DATES PEOPLE DIE

“OF DATES PEOPLE BOOKS AND FLOWERS

I learned recently that cult Swedish detective writer Stieg Larsson died on 9 November, my birthday. It’s a useful piece of trivia for a table quiz. It got me interested about the dates famous people died. Larsson, for example, shares 9 November with Dylan Thomas, President De Gaulle, Ramsay MacDonald and Neville Chamberlain; not, of course, all in the same year. You can perform a similar exercise for every day of the year, throwing up some interesting revelations. One I’m particularly struck by is that George Orwell, author of Nineteen Eighty-Four, died the same day, 21 January, as Lenin, the architect of the Soviet Union, the morphed form of which served as Orwell’s model.

Every death is of equal weight, and clearly, to echo John Donne, “any man’s death diminishes me.” However, there’s a certain fascination among the public on occasions where two “celebrities” die on exactly the same date. You can even find “The Eclipsed Celebrities Death Club” on the web, which points, in dubious taste, to occasions when the death of someone was completely overshadowed by another death on or near the same day. Thus, the argument goes, Farrah Fawcett’s death was overshadowed by that of Michael Jackson; both died 25 June 2009. Groucho Marx and Elvis Presley, Mother Teresa and Princess Diana are cited as further examples, though in both cases the deaths were several days apart.

When President Kennedy was assassinated on 22 November 1963, the event dominated the news. The fate of the unfortunate Officer Tippett, murdered by Oswald, received scant attention, except as a footnote. Virtually no attention was paid to the deaths, the same day, of two important and influential writers, Aldous Huxley, who penned Brave New World, a nightmarish vision of the future, and C.S. Lewis, who gave us The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.

It is often asserted that Shakespeare and Cervantes, both died on the same day, 23 April 1616. Indeed this was one of the reasons cited by UNESCO for designating 23 April as World Book Day. Unfortunately, it is an urban legend which is not correct. Yes, both died on “23 April”, but Cervantes died by the Gregorian calendar, while Shakespeare died in an England that still used the Julian calendar. So Shakespeare actually died ten days after Cervantes. But try convincing people.

There is no doubt about the deaths of the second and third American Presidents, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Both died on the same day in 1826. Adams’ last words, reportedly, were “Thomas Jefferson survives”; Jefferson actually predeceased him by some hours. What makes the date more interesting is that it was 4 July, Independence Day, it was the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, and was the day, five years later, that the fifth President, Monroe, also died. The date 4 July could make a claim to be the “Day of Destiny” for the USA, as 9 November is sometimes referred to in German history (Schickstalstag), though for far different reasons.

Fast forwarding a century, Mahatma Gandhi and Orville Wright both died on 30 January 1948. Edith Piaf died on 11 October 1963, the same day as Jean Cocteau, the French poet and novelist who had helped revive her career. In 1985 two giants of the screen, Orson Wells and Yul Brynner, both died on 10 October, while two great film directors, Michelangelo Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman, died on 30 July 2007.

Pride of place, however, if this is the phrase, sees us back with echoes of Orwell. The role model for Big Brother, Josef Stalin, died on 5 March 1953. So did one of the great Russian composers of the 20th Century, Serge Prokofiev. The relationship between them was grim. Stalin’s malign control extended to all aspects of Soviet life and culture. Prokofiev was enticed back to Russia in 1936 and was never again able to leave. Stalin broke him, as effectively as Winston Smith was broken in Nineteen Eighty-Four. The Zhdanov purge of 1948 destroyed what was left of his career and he might well have died of privation but for the intervention of the cellist Rostropovitch.

In death also Stalin eclipsed him. The crowds mourning Stalin were such that for three days Prokofiev’s body could not be removed for burial from his home in a communal tenement near Red Square. At his funeral there were no flowers; all had been commandeered for Stalin’s funeral. There were no musicians available to play; all were otherwise engaged at Stalin’s funeral or associated events. His family were reduced to making paper flowers and playing a recording of his own funeral march from his ballet, Romeo and Juliet. Death may be the great leveller, but it was hardly apparent on that occasion.”

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