The perception of one’s fellow man as a whole, as a unity, and as unique — even if his wholeness, unity and uniqueness are only partly developed, as is usually the case — is opposed in our time by almost everything that is commonly understood as specifically modern.
— Martin Buber
Death is a very dull, dreary affair, and my advice to you is to have nothing whatsoever to do with it.
— W. Somerset Maugham
Brangelina’s baby. TomKat’s baby. Rumor has it that Nicole Kidman is the next mommy-to-be in the headlines, but she’s not confirming that yet. Mel Gibson makes an asshole out of himself in public. Who wore what on the red carpet at the Emmy Awards? Is John Mayer the new man in Jessica Simpson’s life? Isn’t it just about time for Britney Spears to reprise her unfit parent routine again?
In pop culture, the lifespan of any celebrity has nothing to do with chronological years and everything to do with his or her ongoing, conspicuous pre-eminence in the collective consciousness of the public. Even negative publicity is better than no publicity. In the world of big names, there seems to be a haunting existential terror that one is not really alive unless one is the center of media attention. Think about it — how many times have you heard about the death of some celebrity on the news and remarked, “I thought he/she died years ago”? Not to be regularly mentioned by the press is as good as being a resident of Forest Lawn.
Even ordinary citizens can find a new life in the news as a result of circumstances beyond their control, but the public is fickle and has a short memory. With all due respect and sympathy to her family and friends, how many people remember Chandra Levy or are concerned that her murderer be found anymore? Our love affair with headliners can be the equivalent of a one-night stand or a summer fling.
In Mitchell Fink’s book, bluntly entitled The Last Days of Dead Celebrities, we think we’re going to get the lurid tabloidesque lowdown on the final moments of some of our pop culture icons. Instead, we are treated to 15 morality plays, as it were, on the fleeting nature of fame, the high price of being high profile and the pitfalls of narcissism in a society that crassly mass-markets people like toilet paper or toothpaste. Written in Sgt. Joe Friday of Dragnet‘s “just the facts, ma’am” style, there is little charm or warmth in this book. Fink does nothing to soften ugly realities or cast his subjects in a flattering light.
John Belushi’s last days, a blur of flamboyant self-indulgence, drugs, and psychological denial so strong it estranged him from everyone, come across as grim and unglamorous as they undoubtedly were. You won’t find much sympathy here for celebrities who made bad choices in life. The author contrasts Tupac Shakur, whose violent death resulting from his “thug life” is painstakingly described, with his mother. As Afeni Shakur hauled herself back from the brink of oblivion, her son raced down his own road of self-destruction. In a newspaper interview, Public Enemy’s Chuck D said that Tupac reminded him of a car “heading toward a brick wall at 120 miles per hour without brakes.” Frankly, I’d have preferred to hear more about Afeni’s redemption than Tupac’s tailspin into disaster.
In his introduction, Fink muses upon the great efforts the famous make to keep the public at bay while, ironically enough, being desperate for the adulation of their fans. “The fact that they prefer keeping us at arm’s length actually works in our favor,” he remarks. “It frees us to create and spin whatever kind of legend suits us … They remain only who we think they are.” If you want to keep your illusions intact, don’t read this book.
In her last years, the zany and outgoing Lucille Ball turned into a bitter, depressed recluse who was sick of herself and resentful of the star-stoking machinery that had made her a household name and a wealthy woman. Famous for his G-rated corny goofball comedy during the Golden Age of television, Milton Berle went to his grave at 94 insisting he had the biggest penis in Hollywood. What was he doing — comparing his aged apparatus to that of other diners in the men’s room at Spago and Ma Maison? Ugh, not a very appetizing thought. Although fans would probably prefer to remember his last days as being devoted to making his final album, Warren Zevon went on a drug and booze binge (after being clean and sober for years) when he learned he had terminal cancer. Gorgeous actress and model Margaux Hemingway spent the final week of her life asking men if they would please marry her.
Fame, it appears, takes a terrible toll on its favored few. Instead of filling the voids in their psyche, it creates abysses of neediness that can never be satisfied and a pathetic desperation that, in many ways, is incomprehensible to those who have never had five minutes — much less 50 years — in the limelight, as some of Fink’s notables have been granted.
There are a few accounts that strike a positive note and they are, curiously enough, the more interesting ones in the book. Arthur Ashe, the first black man to win the Wimbledon’s singles championship, handled his match with AIDS (which he contracted through a blood transfusion) with a gallantry and graciousness that were admirable. Orson Welles, customarily close-mouthed about his personal life, opened up about himself during a taping of The Merv Griffin Show and unknowingly scripted his own eulogy. A few hours later, he died of a heart attack and the memorable show was aired posthumously. Journalist David Bloom departed this life doing what he loved to do, covering news stories.
The last account in the book, John Ritter’s needless death due to medical negligence, is arguably the most outstanding in the collection — not because of how he died but the way he lived. The testimonies of friend Henry Winkler and many others point to a man who did the impossible — maintained his sanity and his humanity in an industry that turns people into objects to be bought and sold and discarded when no longer useful. Ritter wasn’t bamboozled by the Hollywood glam scene. In an interview with Larry King, a costar on Ritter’s last show, “Eight Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter,” remembered Ritter’s assessment of fame:
[John] compared it to being in the sun. Sometimes it feels nice to be in the sun and you get warm and cozy, but then it takes you away from what’s important and isolates you, takes you away from being normal, helping people out … And then he went on to say, “When you stay out in the sun too long, you get burned, and as we all know, the sun can kill you.”
The Last Days of Dead Celebrities sidesteps sensationalism and hype to focus on the small but revealing details of these 15 stars’ final hours. It gives us a dispassionate glimpse, for better or worse, at the real people behind the public relations mask. Written largely from Fink’s personal interviews with the family and friends of the deceased, the book uses no ‘unnamed sources,’ preserving its ring of authenticity. Going beyond its stated subject matter, it takes a look at the phenomenon of fame in contemporary society and our national obsession with those who have achieved it.
Moreover, the book also reminds us of a curious irony in the entertainment business. Since the drive-by shooting that ostensibly ended his career, for example, Tupac Shakur has not only sold more records than when he was alive but transcended his rapper image to become a music legend. John Lennon was already a legend in his own time, but his violent death at the hands of a demented fan elevated his status to something akin to a martyr. Toward the end of her career, television audiences had definitely fallen out of love with Lucy, but her demise put her back in their hearts again. Ball was given the posthumous title of “The First Woman of Television,” and there has been a steady stream of books and TV retrospectives about her life and work since her death in 1989. If he were still alive, Milton Berle wouldn’t be in this book at all — and millions of readers wouldn’t know about his most prized attribute.
Bottom line is, whether you’re a Hollywood has-been or a performer at his peak, death may be the best career move of your life.