Parting Glance at 1998: Sinatra, Young, Rogers

You hear the word closure a lot these days. There’s a need for closure in Washington, in Hollywood and in life. So before a fresh new start in 1999, we need closure. What a year for goodbyes. James Cagney once said, “When one considers just what man is/ Happy it be that short his span is.” But in the year just ending, we lost so many first-rate people, so many icons whose creative capacities inspired us all, that we can only wish their life spans had been longer.

Frank Sinatra heads the list, and I guess they’ll still be writing his obituary 50 years from now. They will certainly be playing the records he left behind. From a scrawny bobby-sox crooner to the Voice of the Century, he did it his way. He was a bully and a thug, but he also made a mark on music that influenced, challenged and changed an entire generation of popular singers. There will never be another Chairman of the Board like Ol’ Blue Eyes. But there were others who left behind a show-business legacy not likely to be repeated by today’s wannabes. Alice Faye, America’s singing sweetheart in so many movie musicals, took her husky, honey-dripping voice and her moo-cow eyes to the big screening room in the sky, where her co-star and fellow blonde, the luscious Betty Grable, has probably been asking, “What took you so long?”

Robert Young, who made scores of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer movies before his transition to TV in the 1950′s, became the living-room screen’s most famous sitcom dad in Father Knows Best . Later, he was Marcus Welby, M.D. A real Hall of Famer in two mediums, he made his final curtain call at age 91. And, of course, there will never be another as slick and savvy as the legendary Kay Thompson, who taught everybody at M-G-M how to sing and dance, then made history with her own razzle-dazzle nightclub act before inventing Eloise. Dear, darling, wonderful, exhausting, brilliant Kay, you will always make us all Think Pink. Maureen O’Sullivan, Tarzan’s Jane and Mia Farrow’s real-life mom, departed too soon. Long after she burned her loincloth and moved to New York, her lilting Irish voice and hearty smile lit up every Manhattan party like a welcome shamrock. She had a great sense of humor, but my favorite story is the one Mia remembers: Her mother came home after a hard day in the M-G-M jungle, slammed into the children’s nursery, jabbed her fist into a spot just under her slender waistline, and announced, “I’ve had it up to here with pygmies!”

Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, the world’s most beloved singing cowboys, both hung up their saddles and headed for the last roundup. Roy was the first movie star I ever saw in person and I dressed for the occasion in boots, spurs and a Stetson the size of a pie plate. I was 6 years old, the setting was an old movie house on Main Street in Gold- thwaite, Tex., and when Roy came riding down the aisle on Trigger, even my father, who didn’t know Greta Garbo from Anna May Wong, knew he was in the presence of royalty. Years later, my friend Joan Hackett, a seasoned veteran not easily impressed, was reduced to idiot status when she co-starred with Roy Rogers in the only serious adult film of his career, a small, independent feature called Mackintosh and T.J. that seems to have vanished. I’ll never forget the day she told me, “Roy Rogers actually said ‘Fuck’ on the set today.” Happy trails to you, Roy. You were human after all.

I will miss Roddy McDowall, a warm and versatile actor who had the greatest capacity for friendship and loyalty of anyone in the film business, and Hurd Hatfield, who once murdered Angela Lansbury in The Picture of Dorian Gray and later became her neighbor down the road in Ireland. There were also final close-ups for Mae Questal, the voice of Betty Boop and Olive Oyl; Jack Lord, the star of Hawaii Five-O ; Lloyd Bridges, a veteran actor best known, tragically, for his underwater stunts on TV’s Sea Hunt and not for his great performances opposite Kim Stanley in both The Goddess and Playhouse 90′s Clash by Night ; J.T. Walsh, the fine character actor who specialized in playing villainous redneck cops and sheriffs; dashing Daniel Massey, who was unbeatable on Broadway as Barbara Cook’s heartthrob in the musical She Loves Me ; Gene Raymond, 30′s leading man and husband of Jeanette MacDonald; handsome John Derek, who turned from Hollywood hunk to Hollywood director and husband of Bo Derek; Charles Korvin, who played both lovers and villains with a trademark Kirk Douglas cleft in his chin; and character actresses Esther Rolle, Josephine Hutchinson, Theresa Merritt (famous for playing blues singer Ma Rainey), Binnie Barnes, Joan Hickson (TV’s Miss Marple) and lovely Irene Hervey (the mother of singer Jack Jones). I personally will miss the incandescent Dorothy Stickney, the legendary widow of playwright Howard Lindsay, whose one-woman show A Lovely Light immortalized the works of Edna St. Vincent Millay. She finally passed away at 101. The last time I saw her, at a New York cocktail party, she was only 100 and still the loveliest light in the room.

Among the men who took their last sniff of greasepaint in 1998, I won’t forget Dane Clark, who starred in so many Warner Brothers films of the 1940′s opposite Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck and Ida Lupino; the sturdy, reliable craftsmanship of E.G. Marshall; Marius Goring, the British actor who made such an indelible mark as the cruel impresario in The Red Shoes ; Jean Marais, the French matinee idol and lover of Jean Cocteau; or Richard Denning, tan, blond, good-looking nice guy who starred in TV’s Mr. and Mrs. North opposite Barbara Britton and in My Favorite Husband opposite Lucille Ball, in the days before Lucy met Desi.

You may be too young to remember Clayton (Peg-Leg) Bates, the jovial comic tap dancer who enthralled moviegoers by dancing on a wooden leg, but I was sorry to learn of his final bow this year. I will also miss Flip Wilson, a weekly television favorite who provided endless laughs in drag as the irrepressible Geraldine. And speaking of laughs, who will keep me in stitches without the great Henny (“Take my wife”) Youngman, who always said he’d live to be 100. He died at 91, still entertaining the luncheon crowd at the Stage Delicatessen. He was joined by the hilarious Corbett Monica, one of the funniest stand-up comics in show business, who once described Michael Jackson as “the only star who started out a poor black boy and ended up a rich white woman.” And who could erase the memory of comedian Phil Hartman’s tragic murder? He didn’t leave ‘em laughing.

More shock waves reverberate when I think of the freak auto accident that claimed the life of Alan J. Pakula, a thoughtful, meticulous film director of such ground-breaking classics as All the President’s Men and Sophie’s Choice . In an age of moronic, unprepared and untalented hacks, he was a gentleman and an artist who still knew how to make distinguished films that made you think and feel. What will we do without him? Akira Kurosawa, the legendary Japanese director, left another gap in cinematic history that cannot be bridged. An era of gentleman producers came to an end with the demise of Roger L. Stevens, who founded the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and ran it for 17 years. And movies will never again look as rich without the seminal vision of Oscar-winning cinematographer Freddie Young, the only cameraman who ever captured an actual mirage on film (in Lawrence of Arabia ). The epic grandeur he brought to his collaborations with David Lean ( Lawrence of Arabia , Dr. Zhivago , Ryan’s Daughter ) became eternal instruction manuals for aspiring filmmakers throughout the world. Films are getting uglier all the time. He’ll be missed even more.

In the theater, the curtain fell for director Ellis Rabb, tireless and stage-struck costume designer Robert McIntosh, songwriters Marshall ( Once Upon a Mattress ) Barer and Bob Merrill, whose eloquent lyrics graced Funny Girl , Carnival and New Girl in Town , and playwrights Leslie ( The Marriage-Go-Round ) Stevens, Robert ( Child’s Play ) Marasco and James ( Follies , The Lion in Winter ) Goldman. I was also saddened to learn of the passing of John Hopkins, a fine writer and husband of actress Shirley Knight.

The dance world lost Bolshoi ballerina Galina Ulanova, choreographer Gregg Burge, and boyishly appealing Christopher Gable, the ballet star turned film actor who played Richard Chamberlain’s lover in Ken Russell’s The Music Lovers and Twiggy’s lover in the same director’s movie musical The Boy Friend . The most visible loss, however, was Jerome Robbins, the slick, controversial and bombastic choreographer who revolutionized dancing on stage and screen with West Side Story .

The world of letters mourned the end of a broad spectrum of literary stylists who defined our reading habits: Rex Lardner, Rumer Godden, Alan Drury, Wolf Mankowitz, Carlos Castaneda, Alfred Kazin, Lawrence Sanders, Eric Ambler, as-told-to biographer Gerold Frank and, yes, even Black Panther revolutionary Eldridge Cleaver. Nineteen ninety-eight silenced two of our most profoundly decent critics with the final bylines of elegant Brendan Gill and reader-friendly movie reviewer Bruce Williamson, and New York tearfully parted with two of its loudest, wisest voices with Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Mike McAlary and the one-woman talkathon, Virginia Graham, whose heart was as big as her girdle. Although she retired from journalism long ago, I will also miss the sharp, patrician sensibility of Harriet Van Horne, the best TV critic of all time. Not to mention my flamboyant pal Bella Abzug, pioneering feminist and salty politician whose liberal views were always right on target. Where will we be without Bella and her Hedda Hopper hats?

This was also the year when Linda McCartney finally lost her battle with cancer, leaving the world’s most famous surviving Beatle a widower. Country music lost Tammy Wynette and Carl Perkins. The world of jazz heard one final scat chorus from the swinging Betty Carter. Dorothy Donegan played her last late-night set on the eighty-eights. Songwriter Bob Wells, who wrote “The Christmas Song” with Mel Tormé, turned in his score pad. Bob Kane, the cartoonist who created Batman, drew his last caped crusader. Children weaned on gentler times of preschool heroes before computers dulled their I.Q.’s will miss Buffalo Bob Smith of Howdy Doody , an icon to millions of baby boomers for 13 years, and Shari Lewis, a charming puppeteer-ventriloquist for 50 years, who won 12 Emmys with such delightful moppet favorites as Lamb Chop. It was a sad adios for Jeffrey Moss, the Muppet master who created Cookie Monster on Sesame Street , and Judith Albert, the toy designer who invented the Cabbage Patch doll.

Politics heard farewell speeches by Sonny Bono, Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley, and the distinguished Barry Goldwater, who made conservatism palatable and popular. Alan B. Shepard Jr., the astronaut who became an American hero as the first man in space in 1961, took one last look at the moon. Boxing champ Archie Moore hung up his gloves forever. Sports lost a genuine role model in aerodynamic Olympic runner Florence (Flo-Jo) Joyner. Dr. Benjamin Spock, child-care guru to generations of frazzled moms, and Fred Friendly, TV pioneer at CBS News who produced the legendary See It Now shows with Edward R. Murrow, moved on to a more appreciative audience. New York’s eroding society scene lifted a glass to Glenn Bernbaum, the alcoholic weirdo who turned bad food and snob appeal into a social frenzy at his overrated restaurant, Mortimer’s.

And finally, when Clarence Darrow wrote “I never wanted to see anybody die, but there are a few obituary notices I have read with pleasure,” he must have been thinking of Winnie Ruth Judd, one of America’s most publicized ax-murderers who chopped and diced her way to fame in 1931. A subject of great curiosity to criminologists for nearly 70 years, she finally died at 93. Maybe 1998 wasn’t a total loss after all.