So many goodbyes, so little space, but don’t overlook ballet’s flamboyant French choreographer Roland Petit, 87, credited with revolutionizing dance on stage and film, especially in splashy numbers for his wife, legendary prima ballerina Zizi Jeanmaire, who survives him. After the tasteless idiocy of this year’s disgraced producer Brett Ratner, I miss the polish of the deceased Gil Cates, whose reliable taste guided 14 telecasts to glory in 18 years without a hitch. Those were the days when the Oscar shows were worth staying up for. Still playing the fame game, I will not miss A.C. Nielsen, 92, the market researcher who invented the highly dubious TV rating system that turned the tube into incomprehensible hash. But I do miss Dolores Hope, Bob’s widow, who died at 102 wearing the biggest string of emeralds I have ever seen. No more fabulous meals from New York celebrity restaurant owners Armando Orsini, the “Playboy Prince of Pasta,” whose fabled Orsini’s was a West 56th Street watering hole for everybody who was anybody in the 1960s, and Hungarian cookbook author and food maven George Lang, whose romantic Café des Artistes was a destination for anyone in love near Lincoln Center. If nothing else, he coined one of the best titles ever published for his memoir, called Nobody Knows the Truffles I’ve Seen. I will also miss fitness guru Jack LaLanne, who lived to be 96. There there were Daily News cartoonist Bill Gallo and show-biz caricaturist Sam Norkin, often unfairly called “the poor man’s Al Hirschfeld,” whose drawings filled the arts pages of the same newspaper for 26 years. It was the end of visionary inventors Elliot Handler (Ken and Barbie dolls), Murray Handwerker (his family invented Nathan’s hot dogs), Harry Wesley Coover (Super Glue), Arch West (the humble Doritos corn chips, with total sales of nearly $5 billion annually) and Hubert Schlafly, who helped generations of politicians remember their lines by inventing the dependable cheating device called the teleprompter.
Some of those town criers who died in 2011 were likeable congresswoman and vice presidential hopeful Geraldine Ferraro, former Democratic New York governor Hugh Carey and Bill Clinton’s secretary of state, Warren Christopher. But my favorite was still Betty Ford—one of the most inspiring women who ever lived in the White House. She was courageous, outspoken, humane and a strong believer in sharing the truth with the people she served. After Gerald Ford became president by default, she stuck by him through thick and thin, and inevitably found her own share of the spotlight when she frankly discussed her own personal problems with the millions who adored her for her—struggles with alcohol, pain pills and breast cancer—without a trace of self-pity. She always said she came to Washington “through an accident in history.” She stayed 28 years.
No more family reunions for Judy Lewis (illegitimate daughter of Clark Gable and Loretta Young, who pretended her child was “adopted” for 31 years), Dorothy Rodham (mother and mentor of Hillary Clinton), Lucian Freud (grandson of psychiatrist Sigmund Freud and famous for painting nudes), composer Peter Lieberson (son of Columbia Records mogul Goddard Lieberson and ballet star Vera Zorina) and Svetlana Stalin (daughter of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin), who spent her last years wandering homeless and in poverty.
Journalism, which has one foot in the grave already, lost Tom Wicker, the New York Times White House correspondent, Washington bureau chief for 25 years and the only Times reporter in John F. Kennedy’s motorcade that fateful day in 1963 in Dallas that altered the course of U.S. history. Plus liberal talk-radio host Lynn Samuels, a sane alternative to the lunatic fringe of conservative hate-mongers who crowd the airwaves. Plus heavy-drinking, chain-smoking, self-professed bisexual slob journalist and professional provocateur Christopher Hitchens, and crotchety 60 Minutes commentator Andy Rooney, who kvetched charmingly about everything from the junk in his closet to the annoyances of computer technology for 33 years. I don’t know where to put computer whiz and Apple founder Steve Jobs or Jack Kevorkian, who made himself a household name by advocating euthanasia and even did eight years of jail time for what many believed to be a noble cause. He admitted to at least 130 “assisted suicides” and even invented a machine that taught people suffering from terminal illnesses how to do it themselves. To some, he was “Dr. Death.” To others, he was a saint. I could go on, but I’m feeling terminal myself.
Last but not least, did I forget to mention Karl Stover, 93, and one of the last surviving Munchkins from The Wizard of Oz? He was important too. So goodbye, 2011, you were a lousy year. And good riddance, if you ask me.