Deaths Seized the Attention of Millions in 2018, Sometimes Surprisingly

Deaths Seized the Attention of Millions in 2018, Sometimes Surprisingly

It was hardly surprising that the out-of-the-blue deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, coming just three days apart in June, would compel millions to hurry online in shock to find out what had happened.

One, after all, was a celebrity chef and grizzled culinary adventurer who hosted a TV show watched around the world, possibly even in some of those “parts unknown” to which he took us. The other was not just a designer of handbags, accessories and other desirables but also a woman of 55 whose very trademark of a name was a status symbol for generations of women of means.

Add to that the nature of their deaths — suicide by hanging, the authorities said — and widespread morbid interest could only be compounded.

It was also to be expected that the deaths of such era-defining figures as George and Barbara Bush, John McCain, Aretha Franklin, Philip Roth and Stephen Hawking would inspire hundreds of thousands or more to pause, reflect and turn to the obituaries, as they most certainly did.

But few would have expected, it seems fair to say, that the death of an extravagantly tattooed 32-year-old fashion model and sometime actor floating somewhere outside the cultural mainstream under the name Zombie Boy would draw more readers to the New York Times website than that of almost any other person in 2018. And yet it did. Only the obituaries of Ms. Spade, Mr. Bourdain, Mr. McCain and one other person attracted more readers than that of Zombie Boy, whose real name was Rick Genest.

And that other person — that is to say, his death — elicited the most unexpected response of all. He was Tyrone Gayle, a 30-year-old press secretary to Senator Kamala Harris, Democrat of California, and a former spokesman for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. When he died of colon cancer in October, the ensuing Times obituary, modest in terms of length, generated a readership that by any newspaper’s standards was astonishing: in digital parlance, almost 2.3 million page views (as of a week or so ago). Only the obituaries of Ms. Spade (the year’s top draw, with 4.5 million) and Mr. Bourdain (4.4 million) attracted more readers.

(Mr. Genest’s obituary, for the record, garnered the fifth-most page views, 2.1 million, only a length behind Mr. McCain’s, with 2.12 million.)

What accounted for the tide of interest in Mr. Gayle’s obituary is open to speculation. His youth and the promise of a rich life and career were undoubtedly factors; with his cancer in remission, he had gotten married only in May (an event announced in The Times’s wedding pages). Perhaps race had something to do with it: He was a rising African-American operative in the still heavily white world of national politics.

Whatever the reasons, the episode was certainly a demonstration of the power and reach of digitally transmitted news, much of it passed along, like word of mouth, through social media. Here was the untimely death of a relatively private background figure that came to be noted in a vastly public way.

Notable Deaths 2018

A memorial to those who lost their lives in 2018

The recording of deaths is not a popularity contest, of course. We who report that most basic piece of news, a death, do so without much concern for ratings (though we’re pleased when what we publish finds readers). The numbers are interesting and may tell us something about the shrinking world we now live in, but we let our accounts of lives take care of themselves — assuming the famous ones will draw eyes in death just as they did in life, and hoping that the lesser-known but still significant ones will be as fascinating to readers as they were to us when we set about telling their stories.

In any case, in both camps, there was no shortage of notable lives to remember in 2018. Billy Graham’s was one. Few religious leaders had more impact on the 20th century than Mr. Graham, a Christian televangelist whose flock ringed the globe, giving him a place in millions of homes, including the White House.

Lying in State

Months later the body of Senator McCain, recalled as a war hero, presidential candidate and patriot, lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda. Besides him, only President Bush, a former congressman himself, was given that honor this year. But many others who had gone to Washington were also remembered, if less magisterially, in death. One was Paul Laxalt, a Republican stalwart from Nevada and a confidant of Ronald Reagan.

As fate would have it, Mr. Laxalt died on the same day — Aug. 6 — as did another figure of the Reagan years, Margaret Heckler, a moderate Republican who championed women’s rights in the House and became the administration’s Health and Human Services secretary. (As fate would doubly have it, their obituaries, appearing together on the same day, had both been written in advance by a veteran former political reporter for The Times, Adam Clymer, who died a little more than a month later.)

The Senate also bade farewell to Daniel Akaka, Democrat of Hawaii, a champion of neglected Asian-American war veterans; John Melcher, Democrat of Montana, a former veterinarian and reliable centrist who made preserving his state’s wilderness and keeping bread on its farmers’ tables his priorities; and the Georgian Zell Miller, a former governor and conservative Democrat who was most widely recalled for his fiery keynote speech at the 2004 national convention — the Republican one, that is.

Still another Democrat, though no ideological bedfellow of Mr. Miller’s, was Ron Dellums, a Californian who brought a left-wing, antiwar agenda to the House in 1971 and, over 27 years there, rose to chairman of the Armed Services Committee and leader of the Congressional Black Caucus.

If Mr. Dellums’s death evoked the home-front struggle against the Vietnam War, that of Ernest Medina, a former Army captain, reminded us of the terrible toll the war had taken in the land where it was waged. He was court-martialed in the killings of unarmed South Vietnamese men, women and children by three platoons under his command in what became known as the My Lai massacre. But he was acquitted; only a lieutenant, William L. Calley Jr., was convicted in the case, and Mr. Calley would spend just three years confined to barracks or under house arrest.

“I have regrets for it, but I have no guilt over it because I didn’t cause it,” Mr. Medina said later.

Old soldiers in the civil rights struggle were also buried. Wyatt Tee Walker and Dorothy Cotton were both in the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s inner circle in the darkest days of that campaign (and both died at 88). Linda Brown’s very name was immortalized in the landmark Supreme Court desegregation case, Brown v. Board of Education. The lawyer Dovey Johnson Roundtree overcame discrimination in her own life to stand and argue for justice for African-Americans and women in a series of courtroom triumphs. And Rosanell Eaton carried the voting rights banner into the 21st century and up the marble stairs of the Supreme Court as the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit that compelled North Carolina to scrap a law whose real purpose, it was plain to see, was to keep black people from voting.

Other chapters of history were retold through the lives of those who had helped write them. Nancy Tuckerman, social secretary to a first lady, Jacqueline Kennedy, was one of the last surviving vestiges of the era that her boss had christened Camelot. Dick Leitsch, a soft-spoken Kentuckian turned Manhattanite, emerged as an early defender of gay rights when his “sip-in” protests helped pave the way for gay bars to operate openly, with licenses, in New York State, a victory that would reverberate across the country.

Lyudmila Alexeyeva harked back to the Cold War dissident movement in the Soviet Union. “She called herself the grandmother of the Russian human rights movement, and that is what she was,” an associate said. For Ms. Alexeyeva, who died at 91, the campaign did not end with the collapse of the Soviet state; she remained steadfast well into the 2000s, a sharp vocal critic of abuses in the Russia of Vladimir V. Putin.

Another cohort took us back even further, to World War II and the horrors of the Holocaust. Joachim Ronneberg and his band of Norwegian saboteurs on skis effectively ended Hitler’s dream of an atomic bomb when they blew up the factory in which it was being developed. Freddie Oversteegen was only 14 when she joined the Dutch resistance to become a courageous, and lethal, saboteur. Claude Lanzmann emerged from the French resistance to set about preserving, in a monumental documentary film, the dark, unthinkable testimony of fellow Jews who had endured the Nazi genocide. And Aiko Herzig Yoshinaga spent much of the war on American soil in an internment camp for Japanese-Americans — “You don’t deserve to get your high school diplomas because your people bombed Pearl Harbor,” she recalled her principal telling her and her classmates — before playing a vital role in winning government reparations for the citizens, like her, who had been kept behind barbed wire.

Hollywood in Mourning

Mr. Lanzmann could also be counted among the distinguished filmmakers who died this year, joining the Czech-born Milos Forman, who gave us an Oscar-winning translation of Ken Kesey’s subversive classic American novel, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”; the Italian Bernardo Bertolucci, who scandalized vast swaths of the moviegoing world with his intensely sexual, boundary-breaking “Last Tango in Paris”; and Penny Marshall, who attracted millions of fans as a sitcom’s Laverne before becoming, with “Big,” the first woman to direct a film earning $100 million at the box office (not to mention plaudits from the critics).

Hollywood, television division, lost the serially successful writer and producer Steven Bochco, who gave us a couple of decades of prime-time diversion with his well-drawn crime dramas “Hill St. Blues” “L.A. Law” and “NYPD Blue.” On the other side of the camera, there were farewells to Margot Kidder, forever a saucy Lois Lane, whose unexpected death in May was declared in August to have been a suicide; Burt Reynolds, whose leading-man good looks almost hid his comic streak (but didn’t); and Jerry Maren, one of the last surviving Munchkins (Lollipop Guild division).

Broadway dimmed its lights for Neil Simon, who once practically owned the place. The stage was also barer without Ricky Jay, the magician and actor; Nanette Fabray, whose acting, singing and comedy blossomed the year bombs fell on Pearl Harbor; and the playwright Ntozake Shange, who as a black woman in a mostly white male preserve became a double-barreled barrier-breaker with a series of feminist monologues that formed a hit under the convention-rattling title “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf.”

And on a different stage, the dancer-choreographers Paul Taylor, a modern dance visionary, and Arthur Mitchell, the first black ballet dancer to achieve international stardom and a founding spirit of the Dance Theater of Harlem, left an immeasurable void. So did Hubert de Givenchy, whose platform was the fashion runway.

Giants of a kind fell throughout the year: In the realm of letters, besides Mr. Roth, there were V. S. Naipaul, the Nobel laureate who assayed the postcolonial world as a Trinidadian-born, Oxford-educated Indian ensconced in London; Tom Wolfe, who threw down the “new journalism” gauntlet with his electrically charged prose before taking up the novel, at often prodigious length; and Ursula K. Le Guin, who demonstrated that science fiction and fantasy could be both immensely popular and powerfully literary.

In another popular genre, comic books, Stan Lee left behind a cast of 20th-century superheroes who would all but overwhelm 21st-century popular culture with onslaughts of movies, video games, stage musicals and spinoff merchandise.

The Queen Was Dead

Unwelcome though it is, death is news, whether circulating quietly among a small circle of friends and family or broadcast across borders and oceans. And few deaths if any in 2018 was bigger news than that of Aretha Franklin, the “Queen of Soul”; for a time the media coverage seemed round-the-clock.

The music world lost other luminaries as well, among them Montserrat Caballé, a soprano whose sublime voice had worshipful fans in tears; Cecil Taylor, one of the most original jazz musicians of his era; Nancy Wilson, whose luminous singing ranged across jazz, pop, R&B and other genres; Marty Balin, a ’60s rock star with Jefferson Airplane; Jerry Gonzalez, an innovative herald of Latin jazz; Charles Aznavour, the seemingly ageless French singer with a global following; and a clutch of rappers who will never know such longevity, among them XXXTentacion, murdered at 20, and Mac Miller, who juggled fame and substance abuse, dead at 26.

Baseball fans across the board said goodbye to Willie McCovey, but nowhere was his loss felt more keenly than in his beloved San Francisco, where the gusts off the bay that swirled in the old Candlestick Park were no match for his prodigious bat. Green Bay mourned the loss of the bruising running back Jim Taylor, a Vince Lombardi guy, who helped power-sweep the Packers to one championship after another in the now distant 1960s.

And anyone with respect for human achievement, athletic or otherwise, had to give a pair of fleet record-breakers their due: Roger Bannister, who broke the four-minute mile and enjoyed international acclaim in 1954, and Diane Leather, who, 23 days later, shattered the five-minute barrier for women, only to be kept out of the record books. In those days, the track and field establishment, fearing that long-distance running was “too great a call on feminine strength,” did not acknowledge records for women’s distances greater than 800 meters.

If the digital world seemed to be growing exponentially, hurtling ever faster into uncharted territory, it paused long enough to remember Paul G. Allen, who as much as anyone ushered in the personal computer era as a co-founder of Microsoft. In the same year, some of the original minds who brought us the information age passed from the scene. One was Charles Kuen Kao, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who, as a Chinese expatriate in Britain, revolutionized fiber optics. He was among no fewer than 12 Nobel laureates in the sciences who died this year.

Their names were not widely known, but that of another scientist, Stephen Hawking, was. Something of a modern-day seer, he became a popular culture phenomenon — as a best-selling author, documentary-series host, subject of an Oscar-winning movie and even occasional TV guest star — all as he “roamed the cosmos from a wheelchair, pondering the nature of gravity and the origin of the universe and becoming an emblem of human determination and curiosity,” as Dennis Overbye wrote in The Times’s obituary.

That curiosity remained intact even as a neuromuscular wasting disease robbed him of bodily control, save for the flexing of a finger or the darting of the eyes. Somehow he could grapple with the cosmos using only his mind.

“I want to show that people need not be limited by physical handicaps as long as they are not disabled in spirit,” Dr. Hawking said.

Hilary Lister, for one, understood that. She became the first quadriplegic person to sail alone across the English Channel and the first disabled woman to circumnavigate Britain solo. Otherwise immobilized, she did all that with straws. Sipping on them or puffing into them, she could signal her commands to her trusty mates, a collection of electronic mechanisms that controlled her boat, one to move the tiller, another to let out the sails. She died at 46.

“I had the sensation of movement,” she said of her first time out on the water. “It was as if I was free.”

She left us with some hard-won advice — the kind we’ve heard countless times before but tend to forget in the rush of life.

“Live every second of every day to its maximum potential,” she said. “Always look ahead, always assume you will live forever.”

William McDonald is the obituaries editor of The New York Times.

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