By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 30, 2009
Rarely since Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper crashed and died more or less simultaneously in an Iowa cornfield on Feb. 3, 1959, has the Celebrity Death Rule of Three fulfilled itself with such swift efficacy.
That's the old rule that celebrities die in threes. Between Ed McMahon's passing on June 23 and Michael Jackson's death on June 25, less than three days elapsed. Farrah Fawcett also died on the 25th.
Even in the face of such powerful evidence for the triplicity of bold-face morbidity, skeptics denied it. They blogged with learned-sounding certainty about how celebrity deaths, like all human demises, occur with random frequency. The skeptics were met with equal cogency by those who maintain that whenever a famous person dies, two more face imminent doom.
Some of this conversation took place at the Web site Threes.com -- a space devoted to the essential three-ness of the universe -- where a poster named Fletch said that after Fawcett succumbed, he and his lunchmates wondered who would be next. A poster named Brian retorted that the "celebrity death rule of three" has "all the scientific rigor of Alanis Morissette's 'Ironic.' "
Over at the site Polls Boutique -- dedicated to the essential pollability of the universes -- 57.75 percent of respondents answered "yes" to the question, "Do celebrities die in threes?" Sample comment: "I used to not think so, but now with the deaths of Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcett, and Michael Jackson so close together, I don't know."
"People are dropping every day, unfortunately," says Michael Scott Eck, administrator of Threes.com, also known as the Book of Threes. "We want completion, we want to have the tragedy be finished. To put it into three-ness is to complete it."
Eck says we're wired to organize messy reality into threes. There are trinities everywhere, holy and otherwise. Time is past, present and future. There are three states of matter, three dimensions. Triangulation is how we get our bearings. So finding patterns in death is how we master our own mortality, says Eck, and three is the essential pattern.
Fine -- but how then to explain the death of David Carradine? He was found hanged June 4 in Bangkok in a reported case of autoerotic asphyxiation, but that's not all that needs explaining. Under the rule of three, he could have been No. 1, making McMahon No. 2 and Fawcett No. 3.
Or was Carradine No. 3 in a previous trinity of death? Or is Jackson No. 1 in a new series? Who's next?
Surely there will be another dead celebrity. There always is.
Much depends, however, on which departed souls count as celebrities, and on how much time may elapse between deaths in a valid triplet.
Fawcett and Jackson weren't the only people to die on June 25. So did Sky Saxon. He was the singer and bass player for the psychedelic band the Seeds, which had a '60s hit with "Pushin' Too Hard."
Is Saxon a celebrity? If so, he, Fawcett and Jackson make three in one day. Then we could put McMahon and Carradine together with, say, Koko Taylor, the blues musician, who died June 3. Another three.
But if Saxon is not famous enough to qualify for the rule of three, then how sad: dead and dissed.
Once a couple of celebrities die, there is great pressure to elevate another dearly departed to the pantheon. So this week folks are mentioning Billy Mays in the same breath as Carradine, McMahon, Fawcett and Jackson.
Billy Mays? He's the great pitchman who starred in commercials for cleaning products, and he died Sunday.
If we count Saxon and Mays with the more famous four, that makes six, which is two fulfilled rules of three. See? We could also sub in Gale Storm, former star of the golden oldy TV sitcom "My Little Margie," who died Saturday.
Or maybe Mays, Storm and Fred Travalena, the comedian, who died Sunday, have observed a B-List Celebrity Death Rule of Three.
There are notable defunct doubles waiting to resolve into perfect dead triplets: The passing this year of Dom DeLuise and Dom DiMaggio could be interpreted as an omen for sort-of-famous Doms. And the deaths of David Herbert Donald and John Hope Franklin could give pause to accomplished historians who go by three names. Two members of Lynyrd Skynyrd died earlier this year. Who's next?
Maybe such pairs simply obey their own mystical pattern. Marilyn Johnson, author of "The Dead Beat," a book about the "pleasures of obituaries," posits that deaths don't come in threes, they come in twos, going back at least as far as Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, who both died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Coincidence? You decide.
"It is more than coincidence. . . . It's supernatural," Johnson writes. "I thrilled recently to a pair of obituaries for Paul Winchell, the voice of Tigger in 'Pooh,' and John Fiedler, the voice of Piglet in 'Pooh'; the two had gone silent a day apart. I keep them next to my clip from October 25th, 1986, the day the New York Times ran side-by-side obituaries for the scientist who isolated Vitamin C and the scientist who isolated Vitamin K."
The pattern's the thing.
Theresa Lazenby-Jones and her 17-year-old son, Kenneth Jones, were at home last week grieving Jackson's death when they were struck by the coincidence of two such famous people as Fawcett and Jackson dying on the same day. Or was it coincidence?
Jones got on the computer to do some research, and mother and son were blown away by all the celebrities who have died on the 25th of a month in recent years: Bea Arthur (April 2009), Dan Seals (March 2009), Eartha Kitt (December 2008), James Brown (December 2006), Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes (April 2002), Aaliyah (August 2001).
"This is like kind of crazy," Jones says.
"It's just strange," says Lazenby-Jones.
Along with the apparent lethality of the 25th, she also respects in the rule of three. It applies to her family, too. She recently has buried an uncle, an aunt and a cousin.
"It's a saying in our family," she says. "When somebody dies, it's always in threes."