Twenty years ago, on this very same date, I published a column thanking all of the wonderful people who had survived long enough to still call our attention to the fact that a few sane and rational voices remained in a daily fog of cynicism and hypocrisy that was driving me blind, deaf and crazy. Re-reading that column 20 years later, I am immensely saddened to discover that more than half of those people I admired are no longer with us today. Following are just a few of the people I’ll miss who departed in the past 12 months.
I’m still in movie-star mourning over Jimmy Stewart, Robert Mitchum and Red Skelton. I kept thinking what an icon the man everybody called Jimmy became to every small-town boy during the many Christmas reruns of It’s a Wonderful Life . He was the quintessential Frank Capra hero for too many reasons to count, but with so much phony emoting and bogus posing passing for acting these days, he’ll be missed for his sincerity, courage and honesty. Mitchum was another class act. He was the droopy-eyed, chain-smoking king of the tough guys. With him, the camera never lied. And the sight of Red Skelton in a ballet tutu still makes me laugh. He was from a school of wholesome, slapstick clowns that seems to have closed down forever. It was also sad to watch those Yuletide reruns of Holiday Inn , knowing that Marjorie Reynolds was no longer that classic film’s sole survivor. Somewhere, I hope she’s back in the arms of Fred Astaire.
One of the things I miss most in today’s brain-dead, morally bankrupt movie industry is the polish and pleasure I derived from the great character actors of yesteryear. In 1997, the curtain was lowered on another whole gang of them: Jesse White, Celeste Holm’s husband Wesley Addy, John Beal, baggy-pants comic Joey Faye, distinguished Edward Mulhare, irreverent rascal Burgess Meredith, and tough guy turned TV producer Sheldon Leonard. I will also miss two of my favorite fat guys, Stubby ( Guys and Dolls ) Kaye and Chris Farley, the obese bad-boy comedian who followed in the fatal footsteps of his idol John Belushi.
And who could forget everybody’s favorite TV father, Brian Keith? Another great loss for the screen was the marvelous, underrated Richard Jaeckel, the angel-faced kid in so many action films who finally proved himself an artist of wide and challenging emotional substance when he got an Oscar nomination in 1972 for stealing scenes from Henry Fonda and Paul Newman in Sometimes a Great Notion .
It was adios for some other legendary behind-the-scenes giants of the silver screen. Fred Zinnemann’s face may not have been recognized at Kmart, but as the director of such monumental motion picture classics as High Noon, The Member of the Wedding, From Here to Eternity, Oklahoma! and A Man for All Seasons , he contributed mightily to film history and was the last of a dying breed of craftsmen who seem to have been replaced by numskulls. Joining him this year behind that Cinemascope lens in the sky were action director Samuel Fuller (King of the B’s) and Hallmark Hall of Fame’ s distinguished director, George Schaefer. I will also miss those skillful, slickly penned screenplays written by Dorothy Kingsley during the Golden Era of movie musicals.
And absolutely nothing will look the same without legendary M-G-M hair stylist Sydney Guilaroff. He’s the man who saw every glamour girl from Greta Garbo to Ann-Margret before dawn, without a stick of makeup, and turned them into magazine covers by sunrise. A world-class raconteur with a wicked sense of humor and a photographic memory, it was Sydney who knew where all the bodies were buried. Grace Kelly, Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe never made a move without him. He once told me the night before the Johnny Stompanato murder, he ran into Lana Turner at Hughes’ Market in Hollywood; she was buying steak knives.
It was a year of irony, even in agony. While Diana, Princess of Wales, was cemented in martyrdom during a week of royal slobber turned by the media into a feeding frenzy at the alligator cage, nobody paid the same attention to the death of Mother Teresa, patron saint of the disenfranchised. Similarly, Gianni Versace’s violent and shocking demise at the hands of a lunatic made world headlines, but scant column space was devoted to fashion genius Jean Louis, whose timeless elegance during the great days of movie allure won Oscars for proving a woman is not a sometime thing. This brilliant couturier left behind a legacy of museum-quality high fashion that can never be duplicated and a wife whose name is still Loretta Young. Even while today’s stars look like orphaned ragamuffins, the name Jean Louis on the inside label still means money in the bank.
The senseless death of John Denver cast a pall on the music scene, but I was more bereft over the final charts on the scoring pads of Burton Lane, the supernaturally gifted composer of Finian’s Rainbow , and Saul Chaplin, who arranged the gorgeous music for so many great movie musicals like Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and West Side Story . I’ll never forget the songs Burton Lane wrote with the late Alan Jay Lerner for the M-G-M musical Royal Wedding and for the Broadway musical On a Clear Day You Can See Forever . And Saul Chaplin’s dazzling orchestral arrangements for the George Gershwin songs in An American in Paris still keep my downstairs neighbors awake when my turntable gets busy at 2 A.M. And speaking of that epic M-G-M classic, 1997 also lost the soigné French singing star George Guetary, who stopped the show with “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise.” An American in Paris was his only American musical, but while everybody remembers Gene Kelly, I remember Mr. Guetary. Ooh la la, and how.
More musical goodbyes in 1997 include fond farewells to Laura Nyro, the influential pop singer-composer of the 60’s and 70’s who opted for early retirement, as well as jazz trumpeter Doc Cheatham, rhythm and blues queen Lavern Baker, jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli, ace bebop guitarist Chuck Wayne, blues singer Jimmy Witherspoon and Arthur Prysock, a crooner in the Billy Eckstine tradition. Final bows were also taken by Mae Barnes and Thelma Carpenter, two nightclub entertainers who laid the bricks and mortar for what has now become known as the world of cabaret. New York will never be the same town after midnight without Beverly Peer, Bobby Short’s bass player and a longtime fixture on the cafe society scene.
Impresario Rudolf Bing said goodbye to the Metropolitan Opera, real estate tycoon Harry Helmsley said ciao to Leona Helmsley, and Pamela Harriman bid an adieu to political friends and enemies in boudoirs and embassies everywhere. No more tournaments for golf pro Ben Hogan, a one-man profile in courage whose life in sports was immortalized in the biopic Follow the Sun , in 1951. Betty Shabazz, the widow of Malcolm X, herself a symbol of courage in the face of adversity, came to a tragic end that will be pondered by future generations. And it was one last sign-off for station identification for Charles Kuralt, as well as TV’s first female news correspondent, Nancy Dickerson. If game shows ever make a welcome comeback to the wastelands of trashy television, they won’t be the same without game-show host Dennis James, or George Fenneman, the longtime foil for Groucho Marx on You Bet Your Life . I remember them well.
Nothing underwater will retain the sense of mystery and adventure now that Jacques Cousteau has hung out his snorkeling gear to dry. Acting techniques will lack drama without two of the theater’s most influential teachers, Sanford Meisner and Actors Studio founder Robert (Bobby) Lewis. The art world will lack a certain luster without the cartoons of Roy Lichtenstein and the abstract expressionism of Willem de Kooning. My horoscope will seem flat without Jeane Dixon’s astrology. Swedish films will lose their lyricism without director Bo ( Elvira Madigan ) Widerberg. George Solti conducted his last symphony. Maurice Levine left a gap in New York’s cultural landscape and the “Lyrics and Lyricists” shows at the 92nd Street Y will never be the same without his guidance and passion for Broadway show tunes. Tamara Geva, the great ballerina and first wife of George Balanchine, and Alexandra Danilova both retired their toe shoes from the dance world. Brandon Tartikoff, the man who saved NBC, is desperately missed now that NBC needs saving all over again. And it was one last chapter for Harold Robbins, Emmy Award-winning journalist Marie Torre, author James Dickey, Beat poet laureate Allen Ginsberg, and respected writers Emily Hahn, Leo Rosten, Veronica Geng and William S. Burroughs. They should bronze the typewriter of Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Murray Kempton. I’ll never feel the same about the South Pacific now that James Michener is gone, and I left my heart in San Francisco with columnist and good friend Herb Caen.
Really, I ask, can 1998 be any worse? We’ve got a whole year to find out.