A local school district loses its federal funding money over teacher behavior. A group of D.C. residents sue to block a homeless shelter in their neighborhood. And a Republican activist in Montgomery County successfully petitions to get term limits on the ballot—but a legal challenge looms.
As the year comes to a close, we mark the passing of tyrants,giants of stage and screen, and former heavyweight champions. We reflect on the lives they led, in our backyard and across the globe, and recount the fascinating stories that will serve as the legacy of those lost in 2011.
- Adam Bernstein Obituaries Editor, Washington Post
- Ann Wroe Obituaries Editor, The Economist
2011 Notable Deaths
- Elizabeth Taylor
The Economist’s Obituary for Elizabeth Taylor
- Christopher Hitchens
Hitchens’ Last Slate Column
The late singer performs “Body and Soul” with Tony Bennett:
Anne Wroe’s obituary on the legendary cricket player
The last surviving American veteran from WWI, who passed away at age 108:
Osama bin Laden
Australia’s “White Mouse” was internationally recognized for her work with the French Resistance, trained with the British as a spy, and became an expert in hand-to-hand combat during WWII:
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. 2011 has been a tumultuous year in nearly every sense, regimes have been toppled, economies have been pushed to the brink, earthquakes, tornados and tsunamis have shaken countries and communities to their cores.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAnd if you measure the years by the lives we lost, the stories that frequented our obituary pages every week in 2011 seems even more dramatic from the stories of those closest to us and our families to those who won heavyweight championships, movie stars who redefined our notions of celebrity or a militant leader who became the face of terror for a generation of Americans. Joining us to reflect on the stories of those we lost last year, Adam Bernstein is the obituaries editor at the Washington Post. He joins us in studio. Adam, good to see you again.
MR. ADAM BERNSTEINIt's a pleasure, always.
NNAMDIJoining us by telephone from London, England, is Ann Wroe, obituaries editor at The Economist and good to hear from you again.
MS. ANN WROEHi, Kojo. I'm glad to have got through.
NNAMDIAnd glad you did get through. We wouldn't have started without you, Ann.
WROEAh, thank you.
NNAMDIAdam, it's fitting that we're having this conversation today, coming off of a weekend when the world said good-bye to a number of notable people, including Kim Jong Il, the North Korean leader who you described in today's edition of the Washington Post as, quoting here "the strangely antic and utterly ruthless heir to the Stalinist dictatorship" in North Korea. I assume this was an obituary that you've had large pieces written of for quite some time. How did you go about finishing that story this week? And you note yourself, that the official account of his life is utterly unreliable.
BERNSTEINThat's true. He's the latest example of why it's really a bad year for the tyrant business. It's somebody that we had had ready to go for a long time because he had just been in very bad health. The problem in writing about Kim Jong Il, as with many other, you know, people who were authoritarian leaders, is that there's very little that you can really do to get at the core of who they are other than describing them as terrible.
BERNSTEINThere's little room for nuance in somebody like that especially in a regime where you only get the very slightest of -- and perhaps very unreliable glimpses of how they lived. You know, of course, have the stories of the, you know, his love for cognac and his love for -- his importing of prostitutes and things like that. But you never know quite what is real and what is not. And it's -- I guess it could be best summed up in...
NNAMDII always found the stories of his golf prowess a little difficult to understand.
BERNSTEINIt's probably best summed up in a headline that the -- actually, the -- Ann's publication The Economist ran a couple of years ago describing -- having a big picture of him looking very strange, as he usually did with a title "Greetings Earthlings."
NNAMDII remember that.
WROEYeah, that was a great cover.
BERNSTEINSo, you know, for me, it's a very difficult story to write. I don't know how -- you know, it's always hard for me to assess how successful anything I write is, but it was a hard one for me because there was very little that's really known about him. So it becomes a series of things he did to terrorize his country and awful things that he did to his people. I mean, it just becomes one thing after another of terrible.
NNAMDIIn the final analysis, what did you find the most fascinating part of history, which as you pointed out, has always been a bit of a mystery to the rest of the world?
BERNSTEINHow he navigated the transition from being the son of the country's founder...
NNAMDIKim Il Sung.
BERNSTEIN...to, you know, becoming a full-fledged authoritarian leader in his own right. I guess, he, you know, like father like son. That transition to how he consolidated power, how he wielded fear, both within his own people and also the world at large to keep the country, you know, running, for better or for worse, with the collapse of the Soviets who had long supported him and how he...
BERNSTEIN...he became -- to me, he was like a blackmailer writ large. So, you know, he's just one despicable thing after another. I wish there were more details coming out of the country, even from people who had defected, that would paint a little bit more of a picture of his, you know, whether he was smart as a leader in anything, whether it was just a series of decisions made out of fear and insecurity.
NNAMDII am old enough to remember when creating a cult of the personality was considered by communist idea log, say, a very bad thing to do. It's one of the reasons they gave for kicking Khrushchev out of power. But I don’t know anybody who took it to the extremes that Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong Il did in creating cults of the personality.
WROEYeah, I -- yeah, I certainly agree with that. I must say, if I could just...
NNAMDIPlease do, Ann.
WROE... (unintelligible) the most extraordinary thing that I have found about Kim Jong Il is that there was one incident where a visiting journalist saw him and he was standing in a front a whole group of women who were jumping up and down shouting praise to the dear leader. And Kim Jong Il just turned to the journalists and said, they don’t mean it, it's all pretense.
WROEAnd I thought, how extraordinary. He did realize that. I mean, I'm completely without -- it's so difficult to find the touches of humanity in a tyrant like that and then to marry up, because it's so impossible, the tyranny and the horror with those silly little bits, like possessing 20,000 DVDs because he loved cinema so much. And then you say, but there were also 200,000 people in his prison camps for political descent. How do you marry the two things? In fact, it's been a year of that. I think you called it, Kojo, the year of the tyrant or something similar. Bad year for tyrants or maybe...
NNAMDIIndeed, you wrote, Ann, two particular pieces this year where you grappled with the mystery of men who were boogiemen to much of the rest of the world, Osama bin Laden and Moammar Gaddafi. It'll be hard for a lot of people to ever be able to put themselves inside of Osama bin Laden's head, the man who took credit for the deadliest attack on American soil in history. But when you wrote your essay on Bin Laden, you really tried to see the world as he saw it and how he thought people saw him. What was that exercise like for you?
WROEIt was rather extraordinary, but I thought it had to be done because you can't write an obituary just as a rant against someone. You have to try to give their idea of the world and what they thought they were doing. You have to try and reproduce, I think, their vision of what they were all about. And it seemed to me, often, they came through Osama's life, for example.
WROEThe idea that he was a builder, I mean, his family had been construction engineers in Saudi Arabia and building with his business, if you like. So when he started out, really, in Afghanistan in the 1980s, he was bringing in diggers and he was digging trenches for the mujahideen and he was, you know, constructing the country, if you like, trying to construct the revolution there. And then, you know, he was a family man. This is the extraordinary thing, we all know there were these pictures from Abbottabad of the -- what seemed like a family compound.
WROEAnd you were aware there were children round in it. And his children meant something to him. You know, he used to let them sleep out under the stars. He used to let them sleep on the beach and he used to like eating yogurt and honey with them. And I thought, well, put those things in because the interesting thing about tyrants is that they have parts of themselves that are just like -- are not just like you and me, but that are human. And that's much more interesting to me, then just presenting some all black horror story.
NNAMDIWith Gaddafi, you seem particularly drawn to the connection he always tried to maintain with desert wanderers and cattlemen, ordinary people.
WROEI agree, yes.
NNAMDITalk about that.
WROEI thought that was quite a deep key to him. I mean, most of us remember how when he went to Washington to visit the President, he took his tent with him and wanted to put it up, you know, in the grounds of the White House. And this was an important part of him and also the color green, I mean, this color that is so important to the desert Arabs because it's the color of the oasis and the color of hope.
WROEAnd this was his political color. And so alongside all those awful things we know about Gaddafi, like the deaths of 1,200 prisoners in one night, in one jail in Tripoli. You have a man, you know, who was writing strange novels and who was, you know, fixated on the colors of the oasis. This, to me, is part of this extraordinary human complexity. And it's not good to lose sight of it or else we don't lose...
WROE...we don't think that we have any capacity for...
NNAMDICould you read little bit of the Gaddafi obituary that you did for us?
WROELet me find it here. Well, I could possibly read the desert bit.
WROE"He never forgot his origins among the desert wanderers and cattlemen. Despite the gilded mermaids and white pianos of his ludicrous quarters in Tripoli, he preferred to live in a tent and always traveled abroad with one. When not in uniform, he wore flowing robes. His grandest project, the Great Man-Made River, brought water from southern aquifers to the northern cities.
WROEPrecious green was his color, in flags, book and billboards. His socialism, at root, was based in desert customs of shared property and grazing land. His deep devotion to the army was the gratitude of a poor boy who had used it as a ladder to higher social rank and more grandiose ambitions.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Ann Wroe. She is the obituaries editor at The Economist, and Adam Bernstein, obituaries editor at the Washington Post, about the year in the obituaries. We'll take your calls at 800-433-8850. What stories from the obit pages this year did you find the most interesting? Whose legacies do you think are worth reflection or celebration this year? 800-433-8850.
NNAMDIYou can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org, send us a tweet @kojoshow or simply go to our website, kojoshow.org, and join the conversation there. Adam, before we dwell any farther on the boogiemen, we should mention that someone on the opposite side of that spectrum passed away this weekend, former Czech President Vaclav Havel, a rock 'n roll loving playwright who became a symbol of freedom in the final chapters of the Cold War.
BERNSTEINThat's one of the most remarkable men of Europe in the last -- and during the Cold War. You know, he really -- I think the quote that most stuck out for me was the line about how everybody -- his compatriots wanted to -- hoped for change from the communist regime, but he actually did something about it. His plays -- I remember reading his plays in high school, in the memorandum and it being this wonderfully absurdist comedy about totalitarianism. And it was through vivid works like that, as well as his own activism, where he really put his life on the line continuously that make him stand out from many others.
NNAMDII think with Nelson Mandela and Vaclav Havel, both emerging from prison in the 20th century and going on to become national leaders and Havel being a writer, writing for me about the difference between being able to take a principal position and ending up in jail for it, but then having to be as a practical politician, having to understand compromise, taught me a great deal.
BERNSTEINWhat's also fascinating is to see how it was the regime overstepping by sentencing him way beyond what seemed like a, hate to use the term, reasonable sentence because it really wasn't in any way, shape or form for the crime of, for basically fought crime that really agitated the population far beyond, you know, just sitting around and taking it. And it was the regime overstepping, which we see continuously nowadays, that really makes him feel contemporary.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation about the year in the obituaries. We're still taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Whose legacies do you think are worth reflection or a celebration this year? 800-433-8850, Or you can go to our website, kojoshow.org, I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about the year in death, of the year-end obituaries with Adam Bernstein, obituaries editor of the Washington Post and Ann Wroe, obituaries editor at the Economist, taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Ann, (word?) may have been an artist and playwright who found himself in the bare knuckle fights of the Cold War, but you wrote a piece this year about one of the world's most famous fighters who had a passion for music that not many people knew about.
WROEYes. This fascinated me. This is Joe Frazier, of course, the great heavyweight boxer. And I thought of him simply as a boxer and a slugger. And I was very surprised to find that outside the ring he was parading around in wonderful fur capes and big hats. And that he actually had a little band that he used to take on tours. He was a sort of (unintelligible) ...
NNAMDII actually went to see him at the Cotton Club up in Harlem in the 1970's at some point with that band. The reopened the Cotton Club briefly and I saw him. Let it rest with that. But go ahead.
WROEVery good. And I must say one of the recordings this year that struck me was his singing of "My Way," which he -- you can see him on YouTube singing this. And...
NNAMDIAs a matter of fact if you'll allow me to interrupt for a second, you can hear him singing it right now.
WROEThat'd be lovely.
NNAMDISmoking Joe Frazier. What was it that attracted you to Frazier's story, Ann?
WROEI think it was that he was the little man who kept on going. I mean, he was short for a boxer and he was up against Muhammad Ali most of the time. There was this great rivalry between them and we all remember Ali for his height and his grace and the wonderful way he would dance around the ring. And then there's Frazier who's never so attractive, but he's always going to kind of get in there and keep going, keep pummeling. And it was this determination.
WROEYou know, he started pummeling bags -- he made an old bag out of burlap and sort of rocks when he was a boy and he'd pummel at that. And then he went in the slaughterhouse for a while. He'd pummel away on the sides of beef like Rocky Balboa. And it's this determination to get there. And he never had the gift of the gab like Ali had when you'd see them together on chat shows. And Ali's talking a streak about what he's going to do to everybody. And Frazier's just sitting there and not selling himself at all. And it's the fascinating combination between them, this huge rivalry and boxing which, of course, then got rather unpleasant kind of black and white racial overtones later.
WROEBut I found him a fascinating man, you know, for his persistence and his quietness in a way. And then this fabulous lounge music side, which we've heard.
BERNSTEINI actually have a question for you, Ann, about how you go about crafting an obituary, which is very different from what most American newspapers would carry, or even some of the British ones as well. And that is when do you know that you have the detail that suddenly makes it all come alive to you and does it click for you?
WROEYes. It's hard to say when it is. Just suddenly I will find some little thing and I think that's the way into this obituary and that's the key to this person. I mean, let me think what it was. Probably you want to talk about Elizabeth Taylor later...
WROE...but with her, you know, it was her jewels and with Jane Russell, it was her breasts. There'll be one thing that will suddenly make me think all this obituary can be seen through some sort of lens. I always try and get inside their voice anyway from interviews and books that they've written and so on. And there'll be some little remark they'll make about themselves or some incident in their lives and something will click. It is actually almost like a clicking.
WROEAnd then I will go back and see their life somewhat through that lens and it gives a nice shape to the thing. With Betty Ford it was dancing, for example. And with Betty Ford I found a picture of her dancing on the cabinet room table in the White House. And I saw that image.
NNAMDIIt's the key. Here is Martha in Middleburg Va. Martha, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MARTHAThank you Kojo. And it's great to hear Adam and Ann speaking about the craft of the obit. I am a closet reader of obits. I love them and one of the ones that I especially enjoyed this year was -- and I apologize, I forget the name of the fellow who invented the Tostitos. And Taylor Shapiro wrote the article and he found that lens, I think that you were both referring to, in interviewing his daughter who said that they were going to be sprinkling Tostitos on his grave.
MARTHAAnd then at the end of the obit was ashes to ashes, crunch to crunch. And that one just -- he took his shot and he went for it. It was really fun. So anyway...
NNAMDII know Adam Bernstein also found this gentleman fascinating.
BERNSTEINRight. Actually the detail that I want to point out from the whole obituary was that final bit in the story about the cremated remains were going to be placed in a urine -- in an urn, excuse me, and that the family would then dust his grave with a layer of Doritos. And of course, Taylor had the line ashes to ashes, crunch to crunch.
WROEI wish I had seen that one. I missed that one.
BERNSTEINAnd, you know, what's interesting is that people -- I'm glad the caller took it in the right spirit. You'll have a lot of people, of course, who see obituaries, confuse them often with eulogies and don't want to see anything that could be perceived as remotely disrespectful. I think, in this case, we took it in the spirit in which the family was speaking of the man. It wasn't a gratuitous slap. And I think for that reason, the obituary worked well. It didn't come across as disrespectful, but kept in the fun spirit of -- in which the man lived.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Martha. We move on to Linda in Springfield, Va. Linda, you're on the air. Of course the guy with Tostitos was Arch West. That was his name. Linda, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LINDAThank you. Thanks for taking my call. I'd like to refer back a few moments ago to when Ann was saying that she'd like to find the small human tidbits of stories behind like Gadhafi, bin Laden, et cetera. And as I was listening to that, I got really uncomfortable because it was almost like -- and I know she wasn't saying this, but it was almost like a false equivalency of saying that because of these little pockets of kindness and humanness that it was -- kind of justified the rest of their existence.
LINDANow I'm sure that's not what she was saying, but my question is did she have any of the same qualms as she was writing it that the dichotomy of this little pocket of kindness offsetting all of this horrendous stuff that they were doing?
WROEIt doesn't offset it at all, no, no. It doesn't offset it and nor did it justify it remotely. And I hope nothing I said gave that impression. It's simply that no human being is all black and I think it would be very bad of me or anyone to write an obit which was simply a rant against somebody or a, you know, portrayal of their entire black side. No, even if they're 99 percent black there's something in there. I mean, I do believe there's a little bit of redemption in every single human being, even the worst.
WROEAnd this I think, you know, drives me to look for some little grain of light somewhere. But it certainly doesn't justify a thing of the horrors they produced. And it doesn't offset -- there's no sense of that whatever. And I'm extremely sorry if I gave any impression of that.
BERNSTEINWell, I also think it's important for people when they...
BERNSTEINOh, I'm sorry to interrupt you. Go ahead, please.
NNAMDILinda, go ahead.
LINDAYou didn't give that impression at all. It's just that I was feeling uncomfortable and I wondered if you had any of the same uncomfortableness at the same time that just kind of might give that impression? Or did that even enter at all?
BERNSTEINI didn't feel so because the bulk of the obit, of course, was retelling really awful things that they had done and their sort of indifference to it. And so because the balance within the obit was so very much, you know, darker rather than light I didn't feel that at all. I...
NNAMDIBut Adam and Ann, I think it's also important, when you're writing an obituary, to tell people what it is that may have drawn people to this person outside of this person's maybe unlimited power and influence. That there are human characteristics that these individuals have about which you may not know a great deal, but about which other people may know that drew them to them. But Adam?
BERNSTEINWell, I was just going to say -- not that Ann needs any defense in it, but the idea I feel is important to keep in mind is that it's important to read, not just with obituaries, but with any news story, more than just one take on anything. It's really incumbent on the reader to, okay, let's see what the New York Times has. Let's see what the Washington Post has. And Ann, in her obituaries, provides a very vivid counterpoint to most straight obituaries. And it gives you some food for thought -- which I'm always in favor of -- about other sides of people that may not come across in the more straightforward recountings of a terrorist's climb to power.
NNAMDILinda, thank you very much for your call. Speaking of other sides of people, let's move on to Christopher Hitchens, one of the sharpest tongues and pens in the intellectual world. He died this past week. He'll be remembered for taking on everyone and everything from Mother Teresa to the very concept of religion itself. On this broadcast, he'll be remembered for the blunt language he used to criticize former President Bill Clinton. Let's take a listen to a caller to the show challenging Christopher Hitchens' Washington resentment about Clinton back in 1999.
CHRISTIANYour hatred for the man...
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENSContempt, contempt.
CHRISTIAN...and -- well, it's coming across as hatred, makes it difficult for me to get through that to what you're saying. That was just my comment.
NNAMDIOkay, Chris, I'm' afraid -- Christian, I'm afraid we're out of time. Would you care to respond at all about your characterization of the president (unintelligible) ?
HITCHENSYes, I think I'd rather say it was contempt than hatred. But I do think there's a role for plain speech in these matters. I think there's been too much euphemism. And actually -- I mean, I know I can't please everyone and I obviously failed with Christian, but I have found that some people don't mind when you tell what ordinary people do and say, you know, that actually the guy is a scumbag.
NNAMDIYes, famous last words on this broadcast anyway from Christopher Hitchens. He was a man who seemed to disshape the debate equally as forcefully on both sides of the Atlantic, was he not, Ann?
WROEYes, he was. It was quite a mystery to us Brits why he decided to settle in America, 'cause he took out American citizenship, of course. It seemed to us an odd place for him because he was so opposed to religion of any kind and America is such a religious country. But for him, it was also the great beacon, the great enlightenment, the great experiment in reason. And that was why he loved America.
WROEAnd yes, he was an extraordinary dissenter always and I was thinking back about him. And I remember I read a book by him about the Elgin Marbles and the question of whether or not they should be returned to Greece. And I read it many years ago and I was thinking, well goodness, which side did he take? I can't remember. I just remember the rage in the book. And I can't actually remember what the argument was. And I think sometimes sheer rage blinded you to what he was saying.
WROEI mean, he took on Mother Teresa I think because he felt no one else would take her on. And he was going to be against it. And rather in a similar way -- because everyone in Europe more or less was opposed to the war in Iraq, he decided he would support it. And you feel sometimes it's almost a game with him. He will take the unpopular side. He will be shocking.
NNAMDIHe is a contrarian by his own description because he likes the contrary position, Adam.
BERNSTEINI couldn't have said it better. I mean, I think the idea of taking on Mother Teresa as a symbol of all that's wrong with the world says everything you need to know about Christopher Hitchens.
NNAMDIAdam, it's my understanding that you sometimes get frustrated -- I should say, Ann, it's my understanding that you sometimes get frustrated that you're not writing enough about women. But this year you wrote a series of pieces about a pretty striking collection of women from Liz Taylor to Betty Ford to Jane Russell. To start with Liz Taylor, a person who's story we were talking earlier with the caller who wanted to know what is the tidbit that you used to get of people. In the case of Liz Taylor you thought her story could pretty much told through jewelry, correct?
WROEYes, that's right. And I do want -- would you like me to read just a little bit of it...
NNAMDIYes, which was just auctioned off at great value. But go ahead, please.
WROEThey have. Yes, absolutely true. Well, here's one little paragraph of it. "It was Richard Burton's jewels she treasured most. The wild spontaneity with which he gave them mirroring their explosive unmanageable on-again, off-again love. The 33 carat (word?) diamond came for beating her at ping pong. The Taylor-Burton diamond, 69 carat, came because one night he had insulted her hands. He insulted her whole self too calling her a fat little tub, saying her legs were too short. She'd slap him, wrestle him on the ground, then make up and so on and so on."
WROEAnd so the obituary kind of goes on looking at all her relationships and marriages in terms of her jewelry because she absolutely adored them. And you felt that they were almost proxies for the men behind them.
NNAMDIWell, Adam, Liz Taylor's actually a celebrity whose story overlapped with Washington because for a while, she was inside the Beltway and married to a member of Congress.
BERNSTEINThat's right. John Warner. And the problem was, of course, playing a supporting role. Not for her. I loved learning about Liz Taylor. I loved writing her obituary. And the key to her to me was the line where she saw herself as really one of the -- what I said was hailed as one of the most beautiful women of her generation. Miss Taylor saw herself as one of the most vulnerable. And she says, I've been able to wear plunging necklines since I was 14 years old. And ever since then, people have expected me to act as old as I look. My troubles all started because I have a woman's body and a child's emotions.
BERNSTEINAnd that, to me, made her suddenly -- beyond all the, you know, over the top aspects of her life and her career it made her suddenly a human being to me. And from there, I was able to piece it together rather easily.
NNAMDIHelped me to understand why she reached out to the late Michael Jackson...
NNAMDI...who was similar in a lot of respects. Here is Jane in Alexandria, Va. Jane, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JANEHello, yes. I wanted to tell Adam that I'm not a regular reader of obituaries, but there was one in the Post months ago with a headline that caught my attention, it was so well written that I ended up reading. And it was about -- not about a celebrity, about a man who after many other jobs found his way to be a physician and unfortunately was killed in a car wreck. And so I read the whole thing and I get to the second to last paragraph and found out that I knew his parents -- know his parents. And it was just like, oh, my gosh, I was just shocked.
JANEBut yet I was so impressed with how it was written and particularly the headline, that I just wanted him to know that that was a case where what they did really affected me. And when I called, some other people hadn't seen it either so that's (unintelligible) ...
BERNSTEINWonderful. I wish I could remember the story that you're talking about. We write many, many. So if you think of it, let me know.
NNAMDIBut it does, again, highlight the tidbits of information that you have put into a story that somebody who had absolutely no idea who this person was all of a sudden finds that this person becomes familiar.
BERNSTEINAnd I find that most people who don't ordinarily read obituaries, once they find one that for whatever reason touches them they suddenly become obsessed with them and start reading them more regularly. So I hope -- I'm glad it happened in the case of this caller.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. What do you find the most difficult part of understanding a person's life in its totality once they've gone away? You can call us at 800-433-8850 or send email to email@example.com. Anne Wrote, we have talked about Liz Taylor, we've talked about Betty Ford. And then there is Jane Russell, an actress and pinup who stood out for other reasons. But before we get to that, let's take a listen to Jane Russell performing "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend" in the film "Gentlemen Prefer Blonds."
NNAMDIWell, that's Jane Russell's voice and she's singing about diamonds. But, Anne, your focus was on a different aspect of her.
WROEYes. Well, I did rather focus in on the breasts and on the wonderful remarks about them. I mean, Bob Hope called her the two and only.
BERNSTEINIt's the only like that's worth remembering.
WROEYes. It's a very good one. And Howard Hughes who was directing her...
NNAMDIOh, yeah. I like his line, too.
WROEYes. He said, we're not getting enough production out of Jane's breasts. And she herself, I mean, one of the interesting things about her was that she was a fervent Christian, and she tried to kind of spread Bible study. She ran Bible groups in Hollywood among the starlets there, and she said once, Christians have bosoms, too, which I thought was quite a good remark. But we were talking a little earlier about Liz Taylor and how at the end of her life, in this very moving way, she reached out to Michael Jackson, and Jane Russell was a sort of mother figure in the same way to Marilyn Monroe.
WROEThat clip you just heard, of course, was her singing with Monroe. They're singing together, and Monroe's the blonde in the film. But Monroe was terrified and always late, you know, on the set and so on, and often thought she couldn't go on. And Jane Russell simply mothered her and took her under her wing, and actually tried to bring her to God as well, but Marilyn said that wasn't her thing.
BERNSTEINWhat I'd like to try and do is make a link from Jane Russell to Peter Falk, who is not clearly not nearly as voluptuous as Jane Russell. But what's interesting when you're writing about somebody like Jane Russell is, as Ann points out, you're really gonna focus on the two most important things about her from the perspective of most moviegoers. But here's somebody also who was able to keep her -- to hold her own against Bob Hope in several movies...
BERNSTEIN...and also went on to have a pretty decent career as a gospel singer with very talented singers such as Beryl Davis, who just died not too long ago. And I'd like -- I love it when you're able to find elements of a life that you don't ordinarily expect, and almost teach people who may not be aware of so many other dimensions of a career, and that's where I kind of ease on over to Peter Falk.
BERNSTEINAnd everybody, of course, thinks of him as the -- one of the most sharply drawn -- playing one of the most finely drawn detective roles on television, of course playing Columbo. But being an old film fan, I also know him from...
NNAMDISame here. Great character actor.
BERNSTEIN...you know, "Murder, Inc.," which I saw a couple years ago and he is terrific. He is just chilling as can be as a hit man.
BERNSTEINBut then you also see his work with John Cassavetes who is a far different kind of director than...
NNAMDIHis best friend, too.
BERNSTEINIn "A Woman Under the Influence," he is tremendous playing this blue collar worker who just can't quite deal with wife's mental illness. And I love being able to shape -- to include those aspects of a life and a story high enough up so that it intrigues readers who may not be aware some of the other elements other than the things that most define them.
NNAMDIAdam Bernstein is the obituaries editor of the Washington Post. He joins us in studio. Joining us by phone by London, England, is Ann Wroe, obituaries editor at The Economist. We'll be taking a short break. When we come back, we'll be continuing this conversation on the year in the obituaries. But you can still call us, 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation about the year in the obituaries with Ann Wroe, obituaries editor at The Economist, and Adam Bernstein, obituaries editor of The Washington Post. We started talking about Jane Russell's voice before we moved onto other parts of Jane Russell. But speaking of voices, I have to admit that I was one of those Amy Winehouse fans who lived in fear that one day she might self destruct. But even though Amy Winehouse was only 27 when she died this summer, it's safe to say that her voice is gonna stay with us for quite a lot longer.
NNAMDITwenty-seven years old, Adam, but it's my understanding that there was already an obituary written out for Amy Winehouse long before her death.
BERNSTEINWell, that's one of those people that had I'm going to die very soon written all over her. I mean, it's very sad. She was probably, you know, the key question when you're writing an obituary about someone like that is, can you move beyond what most people, again, know about her, that she has, you know, she has talent, but just how talented, and can you write it in a way that it moves beyond just sort of the sadder aspects of the life?
BERNSTEINAnd our writer, Terence McArdle, who was a blues musician actually, wrote the obituary, and I think did a very perceptive job at getting at the qualities of her singing, of her music that really show that she is a talent far and beyond the notoriety she received for her drug use.
NNAMDIIt was no surprise, Ann Wroe, but nevertheless, quite sad that she did die at 27 years old.
WROEI agree. We were all waiting for it in a way, as Adam says. Tremendously talented, but at the same time you saw this drive to -- really towards destruction. And it was there in the voice and the fact that her voice sounded so old in those songs. It sounded so full of experience, which it was of every kind of drink and drugs and unwise relationships, all the rest of it. I mean, in my part of London, she was a local girl, and it was rather strange that when she died in her -- the square in front of her house was decorated not just with flowers, but with empty vodka bottles and that kind of thing.
WROEThe tribute to her was really a tribute to self destruction in a sense. It was extraordinary the way people felt that she'd summed up a generation that just wanted to, you know, drive itself on into a dark place. She was a strange woman, but my goodness, the experience in her voice. She modeled herself on Ray Charles. I mean, he was her great hero, and that was the sound, I think, that she was thinking of.
NNAMDIYeah. Her sound was so mature.
NNAMDIWell, I heard her, I thought two people, Billie Holiday and Janis Joplin.
WROEI thought Billie Holiday just the same.
WROEAnd there was, you know, twice as much experience, or three times in Billie Holiday's voice as in Amy's, but...
NNAMDIAdam, how do you go about determining who's worthy of a pre-death obituary? I would assume that a person like Steve Jobs, whose health had been deteriorating for some time, would have been on such a list.
BERNSTEINRight. I mean, there were a couple reasons why you would plan on an obituary in advance. One is that somebody's very old or somebody's very sick. And in terms of Steve Jobs, you know, that was certainly the case. It looked like very few people recover from the kind of cancer he had, so it looked like it was just a matter of time, and then you just need to, you know, prepare it. So that's -- there's no great mystery to it, so much as just you have to keep an eye for who looks like they are not going to be much more longer with us, like Amy Winehouse and other people, for medical reasons. It's good to prepare.
BERNSTEINYou always have to be ready these days because the news, as soon as it breaks, has to be out there, at least from the newspaper's perspective, within, you know, minutes of news breaking, or else you're going to lose your audience. And so it's a challenge to find writers in the newsroom who have the time and interest to put it all together.
NNAMDIAnn, if -- go ahead, please, Ann.
WROEI'm sorry, Kojo, but I was just going to make the point that the interesting thing about Steve Jobs was that he died very soon after he just stepped down from Apple, and people, in effect, wrote their obituaries of him when he stepped down from Apple. So unusually among human beings, he had the experience, I think, of reading his own obituaries.
NNAMDIAnn, if Steve Jobs was somebody whose health was constantly monitored by those interested in his company, a person who kept large parts of his life private, you wrote about a person from this area who was quite the opposite about his health situation, Tom DeBaggio, a Virginia man, who publically chronicled his descent with Alzheimer's Disease.
WROEThis was a most extraordinary story. It was a reader from Chantilly, Va., who pointed me in this direction and said, have you heard about this man, and I hadn't. And I got his books and read about it, and he began to find his memory was failing. He couldn't remember the names of herbs that he'd known all his life. He was a great herb expert and a nursery. He sold herbs in Chantilly, and he just decided to sit down and write as long as he was able to write.
WROEAnd it was extraordinary how he would persist, even though he began to forget what words were, you know. He would forget how to spell our. He would forget what began with P and what began with B or what a wall was. As he was writing, you know, it got worse and worse and yet we were talking previously about those sort of points of light in darkness, and he would come upon these extraordinary things that would almost make his suffering -- not make it worthwhile, but sort of bring him out of his suffering to some realization of a great thing that was happening to him. It's marvelous how inspiring his books are, although he is writing about a dreadful degenerative disease.
NNAMDIAnd he appeared regularly on this station on "The Diane Rehm Show" as a matter of fact.
WROEThose where extraordinarily heroic interviews, I think, because he would begin them with plenty of memory of this matter and then gradually, as if the effort tired him, you know, he would just forget, and he would not be able to talk anymore, and he would just break into tears knowing that he couldn't do it and how generous and selfless that in a way he was like a living experiment for doctors to see how this disease takes its course. I just was so moved by his story.
BERNSTEINAnd the idea of confronting it and going public about it is such a rare thing. When he was doing it, he was talking about what made him initially move, you know, from the shadows more into the public light about what he was suffering from. I think early on, as we said in our story, actually written by Adrian Higgins, our gardening columnist, that he initially tried to reach out to another patient on the advice of the local chapter of the Alzheimer's Association, and he said, I called and the other man's wife answered the phone.
BERNSTEINI said who I was and that I had been asked to call him. She said, he doesn’t want to talk to you. He doesn’t want to talk to you, goodbye. And he said, that told me a whole lot about Alzheimer's. It's a disease that you hide. And at that point, he devoted his life to making it less so. And he wrote about it with not only insight, but there's a great sense of humor about him too that, again, really brings him much more three dimensional than just here's an advocate for the cause of Alzheimer's awareness.
BERNSTEINAnd that he -- he says in one of his books that discipline of the mind crumbles into slogans and short bursts of anger. I should run for president.
NNAMDIMakes a lot of sense to me. Of course...
WROEIsn't that marvelous?
NNAMDI...Pat Summitt the legendary coach of the Tennessee Lady Vols came out in public earlier this year and said that she is suffering with Alzheimer's, but she's continuing to coach at 59 years old, and as usual is having a winning season this year. But Adam, circling back to the category of striking women, you wrote a piece this year about a woman named Nancy Wake, a British spy that the Gestapo used to call the White Mouse. What was her story?
BERNSTEINIt's one of my favorite obits of the year. What was evocative to me was the story was in the last couple, I don't know, 10 or 15 years, she was just a lady who would sit at the end of a bar in London and go on and on about her war stories. And I usually try and avoid people like that, but in this case, it was such a compelling story that I really, really, really wanted to tell it to tour readers. She was a 98-year-old woman from England, who was one of the most effective and cunning British agents working in German occupied France during World War II, and she was a rare woman who was helping the French Resistance.
BERNSTEINShe would, you know, sleep out in the woods, she would organize resistance groups, she -- let's me see if my -- get my facts right here. She was chomping on cigars, she, you know, endured -- she bested guerilla fighters in drinking bouts. She traveled nowhere without her Chanel lipstick, face cream, and favorite red satin cushion. She is the most feminine woman I know until the fighting starts, then she's like five men, a colleague in the French Resistance once said.
BERNSTEINShe planned and executed a successful raid on a Gestapo Garrison in an arms factory in central France. The Gestapo had a large bounty on her head. She evaded capture and that only added to her mystique. That's why they called her the White Mouse. And the detail about her that really -- again, the quote that really made her come alive for me, was that when she was talking about why she executed a French woman, there were three. She and her group captured three women.
BERNSTEINMembers of her group thought that they were spies. She interrogated them. She became satisfied that two were telling the truth. The third woman she sentenced to death by firing squad, and her quote much later was, I was not a very nice person, and it didn't put me off my breakfast. After all, she had an easy death. She didn't suffer. I knew her death was a lot better than the one I would have got.
NNAMDISpeaking of spies, one of the things we like to do on this show every year is to call attention to people whose work was everywhere around us, even if we didn't ever take notice of them. People like John Barry, the man who wrote music like this.
NNAMDIOf course, that's Shirley Bassey singing the theme from "Goldfinger" which John Barry wrote, and John Barry's music provided the soundtracks for the James Bond films, "Dances with Wolves," "Out of Africa," but I'm old enough to remember something called the John Barry Seven, which was a group that I grew up with. Ever heard of that, Ann?
WROEI haven't, no. I'm afraid I rather missed out on John Barry.
WROEI think someone else died the same week. But, you see, we only have a one week.
BERNSTEINJoe Frazier was the vocalist.
WROEI mean, I agree with you about this wonderful music. You can always recognize a John Barry tune, can't you?
NNAMDIYeah. You sure can.
WROEAnd the James Bond films are absolutely transformed by them, and I actually go to Bond films not just to watch the Bond, but also to listen to the music that goes through them, because it is immensely atmospheric and...
NNAMDIGot one more for you, Ann. Here is Sarah in Columbia, Maryland. Sarah, you are on the air. We only have about a minute left. Go ahead, please.
SARAHI'm as fascinated by the obituary read in The Economist of Roman (word?) . I wondered how you came to choose him, Ann, as a person to memorialize, and if there was any detail of life that didn't make the obituary that you could share with me. Thanks.
WROEOh, this is -- yes. This is the painter, isn't it, who decided to paint his way to infinity. This is an extraordinary story this one. It's about -- he's a Polish painter who, suddenly in 1965, just decided that he would paint the number one on a canvas, and he painted in white on black canvas. And then he just went on every day painting as many figures as he could until he -- he was going to paint to infinity in the end. The other thing he did besides painting these figures every day was he gradually added ore white to the background until the canvasses became almost entirely white. So I think by 2008, it was almost white on white, you know. You couldn't...
NNAMDII'm afraid that's all the time we have. Ann Wroe is the obituaries editor at The Economist. Adam Bernstein is the obituaries editor at The Washington Post. Thank you both for joining us, and thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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