Mike’s post last month about using Facebook to mourn for Prince motivated me to ask the writers in the memoir classes I lead to write about a celebrity’s death that made them really sad. “The celebrity can be an author, an artist, an athlete, a musician, an actor, an actress, a political figure, anyone who is famous and died,” I told them, urging them to write about themselves and their circumstances. “If the person you’re writing about is famous, your readers will already know about them,” I said. What I was after in their essays was an idea of how old they were when that celebrity died, what was going on in their worlds at the time, why the loss was so significant to them and how they grieved.
My downtown class, the one with Wanda in it, is taking a few months off. Writers in my other three memoir classes came back with essays about Vidal Sassoon, Grace Kelly, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Princess Diana, Wiley Post, Will Rogers, Van Johnson, Mary Travers of “Peter, Paul and Mary.”
Two of the younger writers wrote about the death of musician John Lennon. Michael admitted that John hadn’t always been his favorite Beatle. “He seemed aloof, mean, and sarcastic.” He wrote that the “seemingly cheerful Paul and George” were more his type until later on, when he realized the Beatle’s songs he loved to play on his guitar were Lennon songs.
Lorraine fell in love with John Lennon the first time she saw him on TV. “I wouldn’t say John and I were intimate,” she wrote., “I was only 13.” She confessed she never liked Yoko Ono. “I was jealous,” she conceded, describing John Lennon’s murder in 1980 like this. “He was walking down the street with Ono. Of course she didn’t save him.”
Kathy wrote about John Lennon, too, but she wasn’t a teenager when she first laid eyes on him. “My lack of knowledge of pop culture is a monumental failing. But even I knew about The Beatles!” In 1980, Kathy was the mother of four and the volunteer Executive Director of the Illinois Citizens for Handgun Control. “Our political action was sorely hampered by the small size and homogeneity of our membership,” she wrote. “And then Mark Chapman pulled out a handgun and fired four bullets into the body of John Lennon.” Chicago scheduled a memorial event eight days later at Lincoln Park’s Cricket Hill.
The Illinois Citizens for Handgun Control created bumper stickers that said Imagine a world, along with an arrow pointing to the words without handguns, and volunteers handed out flyers with information on how to order a bumper sticker for a dollar. From Kathy’s essay:
December 15 was clear and cold. 3000 Lennon mourners gathered for the program and the 10 minutes of silence that was observed around the world. We handed out our flyers as participants departed. In the days that followed, hundreds of orders with crumpled dollar bills arrived in my office.
Membership information accompanied the bumper stickers and a surprising number responded. Some of the respondents became the organization’s most effective leaders. Diversified and energized, the Illinois Citizens for Handgun Control organized their first annual Walk Against Gun Violence in 1982 as an effort to educate people and encourage widespread advocacy efforts. “I think John Lennon would have approved of us,” Kathy wrote.
In the end, more writers wrote about presidents than musicians. Most presidential essays were written about John F. Kennedy. One writer was in Paris when JFK died, another was supposed to celebrate her first wedding anniversary on November 22, 1963, and a writer who worked at Life Magazine accompanied a photographer to Arlington Cemetery in Washington, D.C. to cover the president’s burial there. Another was in high school when he got the news. “When he died, everything slowed down,” he wrote. ”We watched on color TVs, some of us, but it all seemed to be in black and white.”
Hugh said he was moved by the death of President Kennedy, “but I was an adult in my 30s then, and I understood what it was all about.” He was only 13 when President Roosevelt died in 1945, however. “I had never dealt with the death of a famous person” he wrote. “For me, Roosevelt was THE PRESIDENT. He was first elected in the year I was born and went on to be elected for an unprecedented four terms. I knew who he was. I heard his distinctive voice on the radio and saw his big grin in newsreels.”
Mary Lou was playing hopscotch with friends the day FDR died and knew something was wrong when she came home and found her mother at the front entrance of their Chicago two-flat. “We never used the front door unless company came,” she wrote. “So I was very surprised when I saw Mommy at the front door of 4523, still wearing her apron and using it to pat her eyes.”
Regan wrote about a president, too, but not one who died. She’d worked on Bill Clinton’s campaign in 1992, and when he won, she relocated from Chicago to D.C. to work in his administration. “In 1994 he passed a crime bill I thought went too far. Next he signed NAFTA, an agreement opposed by every Democrat I respected,” she wrote. “Dissatisfaction settled in the space between my bones and muscled me awake at 3 o’clock in the morning for the next seven years.”
Regan turned on the radio in her DuPont Circle townhouse one morning in 1995 and learned Jerry Garcia had died overnight. “I collapsed on the bathroom floor weeping over the death of something I couldn’t put words to. At 49-years-old my idealism had come to an end: my false world of everlasting good died with Jerry Garcia.”
Regan started sobbing again when her friend picked her up for work that day. From her essay:
Keith waited a few respectful minutes, and then, with one simple sentence, he opened a new, naked reality that included the unspoken caveat of don’t take yourself too seriously.
He said, “well, it’s not as if it’s Aretha Franklin.”
Regan Burke started a blog of her own after she joined the memoir-writing class I lead in Printer’s Row last year. You can read her entire Jerry Garcia essay , along with other fabulous essays she’s written — at BackStory Essays – Short Essays from Chicago Writers.