April 12, 2006

Three Lives, Recorded

The UK Telegraph has a trio of interesting obits this week: one of an artistic genius who lived in isolation and obscurity, one of a frustrated hero who tried -- and failed -- to prevent genocidal murder, and one of a classic British eccentric. All are interesting stories, in their way.

  • Joash Woodrow, the artist, has died aged 78. His paintings and drawings only attracted the attention of the art world when he was placed in a nursing home and his life's work was about to be thrown out.

  • Rudolf Vrba, who has died aged 81, survived two years in Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland before escaping to warn the world of Nazi plans to exterminate one million Hungarian Jews in 1944. (Also worth reading is Jon Thurber's obit of Vrba in Thursday's LAT.)

  • Henry Stonor, who has died aged 79, was an enthusiastic founder member of the Vintage Car Club of Malaya and a tireless campaigner for the Karen tribesmen of Burma.

April 12, 2006 at 11:18 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

March 24, 2006

OOTW: Desmond T. Doss, Sr., Medal of Honor winner, dies at age 87

In an age in which the term "hero" is overused to the point of absurdity, this man was a true hero:

Desmond T. Doss, Sr., the only conscientious objector to win the Congressional Medal of Honor during World War II, has died. He was 87 years old.

Mr. Doss never liked being called a conscientious objector. He preferred the term conscientious cooperator. Raised a Seventh-day Adventist, Mr. Doss did not believe in using a gun or killing because of the sixth commandment which states, “Thou shalt not kill” (Exodus 20:13). Doss was a patriot, however, and believed in serving his country.

During World War II, instead of accepting a deferment, Mr. Doss voluntarily joined the Army as a conscientious objector. Assigned to the 307th Infantry Division as a company medic he was harassed and ridiculed for his beliefs, yet he served with distinction and ultimately received the Congressional Medal of Honor on Oct. 12, 1945 for his fearless acts of bravery.

According to his Medal of Honor citation, time after time, Mr. Doss’ fellow soldiers witnessed how unafraid he was for his own safety. He was always willing to go after a wounded fellow, no matter how great the danger. On one occasion in Okinawa, he refused to take cover from enemy fire as he rescued approximately 75 wounded soldiers, carrying them one-by-one and lowering them over the edge of the 400-foot Maeda Escarpment. He did not stop until he had brought everyone to safety nearly 12 hours later.

The story of Doss' life was truly amazing. While I personally do not believe in prayer, I began to wonder about that after reading about his experiences on Okinawa in May 1945. Here are some interesting links:

Hat tip to Taranto's Best of the Web Today.

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March 24, 2006 at 11:36 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

March 12, 2006

Back When London Was Really Swinging

Responding to the surprising public interest sparked by John Profumo's recent death, today's Sunday Times has a fascinating play-by-play of the Profumo affair, including steamy details of high society orgies and all sorts of fun times. The piece, by Matthew Parris, is extracted from a book-length account he wrote with Kevin Maguire and published in 2004: Great Parliamentary Scandals : Four Centuries of Calumny, Smear & Innuendo. (Copies may also be ordered from the London Times here.)

Here is one of the more salacious bits, taken from Lord Denning's official report on the matter:

There is a great deal of evidence that there is a group of people who hold parties in private of a perverted nature. At some of these parties, the man who serves dinner is nearly naked except for a small square lace apron round his waist such as a waitress might wear. He wears a black mask over his head with slits for eye-holes. He cannot therefore be recognised by any of the guests.

Some reports stop there and say that nothing evil takes place. It is done as a comic turn and no more. This may well be so at some of the parties. But at others it is followed by perverted sex orgies: the man in the mask is a ‘slave’ who is whipped: that guests undress and indulge in sexual intercourse one with the other: and indulge in other sexual activities of a vile and revolting nature.

And you thought Bill Clinton had all the fun.

Here are a few more links to interesting overviews of the scandal:

  • The Guardian's special report on politics past: The Profumo Scandal

  • The BBC's "infamous crimes" series piece on the Profumo Affair

  • Of course, be sure to read this link to John Profumo's obituaries, for the human side of this unfortunate circus.

March 12, 2006 at 12:58 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

March 10, 2006

OotW: John Profumo, age 91, Disgraced Former Cabinet Minister

It is a good thing that somebody interesting has passed away (good for us, at least), since there is literally no news today. However, the infamous former Conservative defense minister (then still known by the much better and more descriptive title of Secretary of State for War), John Profumo, died yesterday, aged 91.

The London Times has the best obit I've read for him:

John Profumo, CBE, Secretary of State for War, 1960-63, and Chairman of Toynbee Hall, 1982-85. Born January 30, 1915, died on March 9, 2006, aged 91.

His subsequent wholly admirable charity work notwithstanding, John Profumo will be remembered as the the Secretary of State for War whose adulterous affair with the glamorous demi-mondaine Christine Keeler did more than anything to hasten the resignation of the Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan in 1963. The scandal had an impact unique among sex and politics scandals in modern British life. Subsequent "minister and call-girl" stories — of which there were not a few — had nothing like its impact, nor were they treated with such seriousness.

The Guardian also has an interesting write-up of Profumo's life story.

Here are some other, tangentially related links that may be helpful.

  • What is The Chiltern Hundreds and why did John Profumo apply for this position at the apogee of his scandal?

  • What ever became of John Edgecombe, who's angry gunplay brought the entire sordid affair into the public eye?

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March 10, 2006 at 01:17 PM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

February 27, 2006

OOTW: Emilie Muse, 98, Daredevil Who Dared Not Discuss Past, Dies

A very interesting woman, and a superb headline from the ordinarily uninspired group at the NYT. Here are the main points from the NYT obit:

Emilie Neumann Muse, who as a young woman exemplified the crazy, flamboyant competitiveness of the 20's and 30's by swimming in treacherous waters, wrestling alligators, jumping out of airplanes and being buried alive, died on Jan. 23 in East Patchogue, N.Y. She was 98.

The cause was complications of a stroke, her granddaughter Loretta Muse Dill said.

In later decades, Mrs. Muse was a dedicated homemaker whose interests included beekeeping and gardening. Her husband, Fred, did not want their children to know of her daredevil past for fear it might prove overly inspirational, and she herself did not share her stories until they were adults.

A few minutes of googling unearthed some interesting additional details of Mrs. Muse' life, including some pictures. (Thank god for unusual names.) Ken Spooner, a Mastic Beach, Long Island amateur historian, had written extensively about the Muse's home, including many historical pictures. He also included a clipping of a more extensive obit for Mrs. Muse, including a rather fetching photo of Mr. and Mrs. Muse from the 1930s.

Incidentally, Spooner writes pretty well, and his website is full of interesting tidbits. I particularly enjoyed reading his story "The Mansion" about his childhood memories of visiting the former Knapp mansion during the 1950s.

February 27, 2006 at 12:29 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

February 24, 2006

We've Come A Long Way, Baby

Obituaries are not just windows into the lives of others, but also upon our society and recent history. For example, this obituary from today's LAT surprised the hell out of me:

Joel Dorius, 87; Educator Convicted, Exonerated in '60s Gay Pornography Case
By Dennis McLellan, Times Staff Writer
February 23 2006

Joel Dorius was teaching Shakespeare, classic English literature and poetry at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., when his quiet life as an academic was shattered in 1960.

The victim of a federal crackdown on obscenity in the mails, he was arrested, dismissed from his job at the elite women's college and left feeling like a "criminal" for decades.

Dorius, one of three teachers at Smith College who lost their jobs after being convicted of possessing gay pornography but were later exonerated in the headline-making case, died Feb. 14 at his home in San Francisco after a battle with bone marrow cancer. He was 87.

I was shocked that this kind of thing had gone on, in Northampton, of all places, as recently as 1960. (Now Northampton, for those who don't know, is considered to be the lesbian capital of North America.) Of course, this was back in the day when Lenny Bruce was arrested for using language on stage that today would probably not raise an eyebrow on late night television, but still, it is amazing the degree to which societal attitudes have changed over the last 50 years.

Perhaps Professor Dorius would be cheered to know that even in death, he continues to teach us all.

February 24, 2006 at 10:30 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

February 20, 2006

Obituary of the Week: George Psychoundakis, aged 85

This is the amazing story of a shepherd from Crete who became a runner for the anti-Nazi resistance during WWII. After the war, he wrote The Cretan Runner, detailing his experiences in the resistance.

Read more about his extraordinary life in this UK Telegraph obit.

February 20, 2006 at 07:21 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

February 15, 2006

Obituary of the Week: Leo Lazarus

There has been a shortage of interesting people passing into the next world over the past few weeks. However, while this is not quite an obituary, it is close enough for government work:

New York has always been famous for guys like Leo Lazarus, nonstop talkers with big grins, a million stories, and a tune ever on their lips. They were the men who fought hunger during the Depression and then fought the enemy overseas in Europe and the Pacific. Of course this Greatest Generation, as it's now called, is fast slipping away, and we know we are the lesser even though there is nothing to be done for it.

Movie directors used to like to place such characters behind the wheel of a New York City taxicab, and that's exactly where Lazarus spent almost 40 of his 90 years before he pitched over on a Queens street last month, dead of a stroke.

Read the rest of Tom Robbins' "Elegy for a Cabbie" in the Village Voice.

February 15, 2006 at 08:51 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

February 04, 2006

Obituary of the Week

Not quite a life well lived, but certainly colorful:

Marion Wrottesley

Marion Wrottesley, who died on January 24 aged 83, was a raucously effervescent and flighty figure, equally at home in the fleshpots of Spain and the bedsitters of Kensington and Chelsea.

Egotistical, eventually penniless, but continuously alluring, she married the heir to a barony and hobnobbed with everyone from Somerset Maugham to the Kray twins, but had no worldly ambitions other than to flaunt her own charms and to express her hatred of hypocrisy.


Equally baroque, but even better known, "Grandpa" Al Lewis also died this week, age 95:

Al Lewis, the cigar-chomping patriarch of "The Munsters" whose work as a basketball scout, restaurateur and political candidate never eclipsed his role as Grandpa from the television sitcom, died after years of failing health. He was 95.

. . . Lewis, sporting a somewhat cheesy Dracula outfit, became a pop culture icon playing the irascible father-in-law to Fred Gwynne's ever-bumbling Herman Munster on the 1964-66 television show. He was also one of the stars of another classic TV comedy, playing Officer Leo Schnauzer on "Car 54, Where Are You?"

But Lewis' life off the small screen ranged far beyond his acting antics. A former ballplayer at Thomas Jefferson High School, he achieved notoriety as a basketball talent scout familiar to coaching greats like Jerry Tarkanian and Red Auerbach.

He operated a successful Greenwich Village restaurant, Grandpa's, where he was a regular presence -- chatting with customers, posing for pictures, signing autographs.

Just two years short of his 90th birthday, a ponytailed Lewis ran as the Green Party candidate against incumbent Gov. George Pataki. Lewis campaigned against draconian drug laws and the death penalty, while going to court in a losing battle to have his name appear on the ballot as "Grandpa Al Lewis."

February 4, 2006 at 11:09 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

January 29, 2006

Dumb as a Post?

Sometimes obituaries are like three minute morality plays. This one is simple: man with train wreck of a life wins the lottery; train wreck continues, but on better tracks.

William 'Bud' Post

William "Bud" Post, who died on January 15 aged 66, was, like Vivien Nicholson in Spend, Spend, Spend, a warning that a huge financial win does not guarantee happiness.

In 1988 Post, who had $2.46 in his bank account at the time, pawned a ring for $40 and handed the money to his landlady to buy tickets for the Pennsylvania state lottery. He won $16.2 million, to be paid in annual installments of $500,000 a time.

Within two weeks, he had spent $300,000 of it; within three months, he was $500,000 in debt. He bought a car lot, a restaurant and an aeroplane (though he could not fly). He fell out with his brother, who tried to put out a contract on the lives of Post and his sixth wife; shortly afterwards, matters deteriorated for her when her husband fired a rifle at her Pontiac.

It's all just downhill from there. . .

January 29, 2006 at 05:03 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack