From a public-relations point of view, it’s a very bad idea to die during the last week in December.
Magazines flood themselves with obituaries in the dwindling days of the calendar year. In part this is so readers can take solemn account of noteworthy lives that ended during the previous 12 months. But mainly it’s because it gives writers and editors a light load as they head off for Christmas vacation. (The croakers can be written and edited in advance, with no worries that late-breaking developments will necessitate a rewrite.) Hence you’ll find “The Year in Death” features in Newsweek, Time, U.S. News & World Report, and the New York Times Magazine. With such a large news hole to fill, there’s plenty of room to commemorate even obscure achievers like Robert Borkenstein, who invented the Breathalyzer.
But you see the problem. Those who die after these publications have “gone to bed” (i.e., been sent to the printers) are too late to be included in the 2002 roundup, yet too early to be included next year in 2003’s. This is an obstacle that very famous people can overcome. (Charlie Chaplin, Roberto Clemente, and Maurice Ravel all died the last week in December, yet we still remember them.) But for the moderately famous or the not-famous-at-all, it poses a serious bar to immortality. Chatterbox therefore takes it upon himself to pay tribute to those notables who had the poor judgment to fall between the calendrical cracks. What follows is necessarily a representative sample:
George Roy Hill,who paired Paul Newman and Robert Redford in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting, died at 81, thereby eliminating the possibility that the three will ever collaborate on a third film.
Russell Berrie,a toy-maker largely responsible for popularizing those hideous Troll Dolls in the United States, died at 69. In 1998, Fortune magazine named Berrie one of the 40 most philanthropic Americans.
Sheik Mohammed Al-Fassi, a Saudi playboy who achieved the seemingly impossible in the late 1970s when his Sunset Boulevard mansion was denounced by his Beverly Hills neighbors for being too garish, died at 50. He painted the mansion, which has since been razed, lime green, slapped on a copper roof, and arrayed around his property nude statues with the pubic hair painted black. During the Persian Gulf War, he sided with Iraq and made anti-Saudi broadcasts in Baghdad.
Arthur Seiler, who helped invent the window air conditioner, died at 94.
Margaret Hancock, whose life story was chronicled by her daughter, Shirlee Taylor Haizlip, in a 1994 book titled The Sweeter the Juice, died at 90. Hancock, a light-skinned black, was raised in a black family while her five siblings were raised in a white family. They kept secret their racial heritage and shunned her for most of her life.
George Weller, a noted war correspondent who won the Pulitzer in 1943, died at 95. You’ll find some of his work here. Weller published, in 1933, what is reputedly the best novel ever set at Harvard, Not To Eat, Not for Love.
Don Clarke, a famous rugby player from New Zealand, died at 69.