Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Abe, Marilyn & Robin

The first death of a media personality (in this case also a statesman) to have left a record of having caught the direct attention of a member of my family was that of Abraham Lincoln. My great grandfather Wilhelm Meyers (b. 1856), resident of Clark NJ, stood by the train tracks to pay his respects to the funeral train on its roundabout route to Illinois. The occasion made enough of an impact on the 9-year-old for him to have repeated the story throughout his life, so that all of his descendants are still aware of it.

Mass expressions of grief for pop culture figures didn’t occur with any frequency until the 20th century. They had to await movies, records, radio and other mass media that could make an entertainer familiar to millions of people. The first truly modern event of this type was upon the death of film star Rudolph Valentino on August 23, 1926. 100,000 onlookers showed up at the NYC funeral and rioted. There was a rash of suicides; Jean Acker, Rudolph’s first wife, scored a hit record with her tribute song There’s a New Star in Heaven. Despite the greater tragedies that at all times are present in the world, such outpourings aren’t as frivolous as they may seem. These people influence our lives every bit as much as politicians. Their songs, films, and personas are intimately connected with our memories and sense of self. We employ them as symbols of our own aspirations and fears, and when they die we are reminded of our own mortality. It is not quite like losing a family member, but it is something akin to it.

The first celebrity death which impinged on my consciousness in a significant way was that of Marilyn Monroe when I was 9. I recall the TV news flash announcing it, and my dad’s immediate comment, “She was only 36.” (For whatever reason, my dad was aware she was the same age as he.) A cascade followed in the next several years, some leaders with gravitas (JFK, MLK, RFK) and some pop culture icons (Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and others). Nonetheless, while I appreciated the social significance of those deaths, it wasn’t until Elvis that I felt the nostalgic twinge of personally having lost something from childhood.

In the years since I’ve lost actual friends and close family members, as we all do in time. The passing of public figures grows less surprising, less personal, and, by comparison, less disconcerting. Still, we never lose that twinge entirely, this time for Robin Williams. I have nothing to say about the circumstances of his death, but I remember the days of which his performances were a part. For those, a tip of the hat, Robin. (I have hat around here somewhere.)

Freud said that it is fundamentally impossible to conceive of one’s own death, for when you try you necessarily do so from a live perspective. I know what he was getting at, but the point is an academic one. We can conceive of limits to existence superficially, and that is quite enough. It’s hard to imagine a better motivation to try to enjoy the days that remain.

1962 Newsreel


  1. We just watched a documentary showing the funeral for Valentino. It was really something else. Reminded me of the outpouring of grief we saw when Princess Diana died. I was so surprised how many people in the US were affected by her death.

    Yeah I feel like you do about Williams. He brought a lot of laughs in to my life, and I've quoted him on many occasions. He did a hilarious sketch about the invention of golf that I still love listening to. Anybody who can bring so much happiness to so many people will certainly be missed. And so many people grew up with him in television shows and movies from their childhood. I remember him from "Mork and Mindy", but my younger friend knew him as Peter Pan in "Hook". His older sister will always think of him as Genie from "Aladdin". Anyway, I join you in a tip of the hat, and I played John William's wonderful score to "Hook" yesterday. Certainly a excellent musical tribute.

    1. The Diana response in the US caught me off guard, too. They're not our Royals, so I expected something more muted, rather like when a neighbor loses a family member: you just express condolences and stay out of the way, not invite yourself to the wake.

  2. Yes, I was sorry to hear about Williams' and Becalls' recent deaths. I think the first celebrities' death that affected me was John Lennon's. Though when I say affected, I'm not even sure what that means. I guess I mean reflect upon it in some way because although some part of them affected you or brought you joy and made your life richer on some level, you never really knew them personally.

    Not too sound too jaded or hard bitten I can understand where their loss might affect the public at large, I guess somewhere along the line too, I realize that death will eventually happen to us all. So I take it in perspective and as a fact of life, and like you said, (and also like Williams' character said in Dead Poet's Society) try and enjoy or seize the day while I can.

    1. Those lines about death when Williams is pointing out the old photograph to the class are a little freaky now. So is a poem (for me anyway) written by sister Sharon at age 16. She died in 1995.

      Intended to guide
      posterity on its long and
      bloody path, something
      unique in history.
      Perhaps, you see, they will bring
      busloads of people to look
      at my room and baby shoes
      after I’m dead.

      They will build romances
      from high school rings
      left in my drawers,
      tragedies from moldy
      pressed in my anthology books.
      I will be mysterious,
      Shrouded in mystery.

      When asked of me, my
      lovers, now grown suavely
      wrinkled, will smile sadly
      and sigh, “I knew her when."