Hank Aaron was gone. So were Stephen Sondheim and Bob Dole and Cicely Tyson and Larry King and Joan Didion. Prince Philip, two months short of 100, was buried with all the royal pomp one would expect. But in a year that saw the deaths of a host of figures who helped shape our era in decades past, none spoke more to the still-perilous present moment than that of Colin Powell.
His death came not just against the backdrop of a global pandemic, but also as another casualty of it. And his case spoke to the vagaries of an elusive, mutating virus that has laid siege to the world. He had been vaccinated, after all, and was under the best of care at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, and still he succumbed, his 84-year-old immune system compromised by multiple myeloma.
Powell joined a death toll that has surpassed 800,000 in the country he long served, both in the military and in the halls of government, and 4 million worldwide. There were others of influence who fell to COVID-19.
No fewer than four American talk-radio hosts on the political right died of the virus after dismissing the idea of getting vaccinated against it, echoing the message of their most prominent radio peer, Rush Limbaugh, who had compared the virus to the common cold. He died in February, too, of lung cancer.
Back over on Capitol Hill, respects were paid to some of its stalwarts: Harry Reid, the former Senate majority leader; John Warner, the genteel Virginia Republican forever identified as Elizabeth Taylor’s No. 6; Walter Mondale, the liberal Minnesota senator turned vice president whose White House ambitions were buried in a Reagan landslide; and, of course, Dole, the Kansas Republican who carried his wounds from World War II into a half-century of public service under the very dome that soared above him as his body lay in state just weeks ago.
Warriors for a cause
The world at large lost a host of dignitaries whose battles were in the political arena. One was F.W. de Klerk, the South African president who tore down the barriers of apartheid, a white power structure that collapsed in no small part because a fellow Nobel Peace Prize honoree, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, had pounded at it from the pulpit.
Half a world away, two former strongmen who led South Korea in back-to-back regimes in the 1980s and ’90s died within a month of each other: first, in October, Roh Tae-woo, a former general who oversaw his country’s transition from dictatorship to democracy; then, in November, Chun Doo-hwan, the dictator who had seized power in a coup and later hand-picked his friend Roh to succeed him.
In Argentina, the charismatic Carlos Saúl Menem, the beneficiary of the first peaceful transfer of power there from one constitutionally elected party to another since 1916, died at 90, having presided over an astonishing economic recovery in his 10-year rule, 1989-99, only to tumble from grace, pulled down by corruption.
In the Middle East, there was Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, who tried but failed to resist the rise of religious radicalism as the first president of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Donald Rumsfeld, a colleague of Powell in the George W. Bush White House, would, as defense secretary, help push the United States into another invasion, after Afghanistan, into Iraq.
Arenas and stages
In sports, the coaching ranks took an unusually heavy toll. The NFL lost, among others, John Madden, whose winning decade with the Oakland Raiders was just a prelude to a more sensational run as the most colorful of TV color commentators and a video game king, and Marty Schottenheimer, winner of 200 regular-season games with four NFL franchises. College football lost Bobby Bowden, the architect of a powerhouse at Florida State; college basketball lost John Chaney, who led Temple’s Owls to 17 NCAA tournaments.
And if baseball managers in the dugout can be lumped with head coaches on the sidelines, then a final tip of the cap must be paid to the irrepressible Tommy Lasorda, who had, as he liked to say with only slight hyperbole, bled Dodger blue.
Henry Aaron’s death, of course, generated big headlines, accompanied by tales of his home run heroics and the racial animus they aroused among those who could not countenance the idea of a Black man outslugging Babe Ruth. But other stars, too, fell, their exploits now sports lore: the acrobatic forward Elgin Baylor of the Lakers; the lightning-quick Rod Gilbert (“Mr. Ranger”), who dazzled hockey fans at Madison Square Garden. In auto racing, the brothers Bobby, 87, and Al Unser, 82 — born into the sport’s most illustrious family in the same decade — died seven months apart.
Performers of a different mold had left their imprint on stages and screens. Christopher Plummer was Georg von Trapp, of course, in “The Sound of Music,” but also too many other characters to count in his rich seven decades as an actor.
Cicely Tyson was indelibly two characters: Rebecca, the unconquerable wife of an imprisoned Louisiana sharecropper in “Sounder,” and the seen-it-all title character in “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” who survived into the civil rights era, to age 110, recalling her memories of slavery.
Olympia Dukakis will forever be Rose, Cher’s sardonically wise mother in “Moonstruck”; Cloris Leachman, the flighty landlady of Mary Richards in “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”; Hal Holbrook, a one-man-show Mark Twain; Michael K. Williams, the swaggering, openly gay hoodlum of “The Wire”; and Ed Asner, who else but Lou Grant?
You could also say that Larry King was a performer, hosting talk shows on radio and TV seemingly forever, but he never played anyone but his loquacious, inquisitive and ingratiating self. Norm Macdonald was as comfortable alone on a stage as he was in a “Saturday Night Live” sketch or his own sitcom.
The proscenium stage knew no greater loss in 2021 than that of Stephen Sondheim, who, if he rarely took a curtain call bow from one, could nevertheless bask in the applause of a grateful theater world enriched by his music and lyrics.
A drummer and a rapper
In a vastly different musical sphere, Charlie Watts, the solemnly aloof drummer of the Rolling Stones, became the second member of that age-defying band to die, at 80 (after Brian Jones a half-century ago). Mary Wilson was the second to do so among Motown’s original three Supremes (after Florence Ballard). Michael Nesmith left just one of the four Monkees still standing (Micky Dolenz). And with the death of Don Everly seven years after that of the younger Phil, the Everly Brothers will survive now only in their hit recordings of yesteryear.
More fresh in memory were the explosive lyrics of the rapper Earl Simmons, aka DMX, who had channeled the mean streets of his boyhood Yonkers, New York, into No. 1 albums. He was just 50.
Chick Corea, a jazz pianist at heart, found a new audience by infusing his music with rock. And flutist, composer and bandleader Johnny Pacheco, one of a raft of Latin musicians to die this year, spread salsa far and wide.
If Pacheco was intent on expanding a genre, Larry McMurtry, in the world of letters, was out to subvert one — the Western — by scrapping the cowboy and outlaw mythologies of dime-store novels in favor of unvarnished stories like “Lonesome Dove” and “The Last Picture Show.”
Anne Rice, meanwhile, was revivifying the Gothic horror tale with stories of vampires. Beverly Cleary was a virtual children’s-book cottage industry as she found unlikely drama and mystery in middle-class America.
Many trailblazers from the science community died in 2021, among them Nobel Prize winners who helped unlock the secrets of the universe (Toshihide Maskawa’s eureka moment, in understanding why the big bang did not destroy said universe, came in the bathtub) and explorers, like E.O. Wilson, who uncovered clues to human nature in the biosphere.