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Deaths

The Death of Fred Astaire (June 22, 1987)

Fred.astaire.leaping Fred.astaire.closeupFred Astaire's death stands out in my mind because it coincided with a career milestone.  After spending nearly six years at ad agency Young & Rubicam I left to take a job as media research manager at NWAyer (at the time, the oldest agency in the country).  My first day on the job, June 22, 1987, was the day Astaire died, at the age of 88.  I heard word of his death after returning from a welcome lunch.  Another memory of that afternoon is that a guest staying at the Warwick Hotel, which was across the street from the office, had jumped to his death.

 

Years later, this suicide came up in conversation with a boss of mine at another ad agency, and she told me that the same thing happened on her first day at a new job.  We determined that it was the same suicide since her first day was the same as mine - and with a company in the same office building - the Burlington Building on 6th Ave. between 54th and 55th Streets.   

 

Astaire.hepburnGetting back to Astaire - He didn't get his start in Hollywood until he was in his mid-30s.  Between 1933 and 1957 he appeared in 30 movie musicals with his dance partners including Ginger Rogers (in 10 pictures), Eleanor Powell and Rita Hayworth, among others.  And although he was a remarkably sleek and athletic dancer his sex appeal alluded me (unlike that of Gene Kelly).  I cringed while watching two classic films from 1957 where the 58-year-old Astaire was romantically paired with much younger actresses - 28-year-old Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face and 35-year old Cyd Charisse in Silk Stockings.    

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


The Stonewall Riot - The Beginning of Gay Liberation (June 28, 1969)

Stonewall_uprisingWhen homosexuals and transvestites took to the streets of Greenwich Village in the wee hours of the morning on June 28, 1969 to protest constant harassment and mistreatment by the NYPD, I was 12 years old and living in Pittsburgh.  I was unaware of what was taking place - and who knows if the disturbance even received new coverage in the Steel City.  And even if it was reported, I wouldn't have understood much since at my age I didn't even know what a homosexual was.  (A few years later I'd learn a lot after sneak-reading my older sister's copy of Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex.  The author didn't provide a very positive lesson, but it was a start.)

 

Judy_garland_closeupThe only memory I have that has some connection to this seminal event was the death of Judy Garland the week before the riots.  I heard the news on the car radio as me and my family drove to church.  At the time my only association with her was as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, and not as a gay icon.  Legend has it that her death was a contributing factor to the riot as her funeral was held earlier that day (a stifling hot Friday) and bar patrons weren't in the mood to once again be harassed by police.  However, this this link has since been more or less dismissed.

 

Supreme_court2Not to digress too much, but 17 years later I was living in the belly of the beast, the West Village, just a few minutes' walk from Stonewall.  On July 1, 1986 I participated in a sitdown protest that blocked traffic on Seventh Ave. South for an hour or so.  It was in response to the Supreme Court's decision (Bowers v Hardwick) upholding Georgia's sodomy law.  And so I had my own opportunity to participate in some civil disobedience. 

 

Getting back to the disturbance at Stonewall, an event that ignited the gay rights movement, the account that follows was provided by Liz Solomon, a former co-worker of mine, who grew up in Greenwich Village.  She kindly volunteered to recount her memories of that night.  Take it away Liz ...

 

First off, let me say that the thoughts and language of this mini-memoir are those of 1969, not 2013.  I cringe at some of the things we said and did back in those days.  But more importantly, I'm a firm believer in historical accuracy trumping political correctness.

 

It's important to understand that the West Village of 1969 was a very different place than it is today.  For one thing, it wasn't called the West Village, but rather "Downtown", "West Side", maybe "the Village".  Furthermore, it wasn't the home of celebrities, models - and especially not the rich.  It was a regular working class/lower middle class neighborhood with dock workers, butchers (the Meat Packing District actually processed meat back then!), truck drivers along with a scattering of white collar workers and government employees.

 

Greenwich_village_map

 

Greenwich_village1960sWe always knew there gay people interspersed in the neighborhood, but it had yet to take on the "gay ghetto" vibe that came later in the 1970's.  (When I was in high school and college, guys I dated from outside the neighborhood often gave me a hard time about walking me home when they learned where I lived because it might be bad for their "image" if the were spotted there!)  Did we welcome those of different orientations with open minds?  Much as I'd like to say yes, we were kids and it was 1969.  But it wasn't a matter of thinking that homosexuals were deviant.  No, they were just different, and there was getting to be more of them in OUR neighborhood and they were beginning to take over the docks after dark, previously the urban version of "lover's lane" for a neighborhood of frisky, hormonal teenagers. 

 

No doubt some of the local boys felt a bit uncomfortable or threatened by overt displays of homosexuality (not that they would admit it), but any harassment, name calling, or even occasional fisticuffs was really more a matter of "turf", not orientation, and would have been worse had the interlopers been from, say, 17th Street.   

 

Stonewall_riotWhich brings me to that last weekend of June 1969.  I admit I missed the first night entirely.  The police raid on the Stonewall Inn happened after 1AM and at the time I had a curfew so I was long home under lock and key.  The next day was Saturday and a family obligation kept me off the stoops and out of the loop until after dinner.  The minute I could, I broke away.  The air was buzzing with incredulous and somewhat amused chatter about how the gays actually fought back, throwing stuff, shouting about their rights and turning the tables on the police - at least for a while.

 

StonewallThis animated discussion continued as more and more kids joined the "hanging out" group.  Then someone suggested we walk over to Sheridan Square (two blocks away) to witness firsthand what was going on.  It was about 9:30 and, WOW, was it ever crowded with an agitated throng shouting previously unheard messages of gay pride and solidarity.  Cops were everywhere with their billy cubs in hand, ready to swing them.  The tension was beyond anything I could remember in my young life.  Anyway, we were just onlookers since this wasn't our fight.  Except that anyone starting trouble against our tormenters from the 6th Precinct, who enforced truancy laws and chased us off street corners, was officially OK in the neighborhood kids' book.  The enemy of our enemy was our friend, thus did some dispassionate teenagers get involved in the opening act of the battle for Gay Rights.

 

Stonewall_bookThe group I was with was pushed to the other side of Sheridan Square towards West 4th St.  Fires had been lit in garbage cans and there was considerable harassment (but restraint as well) on both sides.  There was a lot of shouting, and a few outright beatings but, alas, once again my curfew loomed (plus a small grace period) and I had to make my way to the safety of home a few blocks away.  Thus, my participation in civil disobedience, albeit in the periphery, came to an end.

 

Gay_liberation_buttonThe following year, on June 28, New York held its first Gay Pride Parade.  It began with a nervous group of a few hundred, but as the parade headed north from Greenwich Village more joined, and by the time the throng entered Central Park it had grown to 2,000 participants.  Since that day a number of other key moments in LGBT history have occurred in late June: the unfurling of the first rainbow flag at San Francisco's parade in 1978; the Supreme Court's striking down of the nation's sodomy laws in 2003; the debut of MTV's gay-themed cable network, LOGO, in 2005; the legalizing of same-sex marriage in New York State in 2011; and in 2013 the Supreme Court overturned DOMA.      


Final Episode of "Seinfeld" Airs, Frank Sinatra Dies (May 14, 1998)

Seinfeld_characterture FranksinatraUntil today the biggest event to occur on my birthday was in 1967 when Mickey Mantle hit his 500th home run.  And in 1981 I feared the pope might die on my birthday after he was shot the day before (happily, he survived.)  But then on May 14, 1998 two big pop culture events occurred: the final episode of Seinfeld and the death of Frank Sinatra.  I watched the disappointing one-hour finale (from a mostly dissatisfying last season) with my friends Matthew and Gary at Matthew's apartment on West 57th St.  Although it was my birthday they weren't aware of it, so when our Chinese take-out arrived I felt odd saying "hey, it's my birthday, are you expecting me to contribute?", so I kept quiet.  (A week earlier I figured I'd be spending this day with my boyfriend, but that relationship suddenly unraveled during a rainy weekend out at Fire Island.)  When I woke up the next morning is when I heard the news that Sinatra had died the previous evening. 

 

This episode of Seinfeld telecast delivered a 41.3 household rating/58 share, making it the second highest rated show of the season (behind the Super Bowl).  A powerhouse performance for sure, but it was 9% below the last episode of Cheers five years earlier. 

 

 

 

Bing_family_ties Moonlighting Other shows that aired their final episodes on my birthday include Family Ties (1989); West Wing (2004); and Moonlighting (1990).  However, only Family Ties had much of a ratings sendoff (20.8 rating/35 share).  

 

Rita_hayworth 220px-B_ward01 1939-glinda In addition to Sinatra, some other notable deaths on May 14 were those of Billie Burke (Glinda the Good Witch from The Wizard of Oz) in 1970; Hugh Beaumont (the father in Leave it to Beaver) in 1982; and 1940s va-va-voom actress Rita Hayworth in 1987.

 

(If you're a Seinfeld fan but have overdosed from watching it in syndication, a refreshing change might be reading about the show in Seinfeld, Master of its Domain: Revisiting TV's Greatest Sitcom.)  

 


Kent State Shootings: 4 Dead in Ohio (May 4, 1970)

Kentstate_shootings It was a mild but sort of hazy Tuesday afternoon.  Rather than take the bus home from school (7th grade at Sto-Rox Middle School) I walked because I stopped off for a haircut.  When I got home I saw that morning's paper, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, on the hassock in the living room.  On the front page was a photo (now iconic) of an overwrought young woman kneeling over the body of a student shot dead at Kent State University by the Ohio National Guard.  The shootings occurred the day before during an anti-war demonstration protesting the US invasion of Cambodia at the end of April.  Guardsmen opened fire on students, killing four and wounding nine.  Although it was in neighboring Ohio, I had never heard of the university. 

 

 

Kentstate_victims
The four students who were shot dead

 

Perhaps because I was just 12 at the time (and somewhat preoccupied by the onset of puberty) I don't recall there being much talk about this incident among schoolmates or teachers, and at home we usually didn't discuss news events at the dinner table.  But the constant coverage of the Vietnam War was plenty worrisome for my parents since my brother, Darrell, was nearing draft age.  (A lasting memory of the war was hearing the weekly casualty report on the radio while I was getting ready for school.)  

 

Lifemagazine_kentstate

 

However, once the anti-war song Ohio by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young became popular during the summer the shootings had more resonance with me.  The song begins with the line: "Tin soldiers and Nixon's coming, we're finally on our own.  This summer I hear the drumming. Four dead in Ohio." (The CD Steal This Record provides a collection of some other notable protest songs from the 1960s).  By the time I turned 18 in 1975 the US was out of Vietnam (the fall of South Vietnam to the Communists occurred two weeks before my birthday) and teen boys were no longer required to register for the draft.

 

Ohio_nationalguard_kentstate

 


The Untimely Death of Andy Warhol (February 22, 1987)

Andywarhol Warhol soup cansFebruary 22, 1987 was an unusually social Sunday for me.  I spent the early part of the afternoon at a brunch in the West Village at the apartment of my friend Marc, a fellow I dated briefly the previous year.  (We met when he walked up behind me at Uncle Charlie's bar and snapped the back of my suspenders).  After brunch a group of us went to a mid-afternoon tea dance at a club in Chelsea called Tracks.  From there I taxied down to SoHo to attend a 5th anniversary celebration for GMHC (Gay Men's Health Crisis) held at the Puck Building.  That was followed by dinner at Taste of Tokyo and then a brief visit to the club Palladium on 14th St.

 

I didn't get home until late and when I sat down to watch the 11:00 news I was shocked to learn of Andy Warhol's death.  He died from complications after having simple gallbladder surgery.  He was just 58.  (Somewhat overlooked was the death on the same day of talk show host David Susskind.)  A contributing factor to his death was the fact that he put off the surgery for so long, which took a toll on his overall health (he was deathly afraid of hospitals.)

 

Andy warhol death - newspaper headline

 

I felt somewhat of a connection to Warhol because, like me, he grew up in Pittsburgh and was of Slovakian parentage (my maternal grandmother was born in Slovakia).  Seven years after his death, while I was in Pittsburgh to attend my father's funeral, I visited the newly opened Warhol Museum with my brother, his fiance and my two young nephews.  It was ironic that the museum (at the time the only one in the US devoted to one artist) was here because Warhol apparently was ashamed of his Pittsburgh roots.  And in present-day Pittsburgh, a number of Warhol's silk screen creations can be found in one of the concourses at the city's airport.

 

Warhol museum
Entrance to the Warhol Museum

 

Warhol at pittsburgh airport
Works of Warhol at Greater Pittsburgh International Airport

 

(Many books are available about Warhol's life and his body of work.  One in particular that got a lot of press when it was published in the early '90's was The Andy Warhol Diaries.)

 

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Harvey Milk & San Francisco Mayor Murdered (November 27, 1978)

Harvey_milk_sfparade November 1978 was a month like few others for the city of San Francisco.  On November 7 voters in California rejected the anti-gay Briggs Initiative which would have banned the hiring of gay teachers.  It was an emotional victory for openly gay San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk who had put considerable energy campaigning against it.  Then a week-and-a-half later Jim Jones, leader of the People's Temple cult, forced more than 900 of his followers to commit suicide in their Jonestown settlement in the Venezuelan protectorate of Guayana.  Jones and many of the victims were from the Bay Area.

 

On November 27, the Monday after Thanksgiving, disgruntled former city supervisor Dan White snuck into City Hall during the morning and shot dead mayor George Moscone (pictured, below with Milk) at point blank range and then walked down the hall and did the same to Milk.  In a somewhat bizarre coincidence, Moscone and Milk had a connection to Jim Jones, who a few years earlier was chairman of the San Francisco Housing Authority.

 

Harveymilk_georgemoscone

 

At the time I was in my senior year at Penn State University and in the early stages of coming out so Milk's murder was especially sobering for me.  Back than having an openly gay man in such a high profile government position was unheard of, compounding the loss.  In 2009 Sean Penn won an Oscar for his portrayal of Milk in the movie Milk.  The film was based on the biography The Mayor of Castro St. - The Life & Times of Harvey Milk.    

 

Mayor_of_castrostreet Seanpenn_harveymilk 

 


Remembering the Day President Kennedy Was Assassinated (November 22, 1963)

Jfk_jackie_in_dallas The assassination of President Kennedy is the first vivid memory I have of any historical event.  In the fall of 1963 I was six years old and in the First Grade at Fenton Elementary School in the Pittsburgh suburb of McKees Rocks.  Nov. 22 was a Friday and early that afternoon I had just returned to school after having lunch at home.  My classmates and I waited for our teacher, Mrs. Foley, to arrive but for some unknown reason we waited an unusually long time for her (this was too good to be true!).  Finally, she walked in and told us the news that the president had been shot and that we could go home.

 

Walter.cronkite-kennedy.assassination

 

It seemed fitting that the afternoon was overcast, which added to the somberness of my walk home (and Saturday would be dreary and rainy).  Although I was aware this was an awful event I don't recall feeling any strong emotions.  While waiting for my father to return from work I sat on the sofa in the living room and paged through my mother's December issue of Good Housekeeping that arrived in the mail earlier that afternoon (pictured).  On the cover was a little girl holding a large Santa lollipop.  Although its festive nature was incongruous with that day's tragedy, it was a nice escape for a young child.  And the next day my brother and I spent much of that rainy Saturday afternoon at the movies.


  Dec_1963_goodhousekeeping

 

Another thing I remember about this day was my surprise at the word "assassination", which I had never heard before.  Although I quickly learned its meaning, I found it somewhat amusing/shocking because it had the word "ass" in it - twice - yet everyone was saying it, which my six-year-old self found curious and amusing.  After all, back then words like that weren't spoken in polite company.

 

Just two days later the nation witnessed the shooting death of accused assassin, 25-year-old Lee Harvey Oswald on live TV.  It was just past noon and my family was eating Sunday lunch.  The TV was on in the background in the living room because my father, a football fanatic, insisted on watching the NFL game that was being broadcast.  The telecast was interrupted by coverage of Oswald being brought into police headquarters in Dallas.  As he was being walked in, surrounded by detectives, a man named Jack Ruby jumped out of the crowd and shot Oswald in the stomach.  I didn’t see the shooting because my seat at the dinner table was obstructed by a wall that blocked my view.  But I heard the commotion and saw the reaction of my parents.  This was very likely the most shocking event ever seen on live TV until 9/11 when millions saw the second plane (United Flight 175) crash into the south tower of the World Trade Center.

 

Lee_harvey_oswald

 

Because of these events, for a long time I viewed Dallas (and Texas in general) as an evil place, not unlike enemy territory such as Red China, and it took a long time for me to shake this feeling.

 

To commemorate the 50th anniversary of JFK's assassination, journalists Guy Russo and Harry Moses asked a cross-section of Americans to share their memories of that tragic day, and turned it into a book titled Where Were You? 

 

Where_were_you_book

 

 

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Jim Jones Administers the Grape Kool-Aid (November 18, 1978)

Jim_jones I was in my senior year at Penn State during the fall of 1978 and had just come home for term break on Nov. 18.  That evening our TV watching was interrupted by a news bulletin reporting that California congressman Leo Ryan and eight others (including an NBC cameraman and two newspaper reporters) were gunned down at an airstrip in the small South American nation of Guyana.  They were there on a fact-finding mission to investigate a cult known as the People's Temple whose members were mostly from California.

 

 

Jonestown_massacreAs bad as this news was an even grislier story unfolded the next day as the residents of Jonestown, the settlement Ryan was visiting, participated in a mass suicide ordered by their paranoid leader Jim Jones.  Although some had been shot most died after drinking a grape-flavored drink laced with cyanide.  The number of dead was truly staggering.  As the week went on the numbers rose steadily, 100 at first, then 250, 500 all the way up to a staggering final toll of 913.  Understandably, this tragedy cast a pall over the Thanksgiving holiday. (A number of books have been written about this event including Raven: The Untold Story of the Reverend Jim Jones & His People.)

 

One legacy of this tragedy is the phrase "drinking the grape Kool-Aid", which was coined to suggest that someone was brainwashed.  


Two Popes Die Within Weeks of Each Other (August 6 & September 28, 1978)

Pope_paulvi The summer of 1978 was my last living in my hometown of McKees Rocks (a suburb of Pittsburgh).  This particular weekend in early August was a fun one as my older brother was visiting from New Jersey.  On Friday evening he, my sister Linda, her friend Ilene and I went to see a midnight showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show; the next day we saw Animal House, which had recently opened. 

 

Then on Sunday afternoon (8/6) Darrell and I went on a long bike ride that took us all the way out to Pittsburgh's airport along winding & hilly roads as well as some risky time peddling on the shoulder of the Parkway West.  All told, it was perhaps a 25-mile round trip.  When we got back home we heard the news of Pope Paul VI's death.  He was 80 and had been pope for 15 years. 

 

Pope_johnpaul Less than two months later I was back in school, my senior year at Penn State.  As I was getting ready for my Friday morning classes (Bowling followed by Broadcast Communications 325) I heard a news report that the new pope, John Paul I, had died the night before (9/28) from a heart attack.  He had been pope for just one month and was only 62 years old.  I told the news to friends at breakfast and they thought I was joking. 

 

10 years later I was dating a religion reporter for Time Magazine and he told me that it was widely rumored that John Paul (known as "the smiling pope") was a victim of foul play because 1) his liberal leanings clashed with those of the conservative Vatican hierarchy and 2) he was about to begin an investigation into financial misdeeds at the Vatican Bank.  The book In God's Name: An Investigation Into the Murder of Pope John Paul I provides further insight into the matter.

 

 

 

Pope_johnpaulii By coincidence the day of John Paul's death was one day after the anniversary of the death of Pope Urban VII, the pope with the briefest papal reign - 13 days.  And following John Paul's brief time on the papal throne John Paul II would have one of the longest reigns - nearly 27 years. 

 


Remembering the Tragic, Shocking Death of Princess Diana (August 31, 1997)

Princess diana in pinkIt was the Saturday night of Labor Day weekend 1997 and I was out at my summer share in Fire Island Pines, which is situated a few miles south of Long Island.  As my housemates and I were finishing dinner we became playful - as a group of eight gay men can easily do after a marvelous dinner and a few glasses of wine. For whatever reason we were inspired to try on some campy hats, feather boas and wigs that just were on the "wig wall" (just having a gay old time - literally!).  Eventually we got around to clearing the table and loading the dishwasher and then decided to go out to Sip'n Twirl, a dance bar in the harbor.  

 

It was well past midnight when we finally got our asses in gear and left the house for the 10-minute walk to the club.  We were making our way along the rickety boardwalk called Fire Island Boulevard when an acquaintance of one of our housemates walked by and said rather dismissively, "Oh, I guess you're going down to join the rest of the queens sobbing over Diana".  We didn't know what he was referring to (our house didn't have a TV) so he told us of the recent news bulletin reporting on Princess Diana's death in Paris in a high speed auto accident. 

 

Dianas_car_paris 

 

Stunned, we returned home instead of continuing to the bar.  Since we didn't have a TV in the house it was actually somewhat of a relief because we weren't immersed in the news coverage that dominated the rest of the weekend. 

 

 

The following Saturday was Diana's funeral.  It aired beginning at around 4AM here in the U.S.  Once again I was out at FIP, but this time I had an opportunity to watch it at the house of a fellow from Cherry Grove who I had just begun dating.  However, I just wasn't in the mood to watch something so dispiriting.  Instead I borrowed a tape from a friend at work who taped it on his VCR and I watched it in fits and starts over the course of the following week.  A memory that sticks with me was seeing the hearse bearing Diana's casket with its windshield wipers slowly moving back & forth in order to clear flowers/bouquets being thrown at the vehicle by the millions lining the streets.  (Mother Teresa died the week leading to Diana's funeral but her death was somewhat overlooked.)  

 


Dianas_funeral 

 

The 2006 movie The Queen is about the British public's backlash when Queen Elizabeth failed to join her subjects in publicly mourning and commemorating Diana's death. (British actress Helen Mirren won an Oscar for her portrayal of the queen.)