The Summer of Celebrity Death Has Taken Too Many Beloved Figures

Feels like . . . '03, when Buddy Hackett, Katharine Hepburn, Barry White and Strom Thurmond died within nine days of each other that summer.
Feels like . . . '03, when Buddy Hackett, Katharine Hepburn, Barry White and Strom Thurmond died within nine days of each other that summer. (Ed Bailey - AP)
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By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 22, 2009

God, please stop taking away our celebrities.

We were still reading about recently deceased guitar hero Les Paul when on Tuesday you took pundit Robert Novak from us, too. We were still languishing in our John Hughes memorial marathons, hour upon hour of "Sixteen Candles" on TBS -- and then Eunice Kennedy Shriver died. Suddenly it was time to stop mourning the '80s and start mourning the '60s. (Look here, on CNN, at what that amazing woman did for the Special Olympics.) We have become very adept at remembering and celebrating great lives. Then on Wednesday, another passing: Don Hewitt, the creator of "60 Minutes," gone. Cancer.

Everyone seems to be dying, no? Twitterers have deemed it the Summer of Death. Bloggers have gone on Celebrity Death Watch. Someone at the office makes a bad/funny joke about how Dan Rather should be careful, what with the journalistic collapse of Hewitt, Novak (brain tumor) and Walter Cronkite (cerebrovascular disease).

Remember, back in early June, when we thought David Carradine was a lone loss, gone too soon and too mysteriously? Remember, back in late June, after Ed McMahon and Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson, how we nervously joked that deaths came in threes? Remember Billy Mays? Remember Steve McNair? Remember Robert McNamara? Karl Malden! Maybe it's that deaths come in multiples of three, we thought. Nines? Eighteens?

Celebrity deaths are always so nostalgic. The famous often seem to die in their prime because that's how we remember them, frozen on our televisions, in rerun. It's always unexpected, even when we've been expecting it.

"It may sound strange," says Tony Orciuoli, but all through the spring he just about predicted this. "I'd been getting the feeling, wow, no one's really dying." As the founder of CelebrityDeathBeeper.com, which has more than 20,000 subscribers waiting to be e-mailed when a famous person shuffles off this mortal coil, Orciuoli tracks these things.

In April 2007, for example, he'd sent out 17 death notices, including ones for Kurt Vonnegut and Kitty Carlisle Hart. But by the end of April 2009, in comparison, he realized he'd sent alerts for only seven. That made him worry. "I knew it would pick back up eventually," he says. "Statistically, things are bound to even out."

Let's look at Orciuoli's statistics. Let's examine the truthfulness of the current celebrity death glut. With more than a week left in August, Celebrity Death Beeper has counted seven deaths for the month, compared with seven for all of August 2007, and the same for all of August 2008. In July 2009 the total was 12, compared with nine in 2007 and just six in 2008. But in June, the opposite: Orciuoli counts nine in 2009, but 10 in 2008 -- and 13 in 2007. Add up the totals, and 2007 was actually a more dangerous summer to be a celebrity than this year. At least so far -- we're holding steady at 28.

This has not stopped the celebrity death pools, the bingo-esque games on sites like FlyMeToTheTomb.com where participants predict which members of the glitterati they feel are most likely to buy the farm in the course of the coming year. First place currently belongs to a user going by Top of the Reap; four of his 13 picks have died.

This has not stopped the panicked Chicken Little Tweets: "Celebrity Death March continues for 2009," a user going by Rolandspano wrote on Wednesday. "CBS News pioneer Don Hewitt dies at 86."

"RIP don hewitt," wrote another user, going by blueice6102. "I don't know who you are, but its sad anytime a death occurs."

The Twitterer makes a fair point. Two of them, actually. One: Death is always sad. Two: How many people knew who Don Hewitt was before he died? Was Don Hewitt truly a household name? How many people would still not know who he was, had his death not occurred when it did, had he not been swept up in the tear-filled procession of Jackson and Fawcett, Hughes and McMahon?


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