As a former gossip columnist for New York's Daily News, Mitchell Fink chronicled the public missteps, romantic entanglements, feuds, and late-night carousing of countless celebrities. In his new book, he charts the demises of 15 rich and famous figures, as noted in the matter-of-fact title, The Last Days of Dead Celebrities. The book, though short on revelations, is sure to provide celebrity-obsessed readers with a satisfying fix.
Employing the first person plural in his introduction, Fink assumes that everyone follows the rich and famous. "Celebrities are our constant companions," he writes. "We feel their presence everywhere. But we really don't know celebrities like we think we do, and whether who they are in real life comes anywhere close to matching our own carefully developed perceptions."
This book, he writes, is an attempt "to examine those days in a way that captures the intimate moments, unravels the murky mysteries, and sets the record straight about who these people were, what they were feeling, and how they were living as death was approaching." To accomplish this, Fink interviewed family members, alleged close friends and lovers, business associates, and others.
Some of the dead are inherently more interesting to read about than others: Orson Welles, John Belushi, and Arthur Ashe, for instance, are far more compelling than, say, Tupac Shakur or Margaux Hemingway. Aside from Hemingway, whose family history is famously rife with tragedy, the only other woman included in the book is Lucille Ball, which seems an odd imbalance.
Forget the uncomfortable voyeurism of this book (cooperating interviewees notwithstanding) and the author's lack of insight into the disturbing national obsession with celebrity. Much of the book rehashes old trivia, yet these narratives nonetheless serve as nostalgic reminders of pivotal (and uniting) moments in our national culture: everyone remembers where they were when Lennon died, for instance.
Although Fink uncovers the obscure and unknown, much of it isn't all that useful to know: Yoko Ono bought chocolate for Lennon the day he was murdered. His clothing came home from the hospital in a brown paper bag. And since Lennon's death, Ono "just doesn't laugh as much anymore," as one friend observes. However, it is amazing that near the end of his life Lennon often "wondered whether or not he would even be remembered, and whether or not the music would still be relevant or significant."
Many of the smaller details of these narratives make them seem even more poignant, more tragic. Dan Aykroyd recalls his futile attempts to keep best friend John Belushi away from cocaine. "An extremely powerful grade of cocaine had been coming into the country starting from the late seventies," he says. "The drug kept getting more powerful and more powerful. It was plentiful, and uncut, and it was flooding the country. There were emergency-room deaths all the time." Indeed, Belushi's came on March 5, 1982, when he was just 33, and Aykroyd describes his lingering guilt over the years that he couldn't save his friend from the addiction that killed him. And it is eerie to learn that as NBC correspondent David Bloom made his way across Baghdad, many had premonitions that something awful would happen to him, including Tom Brokaw, who was deeply concerned for Bloom.
All of these pieces are sad reminders of enormous losses to the worlds of acting, sports, music, and broadcast news: Bloom's death in Iraq, just a month before his 40th birthday, from a pulmonary embolism; the death of the magnanimous and gifted actor John Ritter, at 54, on the set of his new TV show; tennis star Arthur Ashe's death from AIDS at age 50; and so on.
It is disappointing that The Last Days of Dead Celebrities is mostly a collection of banal reminiscences and that the author doesn't offer any kind of cultural critique, analysis, or larger context for these stories. To his credit, though, Fink treats each of his subjects gracefully, avoiding gory details or salacious end-of-life rumors. His book is as respectful a treatment as any dead celebrity could hope for and will satisfy their most devoted followers.
Carmela Ciuraru is a writer and editor in New York City. She has written for the Los Angeles Times, ArtNews, The Washington Post, and other publications, and edited six anthologies of poetry. She previously reviewed The Secret Daughter and The Weather Makers on AARP The Magazine Online.