People die. All of us, eventually.
Yeah, yeah, I know: In other news, sitting in a comfortable chair for an hour or two will rest your legs. But the above is among the truths we strive hardest not to think about.
Just yesterday, Ragin’ Dave wrote of the passing of Larry King:
Dude was 87. What the hell did you think happens to people, folks? Yes, he was famous. Had a TV show. And he got old, and he died, which is what happens to people. Why the hell do random people freak the hell out whenever some celebrity dies? I'm not saying I'm happy about it, I'm saying that he was an old man and old men die.
When my father kicks the bucket, I'm going to be weeping and wailing, but he's MY FATHER, not some celebrity that I never met.
Dave has a point. We routinely attribute excessive importance to celebrities. Most of them are “famous for being famous,” and very little else. If the touts and columnists had never mentioned them, they’d lack significance to the rest of us.
However, now and then a celebrity becomes emblematic of an era and its values. His passing acquires extra significance from that association...perhaps far more than his achievements, whatever they may have been, would have brought him on their own.
Consider the 1999 death of “the Yankee Clipper:” Joe DiMaggio. Joltin’ Joe was a fine player, arguably the best center fielder and one of the best hitters of his time, but baseball is merely a sport. It has entertainment value, but little other significance. DiMaggio’s passing acquired extra significance from the era in which he played, 1936 through 1951, and from his excellent personal qualities. The importance of those years to American and world history, added to his superb play and his fine character, gave him a stature unavailable from baseball alone. His admirers’ memories of him come with all of that and more besides.
Subsequent sports stars who’ve departed this vale of tears haven’t borne the glow that surrounds DiMaggio. Mickey Mantle, DiMaggio’s center-field successor and himself a fine player, doesn’t share it. Ted Williams has a fraction of it, even though he played for (shudder) Boston.
I know little of Larry King, but I doubt that his memory will have anything like it. King was a capable commentator and interviewer. He occupied a high place among his colleagues for many years. But he didn’t impress the nation in an emblematic way.
So yes: we generally attribute an absurd degree of importance to celebrities, living or dead. But there are a few exceptions. They stand apart from the rest not because of their achievements, but because of their personal qualities, their association with eras of great events, and with other persons who characterized them. They become emblems of times that we old ones, our rose-colored glasses never far from us, remember as “the good old days:” the days whose values we honored and whose passing we lament. The days when the streets were safe...when homeowners rarely locked their doors...when neighbors looked after their neighbors’ children, properties, and other interests...when immigrants were expected to assimilate and were happy to do so...when the schools taught rather than indoctrinated and propagandized...when journalists reported the news without slanting it toward their preferred political positions...when lawyers counseled their would-be clients not to sue...when politicians occasionally told the truth and didn’t regret it afterward.
Forgive me, Gentle Reader. I must turn away from this subject at once. Have a nice day.