Farewell My Lovelies

Movies and plays rarely amount to more than gibberish these days, but the loss of even more I.Q. points is

Movies and plays rarely amount to more than gibberish these days, but the loss of even more I.Q. points is guaranteed with the passing of esteemed playwrights and screenwriters like England’s working-class hero Keith Waterhouse (Billy Liar); tough, two-fisted Oscar and Pulitzer Prize winner Budd Schulberg (On the Waterfront); barrister John Mortimer (he created the Rumpole of the Bailey TV series); versatile Millard Kaufman (everything from Bad Day at Black Rock and Raintree County to the Mr. Magoo cartoons); Ireland’s Hugh Leonard, who won four 1978 Tonys for Da; Fellini’s favorite screenplay writer Tullio Pinelli (8 ½, La Dolce Vita); and prolific, 92-year-old Texan Horton Foote, who chronicled the moral and spiritual history of everyday small-town lives in 60 plays and dozens of movies and television dramas, winning two Oscars and a Pulitzer Prize. His flawless ear for the lazy lyricism of Southern dialogue elevated To Kill a Mockingbird, Tender Mercies and The Trip to Bountiful to heights of critical applause. When it comes to comedy, Larry Gelbart remains unsurpassed. Starting out with Mel Brooks and Neil Simon as a writer for Sid Caesar, he graduated to TV (“M.A.S.H.”), Broadway (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) and movies (Tootsie). Once erroneously reported dead in an Internet hoax in 2008, Larry shot back with “I was dead, but I’m better now.”

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The world of letters diminished when John Updike locked up his typewriter keyboard forever, followed by Frank McCourt (who turned his hardscrabble childhood in the Dublin slums into publishing gold with Angela’s Ashes), Jim Carroll (The Basketball Diaries), J.G. Ballard (Empire of the Sun), renowned novelist James Purdy (Malcolm), feminist author Marilyn French, publishing czar Alfred Knopf and meticulous prose stylist Hortense Calisher. Let’s fill the Champagne glass again for a special nod to the miraculous Irish writer Christopher Nolan, born mute and paraplegic, who spent 32 of his 43 years typing novels and a prizewinning autobiography, one letter at a time, with a stick attached to his forehead.

The music world thrilled to the final eight bars from jazz high priestesses Chris Connor and Blossom Dearie, two innovative staples of sophisticated New York night life who were beacons lighting the darkness of mediocrity. From her early days as a Stan Kenton vocalist, to a lucrative, chart-busting career as a recording star, Chris had a lush voice and hip phrasing that rendered powerless the risk of cliché; Blossom’s purity, immaculate way with lyrics and feather-light sweetness of tone masked her hard-driving jazz musician’s unwavering sense of time on piano. There was nothing melancholy or sentimental about them. Other musicians who left the bandstand early: Al Martino, a ’50s crooner who regained late-life fame playing Don Corleone’s godson in the Godfather films; ace arrangers Billy VerPlanck, Torrie Zito and England’s Wally Stott, whose wife, Christine, stuck with him after he became a transsexual and changed his name to Angela Morley; mellow guitarist-singer Kenny Rankin; Louie Bellson, the jazz drumming bandleader who recorded several albums with his wife, Pearl Bailey; country singers Molly Bee and cowboy Monte Hale; elegant jazz pianist Eddie Higgins; Hank Locklin, the oldest member of the Grand Ole Opry; Anne Brown, 96, the original Bess in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, who deserted the U.S. denouncing racial prejudice and lived most of her life teaching singing in Norway (one of her pupils was Liv Ullmann); the Metropolitan Opera manager Schuyler Chapin; Cincinnati Pops Orchestra conductor Erich Kunzel; Spanish concert pianist Alicia de Larrocha; New York cabaret favorite Judy Kreston; and pianist-composer Lukas Foss. Add a big fat “Bravo!” for Alan Livingston, tasteful president of Capitol Records, who made stars out of Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Peggy Lee and Bozo the Clown, and privately, survived a marriage to bombshell Betty Hutton. No more take-home tunes by songwriter Jack Lawrence (“Tenderly”) or throbbing movie scores from Maurice Jarre (Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago). We applauded the last three-string clusters from guitarist Les Paul and swooned to the final dreamy notes by jazz saxophonist Bud Shank. No more arias from Wagnerian soprano Hildegard Behrens or rousing political protest songs from Peter, Paul and Mary’s blond Raggedy Ann, Mary Travers. It was “So long, Junior” to Jimmy Boyd, the boy who made a brief jukebox noise in 1952 with the obnoxious “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.” The Catholic Church condemned it, accusing the 12-year-old of mixing sex with Christmas. That turned it into platinum overnight. And speaking of sex, no more goose bumps for naked porno sensations Jack Wrangler and Marilyn Chambers, the scrubbed all-American beauty who played with a baby in the Ivory Snow ads and a dildo in Behind the Green Door. They worked, if you’ll pardon the pun, long and hard.

 

AVANT-GARDE choreographer Merce Cunningham danced his last tour jeté. No more classes by Mira Rostova, famed acting coach who claimed to teach Montgomery Clift everything he knew—even though his film directors often threw her off the set. Andrew Wyeth, America’s best-known artist, painted his last canvas, but cheap prints of Christina’s World still hang on rent-controlled walls everywhere. Irving Penn, world-famous photographer of people and fashion, folded his tripod, but his work will survive on museum walls—some designed by another 2009 departee, Thomas Hoving, who saved the Metropolitan Museum. Do not wander accidentally into the Russian Tea Room hoping to see Meryl Streep’s über-agent Sam Cohn in his trademark orange sweater. He shredded his Rolodex. It was one last walk down the runway for America’s first black supermodel, Naomi Sims. The annals of medicine saluted Dr. Willem Kolff, Dutch physician credited with saving millions of lives by inventing the first artificial kidney with the use of sausage casings and orange juice cans. We suffered through one final infomercial by pitchman Billy Mays. Sheila Lukins, affable author of all those Silver Palate cookbooks, baked her last muffin. The kettle stopped boiling but the secret recipe lives on for Steve Bernard, the colorful adventurer who invented Cape Cod potato chips in a Hyannis storefront in 1980 and six years later was selling 80,000 bags a day. Let’s all tip our hats to 97-year-old Millvina Dean, the last survivor of the Titanic, and the youngest of the ship’s original 705 surviving passengers in 1912 (she was 9 years old). She never saw the hit film, although Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio contributed to her nursing home costs. And don’t forget Johnny Carson’s vestigial sidekick Ed McMahon, who mewled “Heeeeere’s Johnny” for 30 years, giggling and making dumb remarks. If he had any other talents, they remained elusive to the naked eye. He just sat there and grinned. It was the easiest money ever made in TV.

In politics, the polls finally closed for Jack Kemp, footballer turned Republican congressman; for Senator Claiborne Pell, who wrote the legislation that founded the National Endowment for the Arts; and for Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who led America into the Vietnam War and spent the rest of his life apologizing. In yet another grim year for an ill-fated American dynasty, the deaths of Senator Ted Kennedy and Eunice Kennedy Shriver marked the end of Camelot. The sports world hung up the gloves of light heavyweight boxer Jose Torres; Ingemar Johansson, who knocked out Floyd Patterson to become the world heavyweight boxing champ in 1959; and baseball center fielder Dom DiMaggio, 92-year-old brother of Killer Joe and, for a brief time, brother-in-law of Marilyn Monroe.

I will not forget Daily News drama critic Douglas Watt, 95, a respected, erudite, lucid and well-liked reviewer in the good old days when there still was such a thing. The nose of print and broadcast journalism was bloodied by the deaths of 60 Minutes producer Don Hewitt; courageous Pulitzer Prize–winning New York Times reporter Nan Robertson, who lost her fingers to toxic shock syndrome at age 55 and literally had to reinvent her own career; Runyonesque crusader Sidney Zion; dance critic Allen Hughes; sourpuss cable TV news analyst Robert Novak; veteran newscaster Paul Harvey; speechwriter-columnist William Safire; and editor James Brady, who fired me as television critic for Women’s Wear Daily because he said I couldn’t write for WWD and The New York Times at the same time. I chose The New York Times. Did I do wrong?

Finally, tears flowed in every living room for Walter Cronkite, who launched the institution of nightly network news, bringing to the job humanity, journalistic integrity, indomitable spirit and a trail-blazing voice of authority and reason. He covered news, made news and wasn’t afraid to show his enthusiasm, sorrow or boyish sense of discovery. He was not merely an impassioned observer. He lived the news, and became the most trusted anchor in the history of broadcasting. His likes will never come again.

So goodbye, 2009—and, if you ask me, good riddance.

 

Farewell My Lovelies