World

Unlikely Parallels in a Year of Momentous Deaths


When Buckingham Palace announced the death of Queen Elizabeth II on Sept. 8, the news, notwithstanding the worldwide outpouring of grief it set off, did not come as a complete surprise — not to anyone who had been following the reports of her end-of-days decline. She was 96, after all.

The same might be said of the death of Mikhail Gorbachev. He was 91 and had largely been out of circulation since his power slipped away after the heady Soviet years of glasnost and perestroika. It was, as we’re apt to say with a certain fatalism about those of advanced age, his time.

You could say it was Bill Russell’s, too. It had been 53 years since he hung up his Celtics uniform for the last time, having dominated, even transformed, basketball, first in college and then in the pro ranks. And though he had remained vital through the succeeding decades, he was, in the end, 88.

Those deaths, like many others reported in the obituary pages this year, could not be said to have been wholly unexpected. But a curiously ample number were, in terms of their timing and circumstances. Call them products of sad but odd coincidence, befalling people who had shared some sort of bond in life and then left the world in unlikely tandem.

There were, for example, the deaths of Lucy Simon and Joanna Simon, musical sisters of the singer-songwriter Carly Simon. They died a day apart in October, each from cancer, and their deaths, at least in The Times, were reported side by side.

Earlier came the deaths of the Bogdanoff brothers, Grichka and Igor, “French twins and television hosts,” as Clay Risen wrote in a joint obituary, “whose noble lineage, questionable research in quantum physics and extreme adventures in plastic surgery captivated Parisian society and horrified the scientific community.” They died six days apart, Grichka at the tail end of 2021.

There was the story of the inseparable Scheuer sisters, who through their wits and sheer grit survived a series of Nazi death camps and then a death march, afterward married German refugees (in the same year) — becoming Ilse Nathan and Ruth Siegler — and lived out their long years together just miles apart in the same city, Birmingham, Ala. Ilse was 98 and Ruth was 95 when they died within 11 days of each other.

“Aunt Ilse’s passing made my mother ready to go,” a son of Mrs. Siegler’s said.

Lauro Cavazos and Norman Mineta shared the distinction of being the first members of their minority groups to ascend to a cabinet-level position in Washington. Mr. Cavazos, a sixth-generation Mexican American, was education secretary under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Mr. Mineta, who had been interned with fellow Japanese Americans during World War II, was commerce secretary under Bill Clinton and transportation secretary under George W. Bush. They died just weeks apart.

Four figures in Los Angeles Dodgers history departed within a few months: Roz Wyman, who as a member of the Los Angeles City Council was central to luring the team from Brooklyn to the West Coast in the late 1950s; Maury Wills, who stole bases with blazing regularity for the team in the ’60s; Tommy Davis, a batting star who led Los Angeles to two World Series titles before injuries derailed a potential Hall of Fame career; and Vin Scully, who sat in the broadcast booth marveling at their exploits as one of the game’s most venerated announcers.

Yuriko — the single name taken by Yuriko Amemiya, a daughter of Japanese immigrants — earned renown as a leading dancer for the choreographer Martha Graham’s celebrated company and later, through her stage revivals, a keeper of the Graham flame. She died in March at 102. Her daughter, Susan Kikuchi, won renown of her own as a Graham dancer and revivalist. She died in November at 74.

Two members of the Mighty Diamonds, an influential reggae trio in the 1970s, died within three days of each other in Kingston, Jamaica. Tabby Diamond (born Donald Shaw), 66, was killed by gunfire in an apparent gang-related shooting. Bunny Diamond (Fitzroy Simpson), 70, died of an undisclosed illness in a hospital.

Sitcom stars also left in near unison, as if according to their vintage. Millions of baby boomers grew up watching Tony Dow, the elder brother, Wally, on “Leave It to Beaver”; Tim Considine, the eldest brother, Mike, on “My Three Sons”; and Dwayne Hickman, the perpetually dejected protagonist of “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis.” Millions more TV watchers, of a later era, would have equally fond memories of Estelle Harris as George Costanza’s high-strung mother on “Seinfeld” and Liz Sheridan as Jerry’s more even-keeled one. The two were separated in death by 13 days.

And a virtual crew of actors who became indelibly associated with mobster roles bowed out one after the other: Ray Liotta, remembered as Henry Hill in Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas”: James Caan, Sonny Corleone in “The Godfather”; Tony Sirico, Paulie Walnuts in “The Sopranos” (who died two days after Mr. Caan); and Paul Sorvino, Paulie Cicero in “Goodfellas.” (And let’s not forget Paul Herman, who seemed to show up wherever gangsters were filling a screen, whether it was “Goodfellas,” “The Sopranos” or Mr. Scorsese’s “The Irishman.”)

There’s no particular lesson to be drawn from these clusters of contemporaneous deaths, of course. Each had no direct relation to the other. Each, like any death, was experienced alone and mourned individually. It’s for those of us who record such deaths, and read about them, to notice the remarkable parallels. And there we have to leave it, perhaps a little mystified. Death, in its inscrutability, doesn’t explain itself.

Throughout the year it united too many others as well, as casualties of war, mass shootings and a still-not-vanquished contagion. And it retained its capacity to shock — as it did in Japan, with the assassination of the former prime minister Shinzo Abe by a grudge-wielding gunman who had been raised in that practically gun-free country.

Perhaps as startling, but not unexpected, was the killing of the hunted Ayman al-Zawahri, the 9/11 mastermind who inherited the reins of Al Qaeda from Osama bin Laden and who ultimately shared his former boss’s fate; their deaths differed only in the means of elimination — bin Laden at the hands of raiding Navy SEALs, al-Zawahri in the cross hairs of a bloodless drone.

An Egyptian by birth, he died essentially stateless. But leaders of a more legitimate sort succumbed as well: Jiang Zemin, who might have burst out singing an Elvis tune while pushing China further down a (state-controlled) capitalist road; Fidel V. Ramos, who redeemed his henchman’s image by leading the Philippines to peace and prosperity in the 1990s; Luis Echeverría Alvarez, who drove Mexico leftward and himself into a political gutter, vilified across the political spectrum for incompetence and worse; José Eduardo dos Santos, who led Angola for 38 years through war, peace and a tide of economic growth that mostly benefited him and his cronies; and Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who helped turn the United Arab Emirates, bubbling with oil, into an oasis of extravagant wealth.

Washington, as well as Americans beyond the beltway, mourned the deaths of Orrin Hatch, the Utah Republican senator who did as much as anyone in the capital to further the conservative project; Don Young, the Alaskan pork-barrel king whose grip on his seat made him the longest-serving Republican in the history of the House of Representatives (he died in his 49th year on Capitol Hill); and Madeleine Albright, a child of refugees who in guiding American foreign policy in the State Department embodied a historic first, captured in the words “Madam Secretary.”

Sidney Poitier was another groundbreaker, though in an utterly different realm. As a Black leading man — a phrase not heard much around Hollywood before he emerged in the heat of the civil rights movement — he became a box-office star and the necessary corrective to the years of demeaning roles given African Americans onscreen.

Mr. Poitier died on a Thursday night in January; the director (and sometime actor) Peter Bogdanovich (“The Last Picture Show,” “Paper Moon”) did the same that very morning. Both died in their Los Angeles homes.

They were just two of the year’s departed luminaries who had worked under the klieg lights, or behind them. The director Bob Rafelson was an exemplar of the iconoclastic New Hollywood of the ’70s (“Five Easy Pieces”), and Sally Kellerman became a familiar face of it as a favorite of Robert Altman’s always adventurous films, including “MASH,” for which she won an Oscar nomination. William Hurt (“Body Heat,” “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” “Broadcast News”) gave the ’80s a different sort of matinee idol — more measured, more cerebral — attracting a string of Oscar nods and one golden statuette.

“Star Trek” fans mourned the loss of yet another mainstay on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise: Nichelle Nichols, who spanned the franchise’s television and film eras as Lieutenant Uhura, and who was recalled as one of the very few Black women to garner a leading role on a network television series in the 1960s.

The French cinema lost a giant, Jean-Luc Godard, a catalyst of the epochal New Wave of the 1960s and ’70s, along with a trio of its top stars, Jean-Louis Trintignant (“A Man and a Woman,” “My Night at Maud’s”), Jacques Perrin (“Z,” “Cinema Paradiso”) and Michel Bouquet (“The Bride Wore Black”).

And if Hardy Kruger personified “the good German” for postwar American filmgoers, Monica Vitti embodied an alternative sort of Italian siren, cool and elusive. Her mystique endured beyond her death, knowingly evoked months later on the HBO series “The White Lotus.”

The theater world, in all its capitals — London, Paris, New York — paid tribute to one of the 20th century’s greatest directors, Peter Brook. But Broadway in particular felt the loss of the musical performers Robert Morse (“How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” “Tru”) and the indomitable Angela Lansbury (“Mame,” “Sweeney Todd”) — though the stage alone could never confine them. Mr. Morse found a second act (or was it a third?) succeeding in business as the Emmy-nominated advertising honcho on “Mad Men,” while Ms. Lansbury spent a dozen years as an unlikely but enormously popular serial crime solver on “Murder, She Wrote.”

We remembered, too, the performers who could stand alone on a stage (when not appearing in a sitcom) and make us laugh, perhaps at ourselves. Louie Anderson, Gilbert Gottfried, Bob Saget, Judy Tenuta and Gallagher will have no more new material for us.

Olivia Newton-John was another star who crossed genres, from pop music (“I Honestly Love You”) to movies (“Grease”), producing hits in both.

Hits were, of course, also the legacies of Jerry Lee Lewis, a piano-pounding father of rock ’n’ roll; Loretta Lynn, the queen of country to a miner born; Coolio, the rapper who began climbing the charts straight out of Compton; and Christine McVie, the singing and songwriting heartbeat of Fleetwood Mac.

Régine, on the other hand, was remembered not so much for music as for the strobe-lighted floors on which it could be danced to. She was credited with opening the first disco, in Paris, and then virtually encircled the world with 23 more, including a famous one in Manhattan “catering to the stretch-limousine crowd of arts and entertainment stars, society celebs, princes, playboys and Beautiful People,” as Robert D. McFadden wrote in his obituary. Among the regulars there was Ivana Trump, the gilded businesswoman and tabloid fixture who died in July.

Jazz was hardly played under sparkling, spinning disco balls. But people who came out to hear the bold improvisations of Pharoah Sanders or Ramsey Lewis (maybe in part for his pop hits) were never looking for glitter.

The classical music world was bereft with the passings of the challenging modernist composers George Crumb and Harrison Birtwistle; the glorious Spanish mezzo-soprano and contralto Teresa Berganza, who would have thrilled Mozart, Rossini and Bizet themselves had they lived long enough; and no fewer than four virtuoso pianists: Joseph Kalichstein, Radu Lupu, Alexander Toradze and Nicholas Angelich.

The book-loving public lost a host of men and women of letters, none more celebrated — or more widely read — than the popular historian (and companionable voice of documentaries) David McCullough; the novelist Hillary Mantel, who lifted Thomas Cromwell out of the 16th century and made him something of a 21st-century household name (aided by London’s West End, Broadway and a PBS mini-series) while elevating the genre of historical fiction; and Barbara Ehrenreich, who went undercover among the working class to expose the underside of American prosperity.

Visionaries in all modes of art passed into art history. William Klein had felt the energy buzzing on city streets and froze it with his camera. Claes Oldenburg had transformed everyday objects — a clothespin, a shoe, a hamburger — into monumental commentaries on the society that manufactures them. Sam Gilliam had turned colorful drapes into lush abstract works undulating in three dimensions. Carmen Herrera, by contrast, had been content with a flat canvas to work out her striking geometric configurations, and did so for decades in obscurity before fame tardily arrived when she was 89.

The subset art of the cartoon suffered a rash of losses in 2022. Three of its practitioners were, in more ways than one, signature contributors to The New Yorker: Jean-Jacques Sempe, George Booth and Lee Lorenz. Two others — Diane Noomin and Aline Kominsky Crumb — took an underground route in breaking into the male bastion of comics, each with an often outrageously satirical or self-deprecating female eye.

Speaking of eyes, André Leon Talley had one of the most discerning in the fashion world as a top editor (notably a Black one in a largely white industry), curator, author and television celebrity. He had not only presence — as a flamboyant 6-foot-6 caped crusader for cutting-edge style — but prescience, championing, among others, the revolutionary Japanese designer Issey Miyake, dead at 84, before most others did.

In the pantheon of truly transformative sports stars, Bill Russell was not the only one to die in 2022; the other, just days before the year was out, was Pelé, the magnetic Brazilian whose wondrous play with a soccer ball had an even bigger globe in his thrall.

Throughout the year they had worthy company, even if on some scale these were lesser mortals. Hockey in particular lost a bunch of stars: Guy Lafleur, who held aloft five Stanley Cups with the Montreal Canadiens; Clark Gilles, Mike Bossy and Jean Potvin, who together captured four of those trophies, all in a row, with the New York Islanders; and Emile Francis, who as a head coach and general manager built the New York Rangers into a Stanley Cup winner. All but Potvin are in hockey’s Hall of Fame.

Women’s basketball lost Lusia Harris, the first ​​Black woman inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame, and a quartet of women’s sports could claim Joan Joyce as one of their own: golf, volleyball, basketball and, most of all, softball, where she carved out a heroic career as, without much dispute, the game’s greatest pitcher, solidifying her stature as perhaps the greatest underrecognized athlete of her generation.

Recognizability was never an issue for a clutch of business leaders who died this year, at least in terms of the products they purveyed. Bruce Katz’s name might not ring a bell with most consumers, but his Rockport shoes would. Dietrich Mateschitz gave us a caffeinated jolt with Red Bull. With others, the tipoff was indeed in the name: Herb Kohler (bathtubs and toilets), John Koss (headphones), Charles Entenmann (cakes and cookies) and Roger Vlasic (pickles).

Research scientists, meanwhile, bequeathed us nothing less than a more hopeful world on the medical front. Luc Montagnier isolated H.I.V., the virus that causes AIDS. Samuel Katz was on a team that gave us the measles vaccine. Deborah Nickerson found hidden in our genes clues to cardiovascular disease, autism and a rare syndrome that causes malformations. Martin Mower and a colleague came up with an implantable defibrillator, saving the lives of countless heart patients. Donald Pinkel almost single-handedly vanquished childhood leukemia. Beatrice Mintz unraveled some of the mysteries of cancer. And Ronald Weinstein, prefiguring the world we live in now, showed that among the many things that can be done remotely, one was to diagnose cancer.

Finally, there were those who fought the good fight for a host of causes. Lois Curtis was a catalyst behind a Supreme Court ruling that said no to warehousing the developmentally disabled in mental institutions when they were fully capable of living in their own communities. The lawyer Lisa Brodyaga set up shop, and a refugee camp, in the Rio Grande Valley to champion asylum seekers fleeing violence in their Central American countries.

Paul Farmer was indefatigable in bringing high-quality medical care to some of the world’s poorest people. Ella Bhat was credited with bringing a measure of economic and social justice to millions of low-wage working women in India. Rusty Mae Moore sought safe havens for transgender people. Urvashi Vaid, another lawyer, campaigned for the rights of gay men and her sister lesbians. Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, spread a message of nonviolence globally, influencing the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And Clyde Bellecourt moved from violent resistance on behalf of beleaguered fellow Native Americans to founding a raft of educational and assistance programs to support them, including a Peacemaker Center for the young.

All made a difference, but all died knowing that their work was unfinished, that as the world spun on without them others would have to pick up their banners and carry them into the next year, and the next.

William McDonald is the obituaries editor of The Times.

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