New York Magazine christened the summer of 2009, "the Summer of Death." And there can be little argument that it is not a fitting sobriquet. This summer saw the deaths of such celebrities as Walter Cronkite, Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcett, John Hughes, Edward Kennedy, Patrick Swayze, and yet others. For the whole of the summer it seemed as if the news was little more than an endless stream of obituaries. If nothing else would, it would seem the summer of 2009 would put an end to the old idea that celebrities die in threes. This summer, it seemed as if they died in sixes and even twelves.
That having been said, I think it might not quite be accurate to call 2009 the "Summer of Death." The reason for this is simply that it seems to me that the celebrity deaths did not start with the summer of 2009 or even the spring of 2009. They started with the very beginning of the year. Character actor Pat Hingle died when 2009 was only three days old. Later in January Patrick McGoohan, Ricardo Montalbahn, and Sir John Mortimer (creator of Rumpole of the Bailey) died. As the year progressed, 2009 would see the deaths of James Whitmore, Philip Jose Farmer, Wendy Richard, Paul Harvey, Natasha Richardson, J. G. Ballard, Bea Arthur, David Carradine, and yet others all pass well before summer. It is now autumn and no celebrities have died yet. The way this year has been going, however, it seems likely there will be more celebrity deaths.
Of course the $64,000 question is why there have been so many celebrity deaths this year. I think the primary reason is that many of those who were central to Anglo-American pop culture are simply getting old. Walter Cronkite was 92 years old. Ed McMahon was 86, as was Bea Arthur. Ricardo Montalbahn was 88. Patrick McGoohan was 80. It is a sad fact of life that human beings are not immortal. We are all going to die at some point, and that reality becomes more likely with advancing age.
While many of the celebrities who have died have been old, it does seem as if many of them simply died young. A prime culprit was cancer. It took Farrah Fawcett at the age of 62. It took Patrick Swayze at the age of 57. It took Wendy Richard at the age of 65. Other celebrities died young from other causes. Natasha Richardson was only 45 when she died from a head injury. John Hughes died of a heart attack at the age of 59. Character actor Dale Swann died at the age of 61 from complications from a stroke. There is no rational explanation for the extreme number of relatively young celebrities who have died from many different causes this year. It seems that instead of taking a holiday, Death has decided to work overtime.
We can only hope that in these last few months of 2009 fewer celebrities die. As it is there was a time when it seemed as if a day could not go by, let alone a week, with the news of some celebrity's death. I rather suspect that more celebrities have died in 2009 than some two years combined. In the end, it seems as if the most fitting toast this coming New Year's Eve might be, "To absent friends."