Alongside those taken by the pandemic, 2020 has been a year that has claimed many notable names too. I had the honor of meeting several over the years.
As we bury 2020, think of the people we lost during this COVID-destroyed year. It is a depressing subject (especially at my age) when colleagues like Mungo MacCallum and Alan Ramsey died so close together they were vying for space on the obit pages and on social media. Both would have liked that.
Speaking of obituaries, there’s an old joke that you know you are getting old when you start checking the funeral notices in the paper every morning to see if you get a mention.
Mentioning MacCallum and Ramsey reminded me of an In Memoriam page I included at the end of my autobiography Human Headlines first published in 2010. Under the headline “The Final Deadline,” I listed 30 friends and colleagues who had died. I suspect that number has doubled by now.
I have joked before that one day I would write a book called Famous People Who Have Met Me. It was a joke. But I thought, as we say goodbye to this woeful (shithouse?) year, that I would recall some of the famous people who slipped this mortal coil in 2020 and, where possible, pass on an anecdote.
Before I start, may I mention an insightful discourse started by veteran broadcaster, author, and raconteur, Phillip Adams? He wrote in The Australian magazine: “Is it ever the right time to delete the deceased and defunct from your iPhone contacts? Or is keeping them a sort of life after death?”
That very week, I had stared at my iPhone and pondered over a listing for one of my dearest friends, Nancy Boyer, in Hawaii. She died some years ago but her phone number was still in my contact list. I deleted it. And yet, my Dad’s number is still in my phone and he died before Nancy.
Back to the roll call of the famous who died in 2020.
John le Carré
Probably the most celebrated spy novelist of the 20th century. Books like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and The Spy Who Came In from the Cold.
He once advised me (me being a fledgling author back then) about the risks of selling your book to a movie company. He said you had to just let it go. Take the money. Le Carre said: “Having your book made into a movie is like turning a cow into an Oxo cube.”
The Scottish actor who was the first James Bond. I had lunch with him once at the Flower Drum restaurant in Melbourne. He was suave, as you would expect, and extremely entertaining. Margaret Thatcher was prime minister at the time and Connery was a bit of a Scottish leftie. As we ripped into the san choy bow, he ripped into Thatcher in his Scottish brogue.
Next day, I interviewed him on Melbourne’s 3AW and, after some bumph about his new movie, I started talking politics. Specifically Prime Minister Thatcher. “I never talk politics,” he said straight-faced – giving me a don’t you dare go there glare … and we went back to talking movies.
One of the best stories I have ever heard, and I won’t repeat it here, involved some Aussies who met Connery one Sunday afternoon in a country pub outside of London. It involves Connery and Audrey Hepburn and 1986. I thought it might be apocryphal until I Googled it. Connery and Hepburn did make a movie together in 1986.
The 1970s pop star and cultural icon with the feminist anthem “I Am Woman.” I had just moved to the Fairfax bureau in New York when Helen Reddy arrived there in the late 1960s. She was befriended by Aussie journo and music tragic Lillian Roxon.
Helen had supposedly won a New York recording contract in some Australian competition. There was no record deal. She arrived, bewildered and naïve, with her little daughter. She was so not street smart that she left her wrapped Christmas presents in her car, parked just off Times Square, and wondered why they were stolen.
To support her, I took every Aussie I knew in New York to a gig she had secured at The Bitter End in Greenwich Village. Her support act was an energetic, barefoot Australian named Peter Allen.
Our paths crossed a few times. We shared the same literary agent. Helen refused to call her autobiography I Am Woman because, “I am more than that.” Agent Margaret Gee persuaded her to at least call it The Woman I Am. I noticed the latest doco on Ms. Reddy is called I Am Woman and in it they virtually, and unfairly, edit out her co-writer of that worldwide hit, Ray Burton.
Country music star known for hits like “Island in the Stream” and “The Gambler.” I never met him, but I went to a concert of his in Melbourne, very late in his career, and he was physically unrecognizable. So much plastic surgery.
I enjoyed the music but I remember thinking, With all your millions, surely you could have afforded a better cosmetic surgeon?