Wednesday, July 17, 2024

In February 1961, The New York Times, citing a study by the American Medical Association, ran a brief article reporting that Americans could very well enjoy a life expectancy of 120 years during the 21st century. The A.M.A., reflecting a now bygone era perhaps more optimistic than our own, was foreseeing a continuing tide of medical science advances that would carry people along in good health for decade after decade. Suffice it to say that the 21st century still has a long way to go before anyone looking back from the 22nd will be able to confirm whether those medical authorities of yore were right. Who knows, after all, what life-preserving medical breakthroughs the next 76 years may have in store? But from where we sit now, the good doctors from 1961 seem to have been wildly off base. Life expectancy trends for many Americans — the average now stands at 77.28 — are going in the opposite direction. And yet if you perused a lot of obituaries over the last year, particularly about the more towering figures who left us, you might be forgiven for thinking that people, on the whole, must be living into riper and riper old age, pushing 100 if not waltzing beyond it. Not so long ago we saw, in brisk succession, three national figures who were born during the Roaring Twenties die in the midst of whatever history will call the ’20s we’re living through now. Rosalynn Carter, who was remembered as the most politically engaged first lady since Eleanor Roosevelt, died at 96, leaving behind her 99-year-old husband, Jimmy, who is assured of being the longest-living American president when his time comes. In July, Henry Kissinger was hale enough at 100 to fly to Beijing, the scene of one of his most historic diplomatic breakthroughs, President Richard M. Nixon’s opening to China. He shook hands with Xi Jinping, just as he had with Mao Zedong in 1972. A little more than four months later he was gone, as polarizing in death as he had been in life, remembered on the one hand as a brilliant believer in realpolitik and on the other as a Cold War tactician who could countenance, in the name of asserting American power, the all-too-real carpet bombing of Cambodia, not to mention spasms of human rights abuses around the world. And then Sandra Day O’Connor, afflicted by dementia, slipped away at 93, enshrined in history as the first woman to ascend to the United States Supreme Court. Throughout the year, distinguished names from all walks of life were in their 10th decade, or even their 11th, when the end came. Norman Lear, who introduced sitcoms to the real world, was 101 (and he wasn’t done yet; he left behind a pile of uncompleted projects on his desk). Françoise Gilot, the artist remembered as the one disillusioned lover of Picasso who had the will to walk out on him, was also 101, dying less than three months before the death of her 76-year-old son, Claude Ruiz-Picasso, who had watched over his father’s estate. Al Jaffee, a cartoonist beloved by generations of Mad magazine readers, was 102. John B. Goodenough, who shared a Nobel Prize for giving us the rechargeable lithium battery, was 100. Nonagenarians Aplenty Many of the distinguished made it to 99: Bob Barker, the seemingly ageless game show host; Charles T. Munger, Warren Buffett’s billionaire right-hand man; Menaham Pressler, the tireless classical pianist and co-founder of the Beaux Arts Trio; former Senator James L. Buckley of New York, a blue-blooded blue-state conservative and brother of William F.; the paradigm-shifting, Nobel-winning economist Robert M. Solow; and the lyricist Sheldon Harnick, who had grasped his own mortality as a far younger man when, in a song from “Fiddler on the Roof,” he could lament, “Sunrise, sunset/Swiftly flow the days.” Others’ years were almost as long. Bob Richards, the Olympian pole-vaulter who landed on boxes of Wheaties in the 1950s, was 97. Frank Borman, who soared even higher in 1968, into lunar orbit, was 95, an age matched by Mangosuthu Buthelezi, the Zulu nationalist and rival to Nelson Mandela in apartheid South Africa, and Gina Lollobrigida, the actress and Italian sex symbol in both Europe and Hollywood. Another Nobel winner, Paul Berg, a father of genetic engineering, was 96. Milan Kundera, the Czech novelist who found absurd humor in the drab oppression of the Soviet era, was 94. So was Mohamed al-Fayed, the Egyptian-born tycoon who died only weeks before he re-emerged in the public’s consciousness, this time through an actor playing him in the final season of the Netflix series “The Crown” as it revisited the tragically doomed relationship of his son Dodi and Diana, Princess of Wales. Pat Robertson, the TV minister and religious empire-builder who salted his preaching with archconservative politics, was 93. And Dianne Feinstein, at 90 a junior member of this enduring cohort, still held her California seat in the Senate when she died in her Washington home, having left her heart, to be sure, in San Francisco. Yes, that’s a reference to the song, and it’s a reminder of how many music giants fell like ancient California redwoods in 2023, none more resoundingly than Tony Bennett. He didn’t just make it to 13 days shy of 97; he practically sang his way off the stage, performing well into his 10th decade before bowing out in the same Manhattan apartment he called home for most of his adult life. (As for him, he may have yearned for San Francisco in song, but his heart was always in New York.) Less than three months earlier, Harry Belafonte succumbed at 96, having poured his soul into chart-climbing Caribbean songs, magnetic movie performances and a lifelong crusade for civil rights. He followed by less than three months the death, at 94, of Burt Bacharach, who left behind a rich catalog of sophisticated songs that ring of a glossier side of the raucous, rockish 1960s — tunes that will no doubt still be in the air in the 2060s. In Music, the Bells Tolled The music world, indeed, lost a pantheon of stars, and not all of them in advanced age. Many had careers spanning decades but were nonetheless remembered mostly as echoes of two in particular, the 1960s and ’70s: the virtuoso electric guitarist Jeff Beck; the songwriting folk troubadour Gordon Lightfoot; Robbie Robertson, the Canadian leader of the Band, who infused rock with a wholly original vein of Americana; and David Crosby, the singer, songwriter and guitarist whose name was inextricably tied with an ampersand to three bandmates: Stills, Nash and Young. The dynamic Tina Turner emerged from the back roads of Tennessee in the late 1950s, shimmying as she sang, but it wasn’t until 1984, when she was in her mid-40s, that she reached pop music’s stratosphere with a string of monster hits. Jimmy Buffett, by contrast, was a comparative late bloomer, emerging in 1977, in his case from some boozy, laid-back imaginary hideaway called “Margaritaville.” Sinead O’Connor was anything but laid-back, and when she died in London at 56, the cause unexplained, she summoned memories of a voice by turns breathy and powerful, of a persona defiant in her political stands, and of a life bruised by tragedy and depression. Lisa Marie Presley, dead at 54, knew heartache as well, and though she had carved out a singing career of her own, it was fated always to remain in the shadow of her father’s. There were deaths in the family — music families: Anita Pointer of the hitmaking Pointer Sisters and Rudolph Isley of the R&B stalwarts the Isley Brothers. Jazz lost the iconoclastic pianist Ahmad Jamal and the innovative saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter, who rose from bebop to push the boundaries of the genre, defying purists by delving into rock-inflected fusion and the avant-garde. And besides Mr. Pressler, classical music lost, among many others, another admired pianist, Andre Watts, who, as his obituary said, had become “one of the first Black superstars” in that world. The acting trade mourned the deaths of three stars of sitcoms whose comic situations spun on for year after year without getting stale to their millions of fans: Suzanne Somers, from “Three’s Company” (two straight young women and a guy pretending to be gay rent a house from a prude of a landlord); Cindy Williams, Shirley on “Laverne & Shirley” (two young women work in a Milwaukee brewery in the 1950s); and the ultimately troubled Matthew…

Check out our other content

Check out other tags:

Most Popular Articles