Review Of The Year: bright stars extinguished

Many inspiring lives ended this year: the Hollywood legend Elizabeth Taylor, the business genius Steve Jobs, the painter Lucian Freud – to name but three. How should we feel?

Britain’s greatest living artist Lucian Freud had a very sweet tooth. He once ate an entire bar of nougat for breakfast. The Hollywood legend Elizabeth Taylor used to sit around eating ice cream and complaining she could never be an ordinary housewife. Amy Winehouse would regularly go to a clinic to recover from alcoholism, where she would surprise her friends by driving an imaginary scooter round the corridors.

Human touches about this year’s celebrity dead were disclosed yesterday in a new series of obituaries published by The Observer newspaper. The newspaper asked close friends of some of the creative talents who died in 2011 to pay tribute to the real person behind the famous name.

The obituaries are all about personal loss: the loss of a friend, a loyal customer, a lover, a boss. Many of the authors are still in shock. The daughter of John Herivel, a brilliant mathematician who saved thousands of lives by helping break German wartime codes, describes finding him dead this year at 92 sitting in his drive at the wheel of his car, the keys grasped tightly in his hand.

Private loss mirrors public loss. Many lovers of Apple products feel bereaved by the death of Steve Jobs, a multimillionaire tycoon who was so nervous about his first date with his future wife that he had to cancel work meetings because he couldn’t concentrate. Many golfers feel bereaved by the death of the wayward genius Seve Ballesteros to brain cancer – including his friend Gary Lineker who writes that he could never get him to talk about golf, so obsessed was the Spaniard with football.

And public loss mirrors the loss to history and humanity when a world-changing talent is no more: the movie industry without Sidney Lumet; the sports world without Henry Cooper; music without John Barry and the world of literature without Patrick Leigh Fermor – all are hard to imagine.

Dead famous

How should we feel about the loss of so much talent in a mere twelve months? To many people, obituaries are utterly depressing, like a long list of treasures that have gone down with the ship and can never be replaced. The private, public and cultural loss of gilded and brilliant lives makes the world a much worse place.

There is another view, however, that can be summed in three points. Steve Jobs himself made the first: ‘Death is very likely to be the single best invention of life because death is life’s change agent’. In other words – life without death would be pretty awful. The second is that an obituary is a celebration of a life, not a lament. The third is that, for every great talent that dies, there are dozens more young talents waiting in the wings who deserve their turn on centre stage.

You Decide

  1. Does hearing about the death of someone famous make you sad?
  2. Is Steve Jobs right about death being life’s ‘change agent’?


  1. Divide into teams. Prepare a three minute talk about one of the famous people mentioned in this story. Take turns to present it to the class.
  2. Imagine you died at 100. Write a short obituary of the person that you would like to be.

Some People Say...

“I’d like to live forever.”

What do you think?

Q & A

So how many people die each year?
About 56 million or 155,000 each day.
How many of them are celebrities?
Depends what we mean – it would be nice to think that everyone is a celebrity at least to someone. But if you mean a media celebrity then the answer is about 120 per year. You can check this because there are a number of celebrity death lists out there.
How many of them are famous creative talents?
About the same number, 120. That is because many celebrities are not great talents, being famous merely for being famous. And many great talents are not celebrities. So the rule seems to be that about one in 460,000 people these days will be a famous talent or a celebrity.

Word Watch

Lucian Freud
1922 to 2011: British painter, grandson of Sigmund Freud, and considered by critics to be the pre-eminent British artist of his time.
Elizabeth Taylor
1932 to 2011: British/American film star who appeared in 70 films and married eight times.
Amy Winehouse
1983 to 2011: successful British singer and winner of five Grammy awards.
John Herivel
1918 to 2011: British scientist, mathematician and leading codebreaker during World War II.
Steve Jobs
1955 to 2011: American businessman and inventor, pioneer of the personal computer revolution, founder of Apple.
Seve Ballesteros
1957 to 2011: Spanish golfer, winner of many major tournaments and for a time the official world number one.
Sidney Lumet
1924 to 2011: American screenwriter, director and producer who made 50 films, 14 of which were nominated for Oscars.
Henry Cooper
1934 to 2011: British heavyweight boxer who once knocked down Muhammed Ali.
Patrick Leigh Fermor
1915 to 2011: British author, scholar and soldier, during his heyday often dubbed Britain’s ‘greatest living travel writer’.

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