How They Lived
A gallery of eminent Americans who died in 2009
Rock ’n’ roll would never have rocked without Les Paul (b. 1915). He invented the solid-body electric guitar, building his first in 1940. It’s hard to imagine where Buddy Holly, Bruce Springsteen, or Jimmy Page would be without the Fender Strat, the Fender Tele, and the Gibson Les Paul, all first built in the ’50s. Paul also invented multi-track recording, which transformed the record industry. Either contribution alone would have been enough to cement his legend, but the two together, well, they simply
Walter Cronkite (b. 1916) defined the role of the network anchor. But he may have done his job too well. Rather than breaking the mold, he became the mold, and his achievement today seems far less extraordinary than it did a few decades ago. Anchors like Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather, and Ted Koppel all performed their duties with such dignity and style that it’s easy to forget that they modeled themselves after “the most trusted man in America.”
The American scientist Norman Borlaug (b. 1914) wasn’t satisfied with Mother Nature . If people around the world were starving, he figured, why not increase their crop yields? So he cross-bred new varieties of wheat and rice, and by the early 1960s the so-called
He was the first African-American to serve as the chairman of a university history department, but that’s not what makes
It’s no small thing to change the way a generation eats, but Sheila Lukins (b. 1942), co-author of the Silver Palate Cookbook and its many sequels, is in the same league as culinary upstarts like Irma Rombauer and Julia Child. The Silver Palate Cookbook, co-written with Julee Rosso and published in 1982, was the first cookbook designed for a truly feminist generation: working women who wanted to serve sophisticated food but didn’t have hours to spend preparing it. It’s still a brisk seller, and countless guests, served the easy-to-make
The postwar suburban boom was the product of new highways, cheap cars, and the G. I. Bill. But once you had the two-car garage, you needed to drive somewhere. That’s where Melvin Simon (b. 1926) came in. The Bronx-born, Indianapolis-based real estate developer built the first strip mall in 1960, then used the profits to build another. As the country expanded, he did, too, building grander, enclosed shopping malls, including the
Was Robert McNamara a hero or villain? One of JFK’s best and brightest, he managed to get the lion’s share of the blame for Vietnam. Unlike many of his colleagues, though, he eventually came to blame himself. Can his arrogance and lies ever be excused? Not really. But those final years of relentless truth-telling made him an unusual figure in American life.
From an early age, Stanley Kaplan (b. 1919) suspected that the SAT had built-in biases, favoring affluent students over immigrants and the poor. His inexpensive courses leveled the playing field, and Stanley H. Kaplan Inc. became known as “the poor man’s private school.” As his empire grew, fees steepened, and ironically, Kaplan courses are now out of reach for many of the students who could benefit from them most. Still, through his methodical approach to standardized tests, Kaplan forever upended the notion that test-taking excellence cannot be taught.
George Tiller (b. 1941) was a happy abortionist. For three decades, he was one of the few doctors in the country to whom women could turn for an abortion late in a pregnancy. He unapologetically performed late-term abortions in his Wichita, Kansas, clinic, until this year, when he was shot in his own church by an anti-abortion zealot. His thoughtful approach to abortion, and the shocking circumstances of his death, have made him the pro-choice movement's most important martyr.
Irving Kristol (b. 1920) may not have been the sole inventor of neo-conservatism, but he presided over the movement and nurtured it in ways that were his alone. Kristol and his colleagues—a small group of New York Jewish intellectuals and an even smaller contingent of goyish fellow travelers—used ideas, not political demagoguery, to change the world. That his movement gets credited or blamed for everything from the Reagan Revolution to welfare reform to the war in Iraq is testimony to his impact.
No 2009 deaths caused more commentary and grief than those of Michael Jackson (b. 1958) and Ted Kennedy (b. 1932). Both of these giants led tortured lives, and it’s very possible that each will be remembered as much for his tragedies as his triumphs. As future generations listen to Thriller or look back at Kennedy’s civil service, they will likely dwell on what might have been—if Jackson had avoided self-destruction or Kennedy had undergone his inner transformation earlier in life.
According to Mel Brooks, Larry Gelbart (b. 1928) was “the fastest wit in the west, maybe the fastest wit in the world.” He wrote for Sid Caesar in the 50s, wrote Broadway hits like A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum in the 60s, wrote the longrunning series M*A*S*H in the 70s, the film Tootsie in the 80s, and another hit musical comedy, City of Angels, in the 90s. Along with Brooks, Woody Allen, and Carl Reiner, Gelbart presided over a finite, 50-year period in American Jewish humor, one that is only now, with his death, drawing to a close.
John Hughes (b. 1950) was the Truffaut of teendom. In Hollywood, a factory town, he was able to author distinctive, personal work, directing eight films in the ’80s—including The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink—that became touchstones for practically every suburban white kid of the era. The Hughes machine (he also wrote close to 30 films) abruptly shut down in 1994, when Hughes quit the business at the age of 44. The result was a peculiarly truncated career—now you see him, now you don’t—but the adults whose adolescence he helped define certainly won’t forget about him.