Since Dick Clark dropped his final ball last New Year’s Eve, it now falls on Times Square with a thud. The death of Neil Armstrong, the first astronaut to walk on the moon, means one fewer hero for countless kids with big dreams of outer space. Lois Smith, whose classy control of the personal and professional lives of Marilyn Monroe, Robert Redford and Meryl Streep made press agents respectable, was a unique combination powerhouse, den mother and guidance counselor at a time when public relations was still a man’s game. She was a great favorite among clients and journalists alike. Television news coverage will not be as tolerable without crusading broadcast journalist Mike Wallace to make sense out of the chaos, on 60 Minutes. Artist Ronald Searle put away his pen and ink, drawing the last of a series of world-famous cartoons that started when he was a P.O.W. in a Singapore prison during World War II. It was good-bye to the prolific works of Han Suyin, the Chinese doctor, writer and lecturer whose most famous book became the basis for the hit film Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing. She was also the controversial author of several books ardently defending Chairman Mao and the Communist Revolution.
Integrity mixed with the leavening agents of narrative wit and romantic optimism landed my friend Nora Ephron in a class by herself—as a clean, precise and flawless journalist, essayist, screenwriter and director. She wrote with fists and signed off with perfume. She was snatched away from us too soon, but with a new play about the halcyon days of New York newspapers opening soon on Broadway starring her friend Tom Hanks, Nora’s legacy will inform a new decade. Smart, funny, colorful and quick on the trigger, she taught me a lot about pruning away the clutter. On the other hand, the typewriter closed for Charles Higham, celebrity biographer whose hotly contested unauthorized biographies made outrageous claims without corroboration. Errol Flynn a Nazi spy? Howard Hughes’s secret love affair with Cary Grant? His books were slammed by the critics, but popular with readers craving vulgarity and scandal, no matter how embellished. One of his claims was that Errol Flynn reportedly persuaded Warner Brothers to film his World War II movie Dive Bomber in Pearl Harbor, then showed it to the Japanese so they could plan their historic attack on the U.S. Mr. Flynn’s family sued.
No more preposterous advice from aging Cosmo girl Helen Gurley Brown, no more maps and invasions by gung-ho General Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of the coalition forces in the unpopular Gulf War. It was “So long, Charlie” for Chuck Colson, Nixon’s Watergate counsel who turned evangelical behind prison bars. Other lost notables include Soviet spy Gevork Vartanian; former U.S. attorney general Nicholas Katzenbach; Henry Hill, the mobster turncoat who inspired the Martin Scorsese gangland classic Goodfellas; New York Times editor Gerald Gold, who combed through 2.5 million words of the “Pentagon Papers” to prove the U.S. government had lied about the Vietnam War; controversial Korean cult leader Rev. Sun Myung Moon, who considered himself the messiah; liberal presidential candidate George McGovern, who lost despite the persistent cheerleading of Shirley MacLaine; Jean S. Harris, the prudish headmistress who became a feminist cult heroine after killing “Scarsdale Diet” doctor Herman Tarnower; celebrity hairdresser Vidal Sassoon, who made a lot of dough out of shampoo; Sylvia Woods, down-home “Queen of Soul Food” whose restaurant Sylvia’s lured celebrities from all over the world to Harlem to taste her fried chicken; Samuel Glazer, the man who invented the automatic Mr. Coffee machine; Murray Lender, who introduced frozen bagels to kitchens from coast to coast; renowned interior designers Barbara D’Arcy and Albert Hadley; Ferdinand A. Porsche, who created the you know what, the car-lover’s fantasy for half a century; Alex Cassie, 95, who masterminded the daring breakout from the Nazi Stalag Luft III camp in Germany that was celebrated in the 1963 movie The Great Escape; David Durk, the New York cop who exposed rampant corruption in the police department with his partner Frank Serpico (played by Al Pacino in Serpico); and Joseph Murray, the Nobel laureate who opened a new era in medicine by performing the first successful human kidney transplant in 1954. In sports, we lost champion skier Jill Kinmont, whose struggle to overcome a paralyzing fall on an icy slope was turned into an inspiring 1975 film, The Other Side of the Mountain; major leaguers Andy Carey, Bill “Moose” Skowron (both New York Yankees) and Gary Carter (of the New York Mets); Joe Paterno, once the winningest coach in major college football; and Angelo Dundee, renowned boxing trainer famed for his long association with Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard.