• U.S.

The People Who Left Us In 2002

8 minute read
Harriet Barovick, Richard Corliss, Josh Tyrangiel, Richard Lacayo and Michael D. Lemonick

EPPIE LEDERER AS ANN LANDERS A FRIEND ON THE FEATURE PAGE

Her predecessors were prim advice columnists who dipped daintily into the lives of the lovelorn, tiptoeing around, or avoiding completely, realities like divorce, abortion and homosexuality. Then in 1955 Chicago housewife Eppie Lederer took over the syndicated Ann Landers column from a recently deceased nurse who had been doling out tabloid therapy under that pseudonym. With witty, blunt pointers (“A father who diapers his daughter at the age of 12 has a geranium in his cranium”), a heartfelt respect for her readers and a willingness to change her mind, she earned an ardent following of 90 million readers. Dubbed the country’s most influential woman by a World Almanac poll in 1978, Lederer cherished her ability to help and read several hundred letters a day while soaking in the bathtub. Offers to buy rights to the Ann Landers name were declined. “When I go,” she said, “the column goes with me.” –By Harriet Barovick

MILTON BERLE Mr. (and Mrs.) Television

Before him, TV sets were owned only by the few, the rich. Then, in 1948, the Tuesday-night Texaco Star Theater exploded like a shtick of nitro, with an assault of vaudeville skits, ancient gags and a man who often dressed as a woman. Suddenly everybody had to have a television–all because a middle-aged comic with manic energy and a desperate need to please was making a fool of himself, live, in America’s living rooms. Subtle as a spray of seltzer, Berle dominated the young medium’s ratings for years, at his peak winning 80% of the viewing audience. Eventually, TV grew up–anyway, it grew older –and by the mid-’50s Berle’s innocent vulgarity had given way to more domestic, less frantic fare. But his ghost still haunts the tube. The Fear Factor daredevils, the Jackass prankster-masochists, the talk-show mutants who will do anything for a laugh or a shock–all are the nieces and nephews of Uncle Miltie. –By Richard Corliss

JOHNNY UNITAS Magic on Sunday Afternoon

It’s a Lithuanian name, BUT an American imperative: Johnny, unite us! Every Sunday afternoon from 1956 to 1972, Johnny U. laced up his black cleats to mid-calf, put his helmet on over his signature flattop (so square you could balance a playbook on it) and gathered the city of Baltimore to watch the birth of modern football. While the rest of the National Football League was scrumming its way forward a few yards at a time, Unitas threw precise, elegant passes that proved how beautiful the game could be. Unitas’ greatest triumph was marching the Colts to a sudden-death victory over the New York Giants in the 1958 NFL championship game. Just before handing off for the winning touchdown, Unitas completed a long sideline pass to his favorite target, Raymond Berry. “Wasn’t that pass kind of dangerous?” Unitas was asked. He replied, “Nothing’s dangerous if you know what you’re doing.” –By Josh Tyrangiel

PRINCESS MARGARET ROYAL LIGHTNING ROD

The younger sister of Elizabeth II, Margaret chafed at the bounds of Windsor decorum but had her fun at the margins all the same. Her 1950s romance with Royal Air Force Group Captain Peter Townsend was cut off by family order because he was divorced. She rebounded smartly, collecting a circle of posh friends–including Peter Sellers, with whom she spent long evenings around the piano with a cigarette holder and cocktail shaker–and making a second home on the Caribbean island of Mustique. A 1960 marriage to photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones, later Lord Snowdon, ended in divorce in 1978. But before it did, she carried on a five-year caprice with landscape gardener Roddy Llewellyn, who was 17 years younger. The British press was inflamed. Some years later, Princess Diana picked up the torch. –By Richard Lacayo

STEPHEN JAY GOULD A Scientist for Everybody

Sometimes wrong but rarely in doubt, Stephen Jay Gould was a 19th century naturalist plunked down in the 20th century. His most notable scientific achievement was the theory of “punctuated equilibria” (co-authored with Niles Eldredge), arguing that species don’t evolve gradually, as the conventional wisdom suggested, but rather remain unchanged for long periods, then undergo rapid bursts of change. His papers, essays, books and lectures brought Gould’s wide-ranging intellect to the attention of the public–while burying his intellectual opponents under the weight of millions of words. Along the way, the politically left-wing scientist, in frequent and passionate writing on baseball, proved to admirers of George Will that conservatives have no monopoly on the love of our national sport. Gould delighted his fans and set his enemies’ teeth gnashing, but even the latter had to admit he forced them to think. –By Michael D. Lemonick

PEGGY LEE PLATINUM CARESSES

Miss Peggy Lee, they always called her. If the honorific was meant to elevate a plain stage name (she was born Norma Deloris Egstrom), the effort was redundant; for Lee, vocally and visually, was class and sass in one platinum package. Statue-still onstage, whispering her lyrics like postcoital pillow talk, Lee gave a guilty-secret glow to the blandest ballads. By the mid-’40s she was a pop star and a rare singer-songwriter (It’s a Good Day, Manana); in 1955 she composed songs for Disney’s Lady and the Tramp and 36 years later won a suit for royalties on video sales of the film. A sultry jazz minimalist, Lee prevailed in the first age of rock with tunes that exuded steam (Fever), defiance (I Am Woman) and blithe anhedonia (Is That All There Is?). It’s amazing that she could caress a melody even though life kept swatting her: she endured an abusive stepmother, diabetes, angioplasty, a near-fatal fall and four busted marriages. “They weren’t really weddings,” she said, “just long costume parties.” Now the party’s over, and she’s a ghost, a spectral voice, for a generation that surely will miss Peggy Lee. –R.C.

JAM MASTER JAY Crossover King of The Rhythm Nation

J-A-Y are the letters of his name/Cutting and scratching are the aspects of his game.” On every album they ever made, rappers Run and D.M.C. made sure to include a verse like that, if not an entire song, about their favorite subject: Jam Master Jay. His real name was Jason Mizell, and though he wasn’t necessarily the best DJ in rap, he was the first to fuse hip-hop beats with rock melodies, fueling Run-D.M.C.’s historic crossover to the pop charts (they were the first rap group to sell a million records) and changing the sound of pop music forever. Jay was shot and killed in his Queens, N.Y., recording studio in November. Police have made no arrests. –J.T.

PAUL WELLSTONE WASHINGTON’S LATTER-DAY MR. SMITH

It’s easy to picture Paul Wellstone’s life as a Hollywood movie: scrappy unknown idealist, married to his high school sweetheart, overcomes solid incumbent to win a seat in the Senate. There he storms, and eventually charms, Washington with his rabble-rousing advocacy for the downtrodden. Before he was killed in a plane crash just days before the November election, the Minnesotan son of Russian-Jewish immigrants was a voice for laborers, the poor and the mentally ill, emphatically embracing the long-out-of-fashion label “liberal.” In October, Wellstone was one of 23 Senators to vote against the resolution to authorize using force against Iraq. His righteous indignation and occasionally long-winded speeches could grate, but he won respect and personal affection on both sides of the aisle for that rare trait in Washington: staying true to himself, no matter the political risk. –H.B.

BILLY WILDER The Cynic of Sunset Boulevard

Here’s an American success story: an Austrian Jew arrives in the U.S. in 1934 knowing barely a word of English, and within a year he is writing screenplays in Hollywood. No wonder Billy Wilder’s scintillatingly cynical heroes figured they could get away with murder, cross-dressing or “the girl”; they were reflections of their brilliantly duplicitous writer-director. And though his voice was caustically distinct, Wilder triumphed in a wide variety of genres. He made the sauciest farce (Some Like It Hot), the darkest film noir (Double Indemnity), the dearest romantic comedy (Sabrina) in Hollywood history–as well as the tartest evocation of Hollywood history (Sunset Blvd.). His films were utterly contemporary (One Two Three, his 1961 cold war satire, was shot in Berlin just before the Wall went up), yet have stayed as fresh and winning as an Audrey Hepburn smile. –R.C.

TED WILLIAMS SPLENDIDLY SPLINTERED

He earned the fear of pitchers. What he wanted was the respect of the boo-birds in Boston. The Splendid Splinter–the last major leaguer to hit .400, and owner of six batting titles over a 22-year span (during which he took five seasons off for World War II and, as a combat pilot, the Korean conflict)–was himself as conflicted, splintered, as a Eugene O’Neill tragic hero. Sullen yet sensitive, he gave the finger to Red Sox fans but was avid to hear the sound of 66,000 hands clapping. He stoked controversy even after his death, when family members argued over whether to freeze his remains. Williams’ goal was to be known as the greatest hitter who ever lived. That designation may unfairly exclude guys named Ruth, Cobb, Mays, Bonds–and DiMaggio, his greatest rival. But no one brought more pure skill and science to the simple, impossible task of watching a ball approach at 95 m.p.h. and whacking the cover off it. –R.C.

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