, a pro, and I thoroughly enjoy his attitude.” —Elmore Leonard.

There’s an endorsement that makes sense. Most of Donald Westlake’s gritty crime thrillers conjure the same grim world one encounters in Elmore Leonard’s dark yarns. The three-time Edgar Award-winning mystery writer used more than a dozen pen names, Richard Stark being the most prolific. His were stories of heists gone wrong, betrayals, and curious coincidences that set bad men on bad paths to destruction. When adapted to the screen—and several were—Westlake’s tales called for genuine troublemakers and two-fisted anti-heroes such as Gene Hackman, Robert Duvall, and certainly Lee Marvin, who starred in the especially brutal Point Blank. For undistilled ugliness, however, Westlake’s screen adaptation of Jim Thompson’s The Grifters remains untouched. (75, heart attack) —David Pelfrey