Alexander King was born Alexander Koenig in Vienna in 1899. A troubled man, he went through multiple marriages, bouts of addiction and eventually moved to America. Here, he became popular as a frequent quest on Jack Paar’s “Tonight Show”, loved for his irascibility, his wit and his disarming honesty about his life’s ups and downs. He also became a writer, publishing several well-loved books of memoirs.
Alan Freed was one of the first really famous DJs, and his efforts were instrumental in promoting early rock’n’roll music – indeed, he is widely held to have been the one to coin the phrase “rock’n’roll”.
Freed had become interested in radio while attending college, and spent his military service working as a DJ on Armed Forces Radio. He later worked as a DJ at WKST (New Castle, PA); WKBN (Youngstown, OH); and WAKR (Akron, OH). But his great fame began in 1951, when he began working for WJW (Cleveland, OH), playing rhythm and blues, hot jazz and this strange new dance music that would be called rock’n’roll. Freed nicknamed himself “Moondog” after a jazz instrumental he played as the show’s intro. He later moved to WINS (New York), where his fame grew. Freed appeared in many of the early rock’n’roll films, co-wrote songs (such as “Maybelline” by Chuck Berry)…
…and was eventually ruined when it was revealed that he had taken payola (playing certain songs in exchange for money from record companies).
Freed worked a little after that, but his prestige and status as a tastemaker were destroyed in the scandal. He died of uremia and cirrhosis brought on by alcoholism. Freed was only 43 years old when he died.
It is the central event of Christianity: Jesus Christ surrendered to the Romans, was briefly tried by Pontius Pilate, and sent to be crucified. Once up on the cross, he died in an unusually short time (crucifixion is a slow and painful death). In his last words, he called on his heavenly father, saying “Eli Eli lama sabachthani?” (in English “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). (At least, he did according to the Gospels of Mark and Matthew – John and Luke each tell different stories.)
When the Romans came by to break the legs of the crucified (a measure that hastens death), they discovered that Jesus was already dead. He was taken down and buried, rising from the dead on the third day (somewhat undermining the “last words” thing, but he’s the Son of God. Different rules apply.)
Today, these events are commemorated by the eating of chocolate (not introduced to Europe, Asia and Africa until 14 centuries later) delivered by a rabbit (because… I have no idea why).
One of the greatest stars of the silent movie era, and still recognised for his comedic genius even today, Buster Keaton was born Joseph Frank Keaton on October 4, 1895. His parents were both vaudeville actors, and he followed them into the trade. When Hollywood beckoned, Keaton moved to Los Angeles and throughout the Twenties, was one of the great stars of the screen. His mastery of physical comedy was combined with a deadpan stoicism so famous that he became known as ‘the Great Stone Face’.
The jump to the talkies proved to be too much for Keaton, although part of the problem was his choice of studio: MGM placed great restrictions on him creatively and forced him to use a stunt double, both of which contributed to his lack of success there. Although he scored the occasional lead role over the rest of his career (and Keaton worked right up to his death), most of his work was as a supporting actor or as a writer (he wrote for the Marx Brothers in ‘Go West’ and ‘At The Circus’, for example).
Keaton died of cancer, although he himself was told only that he had bronchitis. He was seventy years old.
The first President of Vietnam, who died on the 24th anniversary of his accession to that role, Ho Chi Minh is best known in the west as the leader of North Vietnam during the early parts of the Vietnam War. In particular, he was responsible for the move away from traditional military engagements towards the guerilla tactics that eventually (as he predicted) wore the US down.
Ho Chi Minh was 79 years old when he died, and had lived through French, Japanese and then French occupation again in his life. He was a staunch communist, abandoning his birth name of Nguyễn Sinh Cung in token of his ideals, and a firm believer in an independent Vietnam.
After his death, his body was embalmed, and has been on display in a mausoleum in Ba Dinh Square in Hanoi ever since, even though his will requested that he be cremated.
Convicted of 17 assorted counts of rape, robbery and kidnapping in 1948, Chessman was sentenced to death by the state of California. (Kidnapping at that time was punished by execution in California). But there were irregularities in his case and Chessman asserted his innocence from the very beginning. After his conviction, there were many appeals, and Chessman would wind up spending a then-record 11 years and ten months on Death Row, with no fewer than 8 stays of execution.
The eventual execution of Caryl Chessman was one of the most controversial in American history. He was finally executed in the gas chamber in 1960, but his death had become a cause célèbre for those who opposed the death penalty. It was largely as a result of Chessman’s case that California made the death penalty more restrictive in application, removing kidnapping as a charge attracting that penalty.
Done Too Soon — Neil Diamond
The Ballad of Caryl Chessman — Ronnie Hawkins
The execution of Caryl Chessman was one of the most controversial in American history. Convicted of 17 assorted counts of rape, robbery and kidnapping in 1948, Chessman was sentenced to death by the state of California. (Kidnapping at that time was punished by execution in California). But there were irregularities in his case and Chessman asserted his innocence from the very beginning. After his conviction, there were many appeals, and Chessman would wind up spending a then-record 11 years and ten months on Death Row, with no fewer than 8 stays of execution.
He was finally executed in the gas chamber in 1960, but his death had become a cause célèbre for those who opposed the death penalty. It was largely as a result of Chessman’s case that California made the death penalty more restrictive in application, removing kidnapping as a charge attracting that penalty.
Done Too Soon — Neil Diamond
The Ballad of Caryl Chessman — Ronnie Hawkins
One of the most influential public intellectuals in the history of the world, Karl Marx, it should be noted, was no relation to the Marx Brothers. What he was instead was an economist, a sociologist, a theorist, a philosopher and a writer. His books “Das Kapital” and “The Communist Manifesto” shaped the Twentieth Century in a way few others can lay claim to (“Mein Kampf” and “The Bible” are just about the only other books that even compete).
Marx was the originator, though not the founder, of Marxism. As a political movement that still lives on today, and under which more than a fifth of the world’s population lives, its influence is impossible to ignore. He is also one of the founding figures (along with Emile Durkheim and Max Weber) of the discipline of sociology, and his influence dominates many university sociology departments even today.
Marx was born a German, and lived there in his early life. In 1843 he moved to Paris, thence to Brussels in 1845 after the French government kicked him out, and finally to London in 1849. From here, Marx worked on his various philosophical books and engaged in political journalism (including a lengthy stint writing for the New York Tribune). He died at the age of 64 in 1883 after a lengthy illness, and was buried in London’s Highgate Cemetary. At the time of his death, his works were just beginning to find an audience, but their influence would grow by leaps and bounds over the next sixty years.
A Congolese freedom fighter, Patrice Lumumba was one of the leaders of the independence movement that overthrew Belgian colonial rule in 1960, a struggle in which he faced physical and legal dangers constantly, and was arrested repeatedly by colonial authorities. The struggle was eventually successful, however, and shortly after victory was achieved, Lumumba became the first legally elected leader of a free and independent Congo republic.
His time as head of state was cut short by a Belgian-sponsored counter-coup, which saw Lumumba and other members of his government imprisoned and later executed a mere twelve weeks into their rule.
Best known for his tales of Teyve the Dairyman, Sholem Aleichem was a Jewish writer born in Russia in 1859. His real name was Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich – Sholem Aleichem was a pen name he used, a play on the Yiddish expression “Shalom aleichem” (which means ‘peace be with you’). His stories of Teyve are best known in English by the title of their musical adaptation “Fiddler on the Roof”, which came to pass after he emigrated to New York City in 1905.
Aleichem died of a combination of tuberculosis and diabetes, still working on his latest novel “Motl, Peysi the Cantor’s Son”. He was 57 years old, and despite having been in America only a decade or so, his funeral was one of the largest in New York history, with over 100,000 mourners in attendance, and his will was read into the Congressional Record and published in the New York Times.
A painter of the Post-Impressionist school, whose work was largely in the Naive or Primitivist manners, Henri Julien Félix Rousseau was born in 1944. A self-taught painter, his works were not respected during his lifetime – indeed, they were often derided for what was seen as a ‘childish’ style.
However, after his death, he became noted as an influence on many of the painters who followed him, notably the Surrealist school and Pablo Picasso, and his work was re-evaluated and its merit seen (too late to do Rousseau any good). His influence continues undimmed even today – one of his paintings was recently the inspiration for certain elements of the animated film ‘Madagascar’.
Alexander Graham Bell, best known as the inventor of the telephone, was 75 when he died, and still refused to have a telephone in his laboratory. He regarded his most famous – and most transformative – invention as a nuisance and a distraction from his serious work. The telephone itself had arisen out of Bell’s true interests in acoustics, which grew out of his work as a teacher for the deaf: he had wanted to invent a device that would make it possible for the deaf to hear, the fact that he may well have stolen the idea from Elisha Gray notwithstanding.
The telephone is merely his best known invention – Bell held the patent for that, but also for 17 other inventions (some of them held in common with other, but most in his own right). Bell’s death was the result of complications arising from his diabetes. He left behind a legacy that has, over the course of less than 150 years and with many followers building on his work, transformed the world beyond recognition. One wonders what he’d think of the iPhone.
One of the silver screen’s all time great tough guys – and romantic leading men – Bogart was 57 years old when he died. In a film career that included 75 feature movies over three decades, Bogart was in some of the best films ever made: The Maltese Falcon, The African Queen, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and, of course, Casablanca.
Bogart was the original leader of the Rat Pack, among other accomplishments – he also won an Oscar for his role in The African Queen. In 1999, decades after his death, the American Film Institute ranked Bogart as the greatest male star in the history of American cinema – a claim that remains hard to argue with.