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Grim Reader, Nov. 11, 2011: Andy Rooney, Loulou de la Falaise and Gunilla von Post
by Michael Schaffer
NOVEMBER 11, 2011 TAGS:
GREETINGS, OBIT READERS! Did you ever wonder who Grim Reader was reading about this week? Andy Rooney, whom news organizations are apparently contractually obligated to describe with some variation of the word curmudgeon. Also in the obit pages this week: boxer Joe Frazier, rapper Heavy D, and fashion figure Loulou de la Falaise. Plus: The guy who invented the Vans line of shoes, the father of “Family Circus,” and a self-proclaimed JFK mistress who proved her case. Let’s turn to the obits:
AND ANDY ROONEY: Nearly all the obits for Andy Rooney feature some combination of the words “homespun,” “curmudgeon,” and “wit.” “America's bemused uncle, spouting homespun wisdom weekly at the end of ‘60 Minutes,’” the Wall Street Journal says; “the ‘60 Minutes’ essayist whose curmudgeonly commentaries at the end of each broadcast made him one of the most popular, and parodied, figures on network television,” explains the Boston Globe. The Los Angeles Times piece has the largest number of excerpts from his weekly rants, usually on aspects of ordinary life like college bursars, parking spots, or baseball (“my own time is passing fast enough without some national game to help it along”). Given that Rooney’s earlier writing career featured harrowing accounts of WWII bombing runs, the subject matter explains the Journal’s observation that “for an irascible man of so many opinions, it was remarkable that Mr. Rooney offended so few viewers.” The obit, of course, notes that Rooney did serve one suspension after “apparently offhand comments about homosexuality and race” that the piece does not detail. A New York Times obit does, though, and they’re pretty ugly (there were other comments about women, depressed teens, and Latinos). A somewhat different Rooney comes through in a revealing, if unfortunately boosterish, piece in his hometown Albany Times Union. “To intimates who knew him the longest, Rooney was a loyal friend with a big heart and a deep sentimental streak that the public never saw,” the piece explains, backing it up with many quotes.
SMOKIN’ JOE: Obits are full of the heroic language of pugilism as they describe Joe Frazier, “the heavyweight boxing champion who in 1971 became the first fighter to defeat Muhammad Ali, then lost two epic rematches including a ferocious battle known as the ‘Thrilla in Manila,’” in the Los Angeles Times’ telling. The coverage is dramatic, with varying recitations of his bouts -- the Times piece, for instance, goes all-caps in describing play-by-play man Howard Cosell’s call of “DOWN GOES FRAZIER!,” and everyone quotes his trainer, upon throwing in the towel in the third Ali fight, telling the boxer that “no one will forget what you did tonite.” The best of the narratives is probably New Yorker editor David Remnick’s take, which combines sporting drama with the racial and political implications of the pas de deux in which Ali nastily cast “himself as the glamorous enlightened new black man and Frazier as retrograde, an Uncle Tom.” A New York Times appreciation goes further, flatly declaring Frazier “the better man” as well as the better fighter. Still, all the ruminating on physical glory and cultural meaning does get the obits away from the business of a quick appraisal. For that, Grim Reader looks across the Atlantic, where the Guardian unsentimentally states that Frazier “was destined to remain in the shadow of his nemesis, Muhammad Ali, who twice beat him in the most famous trilogy of fights the sport has ever produced.”
SHE’S NO MUSE! Loulou de la Falaise was “one of the great ladies in fashion,” says the Daily Beast. Much of the obit coverage for the model-designer refers to her as a “muse” of designer Yves Saint Laurent (his term). But the Beast’s piece quotes her resisting that phrase: “For me, a muse is someone who looks glamorous but is quite passive, whereas I was very hard-working.” The AFP obit, by contrast to much of the coverage, is remarkably businesslike, laying out her actual accomplishments and using a quote to stress her practicality about the subject of accessories: "Accessories have an important role in our stressful lives...If you're going out to dinner and you haven't had the time to go home to change, you can take off your jacket and put on some jewellery."OVERWEIGHT LOVER: The New York Times offers the best two-word description of Heavy D: a “girthy slickster.” A “smooth-talking and cheerful rapper” who was one of the “key figures in the softening of hip-hop’s sharp edges,” Heavy D “proved himself able to speak to hardcore rap listeners as well to the R&B crowd,” according to the Guardian -- an early example of such crossover. BONUS DESCRIPTOR: The Times piece also dubs him a “plus-size hip-hop Lothario.”
“FAMILY CIRCUS” PATRIARCH: Bil Keane “entertained readers with a simple but sublime mix of humor and traditional family values for more than a half century” as author of the “Family Circus” comic. The strip was famously non-edgy, and so is the Associated Press obit, full of testimonials to Keane’s family sensibilities, which fans say explain why the strip resonated so well. KNOW A MAN BY HIS FRIENDS: Still, Keane was buddies with cartoonists with more subversive reputations, including Peanuts’ Charles Schulz; he also pronounced himself a big fan of “The Far Side.”
SYNTHETIC SKIN INVENTOR: The New York Times and the Telegraph both cover Dr. John Burke, inventor of artificial skin, “the holy grail in treating burn victims for a century,” according to the Times. The obit says the invention -- ”an amalgam of plastics, cow tissue and shark cartilage” -- saved an “innumerable” number of burn victims.
ATOMIC CLOCKMAKER: Nobel-winning physicist Norman Ramsey’s research “led to the creation of the atomic clock and MRI machines,” says the Huffington Post. The obit struggles to describe his work on the “separated oscillatory field method” of measuring atomic energy gradations; the Boston Globe does the clearest job. SILLY HEADLINE ALERT: Unfortunately the Globe’s obit is marred (at least online) by a headline declaring that Ramsey’s “love of physics led to a Nobel prize.” Well, that and genius and hard work.
VANS DESIGNER: James Van Doren designed shoes that “were especially valued for the sticky rubber soles that helped skaters grip their boards,” says the Los Angeles Times. Rising with the burgeoning skateboard subculture, Van Doren took Vans from a product sold just at his Anaheim store to a global brand today. He got an assist along the way, all the obits say, from Sean Penn, who wore the iconic shoes in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. That nugget, naturally, leads the Hollywood Reporter item on Van Doren.
NORDICTRACK STAR: Ed Pauls was “an engineer who turned lumpy couch loungers into winter-sport athletes with NordicTrack,” the ski-simulating exercise machine, says the Washington Post. The obit offers a nice rise-and-fall tale: Pauls invented the device (which “at first glance seemed to resemble a castle-dungeon torturing mechanism”) because he wanted to exercise indoors rather than in dreary Minnesota winters. Sales were slow until an Olympic skier provided an endorsement. But too many people ended up using NordicTrack as “a clothing rack,” says one expert, precisely because it was complicated. The firm went bankrupt. ALL IN THE BRANDING: Pauls originally wanted to call it “Nordic Jock.”
COLOMBIAN REBEL: For a Western-hemisphere revolutionary, Alfonso Cano gets surprisingly small play in the U.S. Obitosphere. The Boston Globe identifies him as a “middle-class intellectual who rose from chief ideologist to maximum leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia after the death of its legendary cofounder.” There’s more detail in the British obits, where the Independent lays out his path from anthropology student to young Communist living in the USSR to peasant guerrilla movement’s house intellectual. Insight from a local journalist: "while other FARC commanders were talking about blowing up bridges, Cano would be sitting around reading a book." ODD DETAIL AT THE END: The obit notes that Cano abandoned his wife and kids when he joined the rebels, but also notes that his “personal nurse” died in the same Army attack that killed him, and also mentions a “sentimental companion” whose whereabouts are unknown.
NEWSREEL VETERAN: Bill Birch was “one of the last newsreel cameramen,” shooting spectacles, like the Little Rock integration and the rise of Fidel Castro, that took place well into the TV era. After newsreels bit the dust, he began shooting for Hollywood films, says the Chicago Tribune.
JFK MISTRESS: The Telegraph runs an obit, three weeks late, for Swedish socialite Gunilla von Post, a onetime paramour of John F. Kennedy. Von Post, who romanced the future president when he was on a European vacation three weeks before his marriage -- and who claimed to have continued the affair well after the Kennedys were wed -- described it all in a breathless memoir. Excerpt: “He turned and kissed me tenderly and my breath was taken away. The brightness of the moon and stars made his eyes appear bluer than the ocean beneath us. He broke the silence by saying softly: 'I fell in love with you tonight.’” Von Post claimed Kennedy’s hopes of divorcing Jackie in her favor had been dashed by his father. She auctioned off a cache of JFK love letters last year, something that the obit says bore out the veracity of her claims. She eventually married a fellow Swede, and then remarried, to an American IBM executive. Oddly, the British pub offered about the only obit Grim Reader was able to find.
Michael Schaffer’s Grim Reader appears Friday in Obit. He is the author of One Nation Under Dog, about culture and the American pet industry.
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