We all know how a “death of someone famous” story is expected to read. Family, friends and colleagues describe the deceased as God’s gift to humanity who left a glorious legacy, and was a vessel of pure love, industriousness and boundless energy. And at the moment of departure the entire family was at bedside. No family members were in the bathroom or in the downstairs cafeteria or taking a shower back at the homestead…the family is always there en masse and without exception, standing or praying in a perfect half-circle.
And we all know what we’re expected to say when we read about the death of a noteworthy person. Second verse, same as the first.
I’ve taken some heat three or four times for posting overly candid obituaries. The truth is that I posted only one that could be fairly accused of being a tad insensitive. I’m referring, of course, to the Bob Clark piece that appeared on 4.4.07. The consensus seemed to be that it wasn’t so much what I said (“Very few directors have offended me as much as he did over the years”) as not waiting a week or two before posting. Clark had only died 12 hours earlier.
This morning I came upon a highly unusual post-mortem assessment of Peter Sellers, who died of a heart attack in 1980 at age 54. The speaker was his old friend and Goon Show colleague Spike Milligan, quoted in Ed Sikov‘s “Mr. Strangelove“: “It’s hard to say this, but [Peter] died at the right time.”
That’s the kind of searing observation that only a fellow artist could share or even think. A variation of this sentiment could be that the deceased didn’t die soon enough.
Nine years ago Scott Feinberg‘s posted a 7.25.11 piece about the death of Amy Winehouse (“The Art of Dying Young“). The idea was that it’s not such a terrible thing to check out early if your legend is going downhill anyway. Biological shutdowns will always be traumatic to friends, fans and loved ones, but it may be worse, Feinberg said, to hang on past your peak point.
But how do you know when you’ve peaked? Answer: Nobody ever does. Everyone goes through life saying, “I’ll find a way to turn things around…after all, tomorrow is another day.”
“Most [performing survivors] overstay their welcome,” says Feinberg, “and simply begin to evaporate from the public’s consciousness, either because they find themselves (a) unable to maintain the performance-level that first garnered them fame, (b) are creatively limited by the public’s limited perception of them, (c) are distracted and/or deterred by fame and its trappings, (d) no longer able or willing to compete with ‘fresher’ faces.”
Truman Capote certainly fell prey to (c). I remember to this day what Gore Vidal said when Capote committed suicide: “A very wise career move.”
If I could re-orchestrate my life from a free-for-all cosmic perspective, I’d like to live about 250 years but age no further than, say, 46 years. I’d arrange to be born in 1800 with my 2020 consciousness intact and armed with a serious arsenal of automatic weapons and handguns, and then explore the unsullied American frontier and become an inventor and buy up all the patents for everything and become stinking rich. And then tour the world and become friends with everyone worth knowing — young Abe Lincoln, Leo Tolstoy, Chief Sitting Bull, Herman Melville, young Katherine Hepburn, Frederick C. Douglas, Karl Marx, Charles Dickens, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., Isodora Duncan, Charlie Chaplin, Theodore Roosevelt. Jack Reed, Jack London, young Cary Grant, young JFK, young John Lennon and Paul McCartney, young David Bowie, etc. And then wind things down around 2050, give or take.