Dead Folks: The Icons
Remembrances of notable individuals who passed away in 2009.
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
“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.”
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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