Keeping Tabs

Morbid Fascination

On their way to meet the grim reaper, celebrities talk to the tabloids.

In the world of the tabloids, all last days are either tragic or brave–or preferably both. Take two of the long deathwatches now preoccupying the tabs. “Bed-ridden Sinatra’s Brave Last Days,” reads the headline of a Star story that begins, “Frail and feeble Frank Sinatra spends his tragic last days mostly flat on his back.” In May, the National Enquirer’s cover read “Bob Hope’s Tragic Last Days” and inside told of his “Brave Last Goodbye.”

This article demonstrates a frequent tabloid dilemma. While death is inevitable, it is not predictable. A few tough old celebrities stubbornly refuse to make each day their last. In June the Enquirer announced that Katherine Hepburn was unlikely to make it through the month (but she’s still around). And in November the Enquirer had to resurrect the aged comedian Hope. “Bob Hope’s Amazing Comeback,” it announced. “He’s turning back the clock at 94.” Sinatra’s Brave Last Days have now stretched to a year. More in annoyance than in sorrow, it seems, both the Enquirer and the Star are predicting the Chairman of the Board won’t preside over his 82nd birthday Dec. 12. The Globe is conceding he might make it, but insists that this will be “Brave Sinatra’s Last Birthday.”

The tabloids are modern versions of the Art of Dying manuals of the Middle Ages, which instructed people on how to die properly. In the medieval world, death was not something to be feared or hidden but rather, a public event, a crucial stage of life that needed to be anticipated and mastered. When death arrives at a celebrity bedside today, the tabs defy modern squeamishness and take you there to chronicle–and judge–the end. A good death, the Enquirer concluded, was had by Jimmy Stewart. Though the star had become a recluse, refusing to see his friends following the death of his wife, Gloria, he did keep up a telephone relationship with the Enquirer. In a series of interviews about his impending death he told the Enquirer that he would miss his children, but added, “It’s time they started living their own lives and not have to worry about this old man.” The Enquirer detailed his last meals (peanut butter and jelly for lunch and Cornish game hen and carrots for dinner) and the final treatments for a blood clot in his right leg. Amazingly, Stewart talked to the publication only four hours before he died, saying, “This isn’t a sad day–it’s for the best.”

Robert Mitchum’s death wasn’t as uplifting as Stewart’s, but the tabloids gave him credit for departing honestly. Despite lung cancer and emphysema–and the fact that he used an oxygen tank to breathe–on his last night Mitchum got out of bed for a cigarette, reported the Globe, and one of his last meals was a six-martini lunch. Like Stewart, Mitchum also took the Enquirer’s calls until the end. In an interview, the publication did an organ-by-organ assessment of the dying star. After asking about his lungs and his liver, the Enquirer inquired if Mitchum had any other health problems. “Yeah, I’ve got terminal dandruff on my eyebrows,” he replied. He also told them, “I’ve led a very full life, a good life, and I don’t want to ruin it by prolonging it any further. I’m ready to meet my maker.”

In tabloids as in foxholes, there are no atheists. Many celebrities have specific plans for the next life. Stewart’s last words, says the Enquirer, were, “I’m going to be with Gloria now.” According to last week’s Star, Sinatra hopes to reassemble a heavenly version of the Rat Pack. A Sinatra friend told the publication that the singer says he has spoken with Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford, and Dean Martin recently. He is also sweating his final judgment. “St. Peter’s going to have to do a double-take when I get there, but I’m hoping to squeak by,” he reportedly said. And Katherine Hepburn just wants to be reunited with her great love, Spencer Tracy, said the Enquirer in its greatly exaggerated report of her supposedly final days. She sleeps in his nightshirt, a Hepburn friend told the Enquirer, and sits around reliving old memories and “murmuring ‘Spencah.’ ” Country singer Johnny Cash, who the tabloids say is unlikely to recover from a deadly Parkinson’s-like disease, said, according to the Globe, “I always expected my good friend Rev. Billy Graham would be waiting for me in heaven. Now it looks like I’ll get there first to greet him.”

The tabloids abhor sudden departures, especially unnatural ones, which almost by definition are bad deaths. Diana is the ultimate example of this. When singer John Denver died piloting his own plane, the Enquirer and Globe both saw things the same way. “Depressed & Boozing, He Gambled With His Life,” said the Enquirer’s headline. “John Denver’s Death-Wish Tragedy,” said the Globe. But Denver pulled off a good death after all, according to the Star cover line: “John Denver’s Heroic Last Seconds.” Inside we learn, “Hero John Denver Steered Crippled Plane Away From Crowded Streets.” Just to reassure readers that he died well, the Star quotes him as having said in an interview, “I want to be lucky and die doing what I love most–flying.”

The tabloids also like to cover how still-healthy celebrities might make it to their deathbeds. Dramatic weight gains, in particular, are seen as a come-hither gesture to the grim reaper. The Globe recently described comedian Chris Farley, who they say weighs 375 pounds, as “a heart attack waiting to happen,” and 300-pound Marlon Brando as “a walking time bomb.” Actress Tyne Daley has packed on 30 pounds, says the Star, and a “a source” worries that “her heart may give out from carrying so much weight.”

Then there are celebrities who appear to have a power over death. According to the Enquirer, “Evidence is mounting that country music brings people out of comas!” The tabloid tells how LeAnn Rimes sang her hit “Blue” to a comatose 7-year-old, who then opened her eyes for the first time since a car accident. Recordings of Bryan White and Alabama have had similar effects on two other comatose car-accident victims, says the Enquirer.

For the tabloids, no celebrity death is ever final. Breaking a 16-year silence about Natalie Wood’s mysterious drowning death, actor Christopher Walken says that nothing unusual took place the night she disappeared off her docked yacht, the Star reports. This nonrevelation gives the publication a chance to rehash other accounts that claim that Walken and Robert Wagner (Wood’s husband) got in a fight over her, following which she stomped off in anger, never again to be seen alive. And then there is the unsolved 19-year-old murder case of Hogan’s Heroes star Bob Crane. The Star doesn’t explain that one either, but it does report on a séance conducted by 1,000 fans to put Crane’s spirit to rest. Anniversaries can also prompt a reassessment of a demise. For Elvis’$2 20th the Star concluded that the King “Could Have Been Saved.”

There is one mysterious death that has been haunting the country for the past 24 years that the Globe does solve. It turns out that Mr. Ed, the talking horse, died of a drug overdose. A horse sitter mistakenly thought Mr. Ed was having a seizure and gave him a tranquilizer. The horse died within hours. Though the Globe doesn’t say so, it was surely an end that was both tragic and brave.