Kojo looks back on the local impact of Dick Gregory, the legendary comedian and civil rights activist who adopted Washington as his home town.
During the past year, we said goodbye to many people who changed the world forever in the time they were here. Whether it was by setting foot on the moon, capturing the imagination of generations of children with books, or inspiring people the world over to dance to infectious disco beats. We reflect on the lives and legacies of those we lost this year.
- Ann Wroe Obituaries Editor, The Economist
- Adam Bernstein Obituaries Editor, Washington Post
Notable Deaths Of 2012
Pop singer Whitney Houston died Feb. 11, 2012, at age 48.
Adam Yauch, known as MCA and one-third of the hip hop group Beastie Boys, died May 4, 2012 at age 47.
Nora Ephron, screenwriter and director, died June 26, 2012 at age 71. Ephron appeared on The Diane Rehm Show in August 2006.
Singer and entertainer Andy Williams died Sept. 25, 2012 at age 84. Williams was on The Diane Rehm Show in December 2009.
George McGovern, politician and hunger-fighter, died Oct. 21, 2012 at age 90. McGovern appeared on The Diane Rehm Show in August 2011.
American Indian rights activist and actor Russell Means died Oct. 22, 2012 at age 72.
Dave Brubeck, jazz pianist and composer, died Dec. 5, 2012 at age 91.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. It's that time of year where we find ourselves turning a page reflecting on what we've left behind and waiting with anticipation for what's to come. And the stories of those we said goodbye to this year cover the entire spectrum of human emotion from the triumphs of setting foot in places where humans have never traveled before to the horrors of concentration camps we may never forget, to the songs that are likely to leave people all over the world dancing for decades to come.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us this hour to reflect on the lives of those we lost in 2012 is Adam Bernstein. He is the obituaries editor at the Washington Post. Adam, good to see you again.
MR. ADAM BERNSTEINIt's wonderful to be here. Thank you.
NNAMDIJoining us by phone from London, England is Ann Wroe, obituaries editor at the Economist. Ann, good to hear from you again.
MS. ANN WROEIt's good to be on the show, Kojo.
NNAMDIAdam, this conversation which we have done every year for some time now is always a bittersweet one. But even though it's a conversation about people who have passed it's also a conversation about what's possible in life. It's about the adventures that happen while we're here. And one of the very first pieces you wrote in 2012 was about a man who considered himself a professional adventurer.
NNAMDIJohn Fairfax was the first person in recorded history to row across the Atlantic Ocean by himself. At different times he was a shark fighter, a mink farm operator. What do you look for in a person's life like his when you begin to write your story?
BERNSTEINJohn Fairfax brings back great memories. I always judge a newspaper or magazine not by what it has to do but what it can bring a little extra to readers. And Fairfax just grabbed me. He's a -- he was a risk taker. I mean, the problem with somebody like John Fairfax is you don't quite know what's true, what's braggadocio. I try to stick with what I could prove from stories written about him at the time that wouldn't be subject to exaggeration in later years.
BERNSTEINSo he was -- his father abandoned him when he was young. He and his mother grew up in -- he grew up with his mother in Buenos Aires. And as a young man he went into the wilderness to, I think in his words, live like Tarzan. And he was always drawn to adventure as a young man. He write a book about his adventures. He worked as a, if memory serves, an ocelot farmer which is not something a lot of us do. And he also claimed to have been involved with pirates and smugglers and traveled by bike from San Francisco back to Buenos Aires. And, you know, you have to sort of wonder how much of this is really true.
BERNSTEINBut to me it's more of what he represents. I quoted a man in the story who was the president of a group in England called the Ocean Rowing Society. And what he said was that people don't understand that there are -- you know, that there are these guys who -- that there are people that go to universities, have a career and then die in their beds. And then there are others who choose a different path and take a risk.
BERNSTEINAnd I think Fairfax is somebody who appealed to me because it felt like here, especially in Washington, people are, you know, complaining about this, that and the other, sit in their offices all day. And here's somebody who went out and did something of incredible daring. He actually did row across the ocean alone. He was threatened by sharks. He, you know, nearly died of starvation but he made it. And then he did it again in the Pacific with his -- a woman he claimed was not his girlfriend. I think they later had a relationship but she basically said, I can't stand being with this man.
BERNSTEINAnd he wound up, of all places, in Las Vegas married to a woman who was an astrology columnist for a suburban Las Vegas newspaper, I believe.
NNAMDIWhat degree of skepticism, if at all, do you have about...
BERNSTEINAbout 100 percent.
NNAMDI...a story like this?
BERNSTEINAbout 100 percent. But, you know, if you stick to what is provable from the clips at the time, what seems to make sense, all things considered, and just give a portrait of what it's like to be with this man, I think it can be a successful story. He's the kind of guy to me where it could be just incredible or singularly awful if you sit next to him at a bar. And that was what I was trying to convey, somebody who was, you know, adventurous and then would, you know, tell you all kinds of stories. So I tried to put as many of them as I could in the paper without coming across as just an absolute -- before people would start going, oh come on, give me a break.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call. What stories from the obit pages this year did you find the most interesting, 800-433-8850? Or you can send email to email@example.com. Adventure defined the lives of some of the most notable people who passed this year, including the astronaut Neil Armstrong who, at the time, set foot on a place that man or humans had never gone before.
NEIL ARMSTRONGOkay. I'm going to step off the landing. That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.
NNAMDIAnn Wroe, words that we all remember the world over, but you wrote that the expectations for this man did not seem to square with who he really was. How so?
WROEWell, he was a remarkable man I think because he was so shy and reserved and decent. He's rather like a Sin Sin artist figure, I think, Neil Armstrong. He comes out of rural Ohio and he goes back to rural Ohio. And in his retirement he flies gliders because that's as near as men can get to being birds, he says. I think he's a wonderful man. He's so unfazed by fame. He keeps saying he doesn't deserve it. It's all the team behind him. It's all the people in Houston, you know, who are making this space trip. It's not him. He doesn't deserve it.
WROEI think it's extraordinary because if I had set foot on the moon I think it would go to my head. It didn't go to his, you know. He said, it's no more scary than mixing a milkshake. Everybody else does everything for me. And in fact that wasn't strictly true because when he landed on the moon he had to try to get his craft down on a plain that was scattered with huge boulders. And apparently he only had 25 seconds of fuel left in the tanks by the time he found a good place to land. So there's a guy who's got an ice cook demander in fact. You know, nothing's going to scare him. And in fact, I think his colleagues called him the ice commander.
WROESo he was a fascinating character to do because he was not the sort of man I thought he was going to be.
NNAMDIHe was, however, reluctant to make pronouncements on the future of the human species or the chances for world peace, Ann.
WROEYes. Yes we did. I think in a way you're happy to put pronouncements of world peace in the mouth of someone who seems so down to earth in the most ironic way, you know. I mean, he was -- he was delighted by the moon and he does jump around a little bit. You know, he lets himself go at one point I think in that very fuzzy film that we all saw. You know, in the distance on a very primitive television, we saw this man jumping on the moon. I remember we had a budgerigar in a cage hanging in front of our television then. And so whenever I think of Armstrong on the moon, I actually also see the budgerigar in the cage.
WROEAnd Armstrong had that delight in having got there but again, you know, always very calm and, you know, let's just look at the beauty of this thing. He was taken aback, as we all were, by the sight of the earth from space. This changed the way we looked at the world forever. And I think he was probably the first man to get that shock of the beauty of the earth and how fragile it is and how we need to care for it.
BERNSTEINI think Ann's right on the mark. And what's also remarkable to me is how similar he is to Sally Ride...
NNAMDISally Ride. I was about to ask about Sally Ride.
BERNSTEIN...the other famous astronaut.
NNAMDIFirst American woman in space.
BERNSTEINAnd the youngest as well. I think she was 32 at the time. And what's amazing about both of them to me, very similar in their restraint, their discipline, their ability to basically do their job and then retreat, and not to be a loner. I mean, they were both very involved in the world. I know for a fact that Neil Armstrong would write letters to some of my -- or exchange emails with some of my colleagues about the future of NASA, not for attribution. He would always just want to, you know, have his say but he wasn't a loner.
BERNSTEINAnd neither was Sally Ride. She would -- after her flight into space she would stay very involved in the space program. She started a foundation to encourage young women in the sciences. And -- but, you know, especially in the world of today, in the world, you know, starting in the modern age, plus World War II world, it's very, very difficult to be like that. I mean, you think of all these politicians who want to use you for one thing or another or for a big business who wants you to -- want to put you on a box of Wheaties. And they resisted that temptation.
NNAMDIAnd as Ann Wroe said it would've gone to her head, probably mine too. But Ann, there are people like Ray Bradbury who connected his readers with worlds that in the end only existed in his and our imaginations. You found it fitting to write your obituary of Ray Bradbury in the style of one of his short stories. Care to read some of it for us?
WROEOh, yes. I could try that. What I did was imagined that Ray Bradbury had to come back to -- wandered into a television studio. And rather in the way of his story of the illustrated man, he'd taken his shirt off. And on his body, there were all the stories that he'd written. And, yes, I can just read a little bit of it here. "His forearms showed a scene in Waukegan, Ill. where he was born, white palings, apple trees, front porches and a hill strewn with dandelions, his special flowers. When the Apollo 15 astronauts wanted to name their lunar landscape after him, they fixed on dandelion crater.
WROEA boy of 12 is racing down the hill. He bursts into a fairground tent. And there before him was Mr. Electrico in his chair with a sparking sword. He froze. Mr. Electrico tapped him on the brow and cried, live forever. But who could live forever, asked the old man. He opened his palm. Inside it was a fire lantern glowing gently through its paper shell. On every 4th of July he and the grownups would release these gossamer spirits, blue, white and red. Their beauty as they rose through the night sky made him cry about the end of things.
WROENow another floated up. A blue sphere and hovered over landscape with delicate ruined cities and fossil seas. Silver rockets discarded by American colonizers twinkled on the distant hills. This, the old man explained, was Mars." And it goes on like that. I mean, I did this because I so love Ray Bradbury. He is one of my favorite, favorite writers. And I think when I was quite small he gave me my first taste first of how language can be magical. How it can really evoke a world that's strange and mystical.
WROEAnd then again I think he gave me my first taste of America. He gave me my first idea of the white picket fences and marching bands and, if you like, a sort of fairytale of America, which drew at a sense. But that was all the fault of Ray Bradbury. And so I just wanted to celebrate him by writing about him like that. It was a little bit of a risk, if you like, a little bit of the world. But it seemed the only appropriate way in the end.
NNAMDIAdam, I know you wanted to say something, but Bradbury was commemorated last August during a NASA news conference. Looking at the body of his literature Bradbury seemed captivated with space. How much do you think the events of his time influenced who he became?
BERNSTEINThe way I identified mostly with Ray Bradbury was because of his love of movies which, you know, he saw them all the time when he was growing up in the 1930s. And he was watching newsreels of the Nazi book burnings in Germany that influenced his later work "Fahrenheit 451." And he spoke -- what interested me most was his view that he wasn't writing fantasy. It was science fiction. And the distinction he made was that science fiction's the art of the possible. That he was making commentary on, you know, in his words the erosion of individual thought.
BERNSTEINYou know, childhood in the case of "Something Wicked This Way Comes," another one of his books whose film I remember was one of the first movies that I saw and was scared to death of it. It was about childhood terror. And then of course "Martian Chronicles." So a lot of his work tends to be influenced by the popular culture of there when he was growing up, the films that he saw, but also some of the political events of this time.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break...
WROEHe had to...
NNAMDI...got to take a short break. Ann, hold that thought. You can come back to it when we come back. 800-433-8850. Who's legacies do you think are worth reflecting or reflecting on or celebrating this year, 800-433-8850? Or you can go to our website kojoshow.org and join the conversation there, or send us a Tweet at kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWe're talking about some of the people who died this year and the obituaries that were written about them. We're talking with Ann Wroe, obituaries editor at the Economist, and Adam Bernstein. He is the obituaries editor at the Washington Post. And we have a call from Richard in Gaithersburg, Md. Richard, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
RICHARDThanks. First, I just want to say to Ann that I absolutely love reading the obituaries in the Economist. And it's usually the first thing I flip to when I get my issue.
WROEOh, thank you.
RICHARDMy question is to actually both of your guests. I would like to know how you decide between multiple people. When there are multiple people of interest how do you decide who to write about if you're limited in space?
NNAMDIFirst you, Ann.
WROEShall I go first?
WROEYes. It's incredibly difficult in fact. I mean, especially in the past week or so it seems that all kinds of interesting people have died. And of course on my pages I only have one a week so they pile up in a most horrendous fashion. But it's simply -- I think I ask myself, is that a good story? Is that going to make a good tale to tell? Sometimes the life is full of incident but it doesn't add up to a good story. There isn't a moral punch line or there's just not enough to engage the reader. Or sometimes it's just somebody that I particularly like who I'm going to do.
WROEI think in recent weeks, for example when so many interesting people died, I certainly went for Dave Brubeck because of the music. And there'll be something that will drive me one direction or another but it's a very difficult choice to make sometimes.
NNAMDIHow about you, Adam?
BERNSTEINWell, I have a slightly -- I have more help than Ann does. I mean, Ann's a one-man -- one-woman crew and she has to write one time a week, whereas we're publishing every day. We have a small but very capable staff. Our mission at the post is to write about two to three -- nearly everybody who dies in the Washington area in addition to major public figures, as well as people who just simply interest me. And I probably have around the same criteria that Ann does in terms of, you know, what will bring variety to the section. What makes for a great story?
BERNSTEINYou know, people's titles, in other words, people who come across as, you know, I deserve an obituary because I'm the deputy of this and that of some agency don't really interest me so much as people who have done something a little unusual or tell us something about the world in which they lived. And there are enough clips that convey to readers who are so caught up in the last five minutes of what's going on in the world, especially now with the way the news cycle functions, that it's a great excuse for us to remind people that there was a very interesting and exciting world that existed before we were born and that we may have forgotten about.
BERNSTEINAnd so I try and find people who did something that's certainly, you know, an achievement for better or worse and will bring them back to the page again and again.
NNAMDIAnn, in the Washington region we said goodbye this year to Sun Myung Moon, a man so mysterious that he must've seemed to many people here that he may have come from another planet. You wrote about a man who began a new religion, fought communism and evaded taxes in the United States. Yet you begin and end with stories of his famous mass marriages. Why?
BERNSTEINYou're talking to...
BERNSTEINOh, Ann. I'm sorry.
WROEOh me. Well, this was his main point in the religion. I didn't know a thing about him apart from the Washington Times when I started. And apparently he had a vision of Jesus, or he said he was personally recommended by Jesus and by God to finish the unfinished work that Jesus hadn't done on earth because he had never married. And so it became Sun Myung Moon's mission to get everybody married that he possible could, to have these mass marriages. And that way he will be doing Jesus' work on earth.
WROEI mean, it's all so perfectly crazy that -- but not saying he's tired, but he was supposed to carry out God's work in Korea. And he never learned to speak English, which I thought was extraordinary for a guy who was behind the Washington Times. This is someone who didn't know English at all because Korean was God's language. He never had to both to speak it -- any other language but that. And Korea was God's chosen country. So everything was going to happen there.
WROEAnd that was why you saw these extraordinary and rather baffling and spooky marriages of people. And in fact they were happening until quite recently. So for some reason the cult seems to linger on even though the numbers have fallen drastically in recent years. I think it's quite extraordinary and interesting that he was connected with -- or a friend of Kim il Sung. Because we also lost Kim Jong Il this year. And so we've had two completely crazy Koreans going in the same space of time more or less.
BERNSTEINI found him -- Moon to me is a very disturbing figure. He -- I remember reading not too long ago about -- he started not just the Washington Times but he had other news agencies. And I remember reading in one book about how during the junta in Argentina he participated in efforts basically to discredit people who were, you know, being violently abused and families were being destroyed by the military junta. He would -- his magazine would come out and -- one of his news agencies would be -- was involved with the junta's efforts to bring discredit on the people who were speaking out against the junta.
BERNSTEINSo I -- you know he sought political influence usually on the far, far, far right. He's a very fringe figure and yet he was -- you know, he was a criminal. I mean, he was guilty of tax evasion and yet he was involved in all these enterprises all over the world, everything from, you know, sushi to gun running I believe in the newspapers.
WROEYes. And something that fascinated me was he had holy patches of ground all over the world. And apparently there's one of these on Capitol Hill. And I just wonder where this holy patch of ground is now and if so, if it has any influence on (unintelligible) ...
NNAMDII'll send Adam looking for it.
BERNSTEINRight after this I'm going.
NNAMDIBoth of you wrote this year about the passing of a man who got a chance to design and build the capital city in Brazil. Oscar Niemeyer's architecture seemed to usher Brazil into modernity. Starting with you, Adam, what inspiration did he find in his home country for the style of architecture he developed?
BERNSTEINWell, I think it's very, very simple. He liked women in bikinis. And I'm not saying that...
BERNSTEIN...I'm not saying that he was a one-man -- he was a one-track mind. But, you know, Brazil was a country that at the time when he was first assigning this, this is not a country with a lot of steel. So he used reinforced concrete and created a -- what he would call sensuous designs. I mean, they're modernist. They're not -- you know, they're of a particular taste but they're -- you know, how many people had the ability to create in the modern era an entire city?
BERNSTEINNow he had some collaborators but he was essentially the one who designed the city. It's come under a lot of criticism because it's completely uninhabitable for the most part. Brazil is a place where people like to flee from as opposed to stay, certainly on the weekends. And buildings are crumbling and, you know, it's just a very unpleasant place to live. What also interested me about Niemeyer was that he had very far -- he was sort of the opposite of Moon in that his politics were extremely left wing. And he did a lot of work for -- you know, he designed a building for the French communist party and he worked with some, you know, left wing dictators in North Africa designing buildings for them.
BERNSTEINBut my favorite moment in the story about Oscar Niemeyer is actually the end of my story where I have him receiving the order of Lennon or some other, you know, high award from the Soviet Union. And he's saying, listen I'm with you on the politics but really your buildings stink. They're awful.
NNAMDIAnd he said...
BERNSTEIN...you asked me and I got to be honest.
NNAMDI...he said you asked me, it's terrible. But Ann, you wrote that for Niemeyer communism was more an abstract utopia than everyday politics. How so?
WROEWell, he didn't really like communism. And I think it's precisely for the reason that Adam's given. He thought their buildings were terrible. And he did want a socialist utopia to come to be. And Brasília was meant to be the great socialist city where rich and poor would live together. And it's interesting that when Niemeyer built a house for himself in Rio de Janeiro it didn't have a separate entrance for the servants, which every house had in those days -- every middle class house.
WROESo he was trying always to make a big statement through his architecture. And I think, Adam as you certainly write, too, on what the motive force was behind it. I mean, it is the beautiful curves of Brazil, but not simply on the women. It's the curves of the mountains, it's the rivers, it's the beaches...
BERNSTEINAnd the women.
WROE...and I'm very...
NNAMDIAnd the women.
WROE...and the women. Yes, that's right. I mean, certainly when you see the pictures of Niemeyer in his studio he has the most fabulous views out of the window of the Copacabana Beach. And on the walls, the walls are covered with sketches of women in every conceivable position. And it's to this -- this was his life, a life of curves. And he could say, well you know, the universe is curved. Einstein says the universe is curved. So that's fine. You know, that's why I make my buildings this way.
NNAMDIWe lost a number of musicians and voices this year who seemed to bring people from completely different worlds together. This month we lost Ravi Shankar the Indian classical musician who dedicated his life, if you will, to the sitar and traditional Indian string instrument whose name is -- that is Ravi Shankar's name is especially familiar in the Western world because of his brief collaboration with the Beatles.
NNAMDIThat's Ravi Shankar at the Monterrey Pop Festival in 1967. Ann, as a writer in this -- for you too, Adam, how do you go about catching the spirit of music like that with written words? Is it even possible?
WROEWell, I myself think it isn't possible. It is incredibly difficult to write about musicians. And your caller previously said how do you choose people. I must say I sometimes veer away from musicians because I can't think how to do it., how to get that obsession with music into the words. The only way that is remotely possible is I think to try and write in the rhythm of the person. And I know when I wrote about Dave Brubeck I did try and get some of that rhythm into the piece as little as I could. But I couldn't begin to do that with Ravi Shankar.
WROEWe haven't actually done him yet but, I mean, those intricate Indian scurrying along on the sitar, there's no way you could do that. It's so extremely difficult. I think the only way is to put the piece online and have the music playing in the background.
BERNSTEINAt worst it's overwriting. I mean, you find yourself wallowing in adjectives and adverbs that just -- it just gets in the way and it slows the story down. And it's just -- you know, it's never accurate because somebody can always point to another song that's completely in opposition of what you're writing. And the best thing I think when you're writing about a musician, whether Ravi Shankar or many of the other people -- other singers who -- or performers rather who died this year -- Etta James of course -- is to stick to what motivated them. What drew them into certain kinds of music? What were the pivotal moments of their life?
BERNSTEINHow did Ravi Shankar hook up with the Beatles? How did -- you know, what was his relationship with his daughter who's reputation is probably better known to younger people, Norah Jones.
BERNSTEINSo it's more about the person to me than the specifics of trying to express the exact sound of the music. People can link, you know...
WROEYes. Or what did the music mean to them? Why is this music important to them?
NNAMDIWell, Ann, you wrote -- when you wrote about Dave Brubeck you described him as a contrarian, a man who didn't like to be put in a box. How did his life and his music essentially break the walls that people were trying to build around him?
WROEWell, everyone tried to put him in a certain sort of box of jazz. You know, to say well he was influenced by bebop or he was part of west coast cool. Or -- he was always saying, no I'm none of those things. I listen to those things, that's fine but I'm my own man and I'm making my own music. And what I loved about Brubeck was that he would sit down at the piano to play a number and he would never know where it was going to go. And what he really wanted was for it to go beyond anything he thought of, to take him into some completely different realm that he couldn't imagine.
WROEAnd he knew music had the power to do that. And he said just a few times in his career the music absolutely carried him off and he found himself in a place he hadn't experienced before. And he was always hoping this would happen when he sat down to play. I thought that was great.
NNAMDIAdam, there are some people who lead lives where the first paragraph of their obituary has written itself long before they pass. But there are others whose life takes -- whose lives take such sharp turns at the end that their stories are changed forever. What did you make of the death of Penn State football coach Joe Paterno this past year? If he had died a year beforehand, before the sex abuse scandal was uncovered at Penn State, that's an obituary that would have read very differently, would it not?
BERNSTEINYou're exactly right. He fascinates me for that reason. Many of these figures -- and there are many examples throughout history I think. In England, you can point to Jimmy Savile, which, you know, whom Ann can probably talk about better than I. But also I'm thinking about another former Englishman, John Profumo, the former defense minister I believe who got caught up in a sex scandal in the '60s…
BERNSTEINRight, and then spent the rest of his life basically in trying to make up for it by, you know, living a very quiet life doing a lot of good work. So his obituary when he died many years ago was far more balanced between the act that got him -- you know, caused an international incident and ruined his career than let's say Paterno whose reputation was completely shattered. And justifiably so when he really didn't do much at all to stop one of his assistants from abusing children despite, you know, ample evidence that he knew about it.
BERNSTEINSo here was a man who was -- Paterno who was a Penn State football coach and was one of the most widely admired football coaches of all time for decades and decades and decades. And one can't help but wonder whether it was that sort of invincibility or arrogance -- or choose your word -- that caused him to not want to rock the boat, not want to make a decision that, you know, was a lot braver than the one he certainly made and cost him dearly, you know, if he cares about what his legacy is. Which I can't imagine he doesn't -- or he didn't.
BERNSTEINSo there -- you know, it's imperative that an obituary really, you know, be brave as well and stick to what the reality is and not just be a eulogy that commemorates somebody as a wonderful person and then sort of really downplay, you know, a horrible decision that affected lots of lives. I mean, you're always weighing how serious the matter is. If it's the matter of a parking ticket than, you know, it's not going to appear in the obituary. But if it's something as vile as, you know, sex abuse or child abuse than that really has to figure very highly in the story and deservedly so.
NNAMDIHere's Gary in Sterling, Va. Gary, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
GARYOkay. I would nominate the head of Moller-Maersk, Maersk McKinney Moller. Now, I might be saying his -- pronouncing his name wrong, but him and Hapag-Lloyd and Sealand Containers in 1957 decided to containerize all merchandise on ships except for bulk items like ore and grain. Because this was the biggest hit that organized crime ever took because it stopped the pilfering on the docks which was rampant in the '50s and '40s and back through then. But that was the -- him and -- that's when they decided to containerize cargo and all cargo, you know, merchandise is containerized, and that's just my nomination.
NNAMDIHey, thank you very much for making it. We've got to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation about the year in death, so to speak. The obituaries written about well-known or interesting people who died. You can still call us at 800-433-8850. What do you find that is the most difficult part of understanding a person's life in its totality, once they've gone away? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation about the year in death and the obituaries written about people. We're talking with Ann Wroe. She is the obituaries editor at the Economist, and Adam Bernstein is the obituaries editor at the Washington Post. Both of you wrote this year about a man who was trailed by an evil chapter of history his entire life. John Demjanjuk, spent decades trying to shed accusations that he was an accessory to thousands of murders in a Nazi concentration camp.
NNAMDIStarting with you, Ann, how did you wrestle with the different identities this man seemed to take on over the course of his life?
WROEYes. That was a difficult one. I started off with -- well, there were four John Demjanjuks I thought in the end. I started off with the one who was the car mechanic in Cleveland for 30 years, and who just seemed to be a model neighbor, you know, went to church on Sundays, mended children's bikes. And then I gave the John Demjanjuk who was supposed to be Ivan the Terrible, who was the commandant of Treblinka Concentration Camp and had taken the most sadistic pleasure in killing Jews, and I think nearly a million Jews had died in that camp.
WROEHe was put on trial for that in Israel, but that story didn't seem quite right. So then I gave the third John Demjanjuk, who was the person that he said he was at the trial, which was just a poor Ukranian farm boy, you know. He'd been forced into the army by the Germans. He'd been moved around, but he'd done nothing bad in the war. And then at the end of the obituary, I produced, I think, the real John Demjanjuk, the fourth one, who had actually been put into the German army, been forced in, but he'd actually done plenty of bad things at a rather smaller concentration camp.
WROEHe'd been not a ghastly monster, but he had been a facilitator of the Holocaust. He'd helped the Jews off the train, and he'd done little things like that, you know. He'd just played a part that was, I think, just as guilty, and he was in fact found guilty of some 27,000 counts of accessory to murder. And so that's quite a story where you have him held up as a monster, and then found to be not quite so bad. But, in fact, you know, what is good and bad in these contexts?
WROEIf you're and auxiliary to these terrible acts, you're almost as bad as committing them, you know. So I think that that was a difficult tale that had to be told almost from four different points of view.
NNAMDIHow did you tell it, John -- Adam?
BERNSTEINWe told it fairly -- we didn't do it in the way that Ann did. We told it fairly straight about how he was, you know, his life story as best anyone could figure out. But I think Ann spoke about him far more eloquently than I can. In every society there's, you know, there are people who are not architects of horror, but certainly accessories, and that's what he represented.
NNAMDIAnn, some people lead lives that leave such fantastic stories in their wake that we never know -- they come off more like a character than a real person. Renowned poker player, Amarillo Slim's life played out like a western. You could never catch Amarillo Slim bluffing. How could you ever know who he really was?
WROEI don't know. I kind of -- I wrote this one really like the obituary of a bluffer. I loved the way he talked. He had the most fantastic turn of phrase. I mean, he talks about having enough hundred dollar bills to burn up 30 wet mules. He talks of playing poker against Larry Flynt and eating him up like a ginger cake, and these sort of things I just peppered the obituary with that sort of thing, and I loved the list of bets that he took.
WROEAnd he bet on absolutely anything. He bet on which of five sugar cubes a fly would and on, and he'd bet, you know, whether or not he'd ride a camel through the best casino in Marrakech, and he bet whether he could beat Bobby Riggs playing tennis with him with iron skillets. All these sort of crazy things.
BERNSTEINIt reminds -- I mean, there's an abundance of wealth sometimes in these colorful figures. And to me, someone very similar with Phyllis Diller who we just larded it with her jokes and let her speak for herself about, you know, criticizing her husband, his sales skills, by saying he couldn't sell Windex to a peeping tom.
BERNSTEINAnd, you know, her own self-deprecating statements, you know. If I have one more facelift, it'll be a cesarean, you know, those sort of things that you just let her speak for herself and stay out of the way and just give people all the jokes and let...
NNAMDIAnd she was a housewife before she became a comedienne, correct?
BERNSTEINThat's right. That's right.
NNAMDIOf course, we also bid farewell this year to Larry Hagman, a man who personified evil and mischief for years as one of the most legendary TV villains in history, J.R. Ewing on "Dallas," who, it turns out had rules.
NNAMDIAdam, you didn't write about Larry Hagman, but can you describe the challenge of writing about someone who is so hard to disassociate from the characters he's played?
BERNSTEINHe actually died at a bad time. He died at the weekend we didn't -- we had short staff, so we had to run with the wire, unfortunately. But I would -- if I had the time to write Larry Hagman, the thing that I would most say about him is that he's far more versatile than a lot of people give him credit for. You know, he started his career with his reputation as a lightweight, "I Dream of Jeannie" as the amiable astronaut.
BERNSTEINAnd everybody knows his roles as J.R. where he's the most villainous oil company magnet you can think of. But to me, the role that -- when I first woke up to this power of his acting was in a movie called "Mother, Jugs & Speed," where plays basically an ambulance driver who's a rapist. I mean, he takes unconscious people and he rapes them, and he's as evil as it gets, and he was incredibly convincing. I mean, it's largely a satire, but he was disturbingly good in that role.
BERNSTEINAnd if I had the time to write the story, I would have kind of played up his range far more than just the TV villain or the TV astronaut.
NNAMDIYou wrote about another actor this year whose identity was impossible to detach from his most famous character. Sherman Hemsley, known better to the world as George Jefferson. He once told your paper that he found the core of his character and noting that he's just like a little kid, and that you never grow up, you just become more confused. Let's hear a little bit of clip from him.
NNAMDIWhat did you find made this guy tick?
BERNSTEINWell, to me, it's, again, you know the shows were very, very popular. It's not that he was an actor of extreme range to me, but it's more of what he represented, that he was really, other than Bill Cosby, the most prominent black face on television for basically two decades. And so I think he was a very important figure for that reason. I don't think the shows are supremely clever by any means, and not in the league of "All in the Family," which is where he first made an impact playing George Jefferson, you know, the equally, you know bigoted neighbor of Archie Bunker, who was, you know, the great white bigot of all time.
BERNSTEINSo to me he's not an actor of great range, but he -- it's more just what he represented, and I think he was very, you know, successful at it.
NNAMDIAnn, one of the pieces you wrote connected the late writer Gore Vidal with the early chapters of his life, some of which took place just down the street from this radio station at the St. Alban's school where you noted he found a love that shaped him to the day of his death. How did this early love shape your understanding of Gore Vidal and his life?
WROEThis was quite a surprise because I never much liked Gore Vidal. I mean, I find some of his book extraordinarily good, "Burr," and "Lincoln," in particular, and I thought "Palimpsest" was a great autobiography. But what amazed me as I read it, was that the whole book, and it's a very fat book, is about his search for love, and his search to recover this love that he found at St. Alban's which was with a boy called Jimmy Trimble, who was a baseball player, very sporty guy.
WROEI mean, Gore Vidal was not a sporty boy. He was, if you like, Athens and Jimmy Trimble was Sparta, because Gore Vidal is always setting everything in the classical times, the great and good age, you know, that he represents where the whole world is going to hell apart from him. And Jimmy Trimble is this wonderfully ideal love. He has a platonic love almost for the other half of himself.
WROEAnd I found it extraordinary that this man who's so full of vile, who's such a hater, who's always saying how America is amnesiac and is wanting to kind of go mano a mano with William Buckley and all the rest of it.
NNAMDINot to mention Norman Mailer, but go ahead.
WROEAnd Norman Mailer, absolutely everyone. And yet he says, you know, when he goes and stands by Jimmy Trimble's grave, he calls his name and the wind comes up and caresses his cheek, and that's an extraordinarily different softer side of Vidal, and it's sad that this love was something he never knew. He might have been a very different writer I think.
BERNSTEINI'm with Ann on that. I mean, he's most in the public sphere for being a liberal -- very liberal provocateur, gadly, you know the acerbic writing style that became increasingly bombastic in later years, is pleasantly undermined really by his writing about his early life, his love. The book I remember, "Point By Point Navigation," I think it was called, came out -- I think he did two books about his early life, his early love for Jimmy Trimble, and I think they're well worth reading, and probably some of the best works he ever did.
NNAMDIWell, this year we got some insight into the obituary writing business that I'd like you to explain, Adam Bernstein, because...
NNAMDI...after the famous American politician, George McGovern died, some readers in our area were fascinated when they opened up the pages of the New York Times and McGovern's obituary was written -- by-lined by David Rosenbaum, a journalist who was murdered in Washington in 2006, and people wondered -- well, how could that be?
BERNSTEINWell, it's probably no great secret that -- I mean, my first inclination I guess is to make a joke about it, but the reality is that we're -- especially newspapers, we're writing well in advance for very significant figures because you don't want to not be ready, and I think most people expect us now to be ready within minutes of somebody's death. There's a relentless news cycle, and you can't wait 24 hours anymore. So -- and that's been the case for several years now.
BERNSTEINSo it's no great secret that we have to be ready on the important figures. People need to know. People won't trust the newspaper or magazine if they're not prepared, and so, you know, we write obituaries in advance on significant figures that are complicated, that you can't write at the last minute without doing a lousy job. And the first time I believe this kind of approach to obituaries really came -- really became known was when Bob Hope died and the New York Times had another beyond-the-grave byline.
BERNSTEINI can't remember exactly who -- I think it may have been Walter Kerr. I could be wrong about that, but it was a critic writing about Bob Hope, but the critic had died before Hope did, and people noticed a strange tagline at the bottom saying, you know, this person died, you know, 35 years ago. And it's happened to us as well. I mean, it's one of the few professions where one can still remain awfully prolific long after you've died.
NNAMDIAnd Ann, you wrote about George McGovern that history will remember him as a politician, a defeated politician, but that politics never seemed like the right career for him. Why not? And we only have about 30 seconds left.
WROEWell, I just think George McGovern in a most wonderful idealist. He absolutely crashed and burned in the election, but he became a wonderful man afterward, trying to feed the world, you know. He turned all that Midwestern obsession with grain prices and so on into actually trying to feed all the poor children that he could gather up. And I think he is an extraordinary example of a man feeding people's hunger, you know, first of all, for great ideals in the election of '72, which didn't go anywhere, and then really feeding people physically and preparing them for education and living better lives as citizens, and I was immensely impressed by George McGovern, more than I had been before I wrote the obituary I must say.
NNAMDIAnn Wroe. She is the obituaries editor at the Economist. Ann, thank you so much for joining us.
WROEA great pleasure, Kojo. Thank you.
NNAMDIAdam Bernstein is the obituaries editor at the Washington Post. Adam, good to see you again. Thank for joining us.
BERNSTEINLikewise, and thank both of you.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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