Category Archives: Obits

Updike’s Ghost

updikeIt was something of a surprise to read last night of John Updike’s death on Tuesday. Updike was a mere 76, practically a youngster these days, and I’d heard no rumors that he was sick. He was though, with cancer. Thirty years ago my high school English teacher (a huge fan of Updike’s, he fought the rural-minded, easily-shocked local school board to let him teach Updike in his advanced class – and won) said that Updike would never really die because he was the type whose ghost would be an unrelenting nag.

That was uncharitable and probably not true. From what I’ve heard (living in Massachusetts, you hear about Updike all the time, it’s in the air, like carbon from outdoor barbecues in the South), he was a charming, funny man, and from what I’ve read he seems to have had an almost comic eye for silliness and the small, savory defeats that make up our smaller, less savory days.

Wherein lies the problem, of course. Updike was a maddening writer. A real wordsmith, it often didn’t seem to matter to him what he was writing about, only that he was writing. “I would write ads for deodorants or labels for catsup bottles, if I had to,” he told The Paris Review in 1967, and it too often seemed that that was precisely what he was doing. His poetry in particular (but his prose was infected with it, too) suffered (imo, of course) from a focus on matters so inconsequential that it was almost as if Updike was challenging himself to find a way to take meaningless trivia and make it sound as if it were of lasting and even global significance. Needless to say, he failed. Odes to storm windows notwithstanding, banality is banality no matter how much you weigh it down with pretty words.

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Christina’s Andrew, 1917-2009

Andrew Wyeth was the first real artist I found for myself. I had Michaelangelo, DaVinci, Rafael, and the like thrust on me either at school or at home (my father disliked art but thought a “rounded education” meant I ought at least to be able to recognize a renowned masterpiece when I saw one) but Wyeth I found for myself when an English teacher made a passing reference to “Christina’s World” as a painting done by an artist who lived part of the year in Maine. I lived in New Hampshire, as un- if not anti-artistic a state as exists. Mississippi thinks more of artists than New Hampshire and Maine where they were considered flakes, bums, drug addicts, and wastrels dodging a decent day’s work. The idea that one of these despised ones had actually chosen to live surrounded by the people who despised him was fascinating. I went to the local library and looked him up.

christinas_worldThere was a full-color, two-page repro of “Christina’s World” in an art book and I spread it in front of me on the empty library table and stared at it for a long time. I think I must have been expecting a Norman Rockwell-ish sentimentality but there was nothing sentimental about Christina. A cripple, she made her way around her run-down farm and dilapidated house by pulling herself along with her hands, her useless legs dragging behind her.

She was 55 at the time, an aging recluse who stubbornly refused any kind of aid, glorying in her pain and privation as if it somehow proved her worth. The picture Wyeth painted was generally considered to show her courage, determination, and independence. It doesn’t really, at least it doesn’t show those things any more than it shows her overweaning pride, her satisfaction in playing victim, or her vicious puritanical streak. All it shows is, as the picture title says, her world – as much of her hardscrabble farm as her strong if scrawny arms could get her across and then back to her house again in a single day.

It is – and was then – an extraordinary picture to me precisely because it looked unflinchingly at Christine yet made no judgments about her or her world except for the most important one: how limited they were. Christine’s world was the world of her farm, a world to which she was content to be chained, modern contrivances like wheelchairs be damned. It is the bleak, restricted world of people who live bleak and restricted lives and don’t see any point to changing them. Many assumed Wyeth admired them, but if so why aren’t they fleshed out, their joys lit next door to their fears, their hopes as much a part of the picture as their despair?

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Rev Andrew Weaver: A Fighter for Justice to the End

In the world of the intertubes the word “friend” has taken on a whole new meaning. A friend can be someone you’ve never met, never even talked to except through the medium of the web, or never communicated with in any way except reading what they wrote every day, over time coming to feel as attached to them as to the people whose hands you held when they were sick or whose jokes made you groan over a beer at your local pub.

Is it as real? I don’t know but it sure seems that way. I never met Rev Andrew Weaver in person. We talked on the phone a couple of times and emailed each other regularly but I didn’t even know what he looked like. Yet when I called up Talk to Action the other day and discovered that he died over the weekend, I was as bereft as if I had lost the kind of friend who might have introduced me to my first Little Feat record or talked me out of getting serious about that girl who stole every penny from her last boyfriend and then burned down his house.

Andrew would have done either, maybe both, had the need arisen. Fortunately it didn’t. But we did have long talks about Bush, his library, and the nature of god, the universe and everything. I found it odd having the same kind of conversations with Andrew (I never called him Andy; one, well, wouldn’t – he wasn’t the “Andy” type, not to me) in our respective middle age that I used to have in my 20’s, those deep, theological and philosophical discussions about life and love that you never seem to have once the pressures of daily survival grip you with their claws.

Those things still mattered to Andrew, though. He displayed a passion for Large Questions that was somewhat surprising in its width and breadth for a man his age. We were both too old to be as didactic in our opinions as when we were younger and Andrew certainly had a leavening humor that helped keep my sometimes dour cynicism in check but there was no mistaking the deep conviction behind the calm demeanor and the sly jokes he used to maintain his passion for justice and humanity without diving into hatred or despair.

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We’ve Lost Him: Paul Newman, 1925-2008

It’s hard to speak of Paul Newman’s entire life. There were too many parts to it. He drove race cars and sponsored Newman-Haas, one of the most successful Indy-league teams in sports history. He began Newman’s Own out of a few jars of salad dressing whipped up as Christmas gifts and turned it into a multi-million-dollar corporation that has provided satisfying work and healthy working conditions for thousands of employees, and turned $250M over to charities. He started out as an actor but rapidly grew into a director of some ability, a producer, and even a writer.

But it was as an actor that I knew him first, and it’s as an actor that he’ll be remembered by most us.

If Marlon was the Giant, the pioneer, the trendsetter, the larger-than-life prototype for all who followed, Paul was the one he opened the door for. If Brando was an earth-shattering explosion, Paul was the guy who came later and used the hole as the foundation for a hospital.

Newman always claimed he was a character actor in a leading man’s body, and over the years, especially his later career, he proved it. He was as dedicated to his craft as any artisan, and it was Newman who proved to the doubters of The Method, the ones who said Brando and Dean were exceptions, that Stanlislovski’s technique could bring depth and desire to even the 2-dimensional illusion of film. Brando may have finally given acting the cachet of art, but it was Newman who gave it the stability and honor of craft.

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George Carlin: The Best? Or Just the Best We Could Get?

George Carlin used to tell the story of the night that, as a young comic, he jumped into Lenny Bruce’s limo and exclaimed, “I want to be just like you.” Lenny was at the height of his fame at the time, and also at the height of his infamy, with simultaneous pornography trials going on in New York and San Francisco. Lenny, for reasons known only to himself, answered with a quote that turned out to be a Polish proverb. “If you tell the truth, kid, run like hell.”

Carlin sort of told the truth. He softened it, warmed it over and gave it back like milk at bedtime. He didn’t lie but he didn’t exactly shove it in our faces, either. So he never had to run. He made a lot of money instead.

I’m not trying to badmouth the guy, just see him in perspective without the golden aura of nostalgia. The truth is that he was no Lenny Bruce, cutting to heart of hypocrisy and laying it bare, and certainly he was no Richard Pryor, fearless with both his mouth and his life onstage. He had elements of each but they were tightly controlled. He never attacked religion the way Lenny did, although he did his best to give it a hard time, harrying it like a wasp at a church picnic. He never laid his private life bare in front of an audience or made humor from his relationships or loves – or failures – the way Pryor did, although the characters he created did sometimes have the same bright punch of recognition. He didn’t have the kind of courage a comic needs to go all the way, either in social commentary or personal risk. Or maybe he didn’t have that kind of desperation.

He tended to stay safe. His famous “7 words” bit was developed in front of college audiences in the 60’s who were thrilled with a new freedom, not in night clubs before successful businessmen raised on Burlesque and weaned on Milton Berle, who would have been angry, who would have called the police. I’m not saying he should have, I’m only saying he didn’t.

He guarded his career and the risks he took were carefully calculated to preserve it while at the same time he could appear to be going out on a limb. Lenny told audiences full of Catholics that they had invested their faith in an institution riddled with hypocrisy, faithlessness, and corruption. Carlin told audiences full of apostates that they were right. The NYT’s Charles McGrath notes the same characteristic, even if he means to applaud it.

Like all the great comics, Mr. Carlin had a gift for saying — and thinking — things that other people wouldn’t or couldn’t. He wasn’t as threatening as Bruce or Pryor. Especially in his later years, when, mostly bald but with a white beard and just a hint of a ponytail in back, he would bounce onstage in a black sweater, black pants and sneakers, his persona was warmer, cranky rather than angry. He was like your outrageous beatnik uncle.

(emphasis added)

There was always something unthreatening about Carlin. Even when his material wanted to skewer, his manner wanted to ingratiate. Lenny shared the truth with you because he wanted you to get the Great Cosmic Joke. Carlin shared his comedy because he wanted you to like him. There is a fundamental difference between Hard and Soft Truth that is personified in each man: Hard Truths don’t let you off the hook, don’t let you duck, don’t let you make excuses for not facing them. Soft Truth gives you a way to feel superior without having to do anything about it, least of all change your own attitude. Hard Truth challenges you, Soft Truth avoids challenges and gravitates toward comfort in the presence of pain. “It’s not my fault.” The only thing soft about Lenny’s truth was the humor he found in it. The only thing hard about Carlin’s humor was the language he used yo express it.

In a way that difference is an expression of what happened to society at the same time. In the 60’s we were ready to face Hard Truth, ready to do something even if we weren’t quite sure what it was we were supposed to do. Then they killed Jack and Bobby and Martin within a single 5-yr span, thousands of bodies were coming back from Nam, most of them friends and neighbors and jesus god family, and Nixon was the most popular president in history. We had torn society apart and for what? To hand it to wanna-be dictators? Carlin was there before, during, and after. He saw the change, then the turnaround, and his humor followed it. He had an ear for small discrepancies that played to the new desire not to mess with anything big, and a love of playing with language that college-educated if not college aged audiences could relate to. Lenny wanted us to stop the war. Carlin wanted us to make fun of it. Lenny died. Carlin lived.

That is the story of my generation. The motivating forces of my time were taken early and replaced by much softer versions with blurred edges who stepped carefully, suddenly aware that the risks they ran were not, after all, illusions. The Real Thing was replaced by its shadow, which was OK with us because by then we were running from the glare of the spotlight ourselves. By 1970 Lenny would probably have been doing routines about us selling out. Carlin did “7 words”. Without the Hard Truth staring us in our glassy eyes, we settled into the soft recliner of the Me Generation, turning our attention to making the money we once spurned and spurning the activism to which we had once pledged our lives.

Carlin was the perfect comic for us. He fed and confirmed our prejudices without challenging our assumptions. He was safe in a way Lenny never could have been. He was as much as we could absorb, as much as we wanted to absorb, the best we could get, the best we could stand to get. And he played his role to the hilt.

Boston Jazz Legend Dies of Cancer

pomeroy Somehow I missed this, but three weeks ago legendary local jazz trumpeter Herb Pomeroy passed away, a victim of cancer at 77.

I never met Herb but my trumpet teacher had been one of his students, and I went to hear him play whenever I could get to Boston. He was an astounding talent with a combination of technical agility and improvisational originality that was as rare as it was exciting to listen to. I wasn’t particularly surprised to learn that the memorial service held for him yesterday featured the same property of synthesizing opposites that made Herb so special.

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Glorious Pavarotti Voice Stilled

Luciano Pavarotti, the iconic tenor of our age as Caruso was of his, died today at age 71 after a year-long battle with pancreatic cancer.

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Max Roach Passes Into Jazz History

Max Roach, one of the giants of modern jazz, a guy who belongs right up there with the greatest of the great but isn’t nearly as well known, died Wednesday at the ripe age of 83. Considering the odds against him, that long life was a signal achievement all its own.

No modern drummer – and maybe no jazz drummer ever – has had such an enormous effect on the future course of his art. Max changed forever the way we think about drummers and to an extent the way we think about rhythm. He was the first to blend traditional African drumming with the quirky time signatures and signature changes of Stravinsky and Bartok, and one of the first (along with Mingus and Monk) to see jazz as the potential equal of the deepest and most complex music being written by modern classical composers.

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Ingmar Bergman Loses at Chess

death-seventh seal

Ingmar Bergman, Swedish Film genius (no relation to Ingrid), died on Monday.

I grew up in a small town in New Hampshire. The nearest movie theater was 10 miles away in Exeter – the Ioka. It showed things like Beach Blanket Bingo and Jerry Lewis movies in b&w. Foreign films and “art films” were little more than rumors. In high school, boys whispered with bright eyes and drooling lips that foreign movies had naked girls in them – lots and lots of naked girls. It was a powerful draw at 16. The closest we could get in the puritanical US, still reeling from the sexually suppressed and frightened 50’s, was Ursula Andress in a skimpy bikini (Dr No).

We made the most of it.

Then I graduated high school and got a scholarship as a day student at UNH for a year. At the time I wasn’t exactly a film buff. I liked movies and watched them on tv but I didn’t know anything about them. I thought they were fun but that was as far as it went.

The first week I was at the university and scoping out my new territory, I discovered, just off-campus and down a side street that wasn’t much more than an alley, a marquee. A movie house! And within walking distance of the campus (which isn’t really saying much – Durham is so small practically everything is in walking distance). Cool.

I remember being about to walk away when it dawned on me to actually read the marquee to see what was playing. To my surprise, it wasn’t Beach Party or the latest James Bond. It was Duck Soup, my favorite Marx Bros movie, and it was playing with The Maltese Falcon. Groucho and Bogart on a big screen with no commercial interruptions? That was something I’d never hoped to see. I’d never heard of movie houses that showed old films. I was supposed to be on my way home but as you can probably imagine, I dumped that plan and went inside.

From that point on, I was hooked. I went every time they changed the program, and sometimes I went to the same program several times. It wasn’t until January, I think, that they showed their first foreign film, Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly. The title intrigued me – American films didn’t go in for obscure Biblical references or, indeed, have any panache about them whatever – though I didn’t recognize it (I quit going to church several years before and had never bothered to read the Bible), so I went on the chance there would be naked women in it.

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Jim Capozzola, 1962 – 2007

The Rittenhouse Review‘s Jim Capozzola died Monday. He was one of only two or three bloggers who could legitimately be considered a pioneer, and there are a lot of posts around expressing gratitude for his generosity and appreciation for his talent.

Unlike the others who are writing postmortems, I didn’t know him personally, I never corresponded with him, and as far as I know, he never had so much as an inkling that I existed. So I wasn’t going to write anything about him, figuring it wasn’t really my place.

Then I read this short eulogy by Anthony Cartouche, who’s subbing for Roger Ailes this week, and when I read the last graf, I realized that Mr Capozzola had after all influenced me in a significant way that I had almost forgotten.

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Martin Luther King’s Daughter, Yolanda, Has Died

Yolanda Denise King was only 51 years old. The cause of her death is not known.

From the Associated Press:

Yolanda King, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s eldest child who pursued her father’s dream of racial harmony through drama and motivational speaking, has died. She was 51.

King died late Tuesday in Santa Monica, Calif., said Steve Klein, a spokesman for the King Center. The family did not know the cause of death, but relatives think it might have been a heart problem, he said.

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Yolanda Denise King, daughter of the late Rev. Martin Luther King, speaks on the burden of stroke and the experiences regarding her mother’s stroke, at a briefing sponsored by the American Stroke Association and the Congressional Black Caucus, Tuesday, May 23, 2006 on Capitol Hill. King, daughter and eldest child of civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., has died, said Steve Klein, a spokesman for the King Center. King died late Tuesday May 15, 2007 in Santa Monica, Calif., at age 51. (AP Photo/Lauren Victoria Burke)

“She was an actress, author, producer, advocate for peace and nonviolence, who was known and loved for her motivational and inspirational contributions to society,” the King family said in a statement.

Born on Nov. 17, 1955, in Montgomery, Ala., Yolanda Denise King was just an infant when her home was bombed amid the turbulent civil rights era.

She became an actress, ran a production company and appeared in numerous films, including “Ghosts of Mississippi,” and as Rosa Parks in the 1978 miniseries “King.”

“Yolanda was lovely. She wore the mantle of princess, and she wore it with dignity and charm,” said the Rev. Joseph Lowery, One of her father’s close aides in the civil rights movement. “She was a warm and gentle person and was thoroughly committed to the movement and found her own means of expressing that commitment through drama.”

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David Halberstam Dies in Car Crash (Updated)

David Halberstam died in a car accident yesterday. He was 73.

Given our current discussion on how the news media got that way, it’s particularly fitting that we honor Halberstam here. After all, he wrote two seminal books bearing closely on the subjects at hand – Viet Nam and the nation’s press establishment.

I used to have a first edition hardcover of Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest, and by the time circumstances forced me to sell most of my books, it was in pretty rocky shape. I took good care of my books, but when you read something 20 times and lug it around with you everywhere and lend it to anyone who shows the slightest interest and then have to hound them to get it back because they either don’t want to give it up or have passed it along to someone else, things happen.

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Kurt Vonnegut, Dead at 84

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Kurt Vonnegut was one of a very few contemporary writers that I wanted to meet one day. That day will never come now, and I feel as sorry for myself at his passing as I do for his family.

Somebody gave me Player Piano around 1967. I liked it well enough to go looking for his other stuff. I was living in Hartford at the time, and in what I have always considered to be a moment of whimsical serendipity straight out of Vonnegut’s work, I bought Cat’s Cradle at the Mark Twain Bookstore opposite Twain’s Hartford home.

Reading it made my head explode, not in the cognitive-dissonance sense we use that phrase today but in the 60’s, Flower-Power sense of blowing apart the chains on your mind and forcibly releasing it from the constriction of conventional thought.

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Keeping On: In Molly’s Name

Oh, shit.

That was my first thought, my only thought, all I had time to think before a D10T or something that felt an awful lot like one, slammed my stomach from the inside.

Oh, shit.

Not elegant. Not poetic. Neither am I. But there was a world in it just the same.

Oh, shit shit shit.

When my mother died of liver cancer at the age I am now, I was expecting it. I’d been expecting it for years. We all had. We knew it was coming and we were prepared. I didn’t cry. I’d done all my crying every time over the 15 years she suffered with it when what looked like remission turned out to be no more than a little breathing space before the next onslaught of the disease. Every time she slipped back into that dark world of hospitals and chemo treatments, lost hair, black-and-blue arms wrist to shoulder from injections and blood-taking and intravenous feeding, the weight that had taken so long to put back on melting away in a matter of days, I would leave her room after each visit, find a corner somewhere downstairs or outside, maybe sitting in my car, and cry.

I never said oh, shit.

So this feeling I’m having is odd. I didn’t know Molly Ivins. I never met her, never even saw her in person. I only read her column like millions of other people, bought her books like millions of other people, admired her guts, her wit, and her persistence like millions of other people. I knew she had been fighting breast cancer for years and that lately she’d been losing. I knew the symptoms – I saw my mother go through it – and I thought I was prepared.

And yet here I am, staring at this screen and saying oh, shit as if I had lost one of my few real friends.

But in a way that’s exactly what just happened. Continue reading

A Different Brando

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Ever since Marlon’s death I have been struggling to find a way to express what his life and work meant to actors of every generation since Stanley Kowalski walked onstage at the Vivian Beaumont Theater and let go that howl of rage and need in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. Or the way he transformed both film acting and film itself with Rod Steiger and Eva Marie Saint in On the Waterfront. Whatever his personal problems–and they were legion–this was a giant, the kind of talent who comes along once a generation if you’re lucky and influences everything everybody does after them. How do you sum up a man like that?

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