Almost all were born between the world wars, one even before women had the right to vote. They came from white-collar homes and blue-, from black households and white. But when they died this year, they had something in common besides the final leveling that death brings.
They had all found a place in a world that rarely, if ever, had been open to women.
Whether one or the other was the absolute first to break a glass ceiling could be open to debate. But let’s say, at the least, that each planted a foot inside a door that had long been closed to women and then shouldered her way in — to a roomful of men.
Ruth Abrams was one. In 1977 she became the first woman to take a seat on the highest court in Massachusetts, the Supreme Judicial Court. It had taken 285 years (that is not a typo) — since the court’s founding in 1692. (Another notable juridical event that year was the start of the Salem witch trials.)
Ellen Bree Burns overcame similar obstacles in Connecticut, also in the 1970s — a signal decade in which feminism’s second wave was just beginning to build strength. She became the first woman to rise to the bench of her state’s major trial court and the first woman to be named to a federal court there.
Patricia M. Wald, too, was not to be denied a black robe, even after taking a decade-long detour to raise five children at home. In 1979, she became the first woman to serve on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, by most reckonings the second most influential court in the country. A kindred progressive spirit, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, soon joined her on that bench.
In a quite different arena but one no less fueled by testosterone, Bonnie Guitar, born Bonnie Buckingham, had one of the earliest records (“Dark Moon”) by a female country singer to cross over to the pop chart. Even more significant was her work away from the mic. Crashing another men’s club, she became a force in the studio, engineering records, scouting talent and starting her own label.
Barbara Gardner Proctor had to force open two doors before finding a place in the “Mad Men” advertising world of the 1960s: one blocking women, the other African-Americans. But she pushed anyway, becoming, according to the industry, the first black woman in America to establish her own agency, Proctor & Gardner, in Chicago. (There actually was no Gardner; she added the name to reassure wary prospective clients that “her partner” was a man.)
Before 1972, an educational institution could discriminate against women and still receive federal funding, no questions asked. That changed with the passage of Title IX that year, encoding equity in law. And if there was one person to thank for that sea change, it was Bernice Sandler, who had once been told, in being denied a full-time university teaching job, “You come on too strong for a woman.”
She did come on strong. Through scholarly writings, tireless lobbying and persuasive advocacy in the courts, she was, more than anyone, the catalyst behind Title IX.
There were others: Barbara Low, one of the few women in scientific research in the 1940s, advanced our understanding of penicillin, leading to a cornucopia of antibiotics that continue to save lives. Rosemary Mariner, a baby boomer pilot, became the first woman to command a naval aviation squadron and then led a successful fight to get Congress to lift a ban on women serving in combat. And Florence Knoll Bassett, a designer and businesswoman, gave the modern office its streamlined shape and feel.
Ms. Knoll ran a thriving company with her husband, but one look at a grainy black and white photo that ran with her obituary in these pages last January will tell you everything you’d need to know about the world she had to navigate: There she was, in 1953, the lone woman seated at a large conference table ringed by white men in white shirts and ties.
For every glass ceiling broken, however, there was an untold number of women who in reaching higher came up empty-handed. By all accounts, Geraldyn M. Cobb had the right stuff to become an astronaut in the early years of the American space program. A veteran pilot, she held records in speed, altitude and distance before sailing through a battery of demanding physical and psychological tests that put her in the top 2 percent of all the program’s aspirants, including men. She was nevertheless left behind as a group of NASA pioneers, all men, paraded off into history. Though she lived a rewarding life — notably as a humanitarian flying medicine, food and clothing to indigenous people in the Amazon — she died, in her eyes, forever earthbound.
Athletic Firsts, Too
Not all the barrier breakers who died in 2019 were women, of course. The N.B.A. lost one in Wat Misaka, a son of Japanese immigrants who became the league’s first nonwhite player, and Major League Baseball lost three.
Elijah “Pumpsie” Green is not much remembered for his career on the diamond, mediocre as it was, but he made a bit of history just by striding onto the field for the Boston Red Sox in July 1959, becoming the first black player on a team that was the last in the major leagues to breach the color line, 12 years after Jackie Robinson had made the Brooklyn Dodgers the first.
Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field was also home to Don Newcombe, widely regarded as the major leagues’ first outstanding black pitcher, a Cy Young winner and a National League M.V.P. As fate would have it, his death, in February, came just 12 days after that of an even grander man of the game, Frank Robinson, who stayed in baseball after a Hall of Fame career in Baltimore to become the major leagues’ first black manager.
They are on a long roster of sports stars who died this year. The N.B.A. mourned the loss of John Havlicek, a basketball dynamo who tasted championship glory in two distinct eras with the Boston Celtics. The N.F.L bade farewell to Bart Starr, the Green Bay Packers’ champion quarterback, whose sterling execution on the field was a visible manifestation of Coach Vince Lombardi’s genius.
Athletes give us drama about human struggle, determination and excellence, but they also entertain us, and in that they share something with all those who mount stages and appear in front of cameras. Broadway typically (and wonderfully) dims its lights when one of its own has gone. But when it did so for Carol Channing last January, the gesture was never more apt. It may be falling back on press-agentry boilerplate to say that the star of “Hello, Dolly!” and “Gentleman Prefer Blondes” lit up stages with her irrepressibly high-spirited performances over an impossibly long career. But, really, more than almost anyone, didn’t she?
Equally incandescent was the ballerina Alicia Alonso, who overcame near-blindness to become a globe-trotting star and ambassador of Cuban ballet; Norma Miller, the “Queen of Swing,” who cut rugs, stages and even Harlem sidewalks with her spectacularly acrobatic Lindy Hopping; and Jessye Norman, the magnificent American soprano who seemingly collected as many laurels — Grammy Awards, Kennedy Center honors — as curtain call bouquets.
Like Ms. Channing, Doris Day, too, bridged singing and acting. But she did it in Hollywood, becoming its biggest box-office star in diverting romantic comedies opposite leading men like Rock Hudson and Cary Grant, all while earning a reputation, deserved or not, for sugary wholesomeness to rival that of apple pie.
And Albert Finney found a kind of trans-Atlantic crossover appeal by bouncing between Hollywood and the stage in his native England, where he had gotten his start as one of the fabled “angry young men” of British postwar theater.
The year saw a host of familiar faces from television’s past become instantly recognizable once more — only now in photos accompanying their obituaries: Diahann Carroll (“Julia”), Valerie Harper (“Rhoda”) and Luke Perry (“Beverly Hills, 90210”), to name just three. (By contrast, Caroll Spinney, under all those feathers, was faceless to his viewers, but his alter ego, Big Bird, as bright as sunshine, needed no introduction.)
Popular music lost the likes of the drummer Ginger Baker, one of the rock gods of the ’60s; João Gilberto, the Brazilian guitarist and singer and a founding father of bossa nova; Dr. John, the rollicking, gravelly voice of New Orleans; and Ric Ocasek, the singing engine of the Cars, the hit-making band that arrived with rock’s new wave in the late ’70s.
And practically every genre of music could claim the death of the restlessly versatile André Previn as its own particular loss; a composer, conductor and pianist, he had crisscrossed boundaries in a peripatetic career that brought him a clutch of Oscars and a shelf of Grammys — half of them in classical music, half of them not.
Behind every performer, of course, is someone who provides the stage, and few impresarios had as much boffo success as Hal Prince, the king of Broadway; Franco Zeffirelli, whose opera stagings were as extravagant as he was colorful; and Robert Evans, the Hollywood executive who essentially greenlighted a new film era while leading so cinematic a life, of downfalls and comebacks, that it will doubtless one day resurface in a biopic script.
The world at large offered a different stage, with all too real dramas, to the likes of Robert Mugabe, the liberator-turned-tyrant of Zimbabwe; Jacques Chirac, the French president who embraced European unity when that was still a bold idea; Yasuhiro Nakasone, who could still recall the embers of war in championing Japan’s return to international influence; Moshe Arens, the politician and statesman and one of the last of Israel’s founding Zionists; and Mohamed Morsi, who, speaking of barrier breakers, became Egypt’s first democratically elected president after all those millenniums, only to be ousted within a year in favor of more autocracy.
In Washington, Elijah Cummings’s lawmaking was cut short. As the powerful, principled and full-throated chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, charged with protecting the integrity of government, he was in the thick of investigating actions by President Trump when he died at 68 in his beloved Baltimore, a little more than two months before his fellow Democratic House members voted for impeachment.
His death was followed 10 days later by that of his colleague John Conyers, the longest-serving African-American in congressional history (52 years).
IX, 18 and 25 = Impact
The Senate, too, lost pillars. Birch Bayh, the liberal Democrat from Indiana, had as impactful a career as any in that chamber, attaching his name to landmark legislation identifiable by numbers: enforcing fairness through Title IX, lowering the voting age to 18, and providing for the removal of a president through a constitutional mechanism other than impeachment, the 25th Amendment.
Within about six weeks of his death, in March, two former colleagues, Senate lions both, were gone: Ernest Hollings (Fritz to almost everyone), a South Carolinian and Democratic civil rights champion who had his eye on the White House at one point; and the courtly Republican Richard Lugar, another Hoosier, who had as much clout in foreign affairs as any modern-era senator ever had.
In July, the 99-year-old body of Justice John Paul Stevens lay in state across the street from the Capitol in the Great Hall of the Supreme Court of the United States, where he arrived in 1975 as a former Republican antitrust lawyer and left 35 years later a changed man — a stalwart of the court’s liberal wing.
And in early December it was Paul Volcker who was remembered — for shaping his country’s economic policy and taming inflation from the corridors of another marble-clad Washington institution, the Federal Reserve, where he was chairman under Presidents Carter and Reagan.
If Mr. Volcker was at heart a public-spirited man of business, a well-paid product of Wall Street who took a cut in salary to work for his country, Ross Perot was a politically minded one who would have gladly given up his executive suite in Texas for the Oval Office. A billionaire force in the computer services industry, he became an unlikely and surprisingly strong independent populist candidate for president in the ’90s, a folk hero to some and a folksy odd duck to others.
For all the publicity Mr. Perot received, however, his influence on American politics paled before that of the industrialist David H. Koch, who went about his work far less noisily. He and his brother Charles tapped their vast energy and chemicals fortune to finance a right-wing libertarian movement that by all indications will far outlive both.
The most powerful of business leaders inevitably acquire a public face, and none did so more successfully than Lee Iacocca. More than running two of the nation’s biggest automakers, he “came to personify Detroit as the dream factory of America’s postwar love affair with the automobile,” as his obituary said. A son of a hot-dog vendor, he was a gregarious self-made man who became a household name as an industry titan, television pitchman and best-selling author.
Felix Rohatyn, too, became a public man after scaling the heights of Wall Street, summoned to rescue New York City in the gritty, scuffling ’70s as it teetered on the edge of a fiscal abyss. And while we’re thinking about New York (command central for eruptions of “Auld Lang Syne”), let’s not forget Robert Morgenthau, a patrician son of the city who chased every known sort of criminal as Manhattan D.A. for so long that one might be forgiven for mistaking his age at his death, 99, for the number of years he served.
Other giants fell. The world of letters lost Toni Morrison, still another groundbreaker as the first African-American woman to win a Nobel Prize in Literature, honored for her powerfully moving novels that sang of an often brutal, racially torn America in the resilient cadences of the black oral tradition.
And Harold Bloom, the prodigious literary critic who, in championing the Western canon in an ever more multicultural world, endured ample criticism himself, earning a characterization seldom attached to a scholar: America’s most notorious.
And Herman Wouk, the prolific, best-selling, movie-inspiring author who practically died writing, mid-book, leaving a sheaf of blank pages.
The Last Survivors
Journalism — and the Washington that reared her — lost Cokie Roberts, who brought a tough, knowing take on American politics to television audiences for decades, and Russell Baker, the New York Times humorist (and “Masterpiece Theater” host) who, with his wry observations on politics and other arenas of national life, didn’t so much bash his targets as poke them.
Elsewhere, three of the most renowned architects of the last half of the 20th century died in 2019: I.M. Pei, Kevin Roche and Cesar Pelli. And Karl Lagerfeld, that indefatigable definer of high fashion, and Gloria Vanderbilt, who poured a generation of women into designer jeans, left their most stylish of scenes.
The art world lost, among others, Robert Frank, who changed the course of documentary photography with his 35-millimeter Leica and a penetrating eye that saw an increasingly disjointed world in a new, strikingly off-kilter way, and Carlos Cruz-Diez, a towering figure of postwar Latin American art whose deep immersions in brilliant color seemed to evoke the dazzling sunlight of his native Venezuela.
The sciences, too, were drained of immense brainpower — for one, that of the physicist Murray Gell-Mann, the Nobel laureate who glimpsed the structure of the universe through its tiniest particles of matter the way a geologist might comprehend the Earth in a grain of sand.
Which, in a free-associating sort of way, brings to mind an hourglass — one that might measure the passing of an era’s few remaining survivors: grains of sand, pulled by gravity, trickling away until all are gone.
The scholar Charles van Doren was one, his death evoking the distant quiz show scandals of the 1950s. Edward Nixon was another, carrying the unwelcome burden — familiar to overshadowed siblings everywhere — of forever reminding us, by his very facial features, of Richard. Edda Goering and Rudolf von Ribbentrop carried pedigrees that harked back to the evil of Hitler, while Dick Churchill (no relation to Hitler’s nemesis) recalled a bracing moment for the Allies in World War II, the “Great Escape” from a prisoner-of-war camp. He was the last survivor of the 76 who had made the attempt. But he had been a survivor before: After only three men had made it to freedom, and after the Germans had executed 50 of those who had failed, Churchill was somehow spared. He lived another 75 years.
And then there was Julia Ruth Stevens. It’s been 71 years since her “Daddy,” Babe Ruth, died, but over those many decades she remained a living link to him, showing up at old-timers’ games to accept the cheers of baseball fans to whom the Sultan of Swat was more legend than flesh and blood. Ms. Stevens reminded us that, yes, he put his pinstripes on the same way the ball boys did.
“I miss him even to this day,” she said not too many years ago.
Who among his intimates is left to say that as 2020 is about to dawn? To hazard a guess, no one. The last grain of sand has fallen.
William McDonald is the obituaries editor of The Times
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