December 31, 2007

December 31 | Commodus

August 31, 161 – December 31, 192: Age 31

"Not naturally wicked but, on the contrary, as guileless as any man that ever lived. His great simplicity, however, together with his cowardice, made him the slave of his companions, and it was through them that he at first, out of ignorance, missed the better life and then was led on into lustful and cruel habits, which soon became second nature." — Dio Cassius

Commodus was Emperor of Rome between the years 180 and 192 C.E. He was the son of Marcus Aurelius and, yes, he's the guy portrayed by Joachim Phoenix in Gladiator. Surprisingly, he was in real life almost as much of a bastard as Phoenix portrayed him to be.

His father was a sober, wise man who ruled during a difficult period in Rome's history. Commodus was not the first Roman emperor who inherited the title from his father, but he was the first to be "born to the purple", that is, born during his father's rule. Commodus was handsome, strong, athletic, but he was vain, impatient, cruel, and ultimately quite foolish. A shown in the movie, he really did like to fight gladiators in the Coliseum; he did it in the nude. He never lost, naturally, since the penalty for winning against the Emperor would be infinitely worse than being humbled by him in the ring. He was no coward: he also faced wild animals, incapable of faking submission — and he won. Publicly, he never killed his opponents, but privately he frequently did. He also charged the City of Rome a million sesterces for each appearance (to get a sense of the value, the average legionary was paid 1,200 sesterces per annum). His behaviour got even more eccentric: wounded soldiers would be placed in the arena for Commodus to kill with a sword. And people missing their feet due to accident or disease were taken to the arena where they were tethered together for Commodus to club to death while pretending they were giants.

There was more. He kept taking on new names, and when the number of his names reached 12 (Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus Augustus Herculeus Romanus Exsuperatorius Amazonius Invictus Felix Pius) he ordered that the 12 months of the year be renamed according to each of his names. So January became Lucius, etc. He also renamed Rome "Colonia Lucia Annia Commodiana", and renamed all kinds of institutions after himself too (for example, the Senate was renamed "Commodian Fortunate Senate", the legions were renamed "Commodianae", etc.).

It was all too much for his enemies, and the number of plots for his death increased. One group of conspirators, including his lover, Marcia, poisoned him on December 31, 192, but he vomited it all up again. They then sent a wrestler named Narcissus to Commodus in his bath to strangle him. This attempt succeeded. Upon his death the Senate immediate declared him a public enemy and changed the names of the months and the city and everything else back again.

Sources: Wikipedia, Roman Emperors

December 30, 2007

December 30 | Grigori Rasputin

January 22, 1869 – December 30, 1916: Age 47

Rasputin was a Russian mystic who had a considerable following among the nobility of early 20th century Russia. After an unexceptional childhood, he spent a few months in a monastery, married, and had three children. In 1901 he made a pilgrimage to various places, including Greece and Jerusalem. By 1903 he had arrived in St. Petersburg, where he began to develop a reputation for healing and prophesy. In 1905, he was in Siberia when he got word that the son of the Tsar, who was hemophilic, was bleeding after a fall from a horse. Rasputin was able to provide some relief through prayer and practical advice like "Don't let the doctors bother him too much, let him rest."

Every time the boy had an injury, the boy's mother called on Rasputin, and he got better. She came to believe that God spoke to her through Rasputin, and his influence over the royal household grew.

A group of Russian nobles, viewing this influence as too great a threat, invited Rasputin to dinner and served him cakes and red wine laced with cyanide. Although they put enough poison to kill many men in the food, Rasputin appeared unaffected. One of the assassins, panicking, pulled out a gun and shot him in the back. Then they ran out of the palace, leaving the body alone.

It was a cold night, however, so one came back to get a coat, and he leaned over to check on the body. Rasputin opened his eyes, grabbed him by the throat, whispered “You bad boy” in his ear, threw him across the room, and tried to run away. The other assassins, however, had returned, and they shot him three more times. He fell down but still wasn’t dead, so they hit him until he stopped moving, wrapped his body in a sheet and threw it in the freezing river.

When he body was recovered and autopsied it was found he had still been alive when thrown in the river: he either drowned or died of hypothermia.

No conversation of Rasputin can be complete without this: turn up the volume and click here.

Sources: Wikipedia

December 29, 2007

December 29 | Thomas Becket

c.1118 – December 29, 1170: Age 52

Thomas Becket came from humble beginnings. Sexual interest by an aristocrat in his sister led to his being educated in the knowledge and culture of the higher classes, and a connection with the then-Archbishop of Canterbury led to diplomatic work for the Church and, ultimately, an introduction to King Henry II and a post as Lord Chancellor.

Becket set about his new post with gusto, becoming an amusing companion and bon vivant as well as an efficient and devoted administrator. He and the King became good friends, with Henry even sending his eldest son to live in Becket's household.

A turning point came when the old Archbishop of Canterbury died and Becket was appointed in his place. Confident that his friend would look out for his interests, Henry planned to diminish the independence of the Church in England. Becket, however, underwent a complete change in external character, becoming a stern, virtuous ascetic, devoted to the interests of the Church above all things. A series of legal conflicts led to personal conflicts and the rift in the famous friendship began.

Becket was stubborn and a bit fanatical, and even annoyed the Pope himself with his opinionated pursuit of what he deemed to be the Church's best interest. It came to a head with the Constitutions of Clarendon, a set of legislative procedures that would restrict ecclesiastical privilege in England. The King demanded he sign the document; Becket refused.

Over the next seven years the two great men struggled and feuded. Becket spent much of this time outside of England, being protected by the King's enemies and trying to persuade the Pope to excommunicate the whole country. It all came to a head in 1170 when the king uttered the fateful question, "Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?" — or words to that effect. There are many different versions but he definitely said something. Most historians agree that the King's outburst was not spoken with intent, but four knights interpreted it as a royal command and set about assassinating Becket. They ambushed him in Canterbury Cathedral. A bystander, who was wounded in the attack, wrote:
"The wicked knight leapt suddenly upon him, cutting off the top of the crown which the unction of sacred chrism had dedicated to God. Next he received a second blow on the head, but still he stood firm and immovable. At the third blow he fell on his knees and elbows, offering himself a living sacrifice, and saying in a low voice, 'For the name of Jesus and the protection of the Church, I am ready to embrace death.' But the third knight inflicted a terrible wound as he lay prostrate. By this stroke, the crown of his head was separated from the head in such a way that the blood white with the brain, and the brain no less red from the blood, dyed the floor of the cathedral. The same clerk who had entered with the knights placed his foot on the neck of the holy priest and precious martyr, and, horrible to relate, scattered the brains and blood about the pavements, crying to the others, 'Let us away, knights; this fellow will arise no more.'"

The crime haunted King Henry for the remaining 20 years of his life and reign. The public, both in England and outside of England, held him accountable for the murder. When it was discovered that Becket wore a hairshirt (a rough, uncomfortable garment made of animal hair) under his clerical finery, the public went mad and declared him a martyr, clamouring for his canonisation, which took place just three years after his death.

Henry, desperate to regain some kind of public standing, humbled himself with a public penance at Becket's tomb in July of 1174. But he had lost ground that he never fully regained. Most significantly, his eldest son Henry, who had grown up in Becket's household, hated him for it. Henry died in 1189, nearly 20 years after Becket, weak, ill, and estranged from all but one bastard son.

Source: Wikipedia

December 28, 2007

December 28 | Florence Lawrence

January 2, 1886 - December 28, 1938: Age 52

Florence Lawrence, born in Hamilton, Canada in 1888, was one of the most prolific film actors in history, but for most of her career was known simply as "The Biograph Girl". In the early days of movies, studios kept the identities of their stars secret, afraid that fame might lead to higher wages. In 1910 she was lured to the Independent Motion Company with the promise of a marquee, making her the first performer to be identified by name on screen and in film advertising.

Lawrence also loved cars. She was the first to invent a working turn signal for a car. It was a signalling arm attached to the rear fender of the car, that used electricity to raise and lower a sign indicating the turn direction. There was another signal for stop. Unfortunately she didn't patent it properly, so never received credit.

She retired in 1912, but was persuaded to return to work in 1915. During a shoot a staged fire got out of control and she was injured. The studio refused to pay for her medical expenses. It took her months to recover, and she never regained her position as a leading film star. She tried manufacturing a line of cosmetics, but it didn't pan out. In 1929 she lost a lot of money in the stock market crash. By this time she was in chronic pain from a bone marrow disease, myelofibrosis. In December 1938 she was found unconscious in her apartment after trying to commit suicide by eating ant poison. She died in hospital a few hours later. She was buried in an unmarked grave.

In 1991, actor Roddy McDowall paid for a memorial marker for her grave. It now reads:

"The Biograph Girl"
The First Movie Star

Source: Wikipedia, Northern Stars

December 27, 2007

December 27 | Joanna Southcott

April, 1750 - December 27, 1814: Age 64

Joanna Southcott was the daughter of a farmer. She worked as a domestic servant and an upholsterer until she was in her early 40s, when she became aware that she was rather special: in fact, she was the woman spoken of in Revelation, the scary last chapter of the Bible. This woman — Joanna herself — was destined to bring forth a child who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron, but not before a great red seven-headed dragon would appear to devour her child as soon as it was born. Fortunately the prophecy told that the dragon would be unsuccessful, the child would be taken up by God, and Joanna herself would flee into the wilderness.

She travelled to London where she began to lecture, publish pamphlets, and gather disciples. Over 20 years she gained about 20,000 followers. She predicted that the virgin birth of the future Ruler would take place in 1814, and thus married quietly in that year (so that He would be legitimate). She had herself examined by 21 doctors, 17 of whom pronounced her pregnant (she was 64 years old at the time). The birth still had not occurred by November, at which point Southcott went into a trance. She died on December 27. Her followers wrapped her body in flannel and kept it warm with hot water bottles, expecting that she would come to life again on the fourth day. This did not take place — indeed, she had begun to smell — and an autopsy revealed no disease or any pregnancy.

Strangely, her followers were not discouraged. To this day there are still "Southcottians", and one group holds her box of "sealed writings", to be opened only with 24 Anglican bishops in attendance. They have not been able to gather sufficient bishops to date, but continue to try to do so through periodic advertisements in national newspapers.

Southcott's box gets an allusion in a Monty Python skit: during the "Epsom Furniture Race" it comes in last, after a washbasin, a sofa, and several other pieces of furniture. Three bishops in the crowd yell, "Open the box! Open the box!" Click here to view.

Sources: Wikipedia, Religion and the Apocalypse in English Romantic Literature

December 26, 2007

December 26 | Jane Creba

May 13, 1990 - December 26, 2005: Age 15

Jane Creba was a 15-year-old high school student. She was out shopping on Boxing Day (December 26, a traditional day for big sales in Canada) with her older sister on a busy street in Toronto. She left her sister for a moment to skip across the street to an athletic wear store when a gunfight erupted. Creba was hit by one bullet that entered and exited her upper torso. She was rushed to the hospital, and died during emergency surgery.

In the confusion after the accident, Creba was the first to be taken to hospital as her injuries were the worst. Her older sister, whom she had left on the other side of the road, did not at first understand that she had been hurt. When she couldn't find Jane, she called her mother, who called police. By the time the family reached the hospital, Jane had died.

The incident is thought to have been related to a street gang feud, and certainly had nothing to do with Jane or with any of the other people injured. Altogether 10 young men, including three teenagers, were charged with murder or manslaughter in relation to Jane's death and the injuries of six others.

Sources: Wikipedia, Globe and Mail

December 25, 2007

December 25 | James Brown

May 3, 1933 - December 25, 2006: Age 73

The Hardest Working Man in Show Business finally finished the job a year ago today. He was a singer, songwriter, and band leader, and record producer who was probably the most important figure in the transformation of traditional R&B and gospel into soul and funk. His style, much imitated, was entirely unique, a crazy blend of shouting, dancing, strutting, self-caricature and underneath it all, incredible rhythms. Brown was also an activist who advocated for African Americans and the poor.

Brown arrived for a dental appointment at December 23 in such poor health that the dentist sent him straight to the doctor without doing any work on him. He had a persistent cough and looked weak and dazed. Brown went to the hospital the next day, and was admitted for observation. He was in the midst of a busy schedule of performances, and cancelled just a few, hoping to be well enough to perform again by New Year's Eve. Instead, his condition just got worse, and around a quarter to 2am Christmas Day he told a friend by his bedside, "I'm going away tonight." Then he took three long, quiet breaths and closed his eyes. Cause of death was congestive heart failure resulting from complications of pneumonia.

Here he is doing his trademark "cape finale", where his MC tries to get him to leave the stage and he keeps coming back for more. This one's hilarious, every time the MC comes out he brings a different "cape"!

Source: Wikipedia

December 24, 2007

December 24 | Alban Berg

February 9, 1885 - December 24, 1935: Age 50

Alban Berg was a Viennese composer. He was a student and lifelong friend of Arnold Schoenberg, and his compositions combined Schoenberg's 12-tone technique with a romantic style.

In the summer of 1935, Berg was stung on the back by a wasp. The bite became infected, and Berg developed septicemia, a condition in which bacteria enter the bloodstream and the immune response causes the body to go into shock. The treatment, today, is antibiotics, but penicillin, the first effective modern antibiotic treatment, hadn't come into broad use yet.

Like all of Schoenberg's students, he was obsessed with numbers. Berg calculated his chances based on a personal numerology, and predicted he would die on December 24 — and he did.

Here is a link to Glenn Gould playing Berg's first published piece of music: a stunning piano sonata. It's about 10 minutes long. Enjoy!

Sources: Wikipedia, Brain-Juice, Death myths of the great composers

December 23, 2007

December 23 | Tojo Hideki

December 30, 1884 – December 23, 1948: Age 63

Tojo Hideki was Prime Minister of Japan and Chief of the Imperial Japanese Army General Staff at the time of Japan's unconditional surrender in 1945. General MacArthur ordered the arrest of Tojo, but American military policy arrived at his home just as he shot himself in the chest. He had had a doctor draw a charcoal "X" on his chest at the location of his heart, but although he shot himself directly through the mark, he missed his heart and didn't die. "I am very sorry it is taking me so long to die," he remarked. "I wished to commit suicide but sometimes that fails."

Once he recovered from his injuries, he was tried and found guilty of a number of crimes, including waging unprovoked and aggressive wars and ordering inhumane treatment of Prisoners of War.

The Americans had determined that the Emperor himself should not be directly impugned by any testimony, allowing the Japanese monarchy to remain intact. The Emperor was presented as a figurehead who was controlled by the military, but in fact this was not the case. Hirohito, although not always bellicose, took a keen interest in the war and had considerable influence over military decisions. Thus when Tojo inadvertantly offered testimony that implied the Emperor had influence, the Americans called a recess, met with Tojo, and coached him to recant the problematic section.

Tojo accepted full responsibility for the crimes of which he was accused, and was sentenced to death. He was hanged on December 23, 1947.

December 22, 2007

December 22 | Constantia Jones

1708 - December 22, 1738: Age 30

Constantia Jones was a prostitute living and working in London in the 18th century. She was sentenced to hang for stealing 36 shillings and a half-guinea (about $600) from a customer.

The evidence for her conviction was the say-so of the gentleman in question, who stated that "As I stood against the Wall, [she] came behind me, and with one hand she took hold of . . . --and the other she thrust into my Breeches Pocket and took my Money."

Prostitution was very common (when hasn't it been?) and was tolerated in general, although the women in the profession suffered the kind of discrimination evident in Jones' conviction on the testimony of one person. Robbing the clients was not uncommon, as most gentlemen were unwilling to endure the humiliation of giving evidence. Guilty or no, Jones was 30 years old when she was executed, yet had already been in jail 20 times previously: a hard life, and one that ended in a noose on December 22, 1738.

December 21, 2007

December 21 | F. Scott Fitzgerald

September 24, 1896 - December 21, 1940: Age 44

F. Scott Fitzgerald was a writer of short stories and novels who thrived during the 20s, then dived during the 30s. For Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda, living famously high off the profits of his first novel, the 1920s were one long party. But don't be fooled, like I was, by the appearance of superficiality: Fitzgerald was a sensitive, profound writer and his style was brilliant, immaculate, accessible and yet elevating at the same time.

By the 1930s the drinking had ravaged his health and Zelda's intense personality had self-destructed, leading to a breakdown, a diagnosis of schizophrenia, and life in an asylum. Fitzgerald's literary output dwindled. To earn money, he turned to Hollywood, writing what he referred to as "hack" scripts. He completed only one novel in the 30s (Tender is the Night). He tried to commit suicide twice.

In 1940, his heart began to go: he had a heart attack in November of that year. He continued to work on his last novel, The Last Tycoon, in bed. On December 20 he felt well enough to go to the theatre, but experienced chest pains during the show. The next day, while waiting for the doctor to visit, Fitzgerald was sitting in an armchair making note for an article. According to Malcolm Forbes in They Went That-a-Way, he "suddenly stood up, reached for the mantel, then fell over dead of another heart attack."

Scott Fitzgerald was one of the 20th century's best writers. If you haven't read any of his stories or novels, run to a library right now. The Great Gatsby is a good place to start, but there is much more.

Also, here is some rare footage of him at work.

Sources: Wikipedia; Forbes, Malcolm, They Went That-a-Way, Simon and Schuster, 1988

December 20, 2007

December 20 | Bobby Darin

May 14, 1936 - December 20, 1973: Age 37

When Bobby Darin was just eight years old, he overheard a doctor tell his mother that he would be lucky to reach the age of 16. This was because he had several bouts of rheumatic fever as an infant, a disease that often leaves the heart in a damaged condition. From that time on, Darin (born Walden Robert Cassotto) knew that his life would be short. He was the illegitimate son of a very young woman (17 when he was born) and a father whose identity he never knew. His grandparents raised him as their own, and it was not until he was an adult that he discovered that his "sister" was in fact his mother.

He was an extremely popular musician during the 1950s and 1960s. Although he was a very popular teen idol, he was in fact an astute and very accomplished musician with a versatile style, with hits ranging from "Splish Splash" and "Dream Lover" to "Mack the Knife" and "Beyond the Sea". He was also a successful actor, winning a Golden Globe for Most Promising Newcomer as well as an Academy Award nomination. Toward the end of his life, he became more politically aware and active, starting a record label for folk and protest music.

In 1971 he had heart surgery, an attempt to correct the damage from his childhood illness. His health declined but his activity did not; performing in Las Vegs in the early 1970s he often had to take oxygen after performing. In 1973 his mechanical heart valve clotted, and on December 20 he died following an operation to repair it. It was the old medical joke: the operation was successful, but the patient died.

Here he is singing "Mack the Knife", a classic rendition of one of the best songs ever written (by Kurt Weill, for Threepenny Opera). Enjoy!

Sources: Wikipedia, The Bobby Darin Website

December 19, 2007

December 19 | Vincent Gigante

March 29, 1928 - December 19, 2005: Age 77

"He's crazy like a fox." — John Gotti, boss of the Gambino family, on Vincent Gigante in 1988

Vincent Gigante started faking mental illness in 1969 in order to escape criminal charges of bribery. He adopted eccentric habits, such as walking around the neighbourhood in pyjamas and a bathrobe, mumbling incoherently. Although law enforcement officials didn't believe him, having prominent psychiatrists testify that he suffered from schizophrenia, dementia, and psychosis worked: he got off.

When Fat Tony Salerno, the boss of the Genovese family, was sentenced to 100 years in prison, the rumour was that Salerno wasn't the real boss: Gigante was. Despite the fact that Gigante had continued to act eccentrically, hanging out all day playing pinochle in a storefront club, it was said that mob business took place during the whispered conversations in the club. According to FBI surveillance reports, after midnight he would go to his mistress's house, change into elegant clothes, converse with associates and read or watch TV. The next morning he would reappear downtown in his shabby clothes.

"It was hard to understand what enjoyment he got out of being a mob boss," said Ronald Goldstock, the former director of the New York State Organized Crime Task Force. "His only pleasure appeared to be the pure power he exercised." (from the New York Times obituary)

When in 1990 Gigante was charged with racketeering and murder, he was able to delay his trial seven years on the grounds that he was mentally unfit to stand trial. The tactic was effective for a while, but in 1997 Gigante was convicted on all but the murder charges and sentenced to 12 years in prison. This despite attending his trial in a wheelchair, mumbling and oblivious.

In 2003 Gigante pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice, acknowledging that the whole insanity issue had been a charade. It was for a deal: by pleading guilty to this he received an additional 3 years, but avoided facing other more serious charges that would have put him, at 75, through a lengthy trial with uncertain outcome.

In 2005 he began to have difficulty breathing and swelling in his lower body. After a brief stint in a private medical facility, he was returned to prison in early December, where he died on December 19.

Sources: Las Vegas Sun, New York Times

December 18, 2007

December 18 | Kirsty MacColl

10 October 1959 - 18 December 2000: Age 41

Kirsty MacColl was a British musician and songwriter who was active during the 80s and 90s, getting a lot of attention from other artists for her witty, biting, sometimes sad works. She is probably best known (to me at least) for the song "In These Shoes", which was played over the runway scene in Kinky Boots. Her worldly success was uneven, and came slowly, primarily due to bad luck with record companies who didn't seem to know how to classify her material.

In the year 2000 she was she took a vacation with her family to Cozumel in Mexico. On December 18 she and her sons were diving in an area that was supposed to be free of boats. As the group surfaced, a powerboat drove into the area, heading for one of the boys. MacColl, who was not in the boat's path, was able to push him out of the way, but in the process put herself under the boat and was killed instantly. The boy had only minor injuries.

As it happens, the boat in question was owned by a Mexican millionaire. One of his employees claimed to have been driving (this is disputed by witnesses). He was sentenced to 2 years 10 months in prison but was able to get off by paying a fine of about US$90, plus punitive damages of US$2,150 to her family. It is rumoured that he was paid to take the fall.

Here is a link to another song she wrote that was made popular by the Pogues, perfect for this time of year: Fairytale of New York. Enjoy!

Sources: Wikipedia, Justice for Kirsty Campaign

December 17, 2007

December 17 | Harold Holt

August 5, 1908 - December 17, 1967: Age 59

Harold Holt was an Australian politician who was elected Prime Minister in 1966. He had a long political career, but is remembered mostly for his support of Australian and American involvement in the Vietnam War (the Tony Blair of his day?), and for his mysterious disappearance.

He was an experienced swimmer and skindiver, but was suffering from health problems. He had collapsed the year before from "vitamin deficiency", leading some to suspect heart troubles, and was on strong painkillers for the flare-up of an old shoulder injury. On December 17 he went with friends to Cheviot Beach on the eastern arm of Port Phillip Bay, an area with heavy surf, strong currents, and dangerous rip tides. He insisted on plunging into the water despite warnings from his friends, and quickly disappeared from view. They raised the alarm immediately and for the next two days that area of the coast was combed in one of the largest search operations in Australian history. They never found him.

Rumours about his disappearance being faked abounded, with stories ranging from running away with a mistress, to being picked up by a Chinese submarine, to being abducted by a UFO. There were also rumours that it was suicide. The most likely explanation, however, is that Holt was caught in the strong undertow and carried out to sea, where he drowned.

Source: Wikipedia, Sydney Morning Herald

December 16, 2007

December 16 | Nina Hamnett

February 14, 1890 - December 16, 1956: Age 66

Nina Hamnett was a Welsh artist who lived a flamboyant, Bohemian lifestyle that included bisexuality, promiscuity, a bestselling autobiography, libel suits, and lots of alcohol. She once danced naked on the table of a café in Paris, a feat I personally find admirable. She hung out with the greatest and most avant-garde artists of the age, including Modigliani, Picasso, Diaghilev, and Cocteau.

Her bestselling autobiography, Laughing Torso, irritated Aleister Crowley so much that he sued her for libel over her allegation that he was a black magician. He lost the suit; the judge didn't believe that the allegation wasn't true. However it was a lose-lose situation for Hamnett: if he were not a black magician, she might lose the suit; if he were, as the judge seems to have believed, wouldn't he make a very unfortunate enemy? She did, however, outlive him (he died in 1947).

As it happens, her life went into decline after the lawsuit. She was a heavy drinker and spent a lot of the latter half of her life in bars, reminiscing about the good days. In 1956 she fell from her apartment window and was impaled on the fence 40 feet below. It is not certain whether it was a drunken accident or an attempt at suicide; if it were the latter, it was successful, as she died. Her last words were, "Why don't they let me die?"

At right: One of her works, Der Sturm, c. 1913.

Source: Wikipedia, Art and Illusion

December 15, 2007

December 15 | Sitting Bull

c. 1831 - December 15, 1890: Age 59

"It is through this mysterious power that we too have our being, and we therefore yield to our neighbors, even to our animal neighbors, the same right as ourselves to inhabit this vast land."

"There are things they tell us that sound good to hear, but when they have accomplished their purpose they will go home and will not try to fulfill our agreements with them."

Sitting Bull was a Hunkpapa Lakota holy man who played key roles in the wars against the whites in 19th century United States. He was present at The Battle of Little Bighorn, also known as Custer's Last Stand, the most famous and last major victory of the native people against the white armies.

During most of his adult life Sitting Bull took a militant stance against the white invaders, but in 1881, five years after the victory at Little Bighorn, he surrendered to the whites along with his family and a few other warriors. After nearly two years of imprisonment in various forts, Sitting Bull and his family were transferred to Standing Rock Agency, an indian reservation in North and South Dakota.

In 1885 Sitting Bull was allowed to leave the reservation to join Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show. He earned $50 a week for riding once around the ring. It is said that he would curse the audience in Lakota; it is also said that he would give speeches about the education of the young and normalization of relations between the Sioux and the Whites. It is possible that both are true, as it was during his travels with the Wild West Show that Sitting Bull came to realize that the whites were not just small bands of soldiers and settlers, but a very large and technologically advanced society. He realized that the native people were doomed if they continued to fight. After four months he returned home.

Back at home, he became associated with the Ghost Dance movement. There is no evidence that he joined, but some evidence that he allowed or even encouraged others to do so. This was a nationwide spiritual movement among Native Americans that prophecied a return to peace and prosperity through various magical interventions, after which all evil would be swept from the land. To many Natives, this meant that all whites would be swept from the land. This added an element of mystery and fear to the already-stressful relations between whites and Native Americans, and an uneasy escalation of troops began in areas where the Ghost Dance was adopted, often resulting in confrontation.

Indian Affairs decided to arrest Sitting Bull, afraid that his involvement would give the movement credibility. Sitting Bull did not resist arrest, but about 150 of his followers gathered around his cabin in a warlike mood. One of them fired a shot at one of the officers and in the ensuing melee Sitting Bull was shot in the head.

Source: Wikipedia

December 14, 2007

December 14 | George Gipp

February 18, 1895 - December 14, 1920: Age 25

"I've got to go, Rock. It's all right. I'm not afraid. Some time, Rock, when the team is up against it, when things are wrong and the breaks are beating the boys, ask them to go in there with all they've got and win just one for the Gipper. I don't know where I'll be then, Rock. But I'll know about it, and I'll be happy."

This is the famous speech that young George Gipp spoke to his coach, Knute Rockne, while on his deathbed. Gipp (better known as "The Gipper") was a brilliant player for Notre Dame when he died. Apparently he was out after curfew one night, and was forced to sleep outside. By morning he had contracted pneumonia and died of a related infection. Some say, however, that he contracted strip throat after his final game on November 20.

Whatever the cause, Gipp ended up on his deathbed giving the speech that would live famously on for decades. After his death, Rockne used the story and the line "Win one for the Gipper" to inspire the team to an underdog victory. Twenty years later, in 1940, Ronald Reagan played Gipp in the film Knute Rockne, All American and earned the nickname "The Gipper".

The story does not end there. Responding to an allegation that Gipp had fathered an illegitimate daughter, born five days after his death, the medical examiner ordered an exhumation and DNA testing using his femur. (The result: he had not.) Some members of Gipp's family objected to the proceedings (which were filmed for ESPN) and have filed a lawsuit alleging that the remains of Gipp's sister were disturbed by the exhumation.

Sources: Wikipedia, SLAM Sports

December 13, 2007

December 13 | Lupe Vélez

July 18, 1908 - December 13, 1944: Age 36

"The first time you buy a house you think how pretty it is and sign the check. The second time you look to see if the basement has termites. It's the same with men."

Lupe Vélez was a Mexican actress most famous for her role as Mexican Spitfire. She had a talent for comedy, and the "Mexican Spitfire" character, which parodied stereotypes of Hispanic women, was popular enough to become a series and to make her a major star.

The list of her lovers is truly impressive, and includes Errol Flynn, Johnny Weismuller (whom she married), Anthony Quinn, Charlie Chaplin, Red Skelton, Gary Cooper, and John Gilbert, to name but a few. Also among them was a married Austrian actor named Harald Maresch. Lupe seems to have been in love with him, and when she became pregnant with his child could not choose abortion and could not face the shame of bringing an illegitimate child into the world. She took an overdose of Seconal and died in her sleep, leaving a suicide note that read, "To Harald, may God forgive you and forgive me too but I prefer to take my life away and our baby's before I bring him with shame or killing him, Lupe."

A nasty urban legend perpetrated by Kenneth Anger in Hollywood Babylon claims that she died by drowning with her head in the toilet, but it seems to be not only undocumented by any shred of evidence, but also wildly implausible. Let's hope Mythbusters gets onto this one.

Sources: Wikipedia, The Straight Dope, Who's Dated Who?

December 12, 2007

December 12 | Keiko the Orca

1976 - December 12, 2003: Age 27

Keiko was the orca who starred in the first Free Willy movie in 1993. He was captured near Iceland (age 3) and sold to an aquarium there. From there, he was sold to Marineland in Ontario, and then in 1985 to an aquarium in Mexico.

The irony of his appearance in a film about a captive whale released into the wild was not lost on the public, and a movement (vigorously supported by the film studio) to free Keiko, the "real" Willy, was begun.

The plan was controversial. On the one hand, it had enormous public appeal. On the other, Willy had been in captivity since the age of three, so probably had limited survival skills and no links to other whales in the wild. However the plan went ahead, and he was airlifted to Oregon in January 1996 where a special facility had been built for rehabilitating his health, which was not good. Things went well, and by September 1998 he had gained more than a ton in weight and was flown to Iceland for training.

His training included supervised "walks" in the open ocean, during which he frequently interacted with wild whales. During one of these, his trainers lost track of him, but he turned up two months later in September 2002 following a boat in Norway. When first spotted he was in good health, having travelled over 1,000 miles in the North Atlantic. However in Norway he allowed fans to play with him and crawl on his back. Local biologists and his trainers felt the interaction with humans was a step in the wrong direction, and persuaded him to move to a more remote location, where they hoped that he might be picked up by a passing whale pod and led back into the open ocean. This did not happen, and his trainers had to continue to feed and care for him.

Keiko died of pneumonia in December 2003. After showing signs of lethargy and lack of appetite for a day, he suddenly beached himself and died in the early evening of December 12. At 27 he was young by the standards of wild orca, but old by the standards of captive ones: he was the second oldest male among captive orca.

Sources: Wikipedia,

December 11, 2007

December 11 | Hugh Scrutton

September 13, 1947 - December 11, 1985: age 38

Hugh Scrutton owned a computer rental store in Sacramento, California. He left his computer rental store at Century Plaza shopping center for lunch at about noon, when he stopped to pick up what he may have thought to be litter. It was a pipe bomb concealed in a wooden box. The bomb exploded, sending shrapnel as far as 150 feet. Scrutton took the full force of the blast in his chest. Metal shrapnel penetrated his heart and tore off his right hand.

Scrutton was a victim of the Unabomber, an America terrorist who carried out a bombing campaign from the late 1970 through to the mid 1990s.

Sources: Wikipedia, The Unabomber Pages

December 10, 2007

December 10 | Ed Wood, Jr.

October 10, 1924 - December 10, 1978: Age 44

Ed Wood Jr. was an American film director who, two years after his death, was thrust into the spotlight by receiving the Golden Turkey Award for the "Worst Director of All Time". His masterwork, Plan 9 from Outer Space, received the "Worst Movie of All Time" award.

One of the paradoxes of set theory is that as soon as something reaches an extreme in a given set, it becomes a candidate for the opposite set. Wouldn't you be curious to view the "Worst Movie of All Time". Many people have been, including myself, and although the movie is truly awful it's quite enjoyable to view because it's so funny. There is also another quality present in Ed Wood's films: a naiveté so invincible that despite the bad acting, directing, sets, editing, costumes, and everything else, you can't help but be entertained. Tim Burton caught this quality nicely in his biopic, Ed Wood.

In real life, Ed Wood's path was difficult. His films were terrible, but he managed to get things done by virtue of his dogged persistence and his relationship with Bela Lugosi, a very famous horror film actor who had fallen on hard times. When Lugosi died, Wood could no longer find funding for his films and got by taking any film work he could get, writing, assistant directing and producing, and even acting in bad semi-pornographic films. He also wrote softcore/horror blends for pulp fiction.

He relied more and more on whiskey to relieve his depression and his marriage and finances suffered inversely with his consumption. Having been evicted from his apartment, he died of a heart attack in the bedroom of a friend while watching football. According to one biography, he yelled to his wife in the other room "Kathy, I can't breathe!", but she didn't respond. About 90 minutes later a friend entered the bedroom and found him dead. Two years later he achieved posthumous fame with his Golden Turkey Award.

Sources: Wikipedia, The Church of Ed Wood

December 9, 2007

December 9 | Andrea Absolonová

December 26, 1976 - December 9, 2004: Age 27

As an Olympic high diver on the Czech team in Atlanta in 1996, Andrea Absolonová injured her spine while diving from the 10 metre platform. She never quite recovered her full abilities (although she did compete in Sydney in 2000) and soon turned to modelling.

When she was in her early 20s, a photographer persuaded Absolonová to pose nude while shooting for a billboard ad. This quickly led to a flourishing career posing for adult entertainment magazines and performing in adult films. Her screen name was Lea de Mae, and her healthy good looks ensured international success. Her image was on the cover and in the centerfold of Hustler magazine in October 2004.

In July 2004 she began to experience headaches and problems with her left eye. Medical scans revealed a brain tumour, which was removed through surgery in August, followed by radiation and chemotherapy.

The treatment was bad enough, but the pains in her back and head continued as well. By November the pains were so extreme that only high doses of painkillers provided any relief. Her left eye would roll up and her left limbs were sluggish and trembled. Further scans revealed additional tumours. Two more surgeries relieved the pain somewhat but were otherwise ineffective. She had glioblastoma, a very aggressive form of cancer, and the treatments never got ahead of it fast enough. By early December Absolonová running a high fever and hallucinating. Then, after a couple of days of mild improvement, she died on December 9.

Sources: Wikipedia, Lea de Mae: Angels Live Forever!, A life like a jump from a tower

December 8, 2007

December 8 | John Lennon

October 9, 1940 - December 8, 1980: Age 40

"My role in society, or any artist's or poet's role, is to try and express what we all feel. Not to tell people how to feel. Not as a preacher, not as a leader, but as a reflection of us all."

John Lennon was a songwriter, musician, artist, writer, and peace activist who was probably most famous for being of the founding members of the Beatles.

He was born during an air raid. His dad, a merchant seaman, was in and out of the picture, in the end tried to "kidnap" Lennon to emigrate with him to New Zealand. His mother caught him in time and the scene climaxed in a heated argument, during which Lennon's dad many him choose between them. Lennon chose his dad, but then ran after his mom when she walked away. Lennon was 5 at the time.

He lived during most of his childhood and adolescence with an aunt, with his mother visiting nearly every day. When he was 17 she was hit by a car and killed.

Given the huge influence of the Beatles, especially on those of us where were alive in the 60s, it's a bit surprising to remember that the band really only existed for 10 years: 1960-1970, and then surprising again to realize that Lennon lived and worked for only 10 years after that. After the breakup of the Beatles Lennon went on to work on his own and in other collaborative projects, continuing to create groundbreaking music, art, and to exert as much influence as he could for peace in the world.

On December 8, 1980, after spending several hours at a recording studio, Lennon and his wife returned to their apartment at about 10 minutes to 11pm. His wife preceded him into the building, but as Lennon walked toward the entrance a man stepped forward and called out "Mr. Lennon!" Lennon turned around, and the man fired five shots. Four of them hit him, one piercing Lennon's aorta.

He staggered up the steps of the building, saying, "I'm shot," and collapsed in the reception area. The doorman called the police, who arrived within minutes. They put Lennon, moaning, into the back seat of their cruiser and rushed him to hospital. Ont he way, one of the officers asked "Do you know who you are?" Lennon nodded but couldn't speak, and lost consciousness shortly after that. He was dead on arrival at the hospital when he arrived at 11:15. He had lost more than 80% of his blood volume, making his blood pressure far too low to supply oxygen to his brain and other organs. According to the Chief Medical Examiner, nobody could have lived more than a few minutes with those injuries.

Sources: Wikipedia entries on John Lennon and his killer, Mark David Chapman.

December 7, 2007

December 7 | Cicero

January 3, 106 BC - December 7, 43 BC: Age 63

"It is a great thing to know our vices."

Cicero was a lawyer, statesman, political theorist and philosopher in Rome during the heady times of Caesar and Mark Anthony. Anyone who has taken classical Latin in school has read excerpts, at least, from his essays, which are beautifully written and considered the pinnacle of Latin prose style of the era.

Cicero passionately believed in the ideal of the Roman Republic when Julius Caesar began to systematically accumulate power and dismantle the traditional forms of government in order to secure his position. Cicero opposed Caesar until it became clear that resistance was futile. At that point Caesar extended the hand of peace, inviting him to return to Rome (he had prudently withdrawn). Cicero was a respected politician and citizen and his support was valuable to Caesar. Cicero acquiesced, focusing his efforts on trying to persuade Caesar to revive the Republic and on protecting what little of it remained.

He did not fare so well under Mark Anthony. After Caesar's assasination in 44 BC, a brief period of instability brought Cicero much prominence and popularity as various factions competed for his favour. Mark Anthony rose to become the other leading man in Rome as consul, and a power struggle ensued: Cicero's eloquence and influence over Anthony's control over the armies.

The outcome was inevitable. Anthony's power grew, and his paranoia along with it. He began to draw up long lists of "enemies of the state" to be hunted and murdered by his soldiers. Cicero made the list as soon as he lost the favour of Octavian, Caesar's nephew and adopted son. He tried to take ship to Macedonia, but was caught leaving his villa in Formiae.

It is said that his last words were "there is nothing proper about what you are doing, soldier, but do try to kill me properly". They cut off his head, and later his head and hands were put on display in the Forum. Anthony's wife Fulvia is said to have taken his head, pulled out his tongue, and stabbed it repeatedly with a hairpin in rage.

Sources: Wikipedia

December 6, 2007

December 6 | Saint Nicholas

270? - December 6, 343: Age 73?

Yes! It's true! Santa Claus died on this day!

Nicholas' parents were were affluent Christians in what is now Turkey in a Greek city, Patara. Nicholas himself was an extremely pious infant. Legend has it that he carefully observed canonical feasts by abstaining from his mother's breasts on the appropriate days.

His parents died when he was quite young, and he devoted his inheritance to charitable works. The most famous story has it that he heard of an affluent man who had lost all of his money, including the dowry for his three daughters. The daughters had no prospects of marriage, and were facing life working in a brothel if something didn't change in the family fortunes. When Nicholas heard of this, he took a bag of gold, snuck up to the man's house at night, and threw it in the window. The man used the gold as a dowry, and married off his eldest daughter. Later, Nicholas returned and threw a second bag of gold into the house. Finally, with the third daughter, the father secretly kept watch, caught Nicholas in the act, showered him with thanks, and told the world what a great guy he was. This act of secret giving, combined with the proximity of his Saint-Day to Christmas has, through a complex series of transformations, given rise to the modern-day stories of Santa Claus as a bringer of gifts on Christmas Eve.

For his help to the poor, Nicholas became the patron saint of pawnbrokers. These three bags of gold morphed into the three golden balls that you see hanging outside pawnbrokers' shops in pre-literate days. He is also the saint of sailors and all things nautical, the patron saint of Greece, and the patron of children and students.

This latter association is probably because of another story: during a famine, an innkeeper caught and killed three children, pickling them in a tub of brine with the intention of selling them as ham. Nicholas found the three children and brought them back to life: this is seen in some of his statues showing three infants in a tub at his feet. Another version of the story has the three victims as adults, possibly the origin of the English legend of Sweeney Todd, the barber who murdered his customers and gave them to his girlfriend to bake into pies for her shop. Anyway, these three lucky people, whatever age they were, were revived by St. Nicholas.

Nicholas became the Bishop of the city of Myra. He was one of the participants in the First Council of Nicaea, a pivotal meeting of the Christian world that resulted in the first uniform Christian doctrine, called the Nicene Creed. The was a great controversy at the time about whether Christ was of the same substance as his Father, or whether he was simply a creation of his Father. Arius, a priest from Alexandria, espoused the latter view, which was voted down, and perhaps Saint Nicholas' contribution to the argument had an influence on that decision: he became so enraged by Arius' views that he rushed over to him and boxed his ears. (I had to look that up: it usually means striking someone on both ears at the same time. I bet it hurts.)

Nicholas' death is unusual in two respects. One, he died an old man in his bed: very unusual for a saint. Most of the early saints died in an untimely way in horrible torment. Two, his body stayed in one piece, we think. Getting the knuckle of a major saint could turn a small cathedral into a place of pilgrimage, bringing in tourists and boosting local trade. Thus most saints' bodies did not stay together, but were distributed/traded/sold for maximum merit/influence/profit. Originally his body was kept at Myra, but when the city was overtaken by Muslims some enterprising Italians "liberated" the remains, taking them to Bari, in Apulia, Italy. They have stayed there every since, oozing an oily substance known as "Manna di S. Nicola". They were examined by scientists in 1950 who concluded that Nicholas was a short man, only about 5 feet tall, and had a broken nose. Maybe Arius hit him back.

If you're wondering how the name "St. Nicholas" morphed into "Santa Claus", it was through the Germanic form of "Nicholas", which is "Klaus" (dropping the first syllable and eliding the second and third). The Dutch tradition of "Sinterklaas", based on St. Nicholas, came to North American through New Amsterdam (now New York) in the 17th century. The gift-giving, child-oriented stories of St. Nicholas are common to all Christian cultures, so the tradition was easily adopted by Christian people as they arrived in the United States.

Sources: Wikipedia, Catholic Online

December 5, 2007

December 5 | Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

January 27, 1756 - December 5, 1791: Age 35

"I never lie down at night without the reflection that — young as I am — I may not live to see another day. Yet no one of all my acquaintances could say that in company I am morose or disgruntled."

Mozart was perhaps the most brilliant musical genius in European history; certainly he is the most famous. He began playing piano at the age of 3; his first composition was created at the age of 5. He early career is a laundry list of such incredible bits of information. Certain Mozart was a child prodigy, but his father Leopold, a musician and composer himself, was also a canny marketer, and made the most of his son's talent. Mozart's older sister, Nannerl, was also a talented young musician, and the Mozart family travelled around Europe exhibiting the young prodigies.

Mozart went on to be an equally brilliant adult composer. (Nannerl, on the other hand, was discouraged and never performed in public once she had reached her late teens. It was thought she would not be "marriageable" if she performed as an adult.) Mozart's gigantic output of operas, symphonies, concerti, chamber music, and choral music are still performed and loved today. There is a special brilliance, a lightness to his music that is irresistable. His personal life was more difficult, as he had a rocky relationship with his father (he eventually moved from Salzburg to Vienna to get away from him) and the life of a freelance composer has never been an easy one in any age. For the most part he prospered until the 1790s brought an economic downturn and concomitant financial problems for the Mozart family (by this time he was married and had two children).

However the year 1791 was a very productive one artistically and financially. Alas, this was also the year of his death. His final illness came in November of 1791, when he was only 35. He came down on November 20 with swelling, pain, and vomiting. The most likely diagnosis is acute rheumatic fever, of which he had had several attacks starting when he was young. He was working at the time on a Requiem, and continued to do so during his illness until the swelling of his limbs made it impossible. On December 4 he seemed a little better, then suddenly much worse. He said to his sister-in-law, "You must stay here tonight and see me die...Why, I have already the taste of death on my tongue."

According to his son Karl, who was 7 when he died, "A few days before he died, his whole body became so swollen that the patient was unable to make the smallest movement, moreover, there was a stench, which reflected an internal disintegration which, after death, increased to the extent that an autopsy was rendered impossible." Just before he died, he asked his wife what the doctor had said after his visit that day. When she lied by telling him something positive, he said, "It isn't true. I shall die, now when I am able to take care of you and the children. Ah, now I will leave you unprovided for." According to his wife, as he spoke these words, "Suddenly he vomited — it gushed out of him in an arc — it was brown, and he was dead."

Much is made of the fact that Mozart was buried in a common grave and had a simple funeral, but this was normal practice for middle class people in Austria in that period.

Click here to see and hear the gorgeous 2nd movement of his clarinet concerto, written in the last year of his life.

Sources: Wikipedia; Solomon, Maynard, Mozart, Harper Collins, 1995

This post is for Stephen Prime, a damn good first violin, who suggested the subject.

December 4, 2007

December 4 | Frank Zappa

December 21, 1940 - December 4, 1993: Age 52

"If you wind up with a boring, miserable life because you listened to your mom, your dad, your teacher, your priest or some guy on TV telling you how to do your shit, then YOU DESERVE IT."

Frank Zappa was a composer, musician, and an artist in many other media as well. I remember as a child being shocked and a little frightened by things I learned about Frank Zappa: for example, there was a poster of him sitting on a toilet, half-naked, pants around his ankles, in almost every bedroom of a certain type of intellectual teenager (watch and hear his thoughts on this in a UK interview). His album covers were disturbing ("Weasels Ripped My Flesh" featured a cartoon of a smiling American guy holding a flesh-ripping weasel to his face). His song titles were disturbing. He gave his children weird names (Moon, Dweezil, Ahmet, and Diva).

The thing that really bothered me the most was that he was ugly, or so it seemed to me at the time. He wasn't, actually, it was just that in not trying to cultivate a beautiful, acceptable image he (probably inadvertantly) created an image of deliberate personal ugliness. Or so it seemed to a middle-class small-town Canadian girl-child in the 1960s. This truly puzzled and frightened me. It carried, for me, the terrifying vibration of inner freedom.

Music was at the core of what his did, believed, thought, explored, and expressed. As a young man he discovered Edgard Varèse, a very avant-garde contemporary composer. He was so obsessed with Varèse that his mother gave him, as a fifteenth birthday present, permission to call the composer long distance at his home in New York. Unfortunately Varèse was away in Europe at the time but Zappa spoke to his wife, and later received a friendly letter from Varèse himself. He framed the letter and kept it on display for the rest of his life.

Zappa's music was disturbing, intricate, sometimes ugly, often beautiful, always at or near the edge of the current cultural climate. Naturally he insisted on producing his records himself and maintaining artistic control; this paid off in a large output of original, brilliant, and extremely influential musical explorations.

My friend Ken wrote to me last week "All idealism is an attempt to dismiss a specific suffering or struggle from one's experience". Zappa was an anti-idealist. He was brilliant at seeing things exactly as they are, and pointing it out to whomever was interested in hearing what he had to say. During the 1980s he was active in the fight against quasi-censorship of music through "ratings" labels on record albums. See this appearance on Crossfire to see Zappa's style.

It is impossible to "fit" Zappa into a tiny entry like this. My advice is: get on the net and explore. Also, check out what his kids are doing....great things, all four of them.

In 1991 he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. The prognosis was terminal (as it is for all of us, but his was more terminal than most). He continued to work, focusing on orchestral and synclavier (an early digital synthesizer) works. He died on December 4, 1993.

Finally, a quote from him relevant his current state of non-being: "Well, I believe that those energies and processes exist. I just don't think that they've been adequately described or adequately named yet, because people are too willing to make it all into something that supports a religious theory of one flavor or another. If you start defining these things in nuts-and-bolts scientific terms, people reject it because it's not fun, y'know. It takes some of the romance out of being dead ... because of people's desires to have eternal life and to extend their influence from beyond the grave ... all that Houdini type stuff ... but basically, I think when you're dead ... you're dead. It comes with the territory."

Source: Wikipedia, The Official Frank Zappa Website

December 3, 2007

December 3 | Elizabeth Glaser

November 11, 1947 - December 3, 1994: Age 47

Elizabeth Glaser had one piece of very bad luck: she received an HIV-infected blood transfusion in 1981 while giving birth to her daughter Ariel. Although it was Glaser who as infected, Ariel received the virus eventually as well through breastfeeding. In 1984, her son Jake was born, he had contracted HIV from his mother in utero.

Nobody knew this until Ariel began to get sick. In 1985 all three family members were tested for HIV and found positive. At the time, there was no treatment, and AIDS was a death sentence. In 1987 AZT was approved as a life-extending drug, but it was approved only for adults. Although Glaser and her husband (actor Paul Michael Glaser) fought hard to have Ariel treated with AZT, permission came too late and Ariel died in 1988.

Glaser co-founded the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation in 1988 in an effort to save her own child as well as other HIV-positive children. For 6 years she worked to raise public awareness of HIV infection in children and to encourage funding for pediatric AIDS drugs and research.

Her health began to fail in 1994 and she died in December. The Foundation continues, and is a major force in funding the study of pediatric HIV issues. Jake is now a healthy young adult.

Sources: Wikipedia, Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, Paul Michael Glaser Web Experience

December 2, 2007

December 2 | Marty Feldman

July 8, 1934 - December 2, 1982: Age 48

"The pen is mightier than the sword, and considerably easier to write with."

Marty Feldman was a British writer and comic actor who was instantly recognizable by his bulging, out-of-synch eyes (the result of a thyroid condition). He worked closely with all the other great comedians of 20th century, including all the cast members of Monty Python, Jim Henson and the Muppets, Tim Brooke-Jones, and Mel Brooks. In 1967 he worked with John Cleese and Graham Chapman in At Last the 1948 Show, a precursor to the genius of Monty Python. In fact several famous Python sketches are lifted from the earlier show, including Four Yorkshiremen (click to view, it's worth it!).

Feldman was a heavy smoker (5-6 packs a day), and this probably contributed to his early death of a heart attack, aggravated on by shellfish food poisoning, while filming in Mexico for the movie Yellowbeard. Earlier that day he met the cartoonist Sergio Aragones, who immortalized the meeting in DC Comic Solo #11 as "I killed Marty Feldman". You can read it here.

Here's another clip to enjoy: The Randy Footballer. Spot Michael Palin and Terry Jones among the cast.

Source: Wikipedia

December 1 | Bandit

July 2004 - December 1, 2007: Age 3

Bandit was the best cat. Everybody says their cat is the best, I guess, but Bandit really was the best, certainly the best of all the cats we've ever known. He was smart, affectionate, and a dangerous hunter of mice and birds. We had a game, where we would throw a hackysack back and forth with Bandit in the middle. Bandit would leap heroically three or four feet into the air, sometimes even catching it in midair (he always relinquished it immediately so that the game could continue — he seemed to understand that the chase is more fun than the kill). When a large rat got into our house he dueled it ferociously until it managed to slip out an open door, never to return.

Our decision to let Bandit be an outdoor cat was a calculated risk. We took it, feeling that his roaming, hunting ways were too much a part of his quality of life to confine him. Thus the whole neighbourhood knew him, knew him by name because he always wore an ID tag with name, address and phone number, plus two bells in order to give his small prey a chance to keep clear (although even with two bells he learned to stalk silently when he wanted to).

It was our neighbours who found Bandit crying between two houses across the road, and came to get us. He stopped crying when I arrived, but was holding his hindquarters awkwardly. We figured his leg was broken and, worried he would maul us if given a sharp pain (he was quite capable), simply presented him with an open-sided, open-topped basket. He pulled himself in with his front legs, dragging his hindquarters. His tail drooped over the edge.

The ride to the vet's was calm. He didn't cry once, just looked around with interest, and rested his head on my hands when I scritched him. I imagined he even purred a little. He was so calm, quiet, and affectionate that we were sure he'd be okay, which in retrospect was naive.

After a very long wait, the vet delivered the news: his pelvis was fractured in several places and, much worse, his spine was crushed. His hindquarters showed very little function when he arrived but had become completely unresponsive, even to strong pinching of his toes. There was some possibility of driving to Guelph (1 hour away) in hope of finding a neurological surgeon who might stabilize him enough to repair the broken bones, but life with his hindquarters in a cart and no control of his poo was not a realistic option, in our opinion, for our Great Hunter.

We couldn't be with him during the examination, and were shocked by his appearance when we saw him again. During the two hours since bringing him in, he had become shocky and unresponsive. He was sedated, of course. His gums, nose, and tongue were white, and his paws (including the front ones) were cold (his temperature had been 5 degrees Celsius below normal when we brought him in). He was in a large open cage at waist height, so we were able to stroke him, support his head with our hands, and scritch him under the jaw and chin. He knew we were there, responded very faintly to our caresses, but even as we stood with him debating the Guelph option, his energy/spirit palpably flickered and lowered. After a long and tearful goodbye, we asked the doctor to euthanize him. I rested my hand on his neck and side while the doctor inserted the needles into his IV. I felt a wave of energy move up my right arm, and he was dead.

I remember bringing him home from his litter at 12 weeks, three years ago. A friend and I drove him from Waterloo, 1.5 hours away, along with his two brothers whom she was adopting (and who now continue to rejoice in a full, happy, indoor-cat life). Bandit's two brothers cried loudly most of the way home. But Bandit simply assumed a Sphinx posture, crossed his front paws, and looked curiously around him for the whole trip. Much the same as he did during the last drive to the vet. His attitude, at rest, was always calm, alert, engaged. He was the best cat.

December 1, 2007

December 1 | Alexander I

December 23, 1777 - December 1?, 1825: Age 47?

Alexander was the grandson of Catherine the Great (see November 17). She had no faith in his father, her son Paul, so she took Alexander from him soon after he was born. His childhood was characterized by the battle between his grandmother and his father and, like certain children under such circumstances, he withdrew into himself, presenting to the outside world whatever personality and views seemed to suit whomever he was dealing with.

Catherine died in 1796. Paul I succeeded her and tried to put through a number of reforms that were met with hostility and conflict. He was murdered in 1801, less than five years after his ascension, and Alexander became Tsar at the age of 23. It seems likely that Alexander knew of the plots against his father, but it is not known whether he was actually implicated in his father's murder.

His reign was difficult. The balance of power in Europe was constantly shifting, and in 1812 he had to deal with the invasion of Napoleon. Reform was desperately needed, but bitterly opposed by many factions. He tried to put through many of the same kinds of reforms his father did, but gradually, as he became older, he began to reverse them, and became suspicious of the people around him. It was not unfounded; at least one attempt was made to kidnap him. In the autumn of 1825 he became ill while traveling and died of typhus on December 1. His wife died a few months later.

His death came as a great surprise. There was confusion around the succession, as he had no living legitimate children. His brother Constantine had renounced the succession some years earlier but that had not been announced publicly. In the end, another younger brother, Nicholas, succeeded him as Nicholas I.

There were rumours that he had really faked his death and funeral, and that he was living incognito as a monk or in some foreign land. A hermit named Feodor Kuzmich emerged, travelling around Russia doing good works for people, and speaking and acting in a mysteriously aristocratic fashion. Many people, even today, believe that Feodor Kuzmich was in fact Alexander I, who had chosen this strange way to renounce his throne and expiate the sin of patricide. People believed that an unknown soldier had been buried in Alexander's place. So persistent was this rumour that the Soviets opened his tomb in 1925, 100 years after his death. Inside they found nothing. The tomb was empty. Nobody knows why.

Sources: Wikipedia, Imperial Legend

November 30, 2007

November 30 | Oscar Wilde

October 16, 1854 – November 30, 1900: Age 46

"Most people die of a sort of creeping common sense, and discover when it is too late that the only things one never regrets are one's mistakes."

Oscar Wilde was a poet, playwright, and celebrity — one of the few pre-20th century people who were "famous for being famous". The son of a prominent Irish doctor and a writer, Wilde determined at an early age that Art was the highest virtue, and the one's main Art form should, ultimately, be one's Life. Brilliant, witty, and very dramatic, he embraced a flamboyant aesthetic and a lifestyle that conspicuously rejected conventional hypocrisies.

One very prevalent hypocrisy of the day was the attitude toward homosexuality: privately, it was widespread, with a large proportion of men, particularly of the middle and upper classes, experimenting with it at some point in their lives. Outwardly, it was ignored, denied, and condemned as sinful. Wilde, although married with two children, eventually chose to live openly as a homosexual, deliberately drawing attention to the gap between public attitudes and private practice. By doing so, he made many enemies. One of them, the father of one of his lovers, publicly insulted him so many times that Wilde decided to sue him for libel.

The trial was a public sensation, widely reported in the media and avidly followed by a divided public. Eventually charges were dropped when it became clear that his enemy was willing to do anything to destroy him, including forcing Wilde's friends to testify under oath as to his conduct. But it didn't end there. As soon as the trial was over Wilde himself was arrested for "gross indecency" (i.e. "homosexual acts not amounting to buggery"). He was tried, found guilty, and sentenced to two years' imprisonment with hard labour.

Prison was very hard on his health, and on his finances. He was released in 1897, broke, and spent the last three years of his life outside of England. He settled in the Hotel d'Alsace in Paris, where he is famously quoted as saying "My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or other of us has got to go." A month later, he did.

He died of cerebral meningitis. His doctors stated that the source of the meningitis was an old suppuration of the right ear. On his deathbed, he converted to Catholicism, receiving baptism and extreme unction in succession. He was bured in a cemetery outside Paris, but later moved to Père Lachaise Cemetery, where his tomb can be found today, covered with lipstick kisses from admirers. The angel sculpted into it originally had genitalia, which were broken off as they were considered obscene. They were kept as a paperweight by the cemetery staff for a number of years but nobody knows where they are now.

Sources: Wikipedia, The Free Library

November 29, 2007

November 29 | George Harrison

February 25, 1943 - November 29, 2001: Age 58

"Everything else can wait, but the search for God cannot wait; and love one another."

George Harrison joined The Beatles at a time when he wasn't actually of legal age to enter the clubs they played in (he was 15). He went on to become one of the most important and influential musicians of the 20th century: his most prominent contribution being the introduction of the sitar and Indian music into rock and roll. Click here to see and hear him taking a sitar lesson with Ravi Shankar.

His interest in Hindu philosophy and Eastern culture had a profound and lasting influence on millions of people in Europe and North America. The Beatles broke up in 1970 and Harrison continued to distinguish himself musically, socially, and spiritually for the rest of his life. He was the first rock star to organize a major charity concert (Concert for Bangladesh, 1971)

Harrison battled cancer throughout the late 1990s, beginning with his throat and then his lungs. In 1999 somebody broke into his home and attacked him with a knife, stabbing him multiple times, puncturing his lung. He and his wife managed to contain the attacker until police came (the man believed Harrison was possessing him and that he had a mission from God to kill him — he was acquitted on grounds of insanity). Harrison recovered from the attack, but in 2001 his cancer recurred and this time the diagnosis was terminal — it had metastasized to his brain. He died on November 29, 2001 at his home in Hollywood Hills.

From his family: "He left this world as he lived in it: conscious of God, fearless of death and at peace, surrounded by family and friends."

Click here for a nice little clip of George's ultimately positive view of the world.

Source: Wikipedia

November 28, 2007

November 28 | Gareth Jones

June 6, 1925 – November 28, 1958: Age 33

Gareth Jones, a British actor, died during the live broadcast of a play on British television. Jones had a heart attack between two of his scenes; the rest of the cast improvised the play to its conclusion. The producer ordered the director to shoot the rest of the play "like a football match".

The play, Underground, was about survivors of a nuclear holocaust trapped in the London Underground. Ironically, his character was supposed to suffer a heart attack during the play: Jones actually had one.

(Pictured: London residents taking shelter in the London Underground during the blitz in WWII. Closest thing to relevant that I could find for this story.)

Sources: Wikipedia, IMDB, The British Telefantasy Timeline

November 27, 2007

November 27 | Ada Lovelace

December 10, 1815 - November 27, 1852: Age 36

In 1815 the poet and future revolutionary Lord Byron was in a pickle: he was getting a lot of flack for his bohemian lifestyle, including rumours (probably true) that he had fathered the illegitimate child of his half-sister Augusta. He was advised to marry to avoid scandal, so he married Annabella Milbanke, a highly intelligent but ultimately rather rigid and religious young woman he was currently infatuated with. One daughter, Augusta Ada Byron, was the result, but by the time she was born it was clear the relationship would not work. Although Byron was indeed brilliant he had no morals at all, was mentally unstable, and was in perpetual financial distress. They separated by mutual consent shortly after Ada was born.

Annabella set about raising her daughter to be as different from her ex-husband as possible, so she taught Ada mathematics at a very early age, and had her privately tutored in math, science, and music by the best minds of the day. Ada turned out to be just as brilliant, or even more so, than her parents. At the age of 13 she created a design for a flying machine. She married one of her tutors, William King, who became the Earl of Lovelace, hence the name by which she is best known. They had three children.

We probably wouldn't know anything at all about her had she not befriended Charles Babbage at a dinner party given by another of her tutors, the scientist Mary Somerville. When Babbage went on to present a paper on his "Analytical Engine" in Italy, Ada translated some notes another mathematician made on his presentation. She began a correspondence with Babbage, and with his encouragement appended her own ideas to the translation, including a specific method for calculating Bernoulli numbers with the Engine. This was the first computer program ever written.

A friendly, creative relationship between the two continued for the rest of her life. Unfortunately that life was short: she was plagued by illness and ultimately diagnosed with uterine cancer. In an attempt to treat her illness, her doctors bled her until she died. Weirdly, this is exactly what her father died of (bleeding in an attempt to cure an illness) at about the same age, 26 years before.

In those days medicinal bleeding was a catch-all cure for just about anything; it is curious that a "remedy" with absolutely no empirical track record of success persisted for so many centuries. The only conceivable beneficial effect of bleeding would be a temporary drop in blood pressure for those with hypertension, and a sedative effect that might benefit patients who were too nervous or active. And of course placebo. Since bleeding was used so widely, it got credit for all natural healing as well: if the patient was sick, he or she was bled; if he or she got better, well, it must have been the bleeding.

Sources: Wikipedia, Ada Lovelace: Founder of Scientific Computing, Ada Byron, Lady Lovelace