Monday, December 25, 2017

Did he leave behind his own?

Hugh Massingberd, who developed the obituary into entertaining and irreverent brilliance at The (London) Daily Telegraph, died on December 25, 2009, at age 60.

His term as obituaries editor, from 1986 to 1994, was "just a lucky time ... a time when so many legends of the century were dying," Massingberd told The Associated Press in a 1996 interview.

The Daily Telegraph said Massingberd found his inspiration at a theatrical rendering of "Brief Lives" by the waspish 17th century writer John Aubrey who said of a barrister — "He got more by his prick than his practice."

That line inspired Massingberd, as he later wrote, to chronicle "what people were really like through informal anecdote, description and character sketch."

A parade of remarkable characters took their last bows in the Telegraph during Massingberd's term — remarkable enough to take a curtain call in a series of anthologies.

There was Maj. Donald Neville-Willing who found his dentures a liability in romance: "I'm unlikely to be successful if the moon is bright." He also believed that World War II was "the best thing that ever happened to English homosexuals."

There was John Allegro, "the Liberace of biblical scholarship," whose promising career as a scholar of the Dead Sea Scrolls degenerated into a series of books claiming that Christianity was a hallucinogenic mushroom cult; indeed, that Moses, David and Jesus were fungi. The obituary recalled a reviewer's opinion that Allegro's books "gave mushrooms a bad name."

And also Nerea de Clifford, author of "What British Cats Think About Television," who had concluded: "Most cats show an interest of some kind, though it is often of hostility."

Lawrence Isherwood, who painted celebrities as he imagined them in the nude, also got a Telegraph obit that recorded Lt. Col. A.D. Wintle's opinion — "What I like about Isherwood's paintings is that there is no doubt about which way they hang."

And there was Len Chadwick, outdoor columnist for the Oldham Evening Chronicle, with an obituary that surely left many readers relieved never to have met him:

"A classic autodidact, as he strode along Chadwick would regale the young boys who were his most frequent companions (he was homosexually inclined) with interminable but inspired monologues — often in Esperanto — on subjects ranging from the history of socialism or his prisoner-of-war experiences to the poetry of Ebenezer Elliott."

The Daily Telegraph rarely dwells on the cause of death, though Massingberd said he argued with former editor Max Hastings that it should.

The day after Hastings agreed, "someone had died of a penile implant which had imploded," Massingberd said. The subject was dropped.

Massingberd's creed was that an obituary should give pleasure to relatives and friends, as well as the general reader.

"I think you want more people to say, 'Gosh, what a remarkable life,' and give them a laugh along the way."

People who died last week here in Middle Tennessee included "Tippy," "Sleepy," "Hamburger," "Stream," "Troll," Mother Fanny and Mama K, a man pictured with a coat slung over his shoulder, and a woman shown with her breathing tubes in.  R. I. P. to all.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Perry Wallace: An Appreciation

I was introduced to Perry Wallace when we both were in high school. My school, Overton, played his, Pearl, in the Regional basketball tournament. Our team was all white, Pearl’s was all black and therefore exotic to us, and before every game, during warm-ups, as an intimidating ploy their players stood in a semicircle at half-court and glowered at the other team. I wondered if they worked on this at practice.

The game started, and on our first trip down court I got the ball on one wing, and seemed to be wide open. Our coach, Tommy Griffith, had told us several hundred times at least before the game to always give a head fake before shooting, as the Pearl guys were fabled blocked-shot artists. However, as I said, I was wide open to my mind, so I jumped (a rather generous verb) and shot. Out of nowhere, a Pearl player flew at me and swatted the ball fifteen rows or so into the stands, imperiling the well-being of a knot of fans seated there.

That was my introduction to Perry Wallace. Pearl beat us by 15, the closest anyone came to that great team (the greatest in Tennessee high-school history is the general consensus) all year, I believe. Wallace went on from this legendary beginning to play at Vanderbilt. (No strings pulled, either: Perry was valedictorian of his high-school class.) He was a six-five center in one of the nation’s best conferences, yet he flourished. My college team played Vandy, and we upset them, but Wallace dominated.

Years later I heard from some of his ex-teammates about the horrible and harrowing ordeal that Wallace endured as the first black player in the SEC--the vile baiting, the cretinous catcalls, the objects hurled, the noose waved (a noose!), the rage, the venom, the unreasoning hatred--and his courage and stoicism in the face of it. My admiration grew even greater.

I followed his career from afar as he became a lawyer and a professor and a judge, always the very model of dignity and grace. I read Andrew Maraniss’s excellent book, Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South. And I went out with my son to the game at Vandy in 2001 at which the school retired his jersey. After the game I made my way up to him and shook his hand; I don’t know if he remembered me, but that was all right either way--I wanted my son to meet him.

So Wallace’s death was a shock to me. He was a hero of mine. Great athletes come and go, but his heroism was of the kind that doesn’t fade with time. His story affirms something about America--something shameful, yes, but something noble, over and above it. His legacy will endure. 

Read Andrew Maraniss's book:

Monday, November 20, 2017

Let's dig up that little green stick

On the road to nowhere
Leo Tolstoy, the great Russian novelist (War and Peace), died on this day in 1910. Near the end of his life he wrote:

"The meaningless absurdity of life is the only incontestable knowledge accessible to man."

In his later masterpiece, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Tolstoy tells the harrowing story of the slow, and then rapid, decline of Ivan Ilyich, a judge who has never before given death a second thought. Ilyich the materialist, forced to confront the stark truth of his inevitable passing, turns metaphysical: Will his death be his destruction?

"Death is over; there is no more death," are Ivan Ilyich's last words.

Tolstoy himself, as he neared death, resolved to find a more spiritual life on earth – at the age of 82, he ran away from home. He contracted a chill on the train, forcing him to disembark at a station along the way. The chill turned to pneumonia, and he died in the stationmaster's room, surrounded by journalists, who recorded his last words:  "But the peasants – how do they die?"

As he had requested, Tolstoy was buried on his estate, at a spot where his brother once claimed to have buried a little green stick on which was written the secret of universal love and understanding.

Read Ivan Ilyich's story:

Saturday, November 18, 2017

The mouse that roared

Mickey Mouse was born on this day in 1928. He starred in Steamboat Willie, an 8-minute animated short.

Walt Disney wanted to call his creation Mortimer Mouse, but his wife didn't like the name and suggested Mickey.

Disney died Dec. 15, 1966, of complications from lung cancer. It was rumored that his body had been cryogenically frozen, and, alternately, that he was buried somewhere on the grounds of Disneyland. Actually, he was cremated and his ashes interred at Forest Lawn Cemetery. His death was not publicly announced until after his funeral, which was attended only by close family members. He left the bulk of his estate to his wife, Lillian.

It is Hollywood legend – and we'll go with it – that from his deathbed in St. Joseph's Hospital in Burbank, across the street from Disney Studios, Disney's last words were about how shabby the studio's water tower looked. The tower is adorned with the image of Mickey Mouse. Studio executives have made sure the tower is repainted every year.

Walt Disney once said: "I love Mickey Mouse more than any woman I've ever known."

Love Mickey too? Then splurge a little:

Friday, November 17, 2017

What does a cold beer feel like?

Marcel Proust, French novelist, died on this day in 1922.

"Do not the indiscretions which occur only after a person's life on earth is ended," Proust wrote in Remembrance of Things Past, "prove that nobody really believes in a future life?

"If these indiscretions are true, we ought to fear the resentment of her whose actions we are revealing fully as much as on the day when we shall meet her in heaven, as we feared it so long as she was alive, when we felt ourselves bound to keep her secret.

"And if these indiscretions are false, invented because she is no longer present to contradict them, we ought to be even more afraid of the dead woman's wrath if we believed in heaven. But no one does believe in it."

Proust's last words were: "I feel like a cold beer."

Forget about Proust--you'll never finish him.  Remember to read this:

Thursday, November 16, 2017

A boy's best friend is his mother

Ed Gein killed his final victim on this day in 1957.

Ed Gein is the most famous son of Plainfield, Wisconsin.

Gein lived on a 160-acre farm with his brother, Henry, and a domineering mother. Henry died in 1944 under mysterious circumstances, and his mother passed away the next year. Ed was 39, unmarried, and in need of a hobby. He began to dig up female corpses by night in remote cemeteries. He dissected these, keeping some heads, sex organs, livers, hearts and intestines. He would flay the skin from the body and wear it himself, dancing and cavorting around the house. (He kept his mom's bedroom locked and undisturbed, and also sealed off the drawing room and five more upstairs rooms.)

Deciding he needed some newer clothes, he began making his own corpses. 54-year old Mary Hogan disappeared from the tavern she ran in December 1954. Bernice Worden, who ran the local hardware store, disappeared on this day in 1957. Mrs. Worden's son, Frank, a sheriff's deputy, learned that Eddie Gein had been seen in town on the day of his mother's disappearance, so he and the sheriff went out to the old Gein place, already known by local kids as a haunted house.

Sound familiar? Gein was the inspiration for Norman Bates, the deranged mama's boy in Hitchcock's Psycho and Robert Bloch's novel of the same name, and the serial killer in Silence of the Lambs was based on him.

In a woodshed on the farm, the men found the naked, headless body of Worden's mother hanging upside down from a meat hook and slit open down the front. Her head and intestines were discovered in a box, and her heart on a plate in the dining room. The skins from ten human heads were found preserved, and another skin taken from the upper torso of a woman was rolled up on the floor. There was a belt fashioned from carved-off nipples, a chair upholstered in human skin, lampshades covered in flesh pilled taut, a table propped up by a human shinbones, and a refrigerator full of human organs.
The four posts on Gein's bed were topped with skulls and a human head hung on the wall alongside nine death masks - the skinned faces of women - and decorative bracelets made out of human skin. There were soup bowls fashioned from skulls, a shoebox full of female genitalia, faces stuffed with newspapers and mounted like hunting trophies on the walls, and a vest flayed from the torso of a woman. Gein later confessed that he enjoyed dressing himself in skin-garments and pretending he was his mother. The remains of 15 bodies were found; Gein couldn't recall how many murders he'd committed.

After ten years in a mental hospital, Gein was judged competent to stand trial. He was found guilty but criminally insane. He spent the rest of his life in insane asylums, and died in a geriatric ward in 1984, aged 77, always, it was said, a model prisoner - gentle, polite and discreet.

His gravesite in the Plainfield cemetery was frequently vandalized over the years; souvenir seekers would chip off pieces of his gravestone before it was stolen in 2000. It was recovered in 2001 and is presently displayed in a Wautoma, Wisconsin museum.

In the last interview Gein gave, he said: "I like this place, everybody treats me nice. Some of them are a little crazy, though."

Read more about kooky Ed Gein:

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Bring me a bottle, and let me die

Desiderius Erasmus, Dutch Renaissance theologian and writer, died on this day in 1536. He was the first to say:

"Women -- can't live with them, can't live without them."

Erasmus wrote:  "The nearer people approach old age the closer they return to a semblance of childhood, until the time comes for them to depart this life, again like children, neither tired of living no aware of death."

Read H. L. Mencken in defense of women, and some other hobby-horses:

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Go Fourth and Meet Your Maker

Presidents John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both died on this day in 1826. The two had become the best of friends later in life. As Adams lay dying he said, "Thomas Jefferson--still survives..."  Actually, Jefferson had died earlier that day.

(Trivia: Another U. S. President died on July 4th -- James Monroe, July 4, 1831. Also, Pres. Calvin Coolidge was born on July 4, 1872.)

The great American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne was born on July 4, 1804. He wrote:

"We sometimes congratulate ourselves at the moment of waking from a troubled dream; it may be so the moment after death."

Friday, June 16, 2017

To my bed of dirt

As for him, he swallowed kryptonite
George ("Superman") Reeves committed suicide on this day in 1959. He was being visited by friends, when he announced:

"I'm tired. I'm going back to bed."

He went to his bedroom and shot himself in the head.

For a year's worth of super-entertaining last words:

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

A one anna two anna let me blow my brains out

Stop, you're killing me!
Lawrence Welk died on this day in 1992. He was the cause of the slow death of millions of kids growing up in the 'fifties. Seeing his show now, one can look on it with amusement, but to a kid seeing it live every week, his parents looking on enthralled, it was an inkling that there is something malevolent at the heart of life.

While reading about Welk on the Web, I came across This great site:

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

If they'd known she was dying they'd have baked her a cake

Lady Nancy Astor died on this day in 1964. She was the first woman to serve as a member of the British Parliament, as a member of the House of Commons.

Her last words, when she woke briefly during her last illness and found all her family around her bedside:

"Am I dying or is this my birthday?"

Note: "Nancy Astor" is an anagram of "canary snot."  Got any good (or gross) anagrams of your own? Let me know.  Want more inspiration?

Friday, April 28, 2017

V for Victory

Basketball coach Jim Valvano died on this day in 1993, after an inspiring fight with cancer ("Never give up") that engaged millions of people who weren't even basketball fans.

"Be a dreamer," Valvano said. "If you don't know how to dream, you're dead."

To find out about the Jimmy V Foundation for Cancer Research, Go here:

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The cesspool gets sweeter every year

And good luck to you, too
Actor George Sanders (Academy Award for All About Eve) committed suicide on this day in 1972. His suicide note read:

"Dear World, I am leaving you because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough. I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool - good luck."

See Sanders as the consummate cynic:

Monday, April 24, 2017

That'll do it, every time

This is the date of death of American writer Willa Cather (1873-1947). The author of Death Comes for the Archbishop, she said:

"I shall not die of a cold. I shall die of having lived."

Check it out:

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Dusting off the Bard

William Shakespeare died on this day in 1616. He was also born on April 23 in 1564 (open to debate).

The slab above his grave reads:

Good friend, for Jesus' sake forebeare
To digg the dust enclosed heare;
Bleste be the man that spares thes stones,
And curst be he that moves my bones


Fear no more the heat o' the sun,                                  
Nor the furious winter's rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta'en thy wages:
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.

Fear no more the frown o' the great;
Thou art past the tyrant's stroke:
Care no more to clothe and eat;
To thee the reed is as the oak:
The sceptre, learning, physic, must
All follow this, and come to dust.

Fear no more the lightning-flash,
Nor the all-dreaded thunder-stone;
Fear not slander, censure rash;
Thou hast finish'd joy and moan:
All lovers young, all lovers must
Consign to thee, and come to dust.

No exerciser harm thee!
Nor no witchcraft charm thee!
Ghost unlaid forbear thee!
Nothing will come near thee!
Quiet consummation have;
And renowned be thy grave!

(Cymbeline, IV, 2)

For one writer's opinion of Shakespeare, visit Today in Cynic's Almanac

Monday, April 17, 2017

Be nice and die

French writer Marie de Sevigne died on this day in 1696. She was famous for her witty letters to her daughter.

She wrote: "It seldom happens, I think, that a man has the civility to die when all the world wishes it."

This is also the date of death of Benjamin Franklin.

Franklin died peacefully in his sleep on April 17, 1790, at age 84. His funeral at Christ Church in Philadelphia attracted the largest crowd of mourners ever known, an estimated 20,000. He was buried beside his wife, Deborah, who had died 16 years before him.

The tombstone on their grave said "Benjamin and Deborah Franklin: 1790."

This inscription had been spelled out in Franklin's last will and testament. As a young man, he had written this epitaph for himself:

The body of
B. Franklin, Printer
(Like the Cover of an Old Book
Its Contents torn Out
And Stript of its Lettering and Gilding)
Lies Here, Food for Worms.
But the Work shall not be Lost;
For it will (as he Believ'd) Appear once More
In a New and More Elegant Edition
Revised and Corrected
By the Author.

Of the thousands of maxims and pithy sayings that Franklin wrote down, here are a few on death:

"Many men die at twenty-five and aren't buried until they are seventy-five."

"Three may keep a secret if two of them are dead."

"If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead, either write something worth reading or do things worth writing."

And, of course:

"In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes."

Read the definitive bio of Franklin:

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Cold Chamfort

Nicolas de Chamfort, the French writer and wit, died on this day in 1794. He was famous for his Maximes et Pensees (Maxims and Thoughts).

Chamfort spent a short time in prison for his political opinions following the French Revolution. ("If it were not for the government, we should have nothing to laugh at in France," he wrote.)

After his release he was threatened with prison again. In September 1793 he locked himself into his office and shot himself in the face. The pistol malfunctioned and he succeeded only in shooting off his nose and part of his jaw.

He then repeatedly stabbed himself in the neck with a paper cutter, but failed to cut an artery. He finally used the paper cutter to stab himself in the chest.

He dictated to those who came to arrest him:

"I, Sebastien-Roch Nicolas Chamfort, declare that I wished to die a free man rather than be enslaved in a house of detention."

Chamfort signed his famous death note in a firm hand and in his own blood. He did not die at once, but lingered on until April 13, 1794, in the charge of a gendarme, to whom he paid a crown a day. At one point he said, "I feel livelier than ever. What a pity I no longer care about living."

Near the end, Chamfort said to a priest:

"My friend, I'm finally taking leave of this earth, a place where one's heart must either break or be hard as bronze."

Some other mots by Chafort:

"The only thing that keeps God from sending another flood is that the first one was useless."

"I have three kinds of friends: those who love me, those who pay no attention to me, and those who detest me."

"Man may aspire to virtue, but he cannot reasonably aspire to truth."

And my favorite:

"Swallow a toad in the morning and you will encounter nothing more disgusting the rest of the day."

About life and death, Chamfort wrote:

"Living is a sickness to which sleep provides relief every sixteen hours. It's a palliative. The remedy is death."

For a whole year of last thoughts, last words and last things:

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Take two aspirin and call the morgue in the morning

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt died on this day in 1945. He was on a retreat at Warm Springs, Georgia with his mistress, Lucy Page Rutherford, and having his portrait painted when he uttered these last words:

"I have a terrific headache."

Died recently in Nashville: Granny Apple, Harry Berry.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Last words to grow on

The world's worst blind date

American horticulturalist Luther Burbank died on this day in 1926. His last words:

"I don't feel good."

From horticulture to a horror of culture -- John Merrick, The Elephant Man, died on this day in 1890. In the movie, his last words are:
"Nothing ever dies."

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Roll over, Beethoven, and tell us again

Ludwig van Beethoven died on this day in 1827.

His last words are subject to debate. Here are some conjectures:

"Pity, pity...too late."

"Applaud, my friends, the comedy is finished." (Plaudite, amici, comedia finita est.; the formula traditionally used to end a performance of commedia dell'arte.)

"I shall hear in Heaven."

"I feel as if up to now I had written no more than a few notes."

(To his friend Johann Hummel, who was at his bedside): "Is it not true, Hummel, that I have some talent after all?"

"There, do you hear the bell? Don't you hear it ringing? The curtain must drop. Yes! My curtain is falling."

One biographer says he said nothing, simply shook his fists defiantly as a thunderstorm raged outside.

Listen to the whole lineup of symphonies:

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Or the thought of murder

The French novelist Stendhal (Marie-Henri Beyle), author of The Red and the Black and The Charterhouse of Parma, died on this day in 1842.

"True love makes the thought of death frequent, easy, without terrors;" Stendhal wrote, "it merely becomes the standard of comparison, the price one would pay for many things."

Our favorite quotation by Stendhal:

"The only excuse for God is that he does not exist."

Here's Stendhal's best-known book: