Friday, December 31, 2010

Saint Clemente

On this day in 1972, Roberto Clemente, future Hall of Fame baseball player, was killed along with four others when the cargo plane in which he was traveling crashed off the coast of Puerto Rico. Clemente was on his way to deliver relief supplies to Nicaragua following an earthquake there a week earlier.

That baseball season, Clemente had gotten his 3,000th hit -- in the final game of the season -- for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

He was a hero in his native Puerto Rico, where he spent much of the off-season doing charity work. Some of that work had taken him to Nicaragua, so Clemente was particularly distressed when he learned that very little aid was getting to victims of a devastating December 23 earthquake near Managua.

He decided to collect supplies on his own and personally deliver them. At the airport in San Juan, he discovered there were far more supplies than could be carried in the plane he had available. A man there offered to fly the supplies to Nicaragua for $4,000, not telling Clemente he had no crew for the plane.

Clemente agreed, and the man scrambled to find a pilot. It was later determined that the plane had been overloaded.

As the plane took off, sounds of engine failure were heard as it went down the runway. It reached an altitude of only 200 feet before exploding and plunging into the ocean. Rescue workers were sent out immediately, but the task was next to impossible in the darkness. The bodies were never found.

The news hit Puerto Rico hard--one friend of Clemente described it as the "night that happiness died."

In 1973, Clemente was posthumously inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. In 2002, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Rasputin lives!

Today marks the anniversary (1916) of the death of Rasputin, the "Mad Monk," a Russian mystic who was confidant and advisor to Russian Tsar Nicholas II and his wife Alexandra.

Rasputin was murdered by a group of nobles who saw his influence over the Tsar and Tsaritsa as a dangerous threat to the empire. The legend of that murder is as follows:

The group of would-be assassins lured Rasputin to the palace of one of their members, where they served him cakes and red wine laced with a massive amount of cyanide, enough to kill five men. Rasputin was unaffected.

One of the conspirators then shot Rasputin through the back with a revolver. Rasputin fell, and the company left the palace for a while. When one man came back, Rasputin opened his eyes, grabbed him by the throat and strangled him.

As he made his break, however, the other conspirators arrived and fired at him. After being hit three times in the back, Rasputin fell once more. But he was still alive. The men clubbed him into submission and, after wrapping his body in a sheet, threw him into an icy river, and he finally met his end there—as had both his siblings before him.

Three days later, the body of Rasputin, poisoned, shot four times and badly beaten, was recovered from the Neva River and autopsied. The cause of death was hypothermia. His arms were found in an upright position, as if he had tried to claw his way out from under the ice. In the autopsy, it was found that he had indeed been poisoned, and that the poison alone should have been enough to kill him.

Yet another report, also supporting the idea that he was still alive after submerging through the ice into the Neva River, is that after his body was pulled from the river, water was found in the lungs, showing that he didn't die until he was submerged into the water.[13]

Subsequently, the Empress Alexandra buried Rasputin's body in the grounds of Tsarskoye Selo, but, after the February Revolution, a group of workers from Saint Petersburg uncovered the remains, carried them into a nearby wood and burnt them.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Remember me, unless you forget

Poet Christina Rossetti died on this day in 1899. Here is her beautiful poem called "Song."

When I am dead, my dearest,
Sing no sad songs for me;
Plant thou no roses at my head,
Nor shady cypress tree:
Be the green grass above me
With showers and dewdrops wet;
And if thou wilt, remember,
And if thou wilt, forget.

I shall not see the shadows,
I shall not feel the rain;
I shall not hear the nightingale
Sing on, as if in pain:
And dreaming through the twilight
That doth not rise nor set,
Haply I may remember,
And haply may forget.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

And some films are like a long, slow death

The writer Clarence Day (Life with Father) died on this day in 1935. He wrote: "If you don't go to other men's funerals, they won't go to yours."

The director Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch) also died on this day, in 1884. He said: "The end of a film is always like the end of a life."

Monday, December 27, 2010

And practice makes perfect

English essayist Charles Lamb died on this day in 1834. He wrote:

"My theory is to enjoy life, but the practice is against it."

Sunday, December 26, 2010


Another great comedian, Jack Benny, died on this day in 1974.

Benny was a master of comic timing and probably made the most of the fewest number of words of any comic ever.

His masterpiece was the routine featuring the robber, who, confronting the miserly Benny, says, "Your money or your life."

What seems to be two or three minutes of silence follows -- it is actually 10 seconds or so. Finally, the robber says, "Well?"

"I'm thinking it over!" Benny says.

Benny was also famous for his miserable violin playing. In 1949, he served as emcee at Harry Truman's Inaugural Ball. Truman, who also died on December 26 (1972), was good friend. When he arrived at the White House for the event, a guard pointed to his violin case and asked, "Mr. Benny, what do you have in there?" As a joke, Benny whispered back, "It's a Thompson sub-machine gun." The guard replied, "Oh, that's a relief. I was afraid it was your violin".

At Jack Benny's funeral, his pal George Burns began the eulogy but broke down. Bob Hope rose to the podium in a shaky voice and honored the comedian by reading: "For a man who was the undisputed master of comedy timing, you'd have to say that this was the only time when Jack Benny's timing was all wrong. He left us much too soon."

Benny left an estate estimated at $4 million. His will stipulated that a red rose be delivered to his wife, Mary Livingstone, each day until the day she died, nine years later.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Strawberry (-nosed) Fields forever

The great comedian W. C. Fields died on Christmas Day in 1946.

The hard-drinking, irreverent Fields spent his last days in a hospital, where a friend stopped by for a visit and caught him reading the Bible. "Checking for loopholes," Fields told him.

It is said that on the fateful day, Fields winked and smiled at a nurse, put a finger to his lips, and died. He was 66.

He was interred At Forest Lawn. It is also said that he wanted "I'd rather be in Philadelphia" on his gravestone (a reference to the old vaudeville joke "I'd rather be dead than play Philadelphia.)" But his marker merely has his name, and dates of birth and death.

Following Fields' death, a battle over his estate was waged between a number of claimants, including his estranged wife Hattie, his lover Carlotta Monti, and even a woman who claimed Fields had married her in the 1890s. Most of the money went to Hattie – the money they could find, that is. Fields had stashed funds in bank accounts under false names all over the world.

Fields once said, whether apropos of himself or not, "When we have lost everything, including hope, life becomes a disgrace, and death a duty."

(The books to read about Fields are W. C. Fields and Me and W. C. Fields Straight Up.)

Thursday, December 23, 2010

All is Vanity (Fair)

English novelist William Makepeace Thackeray (Vanity Fair) died on this day in 1863.

"Except for the young or very happy, I can't say I am sorry for anyone who dies," he once wrote.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Borne back ceaselessly into the past

F. Scott Fitzgerald died on this day in 1940, at the age of 44.

In Fitzgerald's most famous novel, The Great Gatsby, the narrator, Nick Carraway, says about the doomed Gatsby:

"Gatsby, pale as death, with his hands plunged like weights in his coat pockets, was standing in a puddle of water glaring tragically into my eyes."

When Gatsby dies, his funeral is attended by only Nick, Gatsby's father, Mr. Gatz, and an identified man with "eye-owled glasses." On the way out, the man wipes his eyes and says to Nick: "The poor son of a bitch."

Fitzgerald's own funeral was also poorly attended. Legend has it that at a visitation at the funeral home in Hollywood, Dorothy Parker cried and murmured "the poor son of a bitch."

A bizarre aside: Author Nathanael West (The Day of the Locust), a friend and admirer of Fitzgerald, was killed along with his wife on the way to Fitzgerald's services.

Fitzgerald suffered from tuberculosis; that, in addition to his years of hard drinking, undoubtedly brought on his premature demise. As Fitzgerald wrote:

"First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you."

The Catholic church would not allow Fitzgerald to be buried in his family's plot in Rockville, Maryland. He was buried in Rockville Union Cemetery. After his wife Zelda died in a fire in 1948 at the Highland Mental Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, where she spent the end of her days, her and her husband's bodies were moved to the family plot in Saint Mary's Cemetery, in Rockville.

Fitzgerald also wrote: "Let us learn to show friendship for a man when he is alive and not after he is dead."

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The "Heights," and then the depths

English novelist Emily Bronte died on this day in 1848. She had published Wuthering Heights the year before, at age 29.

Here is her poem called Last Words:

I knew not 'twas so dire a crime
To say the word, "Adieu;"
But this shall be the only time
My lips or heart shall sue.
That wild hill-side, the winter morn,
The gnarled and ancient tree,
If in your breast they waken scorn,
Shall wake the same in me.
I can forget black eyes and brows,
And lips of falsest charm,
If you forget the sacred vows
Those faithless lips could form.
If hard commands can tame your love,
Or strongest walls can hold,
I would not wish to grieve above
A thing so false and cold.
And there are bosoms bound to mine
With links both tried and strong:
And there are eyes whose lightning shine
Has warmed and blest me long:
Those eyes shall make my only day,
Shall set my spirit free,
And chase the foolish thoughts away
That mourn your memory.

And here are her own last words:

"I lingered around them, under that benign sky; watched the moths fluttering among the heath and harebells; listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass; and wondered how anyone could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth."

Saturday, December 18, 2010

A poetic life

English poet Francis Thompson was born December 18, 1859.

College-educated, he studied medicine but never practiced as a doctor, instead moving to London to become a writer. There he was reduced to selling matches and newspapers for a living.

He became addicted to opium, and lived a life of destitution until he was discovered in 1888 after sending poetry to the magazine Merrie England.

This was his letter to the editor of that magazine:

"Dear Sir,
In enclosing the accompanying article for your inspection, I must
ask pardon for the soiled state of the manuscript. It is due, not to
slovenliness, but to the strange places and circumstances under which
it has been written ... I enclose a stamped envelope for a reply...regarding your judgement of its worthlessness as quite final...
Apologizing very sincerely for my intrusion on your valuable time,
I remain,

Yours with little hope,
Francis Thompson
Kindly address your rejection to the Charing Cross Post Office.

Thompson lived as an invalid in England and Wales. He once attempted suicide, but was saved from going through with it by a vision he believed to be that of the poet Thomas Chatterton, who had committed suicide almost a century earlier.

Shortly afterwards, a prostitute befriended him, give him lodgings and shared her income with him. He described her in his poetry as his saviour. One day she disappeared, however.

He died from tuberculosis at the age of 48.

Here is a poem by Thompson:

Nothing begins and nothing ends
That is not paid with moan
For we are born in other's pain
And perish in our own.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Marley may not have been dead

Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol was published on this day in 1843.

"Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge's name was good upon 'Change,' for anything he chose to put his hand to.

"Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

"Mind! I don't mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country's done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

"Scrooge knew he was dead? Of course he did. How could it be otherwise? Scrooge and he were partners for I don't know how many years. Scrooge was his sole executor, his sole administrator, his sole assign, his sole residuary legatee, his sole friend, and sole mourner. And even Scrooge was not so dreadfully cut up by the sad event, but that he was an excellent man of business on the very day of the funeral, and solemnised it with an undoubted bargain.

"The mention of Marley's funeral brings me back to the point I started from. There is no doubt that Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate. If we were not perfectly convinced that Hamlet's Father died before the play began, there would be nothing more remarkable in his taking a stroll at night, in an easterly wind, upon his own ramparts, than there would be in any other middle-aged gentleman rashly turning out after dark in a breezy spot -- say Saint Paul's Churchyard for instance -- literally to astonish his son's weak mind."

Thursday, December 16, 2010

News of the Week

*** Berile and Connie Stander’s family has created a tradition for saying farewell. In their family, the funeral services don’t focus on religion and clergy don’t officiate. Instead, only immediate family and close friends gather together at graveside. One family member leads the service as each person who wants to speak shares memories about their loved one. The graveside service lasts less than thirty minutes. Afterwards, additional family and friends attend a reception at the family home... See full article

*** This snippet, written by Charles Duhigg, ran in

"When Kirk Jones jumped over the guardrail at Niagara Falls last week and fell 180 feet alongside 150,000 gallons per second of rushing water, traditional explanations for his leap were plentiful. Jones' parents said he had lost his job and was depressed. A suicide expert pointed out the appeal of dramatic farewells. And everyone called the jump suicidal: Jones is the first person to survive a Niagara fall without safety gear.
But when it later came out that Jones had boasted to a friend, "If I go over and I live, I am going to make some money," it was time to call in the economists.
Jones is now negotiating with tabloids to sell his story for thousands of dollars. His case, however, will complicate a debate that is roiling suicidology, one that pits economists against psychiatrists over a basic question: Is suicide a rational decision?"

The last laugh

Birthday of Jane Austen, born in 1775. She wrote:

"Why do we live? But to make sport for our neighbors and to laugh at them in return."

Jane Austen died July 18, 1817. Two days later her sister, Cassandra, wrote to her friend, Fanny Knight:

"I have lost a treasure, such a sister, such a friend as never can have been surpassed. She was the sun of my life, the gilder of every pleasure, the soother of every sorrow; I had not a thought concealed from her, and it is as if I had lost a part of myself.

"I loved her only too well — not better than she deserved, but I am conscious that my affection for her made me sometimes unjust to and negligent of others; and I can acknowledge, more than as a general principle, the justice of the Hand which has struck this blow."

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Which end is the worm?

Izaak Walton (The Compleat Angler), history's most famous fisherman, died on this day in 1683.

"Angling or float fishing I can only compare to a stick and a string, with a worm at one end and a fool at the other." -- Samuel Johnson.

Johnson died on December 13, 1784. (See entry.) On this date in 1750, he wrote:

"Every funeral may justly be considered as a summons to prepare for that state, into which it shews us that we must sometime enter; and the summons is more loud and piercing, as the even of which it warns us is at less distance. To neglect at any time preparation for death, is to sleep on our post at a siege, but to omit it in old age, is to sleep at an attack."
Rambler #78 (December 15, 1750)

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Now I really must be going

George Washington died on this day in 1799.

On his deathbed, Washington said: "Doctor, I die hard, but I am not afraid to go. My breath cannot last long."

Later he said: "I am just going. Have me decently buried, and do not let my body be put into the vault in less than three days after I am dead. Do you understand?"

"Yes, sir," the doctor replied.

"'Tis well," answered Washington.

(See December 6 to read about the Washington Monument.)

Monday, December 13, 2010

Johnson & Johnson (and more Johnson)

Samuel Johnson, the English writer, lexicographer, critic, wit and subject of Boswell's Life of Johnson, died on this day in 1784. He is buried in Westminster Abbey.

"I have now spent fifty-five years in resolving: having, from the earliest time almost that I can remember, been forming plans of a better life. I have done nothing. The need of doing, therefore, is pressing, since the time of doing is short. O GOD, grant me to resolve aright, and to keep my resolutions, for Jesus Christ's sake. Amen." Prayers

"I ventured to tell him, that I had been, for moments in my life, not afraid of death; therefore I could suppose another man in that state of mind for a considerable space of time. He said he never had a moment in which death was not terrible to him. He added, that it had been observed, that scarce any man dies in publick, but with apparent resolution; from that desire of praise which never quits us." Boswell, Life

"Let us, my dear, pray for one another, and consider our sufferings as notices mercifully given us to prepare ourselves for another state.
"I live now in a melancholy way. My old friend Mr. Levet is dead, who lived with me in the house, and was useful and companionable; Mrs. Desmoulins is gone away; and Mrs. Williams is so much decayed , that she can add little to another's gratifications.
"The world passes away, and we are passing with it; but there is, doubtless, another world, which will endure for ever. Let us fit ourselves for it."
Johnson: Letter to Lucy Porter

"That we must all die, we always knew; I wish I had remembered it sooner."
Johnson: Letter to Sir Joshua Reynolds

"Such is the course of nature, that whoever lives long must outlive those whom he loves and honours. Such is the condition of our present existence, that life must one time lose its associations, and every inhabitant of the earth must walk downward to the grave alone and unregarded, without any partner of his joy or grief, without any interested witness of his misfortunes or success."
Johnson: Idler, Jan. 27, 1759

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Hattie McDaniel? Ain't fittin'!

Tallulah Bankhead, the legendary actress, seductress and bon vivant, died on this day in 1968.

Born in Alabama in 1902, Bankhead moved to New York to be an actress when she was just 15. She got bit parts but was better known for hard partying, her quick wit and her wanton ways.

In 1923 she debuted on the London stage. She won immediate fame playing a waitress in They Knew What They Wanted. The show won the 1925 Pulitzer Prize.

She was as famous for her many affairs. "I'm as pure as the driven slush," she memorably said. She was said to be sexually insatiable, but she also said: "I've tried several varieties of sex. The conventional position makes me claustrophobic, and the others give me either stiff neck or lockjaw."

Success eluded her in films until Alfred Hitchcock cast her in Lifeboat (see picture) in 1944, for which she won the New York Film Critics Circle Award. She had been David Selznick's first choice to play Scarlett O'Hara, but he decided she was too old. On the stage, however, she won acclaim as the ruthless Regina Giddens in The Little Foxes (1939), and in The Skin of Our Teeth (1942), and Private Lives, which played on Broadway for two years.

An alleged bisexual, she was romantically linked through the years with everyone from Greta Garbo to Billie Holiday to Hattie McDaniel(!).

She continued to perform in the 1950s and 1960s on Broadway, in an occasional film, as a highly-popular radio show host, and on TV. Her appearance as herself on The Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Show in 1957 is a cult classic, as is her role as the Black Widow on Batman, her final screen appearance (1967).

Bankhead was the inspiration for Cruella De Vil in Disney's One Hundred and One Dalmations.

A lifelong insomniac, pill-popper, smoker and drinker, Bankhead died in New York City of complications from emphysema, at age 66. Her last words were: "Codeine...bourbon."

Friday, December 10, 2010

Sittin' here resting my bones

A plane crash in Wisconsin killed soul singer Otis Redding on this day in 1967.

Redding and six others, including four of the six members of Redding's backup band, The Bar-Kays, were killed when the plane crashed into Lake Monona in Madison. The two remaining members of The Bar-Kays were Ben Cauley and James Alexander. Cauley was the only person aboard Redding's plane to survive the crash; Alexander was on another plane.

Redding's body was recovered the next day; footage exists of his body being pulled from the water. The cause of the crash was never precisely determined.

"(Sittin' on) the Dock of the Bay" was recorded only three days prior to Redding's death. It was released the next month and became his first #1 single and first million-seller.

Redding was 26 years old at the time of his death. He was laid to rest in a tomb on his private ranch in Round Oak, Georgia. In 2002, the city of Macon honored its native son, unveiling a memorial statue of Redding in the city's Gateway Park.

In 1999, Redding received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2004, Rolling Stone ranked Redding #21 on its list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

National Children's Memorial Day

WASHINGTON, D.C., Jan. 9, 1882 -- In a remote corner of the Congressional Cemetery yesterday afternoon, a small group of people with uncovered heads was ranged around a newly opened grave. They included Detective and Mrs. George O. Miller and family and friends, who had gathered to witness the burial of the former's bright little son Harry, a recent victim of diphtheria.

As the casket rested upon the trestles there was a painful pause, broken only by the mother's sobs, until the undertaker advanced toward a stout, florid-complexioned gentleman in the party and whispered to him, the words being inaudible to the looker-on.

The gentleman was Col. Robert G. Ingersoll, a friend of the Millers, who had attended the funeral at their request. (Note to modern readers: Ingersoll was famous as an atheist.) He shook his head when the undertaker first addressed him, and then said suddenly, "Does Mrs. Miller desire it?"

The undertaker gave an affirmative nod. Mr. Miller looked appealingly toward the distinguished orator, and then Col. Ingersoll advanced to the side of the grave, made a motion denoting a desire for silence, and, in a voice of exquisite cadence, delivered one of his characteristic eulogies for the dead.

The scene was intensely dramatic. A fine drizzling rain was falling, and every head was bent, and every ear turned to catch the impassioned words of eloquence and hope that fell from the lips of the famed orator.

Col. Ingersoll was unprotected by either hat or umbrella, and his invocation thrilled his hearers with awe, each eye that had previously been bedimmed with tears brightening and sobs becoming hushed. The Colonel said:

"MY FRIENDS: I know how vain it is to gild a grief with words, and yet I wish to take from every grave its fear. Here in this world, where life and death are equal kings, all should be brave enough to meet what all have met. The future has been filled with fear, stained and polluted by the heartless past. From the wondrous tree of life the buds and blossoms fall with ripened fruit, and in the common bed of earth patriarchs and babes sleep side by side. Why should we fear that which will come to all that is? We cannot tell. We do not know which is the greatest blessing, life or death. We cannot say that death is not good. We do not know whether the grave is the end of this life or the door of another, or whether the night here is not somewhere else a dawn.

"Neither can we tell, which is the more fortunate, the child dying in its mothers arms before its lips have learned to form a word, or he who journeys all the length of life's uneven road, painfully taking the last slow steps with staff and crutch. Every cradle asks us "Whence?" and every coffin "Whither?" The poor barbarian weeping above his dead can answer the question as intelligently and satisfactorily as the robed priest of the most authentic creed. The tearful ignorance of the one is just as consoling as the learned and unmeaning words of the other.

"No man standing where the horizon of a life has touched a grave has any right to prophesy a future filled with pain and tears. It may be that death gives all there is of worth to life. If those who press and strain against our hearts could never die, perhaps that love would wither from the earth. May be a common faith treads from out the paths between our hearts the weeds of selfishness, and I should rather live and love where death is king than have eternal life where love is not.

"Another life is naught, unless we know and love again the ones who love us here. They who stand with breaking hearts around this little grave have no fear. The largest and the noblest faith in all that is, and is to be, tells us that death, even at its worst, is only perfect rest. We know that through the common wants of life, the needs and duties of each hour, there grief will lessen day by day until at last these graves will be to them a place of rest and peace, and almost joy. There is for them this consolation: The dead do not suffer. If they live again their lives will surely be as good as ours.

"We have no fear; we are all children of the same mother and the same fate awaits us all. We, too, have our religion, and it is this : 'Help for the living, hope for the dead.'

At the conclusion of the eloquent oration the little coffin was deposited in its last resting place covered with flowers. (From The New York Times archive)

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Living is easy with eyes closed

John Lennon was shot and killed on this day in 1980 by Mark David Chapman.

Lennon, 40, was entering his Manhattan apartment building when Chapman shot him four times at close range with a .38-caliber revolver. Lennon died en route to the hospital. Chapman had received an autograph from Lennon earlier in the day and voluntarily remained at the scene until he was arrested by police.

For a week, hundreds of bereaved fans kept a vigil outside the Dakota--Lennon's apartment building--and demonstrations of mourning were held around the world.

Lennon was considered the intellectual Beatle and was the most outspoken of the four. He caused a major controversy in 1966 when he said the Beatles were "more popular than Jesus," prompting mass burnings of Beatles' records in the American Bible Belt. He later became an anti-war activist and flirted with communism in the lyrics of solo hits like "Imagine," recorded after the Beatles disbanded in 1970.

In 1975, Lennon dropped out of the music business to spend more time with his wife, Yoko Ono. In 1980, he made a comeback with Double-Fantasy, a critically acclaimed album that celebrated his love for Yoko and featured songs written by her.

Chapman was diagnosed a borderline psychotic and instructed to plead insanity, but instead pleaded guilty to murder. He was sentenced to 20 years to life. In 2000, New York State prison officials denied Chapman a parole hearing, telling him that his "vicious and violent act was apparently fueled by your need to be acknowledged." He remains behind bars at Attica Prison in New York.

Lennon is memorialized in Strawberry Fields, a section of Central Park across the street from the Dakota that Ono landscaped in honor of her husband. "Strawberry Fields Forever," the song, was written by Lennon and released in 1967. Strawberry Fields was a children's home behind Lennon's boyhood home. He used to play in the trees behind the home.

In 1980 Lennon said about the song:

"I was always hip. I was hip in kindergarten. I was different from the others. I was different all my life. The second verse goes, 'No one I think is in my tree.'

"When I looked at myself in the mirror or when I was 12, 13, I used to trance out…I would find myself seeing hallucinatory images of my face changing and becoming cosmic and complete. It caused me to always be a rebel…

"…On the other hand, I wanted to be loved and accepted. Part of me would like to be accepted by all facets of society...But I cannot be what I am not."

Let me take you down, 'cause I'm going to Strawberry Fields.
Nothing is real and nothing to get hung about
Strawberry Fields forever

Monday, December 6, 2010

He still towers over his countrymen

On this day in 1884, the Washington Monument was completed.
Workers placed a nine-inch aluminum pyramid atop a tower of white marble, completing the construction of the monument to the city's namesake and the Father of Our Country.

In 1783, the newborn U.S. Congress decreed that a statue of George Washington, the great Revolutionary War general, should be placed near the site of the new Congressional building, wherever it might be. After Washington became president, architect Perre L'Enfant laid out a new federal capital on the Potomac River in 1791, leaving a place for the statue at the western end of the National Mall (near the monument's present location).

It wasn't until 1832, however--33 years after Washington's death--that anyone really did anything about the monument. That year, a private Washington National Monument Society was formed. After holding a design competition and choosing an elaborate Greek temple-like design by architect Robert Mills, the society began a fundraising drive to raise money for the statue's construction.

Those efforts--including appeals to the nation's schoolchildren--raised some $230,000, far short of the $1 million needed. Construction began anyway, on July 4, 1848, as representatives of the society laid the cornerstone of the monument: a 24,500-pound block of pure white marble.

Six years later, with funds running low, construction was halted. Around 1860, Mark Twain described the unfinished monument as looking like a "hollow, oversized chimney."

No further progress was made until 1876--the centennial of American independence--when President Ulysses S. Grant authorized construction to be completed.

Made of some 36,000 blocks of marble and granite stacked 555 feet in the air, the monument was the tallest structure in the world at the time of its completion in December 1884. In the six months following the dedication ceremony, over 10,000 people climbed the nearly 900 steps to the top of the Washington Monument.

Today, an elevator makes the trip far easier, and more than 800,000 people visit the monument each year. A city law passed in 1910 restricted the height of new buildings to ensure that the monument will remain the tallest structure in Washington, D.C. (From Today in History)

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Fiery day in history

On Dec. 5, 1876, a fire at the Brooklyn Theater in New York killed nearly 300 people and injured hundreds more. Some died from burns and/or smoke inhalation; others were trampled to death in the general panic.

The play The Two Orphans was showing at the theater. All 900 seats were filled. Near the start of the show, a gaslight ignited extra scenery stored behind the stage. The fire quickly spread.

When someone shouted "FIRE!," bedlam ensued, particularly in the balcony and the rear of the theater. A narrow staircase was the only the exit from the balcony (there were no fire escapes) and in the stampede many were crushed while others were trapped.

By the time firefighters arrived it was too late for hundreds of people. The fire raged through the night and destroyed nearly the entire building. When would-be rescuers were able to get in, they found bodies melted together. Up to 100 of the victims were burned beyond recognition.

A mass grave was set up at the Green-Wood Cemetery for the approximately 295 people who died. A 30-foot-high granite memorial (shown above) was later erected in their honor by the city of Brooklyn.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Sadists will remember you forever

The Marquis de Sade (Donatien Alphonse-Fran├žois de Sade) died on this day in 1814.

The most famous name in pornography – he gave his name to the term sadism – spent much of his life in prison, and did most of his writing there. He spent the last 13 years of his life in an insane asylum in Charenton, France. There he wrote plays to be performed by the inmates for the public.

At Charenton he had an affair with Madeleine Leclerc, a 13-year-old employee of the establishment.

He was buried in Charenton. His skull was later removed from the grave for phrenological examination. His son had all his remaining unpublished manuscripts burned.

In his will he also wrote:

"Once the grave is filled in, acorns are to be scatted over it, so that in time the grave is again overgrown, and when the undergrowth is grown as it was before, the traces of my grave will vanish from the face of the earth as I like to think memory of me will be effaced from men's minds, save for the tiny band of those who were kind enough to be fond of me to the end and of whom I carry a very warm memory to the grave."

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Want off the hook? Never grow up

Today is the birthday of both Mary Martin, who played Peter Pan on the stage and in the TV musical in the 1950s, and Cyril Ritchard, who played Captain Hook in those same productions.

J. M. Barrie, who wrote Peter Pan, may have based the character on his brother, David, who died in a skating accident at the age of 13. Barrie's mother never recovered from the event. Seeking his mother's affection, Barrie would dress up in his dead brother's clothing. It has been said by a biographer of Barrie that both he and his mother might have drawn inspiration from the idea that "David, in dying a boy, remained a boy forever."

The portrait of Wendy, Peter Pan's girlfriend, owes much to Barrie's mother, an orphaned "little mother" who had to raise her younger brother. Wendy borrowed her name from Barrie -- it was his nickname. He stopped growing at five feet in height.

Captain Hook meets his maker when he is eaten by his nemesis, the crocodile that was always ticking, having swallowed a clock. In Barrie's novella, Hook's last words are "Bad form." In the screenplay, they are "The croc! The croc! The croc! Pan, no words of mine can express me utter contempt for you."

Peter Pan, of course, is the character who cannot die because he will not grow up. Hook tells Peter: "Death is the only adventure you have left."

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A subject we won't tiptoe around

Singer Tiny Tim died on this day in 1996, of congestive heart failure.

Born Herbert Khaury in New York in 1925, Tiny Tim became perversely popular for his falsetto singing and ukulele strumming, most famously demonstrated in his trademark song, "Tiptoe Through the Tulips."

Tim started out performing in Greenwich Village in the 1960s. His big break came when he appeared on "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In." The incredibly annoying act caught the public's fancy, and he appeared on "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson as well as the Ed Sullivan Show.

In 1968 he released his first album, "God Bless Tiny Tim" which included "Tiptoe Through the Tulips." He released two more albums, including one for kids.

In 1969 he married his first wife, 17-year-old "Miss Vickie," on The Tonight Show. The marriage ended in divorce but, astounding to tell, they had a daughter, named Tulip.

Tiny Tim performed in Las Vegas and even joined a circus, but sadly, he never attained the dizzying heights of fame he had in the '60's. In 1996 he suffered a heart attack while performing at the Ukulele Hall of Fame.

Undaunted, he continued to tiptoe through America on tour. Another heart attack a few months later proved fatal.

Tiny Tim was buried with a ukulele in his hand and a tulip, in Lakewood Cemetery in Minnesota, where Hubert Humphrey, basketball icon George Mikan and Charles Lindbergh's father are also interred.

Monday, November 29, 2010

And how old Judy, Judy, Judy?

Cary Grant, born Archibald Leach in Bristol, England in 1904, died on this day in 1986. He was named the second Greatest Male Star of All Time by the American Film Institute.

Alfred Hitchcock, notorious for disliking actors, said that Grant was "the only actor I ever loved." Grant starred in Hitchcock's Notorious, Suspicion, To Catch a Thief and North by Northwest. In the latter film, he was older than the woman who played his mother.

Grant, who played romantic leads into his sixties, was always reticent about his age. Once a journalist sent his agent this telegram: How old Cary Grant?

Grant picked up the cable himself and replied: Old Cary Grant fine. How you?

Sunday, November 28, 2010

At least some fish were spared

On this day in 1994, serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, serving 15 consecutive life sentences for the murders of 15 men, was beaten to death by a fellow inmate while on cleaning duty in a bathroom at the Columbia Correctional Institute in Portage, Wisconsin.

Dahmer murdered at least 17 men between 1978 and 1991. Most of these were young, gay African-Americans he lured back to his home, promising to pay them money to pose nude for photographs. Dahmer would drug and strangle them to death, generally mutilating, and occasionally cannibalizing, their bodies.

Dahmer was arrested on July 22, 1991, and entered a plea of guilty but insane in 15 of the 17 murders he confessed to committing. In February 1992, the jury found him sane in each murder and sentenced him to 15 consecutive life sentences.

" If I was killed in prison, that would be a blessing right now," Dahmer said afterwards.

Dahmer was killed at the age of 34 by fellow inmate Christopher Scarver, who also fatally beat the third man on their work detail, Jesse Anderson. Scarver said that God told him to kill Dahmer and Scarver. Already serving a life term for murder, he was sentenced to additional life terms and transferred to a federal prison.

In one of his many interviews, the well-spoken Jeffrey Dahmer turned reflective:

"I should have gone to college and gone into real estate and got myself an aquarium, that's what I should have done."

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Wake up and smell the coffee

Eugene O'Neill, America's greatest dramatist, died on this day in 1953. His last words were: "Born in a hotel room – and, God damn it – died in a hotel room."

O'Neill won a Nobel Prize and four Pulitzers. He was, indeed, born in a hotel room, in New York City (the site is now -- what else? -- a Starbucks), the son of an Irish-American actor famous for a stage version of The Count of Monte Cristo.

As well as suffering from a malady similar to Parkinson's disease, O'Neill was an alcoholic for most of his life.

"None of us can help the things life has done to us," O'Neill wrote in Long Day's Journey Into Night. "Everything comes between you and what you'd like to be…and you have lost your true sense forever."

O'Neill wrote an epitaph, not for himself but for his dog. To read it, visit

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Cairo Museum is the official plunderer

On this day in 1922, King Tut's slumbers were disturbed for the first time in over 3,000 years.

When British archaeologist Howard Carter first arrived in Egypt, in 1891, most of the ancient Egyptian tombs had been discovered – and most of those had been plundered. But the brilliant and dogged Carter discovered the tombs of Queen Hatshepsut and King Thutmose IV. In 1907 he was commissioned by the Earl of Carnarvon, a collector of antiquities, to supervise excavations in the Valley of the Kings. Carter was convinced that the tomb of the little-known King Tut might still be found.

Tutankhamen became king in 1333 B.C., when he was a child of 8. He died a decade later. In the 13th century B.C., Tutankhamen and the other "Amarna" kings were publicly condemned, and most records of them were destroyed, including the location of Tut's tomb. A century later, in the 12th century B.C., workers building a tomb for Ramses VI inadvertently covered Tutankhamen's tomb with a deep layer of chips, further protecting it from discovery.

In November of 1922, Carter's crew discovered a step leading to the tomb's entrance. Carnarvon rushed to Egypt, and on Nov. 23 they broke through a mud-brick door, revealing the passageway that led to the tomb. On Nov. 26 they broke through another door, and Carter leaned in with a candle to take a look. Behind him, Lord Carnarvon asked, "Can you see anything?"

"Yes, wonderful things," Carter said.

The antechamber of the tomb was, miraculously, untouched. The dusty floor still showed the footprints of the tomb builders.

"Thus began a monumental excavation process in which Carter carefully explored the four-room tomb over several years, uncovering an incredible collection of several thousand objects. In addition to numerous pieces of jewelry and gold, there was statuary, furniture, clothes, a chariot, weapons, and numerous other objects that shed a brilliant light on the culture and history of ancient Egypt. The most splendid find was a stone sarcophagus containing three coffins nested within each other. Inside the final coffin, made out of solid gold, was the mummified body of the boy-king Tutankhamen, preserved for 3,200 years. Most of these treasures are now housed in the Cairo Museum." (This Day in History, at

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Sayonara, cruel world

On this day in 1970, the world-renowned Japanese writer Yukio Mishima committed suicide.

One of Mishima's subjects as a novelist was the spiritual barrenness of modern life. He contrasted the old Japan, with its patriotism and traditional values, to the new, materialistic, westernized Japan that arose after 1945.

On November 25, 1970, Mishima delivered to his publisher the last installment of The Sea of Fertility, his four-volume epic on Japanese life in the 20th century. He then went with several followers to a military building in Tokyo and seized control of a general's office. There, from a balcony, he gave a brief speech to about 1,000 assembled servicemen, in which he urged them to overthrow Japan's constitution.

Instead of inspiring a coup d'etat, he was mocked and jeered. When he finished, he went into the general's office and committed seppuku. Another member of his entourage then beheaded him.

John Nathan, Mishima's biographer, translator and friend, suggests that the coup attempt was a pretext for the ritual suicide. Mishima had made sure his affairs were in order, even leaving money for the defense trial of his three surviving followers.

Item in News of the Weird:

As an alternative to burial, cremation is no longer green enough, say environmentalists, because it releases smoke and mercury, and thus the industry is considering "promession," in which the body is frozen in liquid nitrogen to minus-320 degrees (F) and then shaken until it disintegrates into powder.

For green burials, the United States has at least six cemeteries that require biodegradable casings and for bodies to be free of embalming chemicals. The Forever Fernwood cemetery in Mill Valley, Calif., goes even further, according to an October Los Angeles Times story, banning grave markers, but, said the owner, "We issue the family a Google map with the GPS coordinates" so they can find their loved one.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Could you call Paris Hilton a parasitic Wasp?

Darwin's Origin of Species was published on this day in 1859.

In his work, whose full title is On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, Darwin theorized that organisms gradually – gradually as in thousands or even millions of years -- evolve through "natural selection" – those with genetic variations that suit their environment tend to propagate more descendants than organisms of the same species that lack the variation, thus influencing the overall genetic makeup of the species.

Darwin acquired most of the evidence for his theory during a five-year expedition aboard the HMS Beagle in the 1830s. Visiting such diverse places as the Galapagos Islands and New Zealand, Darwin studied – and brought back with him – much of the flora and fauna of those lands. Over the next 20 years he carefully developed his theory.

Actually he had formulated his theory by 1844, but he was wary to reveal his thesis to the public because it so obviously contradicted the Biblical account of creation. In 1858, with Darwin still remaining silent about his findings, the British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace independently published a paper that essentially echoed Darwin's theory. Darwin and Wallace gave a joint lecture on evolution before the Linnean Society of London in July 1858.

After Origin of Species was published, Darwin was besieged. Orthodox Christians condemned it as heresy. The controversy only deepened with his publication of The Descent of Man (1871), in which he presented evidence of man's evolution from apes.

Darwin himself had suffered a crisis of faith. He was tormented, not so much by what the public thought, but by his theory's implications for religious faith. "I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created parasitic wasps with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars," he wrote.

The death of his daughter, Annie, was, for Darwin, one of the final nails in the coffin of his Christian belief. He said that the best word to describe his religious views was "agnostic."

Most sources say that Darwin's last words were "I am not in the least afraid to die." His daughter, Henrietta, who was present, however, said that they were directed at her mother: "Remember what a good wife you have been." She also refuted the story that her father had undergone a deathbed conversion back to Christianity.

Darwin was buried in Westminster Abbey.

"Believing as I do that man in the distant future will be a far more perfect creature than he now is," Darwin wrote, "it is an intolerable thought that he and all other sentient beings are doomed to complete annihilation after such long-continued slow progress."

He also said: "A man who dares to waste one hour of life has not discovered the value of life."

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The rest is silence

Harpo Marx was born today in 1893. He died on Sept. 28, 1964, after undergoing open-heart surgery. Groucho Marx's son, Arthur, said that Harpo's funeral was the only time he ever saw his father cry.

Harpo's remains were reportedly sprinkled into the sand trap off the seventh fairway of his favorite golf course. In his will, he donated his trademark harp to the nation of Israel.

It was said of him at his funeral that "he believed the best of everybody until he was proven wrong, and even then, he gave them the benefit of the doubt."

True to his character, he had no last words.

Karl Marx, who died ten years before Harpo was born, was asked for some last words on his deathbed.

"Get out!" he said. "Last words are for fools who haven't said enough."

Monday, November 22, 2010

Ask not what you can do

John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the 35th president of the United States, was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963, while traveling through Dallas in an open-top Lincoln convertible.

First lady Jacqueline Kennedy rarely accompanied her husband on political outings, but she was beside him, along with Texas Governor John Connally and his wife, for a 10-mile motorcade through the streets of downtown Dallas. As the vehicle passed the Texas School Book Depository Building at 12:30 p.m., Lee Harvey Oswald allegedly fired three shots from the sixth floor, fatally wounding the President and seriously injuring Governor Connally. Kennedy was pronounced dead 30 minutes later at Parkland Hospital. He was 46.

Nov. 25 was declared a day of national mourning by Kennedy's successor, Lyndon Johnson. On that Monday, hundreds of thousands of people lined the streets of Washington as a horse-drawn caisson bore Kennedy's body from the Capitol Rotunda to St. Matthew's Catholic Cathedral for a requiem Mass. The solemn procession then continued on to Arlington National Cemetery, where leaders of 99 nations gathered for the state funeral. Kennedy was buried with full military honors on a slope below Arlington House, where an eternal flame was lit by his widow.

Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested about an hour after the assassination, in a movie theater. He had killed a policeman who questioned him on the street near his rooming house in Dallas. He was formally arraigned on Nov. 23 for the murders of President Kennedy and Officer J.D. Tippit. On November 24, Oswald was brought to the basement of the Dallas police headquarters on his way to a more secure county jail. A crowd of police and press with live television cameras rolling gathered to witness his departure. As Oswald came into the room, Jack Ruby emerged from the crowd and fatally wounded him with a single shot from a concealed .38 revolver.

Ruby claimed that grief and rage over Kennedy's murder were his motives. He figures prominently in conspiracy theories, among them that he killed Oswald to keep him from talking about a plot behind the assassination. He was sentenced to die, a decision that was reversed on the grounds of improper admission of testimony. In 1967, while awaiting a new trial, Ruby died of lung cancer in a Dallas hospital.

The official Warren Commission report of 1964 concluded that neither Oswald nor Ruby were part of a larger conspiracy, either domestic or international, to assassinate President Kennedy. But in 1978 the House Select Committee on Assassinations concluded that Kennedy was "probably assassinated as a result of a conspiracy" that may have involved multiple shooters and organized crime. The committee's findings, and those of the Warren Commission, continue to be widely disputed.

"For in the final analysis," John F. Kennedy once said, "our most common link, is that we all inhabit this small planet, we all breathe the same air, we all cherish our children's futures, and we are all mortal."

Sunday, November 21, 2010

And he gave his finger to the church

This is the birthday of Voltaire (Francois-Marie Arouet), born in 1694.

Voltaire was a world-famous wit, philosopher, essayist and cynic. "God is a comedian playing to an audience too afraid to laugh," he wrote.

Voltaire's widely published anti-religious sentiments brought him an ultimatum from the government of France: imprisonment or exile. He chose the latter, and lived for almost 50 years outside of his native country.

Always a vociferous advocate of free speech and freedom of (or from) religion, Voltaire was under attack from the authorities throughout his writing life. "The safest course is to do nothing against one's conscience," he said. "With this secret, we can enjoy life and have no fear from death."

Among the advantages animals have over man, Voltaire wrote, are that "they die without any idea of death, they have no theologians to instruct them, their last moments are not disturbed by unwelcome and unpleasant ceremonies, their funerals cost them nothing, and no one starts lawsuits over their wills."

Voltaire returned to Paris to a hero's welcome at age 83. The excitement of the trip was too much for him, and he died shortly thereafter. Because of his criticism of the church he was denied burial in church ground. He was finally buried at an abbey in Champagne. In 1791 his remains were moved to a resting place at the Pantheon in Paris.

In 1814 a right-wing religious group stole Voltaire's remains and dumped them in a garbage heap, an act of desecration that was not discovered for some 50 years. When the crime was found out, his body was recovered, but his heart was gone. (It was later found, and now lies in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris.) His brain had also been removed, and it changed hands a number of times over the next 100 years, before being lost track of following an auction.

One story says that Voltaire, asked on his deathbed to renounce the devil, refused, saying, "This is no time to make new enemies."

One thing that Voltaire did not say was the most famous line ever credited to him: "I may not agree with what you say, but to the death I will defend your right to say it." These were not his words but were written by Evelyn Beatrice Hall, under the pseudonym S. G. Tallentyre, in her 1906 biographical book, The Friends of Voltaire.

Friday, November 19, 2010

A little note, long remembered

Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address on this day in 1863. The speech, 246 words long, was part of the dedication ceremonies at the Gettysburg National Cemetery.

In his 1993 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America, Garry Wills puts to rest the myth of Lincoln jotting down his speech on an envelope on the train to Gettysburg. The book is an explication of how Lincoln laboriously crafted his "few appropriate remarks."

The Gettysburg Address, Wills says, was modeled, whether Lincoln knew it or not, after Pericles' funeral oration during ancient Athens' war with Sparta. It made the nightmare battle (57,000 casualties) into a vision of the ideals on which the country was founded. It extolled the dead and exhorted the living to remain true to their cause. It found life in death.

Springfield's Oak Ridge Cemetery, where Lincoln is buried, was dedicated in 1860 in a formal ceremony that celebrated the cemetery’s secluded natural setting as a sacred place where one could be inspired "with devotion to the civic and the holy." Wills says that Lincoln might have attended the dedication. He records that, before the dedication at Gettysburg, Lincoln met with the cemetery’s designer, William Saunders, and lauded him for his "advisable and benefiting arrangement." He admired in particular the arced rows of tombstones, evoking the idea of the equality of those who "gave their last full measure of devotion."

Monday, November 15, 2010

Fine wine by the Carton

The last installment of Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities was published on this day in 1859. The last words of the ne'er-do-well turned hero, Sidney Carton, are some of the most famous in literature:

"It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done: it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known."

Carton undoubtedly had time to think of these while awaiting execution in prison. As another writer, Samuel Johnson, said: "When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully." Carton was to be guillotined, but no matter.

Start working on those last words now!

Today's Perverse Verse (with apologies to Rudyard Kipling):

If you can keep your head while all about you are losing theirs,
You must be a friend of Robespierre's.

Friday, November 12, 2010

He kept his head until the end

Jean Sylvain Bailly, mayor of Paris during the French Revolution, was executed by guillotine on this day in 1793. His last words, in response to a spectator who heckling him because he was trembling:

"Only from the cold, my friend."

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Everybody just turn around

Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard died on this day in 1855. He wrote:

"Life can only be understood backward, but it must be lived forward."

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

True, more or less

November 10, 2007 -- author Norman Mailer died. He once wrote:

"Every moment of one's existence one is growing into more or retreating into less. One is always living a little more or dying a little bit."

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

And nary a drop to drink

November 9 -- 1833 - Poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (The Rime of the Ancient Mariner) died. His epitaph:

Stop, Christian passer-by! -- Stop, child of God,
And read with gentle breast. Beneath this sod
A poet lies, or that which once seem'd he. --
O, lift one thought in prayer for S. T. C.;
That he who many a year with toil of breath
Found death in life, may here find life in death!
Mercy for praise -- to be forgiven for fame
He ask'd, and hoped, through Christ.
Do thou the same!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

She warned him about playing cards

Gangster Arnold Rothstein, immortalized as Meyer Wolfschiem (the man who fixed the 1919 World Series) in The Great Gatsby, died on this day in 1928. He was shot while playing poker at a New York City Hotel. At the hospital he was grilled by police about who had shot him.

"Me mudder did it," he said.

On the subject of last words, humorist James Thurber died on November 2, 1961. His were:

"God bless...God damn."

For more on Thurber, see Today in The Cynic's Almanac

Monday, November 1, 2010

He had the stomach for dying

October 31, 1926 -- Harry Houdini died, of the effects of a ruptured appendix. The injury occurred when a university student delivered several punches to Houdini's abdomen after asking him if it was true he could absorb any such blow.

Houdini's last words were purported to be: "I'm tired of fighting."

Saturday, October 30, 2010

She took it out only on bowling nights

October 29, 1618 -- Sir Walter Raleigh was executed by beheading.

Before his execution, Raleigh refused to be blindfolded, touched the ax and said words to the effect: "This is that that will cure all sorrows." He then placed his head on the block and told the headsman: "What dost thou fear? Strike, man, strike!" It took two blows to sever his head, which his wife embalmed and kept in a red leather bag until her death 29 years later.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

My two bits on obits

For years I’ve read the obituaries in local newspapers all over the country. Having made my living for some time as a writer specializing in the personal profile, I’ve often wondered:
Why aren’t obituaries more interesting? Why are they generally preoccupied with details concerning those left behind? Often, an obituary is the only time the name of the deceased has ever appeared in the paper. Why, then, should the departed one not be given his or her due?
As I’ve learned in writing about the living: Everyone’s life is a story.
The dead should be honored, just for having lived. Creating a compelling obituary – telling one’s story concisely but elegantly – is an act of justice.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Obituary writer for hire

Went by a funeral home the other day to audition my idea of presenting myself as an Obituary Writer and a composer of funereal tributes. Two guys listened to me respectfully but a little bemusedly, I think. They agreed that obits are generally run-of-the-mill and woefully unjust but they cited the cost as the mitigating factor. The local Gannett rag commands $300 for a pathetic little standard obituary. At those prices even the most bereaved party can't be expected to indulge in the catharsis of publicly unburdening their heart.

As for my proposition to provide funereal tributes, they told me that people normally leave it to their preacher to handle that if they can't come up with something on their own.

The major obstacle they saw, however, was that hardly anyone wants to linger over death or make any sort of big deal about it. Many, they told me, will come in of a morning, on the heels of a loved one's demise, and ask that services be conducted that day.

Death is just another inconvenience, in other words, to be got past as soon as possible.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Going and coming

October 23, 1950 -- Singer Al Jolson died. His last words:

"This is it! I'm going. I'm going."

October 23, 1852 -- American statesman and lawyer Daniel Webster died. His last words:

"I still live."

In Hell, nothing works

October 20, 1820 -- Explorer and author Sir Richard Burton died. He wrote:

"There is ho Heaven, there is no Hell; these be the dreams of baby minds."

October 18, 1831 -- Inventor Thomas Alva Edison (pictured) died. His last words:

"Results! Why man, I have gotten a lot of results. I know several thousand things that won't work."

Sweet music

October 16, 1795 -- French queen Marie Antoinette died. Her last words:

"I was a queen, and you took away my crown; a wife, and you killed my husband; a mother, and you deprived me of my children. My blood alone remains: take it, but do not make me suffer long."

Also on October 16, in 1849, composer Frederic Chopin died. His last words:

"The earth is suffocating . . . Swear to make them cut me open, so that I won't be buried alive."

He crooned

October 14, 1977 -- Singer and actor Bing Crosby died. His last words:

"That was a great game of golf, fellers."

Also on this day, in 1959, actor Errol Flynn died. His last words:

"I've had a hell of a lot of fun and I've enjoyed every minute of it."

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

But leave the fire going

Civil War General Robert E. Lee died on this day in 1870. His last words:

"Strike the tent."

Shoot, we know that

October 9, 1967 -- Revolutionary leader Che Guevara was executed. His last words"

"I know you've come to kill me. Shoot, you are only going to kill a man."

October 11, 1809 -- Explorer Meriwether Lewis died, either by suicide or as the victim of a robbery. His last words:

"I am not coward, but I am so strong. It is hard to die."

Read about Lewis's mysterious death:

Assisi, for one, had relations with animals

October 4, 1226 -- Saint Francis of Assisi died.

"Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent." -- George Orwell.

October 5, 2004 -- Comedian Rodney Dangerfield didn't get any respect -- he died. His epitaph:

"There Goes the Neighborhood."

October 7, 1849 -- Edgar Allan Poe died.

"Quoth the Raven nevermore." -- Poe's epitaph.

It would have been elegant for Poe's last word to have been "Nevermore," in answer to the question he was asked on his deathbed ("Would you like to see your friends?"), but his dying utterance was probably the much more somber, "Lord help my poor soul."

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Crying all the way, that is

On this day in 1890, John Henry Cardinal Newman died. He wrote:

"...the mass of men are created for nothing, and are meant to leave life as they entered it."

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

He got it his whole career

Comedian Lenny Bruce died August 3, 1966 (we forgot to note yesterday), at the age of 41, of a heroin overdose. His supposed last words:

"Do you know where I can get any shit?"

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Well, that hurts our feelings

Polish-born novelist Joseph Conrad, a master of English prose, died on this day in 1924.

"About feelings people really know nothing," Conrad wrote. "We talk with indignation or enthusiasm, we talk about oppression, cruelty, crime, devotion, self-sacrifice, virtue, and we know nothing real beyond the words."

Thursday, July 29, 2010

He'd find the same old bad news

Spanish filmmaker Luis Bunuel died on this day in 1983. He once said:

"Frankly, despite my horror of the press, I'd love to rise from the grave every ten years or so and go buy a few newspapers."

Although he was famously a lifelong atheist, Bunuel reportedly had a transforming religious experience at the end of his life.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

What's the big deal, anyway?

American writer Gertrude Stein died on this day in 1946.

When Stein was dying of cancer, she turned to her longtime companion Alice B. Toklas and whispered, "What is the answer?"

Her friend was at a loss for an answer. Stein said:

"In that case, what is the question?"

Friday, July 9, 2010

Th-there's a blank now

Master of voices Mel Blanc (Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Sylvester the Cat, Tweety Bird, Foghorn Leghorn, Yosemite Sam, Wile E. Coyote, Barney Rubble, Mr. Spacely), died on this day in 1989.

"Th-Th-That's all, folks!" -- Porky Pig.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Shelley on the shore

July 8: On this day in 1822, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley drowned in a sudden storm while sailing in his schooner, Don Juan, less than a month before his 30th birthday. The incident was surrounded by mysterious circumstances: The boat may or may not have been sabotaged; Shelley may or may not have been murdered; Shelley was despondent and may or may not have committed suicide.

The day following his death, the Tory newspaper The Courier reported: "Shelley, the writer of some infidel poetry, has been drowned, now he knows whether there is a God or not."

Shelley's body washed ashore and later, in keeping with quarantine regulations, was cremated on the beach near Viareggio. An 1889 painting by Louis Eduard Fournier, The Cremation of Shelley (shown here), is inaccurate. For one thing, in pre-Victorian times it was English custom that women not attend funerals, but Mary Shelley is depicted in the painting, kneeling at the left-hand side.

Shelley's heart was snatched from the funeral pyre by Edward Trelawny; Mary Shelley kept it for the rest of her life, and it was interred next to her grave at St. Peter's Church in Bournemouth. Shelley's ashes were interred in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome under an ancient pyramid in the city walls with the Latin inscription, Cor Cordium ("Heart of Hearts"), and a few lines from Shakespeare's The Tempest.