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.