Thursday, June 30, 2011

The crew of Soyuz 11 (1971)

Soyuz 11 was a Soviet space mission launched on June 6, 1971 to dock at Salyut 1, the world's first space station, launched into orbit unmanned that April. Soyuz 10 made it to the station in April but was unable to board due to technical issues.

Leading the mission was commander Georgy Dobrovolsky, 43, on his first space flight. Research engineer Viktor Patsayev celebrated his 38th birthday in space, and Russians celebrated with him in a party staged for television while his comrades toasted him with tubes of prune paste instead of vodka. Flight engineer Vladislav Volkov, 35, was a veteran of Soyuz 7 and a teen idol in Russia due to what Time magazine called his "rugged good looks".

Some aspects of the mission went well and they were able to make daily television broadcasts, including Patsayev's birthday party. But mishaps piled up, including a fire (not revealed until decades later) that may have prompted them to end the mission earlier than scheduled. Back in Soyuz 11, on their return trip, a technical malfunction involving the timing of explosive bolts caused a vent to open that sucked the atmosphere of the descent module into space. The crew were not wearing space suits. Patsayev attempted to close the vent but they all lost consciousness and died in under a minute on June 30, 1971. The module returned to Earth as planned and the recovery teams attempted CPR, not knowing that the cosmonauts were long dead.

The cosmonauts were given a large state funeral which included US astronaut Tom Stafford as one of the pallbearers. They were interred in the Kremlin Wall Necropolis and each has a crater on the Moon named for them. The Soyuz spacecraft was redesigned to carry only two cosmonauts, leaving extra room for each to wear their space suits in flight. The next Soyuz mission wasn't until 1973. No one ever returned to space station Salyut 1.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Fatty Arbuckle (1887-1933)

Silent film star Roscoe Conkling Arbuckle was born weighing 13 pounds, so much that his since both his parents were slim, his father refused to believe that he baby was his son and named him after notorious womanizer Senator Roscoe Conkling. When his mother died when he was 12, his father abandoned him and Arbuckle was forced to fend for himself. His road to stardom began with a talent show where he initially unimpressed the audience. About to be yanked offstage by the traditional shepherd's crook, he dodged it by somersaulting into the orchestra pit and the crowd was won over. Arbuckle was remarkably agile despite the size that gave him the nickname he hated and would display that agility in dozens of comedies, working alongside the likes of Mack Sennett and Buster Keaton. A great example is 1915's Fatty's Tintype Tangle, a physical comedy tour de force where he flips bowler hats and plates with ease, shoves a guy backwards onto a trolley, and dances on top of power lines. Were the movies not silent, he could have also displayed a singing voice that even Caruso praised. In 1918, he signed a three million dollar contract with Paramount.

His career was stopped cold one night in 1921. He was recovering from an on set accident where he suffered second degree burns to both ass cheeks. He and two friends checked into a hotel and invited some women. One of them was Virginia Rappe, whose frequent flings with cast and crew prompted Mack Sennett to blame her for an outbreak of pubic lice and have his studios fumigated. She suffered from chronic bladder inflammations and had had a series of back alley abortions which may have contributed to her poor health. Rappe became seriously ill during the party but the hotel doctor thought she was just drunk. Two days later, she went to the hospital and died. Her friend Bambina Delmont told the police Arbuckle raped her.

Arbuckle was put on trial for murdering Rappe three times in what became one of Hollywood's most notorious scandals. Rumors were flying wildly; a story of Arbuckle rubbing ice on Rappe's stomach to alleviate her pain became a story of him penetrating her with a Coca-cola bottle and replica bottles were hawked by unscrupulous souvenir dealers. Howard Hughes said that the scandal "sold more newspapers than any event since the sinking of the RMS Lusitania." Delmont was on a lecture tour, the DA was gunning for higher office. Everyone was profiting except for Arbuckle, who despite avoiding conviction for murder in three trials, had lost his fortune and his career.

He worked as a director on some films, but he "directed" by just sitting in his director's chair listless, like a broken man. Eventually he worked his way back to success, and in 1932 signed with Warner Brothers to make six short comedies, the only sound films he appeared in. He finished filming the final one and the next day, June 29, 1933, he signed a WB contract to star in a full-length feature film. He said "This is the best day of my life." That night, he had a heart attack and died in his sleep. He was 46.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Billy Mays (1958-2009)

William Darrell Mays, Jr., pitchman extraordinare, moved millions of units of otherwise ordinary products like OxiClean and Orange Glo. He got his start hawking Washmatiks on the Atlantic City boardwalk and learned from the old school salesmen he met there. He was an itinerant salesman until he was hired to sell cleaning supplies on the Home Shopping Network. Sales skyrocketed, and given that you could use a limp dishrag to sell products on HSN, that says a lot for the old school scream into the camera approach favored by Mays and his ilk, a method described by the Washington Post as "a full-volume pitchman, amped up like a candidate for a tranquilizer-gun takedown."

Mays died in his sleep the morning of June 28, 2009. Initially it was suspected that he suffered a brain injury when hit in the head from luggage from an airplane overhead bin. But the autopsy showed that Mays likely died of hypertensive heart disease caused by cocaine use, a revelation that shocked his friends and fans. He was buried in a shirt with the OxyClean logo and his pallbearers dressed in blue shirts and khaki pants, Mays' familiar onscreen look. For the last two years, Facebook fans have celebrated his legacy with the group CAPSLOCK DAY IN MEMORY OF BILLY MAYS.

Monday, June 27, 2011

A. J. Ayer (1910-1989)

Sir Alfred Jules Ayer was the Grote Professor of the Philosophy of Mind and Logic at University College London and the Wykeham Professor of Logic at the University of Oxford. Ayer came from a moneyed family and went to Eton, where he played rugby and campaigned against corporal punishment. He excelled academically but was militantly unconventional and often snubbed when it came to prizes, positions, and the like. His reputation as a philosopher was made with a slim volume called Language, Truth, and Logic that became a controversial best seller and he became a prominent public face of humanism and atheism. His life included a series of wives and mistresses and parties, including one where, at age 77, he boldly prevented Mike Tyson from harassing Naomi Campbell. In 1988, after choking on a piece of salmon smuggled into the hospital by a former mistress, he died for four minutes and had a near death experience where he saw a bright red light responsible for "government of the universe". Despite the claims of some that it shook the foundations of his philosophy, it did little to alter his convictions. He died the following year on June 27, 1989.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Israel Kamakawiwo'ole (1959–1997)

Israel Ka'ano'i Kamakawiwo'ole, his older brother Skippy, and three other musicians formed the The Mākaha Sons of Ni'ihau in 1976. Skippy died in 1982 and Israel Kamakawiwo'ole embarked on a solo career in 1990. The Mākaha Sons are still going strong, with 21 albums under their belt. Kamakawiwo'ole broke out with his second album, Facing Future, which became the first Hawaiian album to go platinum on the strength of his popular medley "Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World".

At one point, Kamakawiwo'ole was over 750 pounds, so unfortunately a relatively early death was likely. On June 26, 1997, at the age of 38, he died of respiratory illness. The state flag flew at half-mast and he was laid in state in a koa wood coffin in the capitol building in Honolulu, only the third person to be honored in this fashion. Ten thousand people attended his funeral and his ashes were scattered in the ocean at Mākua Beach.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Obituaries: Gene Colan (1926-2011) and Peter Falk (1927-2011)

A pair of obituaries for June 23, 2011:

Gene Colan was one of the best artists of the heyday of Marvel Comics, known for his moody, fluid, expressive drawings. He worked on many titles, but he's best remembered for his work on Daredevil, Howard the Duck, and The Tomb of Dracula.

Peter Falk had a long career as an actor and is most beloved for his role as the rumpled idiosyncratic detective Columbo. The video below is from his role as the grandfather/narrator in The Princess Bride.

Mark Kellogg (1831–1876)

Marcus Henry Kellogg was born in Ontario but his family eventually settled in Wisconsin. He worked for a number of newspapers before founding the Bismark Tribune in North Dakota with Clement Lounsberry. Lounsberry was set to accompany the 7th Cavalry into the Montana Territory, but his wife became ill, so Kellogg substituted for him at the last minute. He filed three dispatches from the field; in the last one he wrote "By the time this reaches you we would have met and fought the red devils". Unfortunately for Kellogg, he was riding with Lieutenant Colonel George Custer straight into the Battle of Little Bighorn, where Custer and most of those riding with him were killed in battle with Sioux Indians. Kellogg died with Company E on June 25, 1876 and was found scalped and missing an ear. Since his dispatches were distributed around the country by the Associated Press, he was the first AP correspondent to die in the line of duty. His satchel, pencil, and eyeglasses are on display in the Newseum in Washington DC.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Vespasian (9-79)

Titus Flavius Caesar Vespasianus Augustus, the ninth Emperor of Rome, was the son of a centurion and tax collector from central Italy. Young Vespasian worked his way up a series of public offices. One early post was an administrator in charge of street cleaning in Rome, where he was so unsuccessful that Caligula stuffed his toga full of mud from the streets. He was more successful as a military commander, winning numerous battles in Britain. Accounts differ regarding his rule as governor of Africa, but at one point he was pelted with turnips, so it couldn't have been all good. Following this he was lost in the political wilderness, reduced to the mule trade (earning him the nickname "mulio") and losing the favor of Nero after reportedly falling asleep during one of the Emperor's performances on the lyre.

Vespasian regained political power by again being a successful military commander, suppressing the Great Jewish Revolt. After Nero committed suicide, the Roman Empire was thrown into civil war and the throne changed hands multiple times in what became known as The Year of Four Emperors. Vespasian, with loyal troops behind him, was ready and defeated the forces of Vitellius. While Vespasian siezed control of the Empire, his son Titus finished off the Judean revolt, brutally capturing and sacking Jerusalem.

By all accounts, the reign of Emperor Vespasian was more successful than his previous attempts at public administration. He began construction of the Colosseum and many other public works. He was a generous patron of authors like Quintilian and Pliny the Elder. Philosophers, however, he viewed with contempt, thinking of them as complainers and reviving old laws against them. He even executed one of them, a persistent Stoic critic named Helvidius Priscus. His name lives on in many Romance languages as the name for a urinal, born from public complaints about a toilet tax he initiated.

Vespasian was felled by some illness marked by fever and severe diarrhea. On his deathbed, he ordered that he be helped to stand because "An Emperor should die on his feet." His last words were Væ, puto deus fio, "Oh! I think I'm becoming a god!" He died on June 23, 79 CE, succeeded as Emperor by his son Titus.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

A. B. Frost (1851-1928)

Arthur Burdett Frost was a towering figure in a field which doesn't exist anymore, or at least doesn't have the prominence it once did: magazine and book illustration. Frost studied fine art under Thomas Eakins (his portrait by Eakins is at right) and produced stately outdoor sporting scenes of hunting, bicycling, and the like. He became famous for a more humorous style of drawing, illustrating humorous books like the million-selling Out of the Hurly Burly by Charles Heber Clark, works by Lewis Carroll, and the Uncle Remus stories of Joel Chandler Harris. The photographic motion studies of Eadweard Muybridge prompted him to take up the sequential stories like his popular "Our Cat Eats Rat Poison" decades before the appearance of what we know as comics were first produced. Perhaps because this work appeared in magazines instead of the newspapers that brought us The Yellow Kid and all his descendants Frost isn't seen as the important figure in comics history that he should be. Frost died on June 22, 1928.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Kermit Love (1916-2008)

Kermit Ernest Hollingshead Love was a puppeteer and a costume designer. He got his start as a WPA puppeteer and worked for Orson Welles' Mercury Theater. He ended up working with everyone who was anyone in dance and Broadway and spent 40 years collaborating with George Balanchine, perhaps most spectacularly on Don Quixote, where he created a 28 foot marionette. He is most famous for his work on Sesame Street, where he designed Big Bird and Mr. Snuffleupagus and helped create Cookie Monster and Oscar the Grouch. (Amazingly, Kermit the Frog is not named after him, as Jim Henson notes the frog was named before their collaboration.) Notoriously protective of his creation, even he accompanied Big Bird to China for a performance only a year after Nixon's famous trip there. Big Bird got his own seat, at half price because Big Bird is forever only six years old. Love's other creations include the Snuggie Bear, the fabric softener mascot, and Aza, mascot of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Love died of congestive heart failure at age 91 on June 21, 2008, survived by Christopher Lyall, his partner of fifty years.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Howard Johnson (1897-1972)

Howard Deering Johnson built a small soda shop in Quincy, Massachusetts into a chain of over a thousand hotels and restaurants. The distinctive orange and blue buildings were once ubiquitous in the US. (At right is a picture of a Howard Johnson's model kit I built as a kid for my train set. Didn't turn out as nice as the picture and I glued the front door on upside down. Not good for business, I'd imagine.) Johnson would have himself driven around in his black Cadillac with the license plate HJ-28 (one of the chain's big draws was its 28 flavors of ice cream) and make surprise inspections. When one manager found Johnson inspecting his refrigerator, he called the cops. When he told a cop who he was, the cop replied "And I'm Christopher Columbus!" Howard Johnson died on June 20, 1972 at age 75. Today, Howard Johnson's exists as a hotel chain (as part of Wyndham) but as of last month only three restaurants remain.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Sam Giancana (1908-1975)

Sam Giancana was a Chicago mob boss. In his teens he was already a notorious triggerman and by twenty he was the prime suspect in three murder investigations, including one of a candidate for ward committee. The WWII draft board declared him 4F (unfit for service) not for physical health, but because he said he was a psychopath. By the 50s, he was running the show.

But this success brought intense FBI scrutiny. He used Frank Sinatra to try to get the Kennedys off his back, but when Sinatra failed to deliver (he couldn't "get change for a quarter" from the Kennedys, the gangster said), he even contemplated having Sinatra killed. After ending up in prison again in 1965, he fled to Mexico and was forced out of the boss' chair. Mexico kicked him out in 1974 and back in the US he was repeatedly forced to testify to a federal grand jury. On June 19, 1975, shortly before yet another grand jury appearance, he was cooking Italian sausage in his basement kitchen. The housekeeper found his body there. He had been shot seven times, once in the back of the head and six times around the mouth - the traditional way to shoot a squealer. The murder remains unsolved.