We had been told to expect the deaths of the famous to come in threes, not in the dozens.
But all through the summer of 2009 came a ceaseless and somber drumbeat, as idols of all walks of life passed away. From Walter Cronkite to Sen. Ted Kennedy, the nonstop loss of luminaries continued almost as if a seasonal occurrence — as much a part of summer as hot dogs and humidity.
If a filmmaker were trying to capture the summer of 2009, Michael Jackson news would be playing in the background. Many thought coverage of Jackson’s death was too much; a Pew Research Center poll released in July found that 64 percent of those surveyed thought the media blitz was overdone (though none could top MTV Japan, which designated an entire week of mourning for Jackson).
But news outlets went heavy on coverage for the many others who passed. Collectively, it made the constant commemorating hard to escape, especially for anyone active on social networks and the Web.
“It’s relentless because of the impact of the Internet,” said Adam Bernstein, the obituary editor of the Washington Post. “Twitter feeds go out. Every death seems to become more of a tempest rather than just the simple news of what it is.”
Hayes Ferguson, the chief operating officer of Legacy.com, a site dedicated to providing a way for readers to express memories and condolences, believes media and technology can offer comfort to those grieving.
“People are able to reminisce and collect their thoughts after reviewing career highlights of prolific artists such as Michael Jackson,” said Ferguson. “The number of Kennedy and Jackson tributes has been particularly large but there is a demand for this type of information.”
Even with the media-inflated memorials, the parade of deaths was unusual. The phrase “summer of death” popped up, perhaps first used by New York magazine, which cheekily claimed the trademark. There’s no particular reason for such an aberration; the death rate is typically higher during winter.
Early May saw the passing of the beloved Dom DeLuise, 75. But the portly entertainer was only a springtime harbinger of what was to follow.
On June 4, the “Kung Fu” actor David Carradine, 72, was found dead in a Bangkok hotel room. On June 23, Ed McMahon, the loyal “Tonight” show sidekick to Johnny Carson, died at the age of 86.
Just two days later, two icons of Generation X died. First was the news that Farrah Fawcett, the ‘70s sex symbol and “Charlie’s Angels” star had died of cancer at 62. Late in the day, came the more unbelievable reports that Jackson had died.
Jackson’s cultural importance alone would have been enough to keep his passing in the newscycle for weeks. But the complex nature of his estate and the murky details surrounding his death (eventually labeled a homicide by the medical examiner’s office) insured Jackson remained on front pages and on cable news crawls. He was only buried on Sept. 3. Prosecutors are still investigating.
Before the end of June, the TV pitchman Billy Mays died. Like Jackson, he was just 50.
Early July saw the passing of Robert S. McNamara, 93. The Pentagon chief who directed the escalation of the Vietnam War — and was vilified by many for it.
Cronkite, who memorably commented in 1968 that Vietnam appeared an unwinnable stalemate, died on July 17. A voice of authority and the premier TV anchorman of the century, Cronkite’s death was felt across journalism.
Don Hewitt, the TV news pioneer who created “60 Minutes” and was, like Cronkite, a CBS legend, died later in the summer on Aug. 19. That was just a day after the passing of political columnist Robert Novack.
Two days after Cronkite’s death was Frank McCourt’s. The teacher and “Angela’s Ashes” author, died of cancer at the age of 78. Perhaps more than anyone, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer blazed the trail of the popular modern memoir.
August saw the death of writer-director John Hughes, whose films such as “The Breakfast Club,” '‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and “Sixteen Candles” defined ‘80s youth. Hughes was 59.
On Aug. 11, Eunice Kennedy Shriver died. Famous to some for being the sister of President John F. Kennedy, Shriver’s great accomplishment was founding the Special Olympics.
Two days later, Les Paul died at the age of 94. His contributions to music can’t be underestimated; he developed multitrack recording and the solid-body electric guitar.
And just two weeks after Shriver’s death, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy died at his home in Hyannis Port at the age of 77 after battling a brain tumor. The liberal lion of the Senate served for 46 years in Washington where he helped pass countless laws on many parts of civic life, from civil rights to health care.
The glamorous New York author Dominick Dunne, who specialized in stories about the rich and famous, died on Aug. 26 at the age of 83. Two days later followed DJ AM, the 36-year-old celebrity disc jockey.
“It feels like there’s a lot of interest in celebrities — maybe more interest now than there used to be,” said Claire Noland, obituary editor of The Los Angeles Times. “Any time you have someone that’s even a moderate celebrity, they make more news now than maybe they would have before.”
Last week, Patrick Swayze. The “Dirty Dancing” actor, 57, lost his long fight with pancreatic cancer. But even he wasn’t the last.
With just days of summer officially remaining, perhaps — and hopefully — the last star to pass away in the summer of ‘09 was Mary Travers, who was one-third of the ‘60s folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary. She died Wednesday at the age of 72 after battling leukemia for several years.
And that summary still omits the passings of many others, including TV actress Gale Storm, Academy Award-winning actor Karl Malden, music manager Allen Klein, former NFL quarterback Steve McNair, British conductor Sir Edward Downes, the jazz composer George Russell, and Merce Cunningham, the avant-garde dancer and choreographer.
Together, those who died in the summer of 2009 came from seemingly every phase of life. Among them were titans of the news business, moviemaking, television, politics, music and literature.
No one who ever picked up a guitar, danced to “Thriller,” watched a quality TV news broadcast, read a gripping memoir or laughed through a coming-of-age comedy could have failed to feel the loss.
Autumn can’t come soon enough.