Late-Breaking Deaths in 2006

Good timing for some, bad timing for others.

Twice before (click here and here) I have observed in this column that from a public-relations viewpoint, it is unwise to die during the last two weeks of December. The reason is that you will likely blow the deadline for year-end “departed notables” croakers in Newsweek, the New York Times Magazine, or elsewhere. But recently gathered evidence suggests that this is not as true as it used to be, because of two ecological changes in the news environment:

1) Fewer magazines are doing these “departed notables” pieces. Despite the temptation to close a large chunk of the “book” early and then head off for Christmas vacation, magazine editors seem to be growing a little bored with the idea. Perhaps the trouble is that “farewell to the greats” roundups conflict with the mantra du jour that the way to stay relevant in a “mature” (i.e., dying) print market is to report not what happened, but instead what’s going to happen. In future years, look for newsmagazines to do roundups not on who died during the previous year, but on who’s going to die in the year ahead. (“ALL BUROS: Ck.w/ area hospitals on drain-circling celebs. If risk of dying before 11:59 p.m. Jan. 31, omit.”)2) Newspapers have this year given unprecedented end-of-the-year coverage to three late-breaking deaths: James Brown, Saddam Hussein, and especially former President Gerald Ford. This may reflect a uniquely barren news landscape: The new Congress hasn’t come in, the old president has nothing to say that anyone will believe, and nobody has a clue about what to do in Iraq. Or maybe it’s just that newspaper reporters like to take Christmas off just as much as magazine editors do. Whatever the reason, nobody’s going to complain that the godfather of soul, the butcher of Baghdad, or Nixon’s pardoner failed to get a lot of press when they passed from this world to the next.

What are we to conclude from these two alterations to past practice? I see the emergence of a “shoot the moon” principle. If you are very, very famous, then it may be that from now on, the last two weeks in December will be the very best in which to take a dirt nap. But if you aren’t very, very famous—if you aren’t a former U.S. president, or a vicious tyrant whose removal plunged America into a hopeless military quagmire, or the guy who invented more pop-music forms than anybody else—then it still isn’t a great time to die, inkwise.

With that in mind, let us now lower our heads in remembrance of several notables whose passing slipped through the cracks of what few “We’ll Miss Ya” year-end magazine roundups remain.

Lord Marmaduke Hussey. Died Dec. 27 at 83. Chairman of the BBC, 1986-1996. Appointed by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to monitor the Beeb for left-wing bias. Lost a leg at Anzio. Nickname: “Dukie.”

Kyoko Kishida. Died Dec. 17 at 76. Hottie who starred in the erotic Japanese art film Woman in the Dunes. Also famous for providing voice-overs for the popular Japanese animated TV show Moomin.

Dennis Linde.Died Dec. 29 at 63. Wrote Elvis Presley’s gleefully phallic “Burning Love” (“I’m just a hunk, a hunk, of burning love”), Garth Brooks’ hit “Callin’ Baton Rouge,” and the Dixie Chicks’ “Goodbye Earl.”

John William “Bill” Branner. Died Dec. 23 at 81. Co-founded Jubilee Housing, a nonprofit that provides low-income housing to Washington, D.C.’s Adams Morgan neighborhood.

Melvin “Strawberry” Brooks. Died Dec. 17 at 73. Legendary player of one-pocket pool. Buried with his pool cue.

Jared Nathan. Died Dec. 29 at 21 in a car crash. Actor on PBS’s Zoom in 1999. Nobody should ever die this young.

John Bishop. Died Dec. 20 at 77. Playwright and screenwriter. Bishop wrote The Trip Back Down, which played on Broadway in 1975, and the script for The Package, a movie starring Gene Hackman and Tommy Lee Jones.