washingtonpost.com
The Last Days
Demystifying Celebrity Deaths

Mitchell Fink
Entertainment Industry Journalist
Thursday, July 20, 2006; 1:00 PM

Ever wonder about the last days of celebrities such as Lucille Ball, John Lennon, Tupac Shakur and Lyle Alzado? What were their lives like at the end? What about John Belushi, Arthur Ashe, Margaux Hemingway?

Veteran entertainment industry journalist Mitchell Fink, author of "The Last Days of Dead Celebrities," collected intimate details about the last moments of 15 superstars from their loved ones. He was online Thursday, July 20 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss his book and ask questions about these beautifully human stars.

The transcript follows.

____________________

Washington, D.C.: Did your book collaborate or use material from the findadeath.com website?

Mitchell Fink: No, I did not use that site. All interviews in the book are new and exclusive. For example, Yoko Ono talked to me about John Lennon's last days. Dan Aykroyd did the same for John Belushi. Tom Brokaw and others at NBC talked to me about David Bloom, and so on with all the others.

_______________________

New York, N.Y.: Do you believe there is such a thing as a dignified death, and if so, what would that be?

Mitchell Fink: Dignity is a matter of opinion. But I believe Orson Welles' death, suffering a heart attack while writing a script on a typewriter that's balanced on his stomach, is about as dignified as it gets.

_______________________

Harrisburg, Pa..: Does your book include the last hours of John Belushi, an actor whose last days have been subject of much discussion and controversy?

Mitchell Fink: I tried to approach the Belushi chapter from the point of view of the two closest people in his life, his wife Judy and his best friend and partner Dan Aykroyd. Both were in New York at the time of Belushi's death. They knew what he was doing in L.A., and I felt it was important to tap into their frustration, and subsequent guilt over their not being able to help save him from himself.

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: You, like some other gossip mavens, such as R Couri Hay or Taki seem to have been much more in the news previously than now. Are you adopting a lower profile?

Mitchell Fink: I stopped writing gossip columns in 2002, and since then I have been involved in a variety of other projects, including writing "The Last Days of Dead Celebrities" and the New York Times best-seller, "Never Forget: an Oral History of September 11, 2001."

_______________________

Fairfax, Va.: What made you do this book? Isn't the subject a bit gruesome?

Mitchell Fink: Having covered celebrities for years, it occurred to me that a celebrity's last days turn out to be the most under-reported time in their lives. I wanted to know what a person was feeling and thinking, and how others were reacting as death was approaching.

_______________________

Harrisburg, Pa.: As a fan of John Lennon, and since I have not read your book yet but now plan on it, what was John Lennon's last hours like? Was he at the recording studio and, if so, what was he recording and has it ever been released?

Mitchell Fink: Most people don't know that on John Lennon's last night, he and Yoko did not sleep in the same bed. She was in their bedroom, and he was on a couch in their living room listening to one of her songs, over and over again, on a cassette recorder. When she woke up the next morning, his last day, he was asleep on the couch, still in his clothes from the night before. The album they had been working on together at the time was "Double Fantasy."

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: What do you think of celebrity reporting now? It seems like it's become much more intrusive in the last few years. What do you think?

Mitchell Fink: It's always been intrusive, but with so many people engaging in it it seems like it's been watered down. Most gossip items today read like elaborate sightings. This person's here, that one's there. Not really much to learn from that.

_______________________

Annandale, Va.: How come you didn't include Mama Cass's death in your book? Everybody's always talking about the choked on a sandwich thing. Is that true?

Mitchell Fink: There are obviously many, many dead celebrities. In truth, it never occurred to me to do Mama Cass. Maybe next time.

_______________________

New York, N.Y.: Of all the celebrities in your book, do you have a favorite? Someone who was particularly special or interesting?

Mitchell Fink: That's like asking me which of my children I prefer. I can cite reasons why each one interested me. For example, I was not prepared for incredible sadness of Lucille Ball's last days, or the fact that Warren Zevon, who had been sober for 17-18 years at the time of his diagnosis, started drinking again, and then sobered up again two weeks before his death because he wanted to feel everything happening to him.

_______________________

College Park, Md.: What do you think of the whole Marilyn Monroe thing? Do you believe in some of the theories that she was murdered or do you think it was a plain, straight suicide?

Mitchell Fink: I was very happy not to even research Marilyn. It was too long ago and not enough people still alive who can talk about it.

_______________________

Annapolis, Md.: Are you planning on covering any more celebirty deaths as they happen? Will there be a volume two of Last Days?

Mitchell Fink: I'd like to think there will be a Volume 2.

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: How much of dealing with Tupac's final days involved wading through conspiracy theories?

Mitchell Fink: The conspiracy theories never interested me. I was much more interested in how his mother let him go, and the fact that everyone close to Tupac who came forward to the police is dead, and everyone who did not is still alive. You do the math.

_______________________

New York, N.Y.: Did NBC's David Bloom really die as a result of sitting in one position in a tank for too long and it caused some kind of blood clot?

Mitchell Fink: It was definitely the cramped quarters that contributed to his pulmonary embolism. The sandstorms in Iraq that week couldn't have helped. He did a lot of talking on the air without face covering.

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: Is Tupac really dead?

Mitchell Fink: Yes.

_______________________

Alexandria, Va.: Is Ted Williams really frozen?

Mitchell Fink: Yes, in two separate vats of liquid nitrogen. His head in one and the rest of him in another. The son who put him there, by the way, John Henry Williams, died a few years ago, and he's in liquid nitrogen somewhere in the same room with his father, probably right next to him.

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: Would John Ritter have lived if he had gotten to the hospital earlier?

Mitchell Fink: That's what his family contends. It is the basis of their lawsuit against the hospital. The case is still pending.

_______________________

Baltimore, Md.: Re the state of gossip: I totally agree with you that gossip has now become "who was with who on which red carpet." The old days of the Hedda Hopper/Louella Parsons deliciously phrased piece of innuendo is long time, largely because our culture is now so confessional.

On another note, would you mind sharing what made Lucille Ball's final days so sad?

Mitchell Fink: Lucy never stopped loving Desi Arnaz. Even though she was married to someone else. When Desi died in December, 1986, she began a slow, sad decline which ended with her death in April, 1989. During that time, she suffered a stroke, no longer wanted to be out in public, and actually uttered the words, "I'm so tired of myself."

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: I believe John Ritter's family will have difficulty proving he might have lived. I have worked on awareness campaigns for the danger of abdominal aortic aneurysm. It's very treatable when caught prior to rupture. But once rupture occurs, the survival rate falls to about 10 percent, because the internal bleeding is so massive.

Mitchell Fink: I'm sure you're right. But you can never tell what might happen in a courtroom when jurors, if it ever gets to that, hear all about a famous person who was loved by everyone. And make no mistake, John Ritter was loved by just about everybody.

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: Why are people so interested in the lives -- and deaths -- of celebrities?

Mitchell Fink: Knowing they have problems makes the rest of us feel better about ourselves.

_______________________

Springfield, Va. : Wouldn't it be nice if celebrities who knew they were sick used their fame to do some good in the last years of their lives. What comes to mind is the speech that actor Michael Landon made when he knew he had cancer and had a few months of live. He said something along the lines of having had a good life. It was a positive and an adult "goodbye" that gave comfort to his many fans and his young wife.

Mitchell Fink: A lot of celebrities who know they're dying do that. I remember a commercial Yul Brynner made about the dangers of smoking at a time when he was dying of cancer, lung cancer, I guess. He wanted the spot to run after his death, and it did.

_______________________

New York, N.Y.: As a veteran entertainment industry journalist who/what do you think is the best source for reliable information about celebrities? Any of the TV shows like Entertainment Tonight, Access Hollywood, Extra, CNN's Showbiz Tonight, or others?

Mitchell Fink: That's a tough question because all those shows are good at times and terrible at other times. I tend to gravitate to the people who break stories, people who actually deliver the news before anyone else. Don't ask me to single anyone out because then everyone else will get mad at me. Unfortunately, I know all of them.

_______________________

Largo, Md.: Would you consider doing a short piece about the unfortunate losses of young, talented musicians such as Aaliyah, Left Eye (of TLC), etc. and the effect that it had on the music industry and music lovers?

Mitchell Fink: Yes, I would absolutely consider doing them. It takes a lot of cooperation from close people left behind. You can never really get the kind of detail I wanted from clip files or the Internet.

_______________________

Chantilly, Va.: Was Margaux Hemingway a victim of the family curse?

Mitchell Fink: No, I don't think so. She was a very mixed-up woman in the days preceding her death.

_______________________

Springfield, Va. : There have been many moving speeches by relatives of deceased celebrities. Remember Jane Fonda's speech to the press after her father passed? And the Late John Kennedy, Jrs. speech when his mother Jackie died? John I recall said something about his mother dying surrounded by those she loved, her family, friends and in a room with books that she had loved.

Mitchell Fink: Frankly, I was much more interested in what people were saying before the person died.

_______________________

Bethesda, Md.: Did Yoko Ono really sense something was wrong in the air the night her husband John Lennon was killed? Can you go into detail about that?

Mitchell Fink: She didn't say that she sensed that something was wrong, but she definitely sensed something. She was careful to say that she didn't think it was even ominous, but she did feel like the air around them had accelerated. She used the word "vibe," and I left it at that.

_______________________

Gaithersburg, Md.: Did you have the cooperation of the families of the various celebrities which you cover in your book?

Mitchell Fink: Family members, close friends, close business associates. You can't do what I wanted to do without the help of first-hand witnesses.

_______________________

Arlington, Va.: Why didn't you include Elvis in the book? Is it because facts surrounding his death are well known?

Mitchell Fink: I'll leave Elvis to others, along with President Kennedy and Marilyn.

_______________________

Falls Church, Va.: Did any of the celebrities have eloquent moments at the end? I recall some great speeches from Literature...In "A Tale of Two Cities"...Sydney Carton says "It's a far far better thing I do than I have ever done; It's a far, far better rest I go to then I have ever known."

Mitchell Fink: John Denver had a phenomenal last day. Orson Welles died while writing. And Warren Zevon went out completely on his own terms. Unfortunately, I think the great last lines happen most often in fiction.

_______________________

Fairvax, Va.: As a former gossip columnist, would you consider doing a book about live celebrities and their everyday comings and goings?

Mitchell Fink: Wouldn't interest me at all. It's in the papers and on TV every day.

_______________________

Reston, Va.: Twice in my life, I have had sleepless anxious nights and did not know why. I just knew that something was very wrong. The next morning, on both these occassions, someone in the family called to say a distant relative had died that night. Did any relatives of the celebrities experience similiar psychic disturbances?

Mitchell Fink: John Denver had a dream the night before he died. He said it was disturbing, but he never said more about it.

_______________________

Baltimore, Md.: While Margaux Hemingway wasn't the victim of a curse, there is no doubt suicide runs in families. Her paternal great grandfather shot himself, as did of course her famous grandfather. And I believe one of Ernest's siblings also committed suicide. Curse, no. Genetic predisposition, exacerbated by depression, almost certainly.

Mitchell Fink: The coronor ruled it a suicide, and the family history makes it seem more obvious, but many of Margaux's friends, to this day, think it was an accidental overdose.

_______________________

New Carrollton, Md.: Have you written obituaries before?

Mitchell Fink: Yes I have, in newspapers.

_______________________

Fairfax, Va.: Anything in your book about spiritual moments or revelations that celebrities may have had in their last moments? Like the famous book called "Final Gifts" which mentions that many dying people see a "light" and feel the presence of guiding spirits.

Mitchell Fink: One of Margaux Hemingway's friends was on the phone with her shortly before her death, and the friend said Margaux asked her about the light.

_______________________

Baltimore, Md.: How did you do your research? Did you talk to family members of all your covered celebrities?

Mitchell Fink: Family members, close friends and close business associates.

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: This is fascinating stuff. I can't wait to get your book. How's it selling?

Mitchell Fink: I believe it's doing very well, and for that I am indeed grateful.

_______________________

Reston, Va.: I have read that dreams about flying are dreams about dying. A person sees themselves flying over a city or their home. Did any of your celebrities have dreams about flying before they died? These dreams are apparently not stressful to the person having they. They say the dreams make them feel light and free.

Mitchell Fink: I think I answered this one already.

_______________________

Mitchellville, Md.: Do you have any feelings about current celebrity gossip? Brad and Angelina, Tom and Katie, Britney, Star Jones, etc?

Mitchell Fink: Yes, I'm glad I don't have to think about Brad and Angela's baby or Star Jones' next job.

_______________________

Clinton, Md.: Did any of Arthur Ashe's family and/or loved ones mention why he decided to finally reveal that he had AIDS and campaign against it? It was a time when AIDS was widely misunderstood and it must have been a hard decision for him.

Mitchell Fink: It was a very hard decision for him. Remember, this was 1991. Magic Johnson said he had HIV and medication has helped him tremendously over the years. But when Arthur Ashe was diagnosed, it was already full-blown AIDS. He hadn't even told his daughter about his condition when USA Today came along and tried to get him to confirm or deny that he had AIDS. He called a press conference to finally announce it because he didn't want it coming out first in the press. I wanted to do Ashe in my book because I think the question today is still relevant. It's not even about AIDS. It's about how far should the press go in reporting the health issues of a celebrity. It's not like Ashe was an elected official who could no longer do his job.

_______________________

Falls Church, Va.: I have been with two dying people who asked who was the lady in dark clothes in the room. There was no one in the room other than a few family members. In speaking with others, I have heard that this lady is often seen by the dying. Some believe she is an angel who comes to help the dying cross over. Did your celebrities have any visions of the lady? I am not using the word lady as a substitute for the Virgin Mary. The lady the dying see is a comfort to them.

Mitchell Fink: I hope I never run into that lady.

_______________________

Detroit, Mich.: Can you share a bit about the last days of Milton Berle. Did he still have his sense of humor?

Mitchell Fink: Not only did he still have his sense of humor, but he was still taping his act into a cassette recorder.

_______________________

Alexandria, Va.: Were there any celebrities that you would have liked to have included but you couldn't because you couldn't find any family and friends who were willing to be interviewed?

Mitchell Fink: Many, but hopefully they'll come around for Volume 2. I want to thank everyone for the opportunity to chat. I'm going to sign off now, and maybe we'll do this again at a later date. Bye.

_______________________

Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive