Category Archives: r.i.p.

Remembering Dot Turk, My Charming Guide to Leland, Mississippi

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91gmc-pdU2LI was sad to learn of the passing of Dorothy Love Turk, who died earlier this month at the age of 88.  Dorothy — or “Dot” as she insisted I and everyone else call her — was one of the very first people I contacted when I began my research on Jim Henson back in 2010.  As a guide at the Jim Henson Boyhood Museum in Leland, she was great at helping me track down All Things Jim Henson in their little town–and as a lifelong resident of Leland, she was also the expert on the history of Leland. Heck, she even wrote a terrific history of the place, charmingly called Leland, Mississippi: From Hell Hole to Beauty Spot.  That was her kind of title.

IMG_6089.jpgHer book on the history of Leland, in fact, was also one of the first I bought when I started researching–I had to grab it from a used book store–and she was genuinely touched that I had purchased it, read it, and even brought it with me for her to sign. When I handed the book over for her sign, she turned to the blank front page, and wrote simply, “to Brian, Dorothy Love Turk.”  When I returned to Leland a year or so later for a Henson-related event, she ran up to me somewhat flustered and apologized for “signing [my] book so badly!”  She said she was so rattled by the idea that anyone would ask her to sign her book that she didn’t know what to write.  That sort of adorable humility was very much part of her charm.

Dot served as my eager tour guide during my time in Leland, introducing me around–having her vouch for me went a long way with the locals–helping me get in touch with some of Jim’s childhood friends, and regaling me with the gossip and town legends that made Leland such a magical place for Jim Henson to spend his early years. They take pretty good care of Jim Henson down there, and it’s thanks in no small part to people like Dot.  She took good care of me, too, and I’ll miss her.

Remembering John Henson

GTY_sweetums_john_henson_split_ss_jt_140216_2x1_992I was shocked and saddened to hear of the passing of Jim Henson’s son John Paul Henson this past Valentine’s Day at the age of 48 — too damn young, too damn soon. Apparently he’d been out in the snow near his home in Saugerties, New York, building an igloo with his daughter when he suffered a massive heart attack. My heart goes out to his wife Gyongyi, his daughters Katrina and Sydney, and the entire Henson family–as well as to the Jim Henson organization, where they really do still think of each other as family.

I had the great pleasure of getting to know John, at least a little bit, while I was researching Jim Henson: The Biography, and found him to be a really beautiful guy. I traveled up to visit him at his home in Saugerties, where he met me at the train station in his pickup truck. He was listening to Sirius radio–and though he had the volume all the way down as we talked, I could see the channel display read HOWARD 100 — the Howard Stern channel. John saw me noticing, reddened for a moment, and started to change the station. I laughed and said, “Hey, I’m a fan, too.” It was a good start.

While John was an experienced puppeteer, he was actually a different kind of artist, and whatever he touched — he was a metalworker, carpenter, electrician, pipe fitter — he made that medium sing. As a younger man, he had built the elaborate Muppet mobile “The Great Hot Air Balloon Circus,” which gleamed and twirled in the four-story atrium wrapped by the spiral staircase in the Muppet headquarters at One Seventeen.

And he loved renovating, restoring, and redesigning buildings. He was especially proud of all the properties in Saugerties that he had either renovated or was in the process of restoring, and we spent much of the afternoon driving around town to look at them, tromping around in rooms with no roof or kitchens with no appliances–everything was a work in progress.  He took a special delight in the HVAC work he had done in an old hospital he had purchased overlooking the river: every pipe was perfectly aligned with the next, snaking tightly from the walls and ceiling into the central box in a geometric pattern. I can’t exactly explain why it was beautiful; it just was. He had the same design sense as his father; everything had to be interesting, and finished, and fun to look at.

He proudly gave me a tour of his home–a renovated early 1900s schoolhouse, complete with a ringing bell in the cupola on the roof. He had purchased the place  in 1981 or so, and had only just completed the renovations. “A project thirty years in the making!” he told me, laughing.  And it showed. Again, everything was interesting to look at, and not a spare square foot had been wasted; John snuck secret corridors between rooms, snaked rope lights into sculpture under the eaves, and navigated much of the house by catwalk. It was whimsical and wonderful, and very much John’s own unique sense of space and design.

I had dinner that evening with him and his family–and they were all as charming and delightful as you might expect–then John and I retired to his enormous workshop at one end of the house, so I could interview him (with its gigantic and loud ventilation fan, the workshop, John explained somewhat sheepishly, was the only room in the house where he could smoke!) As the fan whirred like a jet engine — and as I hoped against hope that one of the two digital recorders I had placed near John would pick up his voice over the clatter of the fan* — we talked long into the evening. John was deliberate and thoughtful, tilting his head slightly to one side as he considered his answers.

He was also a very spiritual, almost ethereal, gentleman. He genuinely believed in guardian angels; he would never have survived his high-speed automobile crash in his twenties without one, he said. His absolute faith in the belief that there was someone, something, out there watching over us was one of his most endearing qualities. He was sure his dad was there waiting for him–for everyone–wherever he might be.

Jim Henson’s biography was that much better–dare I say that much more beautiful–for having had John’s unique voice in it. I’m glad I got to know him, even just a little.


* Thankfully, one of them did.

Losses: They Come In Threes (and Sometimes Fours)

A tough week of losses in the literary/pop culture world, though there’s some solace in knowing that, with one exception, all of them lived to ripe old ages. Let’s start with the most recent one first:

I heard this morning that Christopher Hitchens, longtime contributor to The New Yorker, and the author of countless books and articles, died of complications from lung cancer at age 62.  Hitchens was explosive and ranting, conflicted and controversial — and whether you agreed with him or not (and it was probably impossible to agree with him  on EVERYTHING; he was all over the map), he was always passionate and always an entertaining read. Christopher Buckley wrote a nice piece in (where else?) The New Yorker, which you can read here.

On Tuesday, author Russell Hoban passed away at age 86. Hoban made his living as a writer of science fiction and fantasy novels (most notably Riddley Walker)  — but to me, he’ll always be remembered as the author of Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas, which Jim Henson later turned into one of the finest Christmas television specials of all time. An American expatriate, it’s probably appropriate that the best obit is here in the Guardian.

Comic book legend Joe Simon passed away on Tuesday at the age of 98. Simon — and his partner Jack Kirby — seemed to have his hand in nearly every comic book genre, from superhero to western to romance to science fiction. In the 1940s, while working at Marvel, he and Kirby created Captain America, then jumped to DC to revamp Sandman (the Simon/Kirby version plays a small but crucial role in the Neil Gaiman revival) and created the mighty Boy Commandos (which was, at one point, the publisher’s third highest selling title).  Simon didn’t always have the Midas touch — he’s got Brother Power, The Geek on his list of creator credits — but his work was always interesting, and Simon was a true gentleman.  His obit in the LA Times is here, but I’m waiting for the long piece being promised by Mark Evanier.

Finally, Batman fans (like me) are mourning the loss of Jerry Robinson, who passed away late last week at age 89. Robinson was one of the true unsung heroes of the Batman mythos—even moreso than writer Bill Finger, whose name still doesn’t appear on Batman‘s title page—for it was Robinson, ghosting for Bob Kane, who drew most of the early installments of Batman and Detective Comics.  And when it came to creating characters, Robinson gave us two icons: Robin, who pretty much became the template for every teenage sidekick that followed, and a villain called the Joker who . . . well, is pretty much the coolest bad guy of all time.

While Robinson never saw his name or Bill Finger’s formally attached to Batman, Robinson was one of the great advocates for creator rights. It was Robinson who helped push (and then basically shame) DC Comics into giving Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster not only a creative byline on all Superman comics, but also lifetime pensions and health benefits. Robinson also served as a teacher at the New York School of Visual Art — where he helped make comics into an art form — and co-wrote one of the finest books on the history of the comic strip, The Comics: An Illustrated History of Comic Strip Art, which went back into print earlier this year.

Losses, all — but thanks to each of them, what memories we have.

RIP Bil Keane (1922-2011)

See that kindly face over there? You’ve probably seen his name and work a thousand times in your life, but you likely don’t know the face.  That’s Bil Keane, who brought the single-panel comic Family Circus to your local newspaper pretty much every day since 1960. Keane died earlier this week at age 89, and you can read all about him in The Washington Post obituary right here.

While I was never a hard-core Family Circus fan in the way I was absolutely devoted to Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, Keane’s strip was one of those that my entire family read. In particular, we loved the paperback book collections. Visiting our cousins in Kansas usually meant getting an armful of new Family Circus paperbacks to take along on the car ride — and when we got there, we would ransack our cousins’ own collection, trading paperbacks back and forth until, between us, we’d read them all. They were a quick and easy read, drawn in Keane’s accessible style, with punchlines that even a seven-year-old could understand. I liked the sequences featuring the ghosts “Not Me!” and “Ida Know!” (our Mom would take those jokes and run with them, in fact) while my brother loved the panels that followed characters with a dotted line as they made their way to school, a garage sale, or around the back yard.

People often criticized Keane’s cartoon for being too dated, and too lost in an idealized past or family structure. For that reason, it was an easy target for satire — but no one laughed harder at the parodies of the strip than Keane himself. Keane, in fact, was much funnier than he let on in his strip; he would apparently knock ’em dead each year as the host of  the National Cartoonists Society’s annual banquet. But his own inherent sweetness was the real strength behind Family Circus—and Keane also made it look way too easy. “[A]llow me to point out the obvious,” said Dilbert‘s Scott Adams. “If other cartoonists could make a family-oriented comic that was as popular as ‘Family Circus,’ they would have done it.”

No one did — and likely no one will ever do it as well as Bil Keane.

Remembering Kay

If you’re lucky, every once in a while someone comes into your life who makes your life better and more interesting just by being so wonderfully, unfailingly, unapologetically human.

Kay Davies, center, along with some of the others whose lives she touched -- including yours truly, in the back row on the right.

Kay Davies was that way for me. She was my boss for most of my twenties, when she came into the office of Senator Domenici as the new Legislative Director in late 1990. Kay had worked for the Senator before, in the early 1970s, and had then gone on to a distinguished career working in the State Department for President Reagan—her favorite story, and one she re-enacted for us frequently, was striding into her empty State Department office with her boxes under her arm on the morning Reagan was sworn in, and answering the ringing telephone only to be told that the Iranian hostages were being released at that very moment.

Kay was loud and brassy and opinionated, and when she walked into our little suite of offices in 1990, she scared the hell out of almost all of us. But she was also wonderfully open minded—and when she came into an organization where most of its senior staff had moved on to other jobs after the 1990 election, Kay did something that, knowing her now, was typical of her: she put her faith in all of us snot-nosed twentysomethings, letting us slide into those empty chairs and take on the responsibilities of senior legislative staffers.

Some might disagree, but I’d say it was a good investment—and over the next seven years, I learned a lot. Almost immediately, Kay and I were working together, poring over a proposed revision to the sacred Civil Rights Act. It was an important but highly technical change, steeped in obscure legal precedent—and since neither of us had a legal background, we would sit in her cramped office reading through policy papers, calling the Justice Department on speakerphone, arguing over language, and drafting statements (she would always insist on typing, pounding away on her computer keyboard as I paced the narrow room behind her talking my way through a paragraph). She would lose her patience on the phone when she thought White House staffers were trying to brush her off, snapping a pencil angrily in her hand with an audible POW! And always, always there was a cigarette burning, slowly filling her office with a gauzy gray-blue haze.

She could manage a meeting like no one else. She always came prepared, usually with an accordion folder bursting open under her arm, and she had little time or patience for pat answers—she would call bullshit on anyone the moment she caught the first whiff of it and ask them firmly to start over and try again. And she was smart; she was the first person I ever met who could read through a lengthy document and summarize it in four sentences or less—an unbelievably important skill in politics—and she could always come up with a really good, real-life example to illustrate her point. She was passionate about policy and politics, her voice rising higher and louder and she made her case. But she wasn’t extreme in either direction; she was mostly merely practical—and you if would walk by her office when she had the Senate floor playing on her small television, you would hear her griping at any grandstanding, regardless of which side of the aisle was carrying on.

She was tough and gruff and worked us hard — but at the end of each work week, she ensured that the office fridge was filled with beer and soda. At 6:00 p.m. on Fridays, she would crack open a beer (it was always Miller Lite), light up a cigarette, and sit down to gossip and laugh with the rest of us. In short, she was a dynamo, a whirlwind, and I loved her. I think we all did.

She was the first person I’d met who wasn’t afraid to be herself. She wore brightly colored scarves, carried huge but expensive handbags, and never held back her opinion. When she was in a hurry, she’d take these long, pounding steps that practically broadcast her mood.  She loved calamari, but she loved pizza even more. She could laugh loud, and cuss even louder.  Yet, even with her famously potty mouth, the worst thing she would ever call anyone was “dodo bird”—and if you made the dodo bird list, believe me, brother, you were in big trouble.

She was a mentor to me not only in politics, policy, and the world in general, but she also shaped the way I wrote. While I always marveled at her ability to write these concise policy analyses, she never considered herself a great writer—she called her style ‘bang bang bang’—but she was a fantastically brutal editor. She had no patience for overly purple prose (she’d let some creep in—it was politics, after all) and she was a strict adherent to Strunk & White’s directive to “omit meaningless words,” something I’d always struggled with. Consequently, my speeches would come back with phrases—sometimes paragraphs—crossed out so stridently that her black pen left divots in the page. Other times, the intercom on my desk would ring and she’d say—loudly, of course—”Beautiful. I sent it in.” Those moments made my day.

I still have a tendency to lean purple—but because of Kay and her black pen, I quickly (and early on) overcame the so-called Golden Word syndrome, where I was convinced every word on the page was beautiful and perfect. I didn’t always like it when some of the bits I had slaved over or was proud of because I thought they were so clever came back with a black slash through them. But I trusted her judgment and I could always see her point—a mentality that proved invaluable the first time I ever had a completed manuscript in front of a book editor. (An entire chapter had to go? Fine.)

A little more than a decade ago, Kay was diagnosed with cancer. The outlook even then was bleak—she was always being told she had less than a year to live. Yet, she kept hanging on, never losing her sense of humor, her sense of self, or her sense of her own place in the universe. She made it to my wedding—a sweltering hot July day—walking through the woods in Williamsburg by herself.  We traded e-mails regularly, and I would stop by every once in a while—though not as much as I would have liked—to talk with her, move furniture, or help her with her “goddamn computer.”

She loved history and biography—she was a big fan of David McCullough and read anything on the Romanovs—and collected and framed historic prints and documents (she had, for example, a commission for an army officer signed by James Madison). We would talk for hours about books and history—her knowledge of the Civil War could be staggering—and she was genuinely proud of me when my Washington Irving biography was published in 2008. It couldn’t have happened without her—and I told her so. In fact, I told her everything she had done for me, and how much I loved her.  It embarrassed her a bit—she was defiantly unsentimental (I don’t even have a photo of us together!)—but I meant every word.

Over the last few months, as Kay’s health deteriorated, she refused to let anyone feel sorry for her, and rebuked suggestions that she retire to a hospice. She wanted to be at home, with her books and her piano and her cat. I went to visit her several times, and she didn’t appear to be dying so much as she looked to be simply fading away, as if she were being slowly erased from within. Her voice, once so loud and firm, was quiet and higher-pitched, from the cancer pressing against her vocal cords. But there was still a bit of fire behind her eyes as she laughed at familiar stories or discussed something she’d read in the newspaper that morning. She was, as my pal Marron put it, “grit and determination all the way to the end.”

Kay passed away earlier this week. She was at home, just as she wanted. And typically, she insisted on no service, no obituary, and no fuss—very much like her. But I wanted to make sure she didn’t pass away without the universe taking just a bit of notice of an extraordinary woman who was once so alive, so loud, and so human—and who meant so very much to me. I’ll miss her. A lot.

Remembering Ted Sorensen (1928-2010)

Ted Sorensen — Presidential adviser, ghostwriter, biographer, and perhaps the finest political speechwriter in modern times — passed away yesterday at the age of 82. There’s a nice piece on him in The Boston Globe right here.

Sorensen — who often joked that his last name would be misspelled as “Sorenson” in his obituary (it wasn’t) — was not only one of the guiding hands behind Kennedy’s famous inaugural speech, but also collaborated on Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Profiles in Courage. He was a classy guy who treated his work as a speechwriter and ghostwriter exactly the way one should: when asked which turns of phrase he was responsible for, Sorensen always deferred to his boss —

Is the author the person who did much of the research and helped choose the words in many of its sentences, or is the author the person who decided the substance, structure, and theme of the book; read and revised each draft; inspired, constructed, and improved the work? Like JFK’s speeches, ‘Profiles in Courage’ was a collaboration. . . I know exactly where the credit ultimately lies — with JFK.


Sorensen was also one of the first biographers of Kennedy, publishing Kennedy in 1965.

I’m sorry he’s gone, but I’m sure glad he was here.  You probably didn’t know his name or his face, but you definitely knew his words.

R.I.P. Carla Cohen (1936-2010)

I was saddened this morning to learn that Carla Cohen — one of the co-founders of Politics & Prose, just about the coolest independent bookstore out there — passed away yesterday at age 74.  The Washington Post obituary is right here.

Politics & Prose — like Powell’s in Oregon — is one of great meccas for independent bookstore lovers.  It’s a place nearly every aspiring author — especially authors of non-fiction — wants to speak, especially on the off-chance that C-SPAN will be there to record the talk for broadcast.  It’s a place that’s unapologetically nerdy and erudite and just a bit eclectic.  Its clientele don’t come in looking for science fiction or romance novels; they want books of wonky politics, literary history, or economics.

I had the great pleasure of meeting Carla Cohen and her business partner, Barbara Meade, when I spoke about Washington Irving at P&P in early 2008.  She cared deeply about books, and even more about readers.  She’ll be missed.

R.I.P. Senator Robert C. Byrd (1917-2010)

I was saddened this morning to learn of the death of Senator Robert C. Byrd — not only the longest serving Senator in history, but perhaps the only member who can fairly be said to be the historical memory and conscience of the U.S. Senate itself.

I can’t say much more about Byrd than I did in this entry from last year — except to add that the Senate, West Virginia, and American politics will long feel his absence. You’ll be missed, you crusty fellow, you.

R.I.P. Martin Gardner (1914-2010)

I apologize for being late to the game on this one, but I only just learned this morning that Martin Gardner died back in late May at age 95.  Gardner was a math and science writer, a creator of math and logic puzzles, and a famous debunker of pseudoscience–but what earned him my respect and admiration was his work on one of his fellow mathematicians who also happens to be one of my all-time favorite writers: Lewis Carroll.

Gardner is considered perhaps the authority on the writings of Lewis Carroll, and has released two wonderful, readable, annotated editions of Carroll’s work, The Annotated Alice — drilling down in both Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass — as well as  The Annotated Snark, which dissects one of Carroll’s lesser-known extended poems. In Gardner’s books, I learned to appreciate some of Carroll’s more morbid jokes, ruminated on possible answers to the Mad Hatter’s unanswered riddle (“Why is a raven like a writing desk?”), came to appreciate the Red King Syndrome, and watched him map out Alice’s moves through the looking glass world on a chess board — including one moment when the King is actually in check.

I don’t know much else about Gardner except that I loved his books — they’re still on my shelf — and encourage any fan of Carroll’s work to seek them out and read them. Well done, Martin Gardner.

R.I.P. Ted Kennedy (1932-2009)

ted-kennedy_398x299I was saddened this morning to learn of the death of Senator Edward Kennedy, after his long fight with brain cancer.  Considered perhaps the most liberal member of the United States Senate — if not American politics — chances are good you had strong feelings about Kennedy, his politics, and his personal life, no matter which end of the political spectrum you were on.  And obituaries today will likely be unable to discuss his political achievements — and they were many — without also bringing up his often rocky, and disappointing, personal shortcomings.  That is, of course, life in politics.

When I started working on the Hill in 1990, Kennedy, nearing age 60 at that time, had already been serving as a Senator for longer than I had been alive. He was an institution in an institution, a brush with a piece of America’s mythic past.  He was also a genuine political celebrity and he had that indescribable Kennedy magnetism.  We used to joke that the strength of his charm was inversely proportional to your own political stance — that the more you disagreed with his politics, the more charmed you were by him in person. He would shake your hand with both hands, look you in the eye and call you by name.  You were completely disarmed.

If you were opposed to his policies, Kennedy could infuriate you with his absolute determination to ram through his initiatives — and he led the charge on an awful lot of them, from civil rights to health care. But it might surprise you to know that Kennedy was also brilliant at something else: bipartisanship.  He was so good at it, in fact, that you scarcely realized he was doing it. When he was preparing to introduce either a huge, complex or controversial piece of legislation, Kennedy had a knack for going out and finding a Republican cosponsor, sometimes an incredibly unlikely one who you wouldn’t normally even put in the same room with Kennedy, much less on a bill.  It was much harder for Republicans to torpedo a Kennedy initiative on veterans’ health, for example, when his lead cosponsor was Republican Leader Bob Dole.

In the late 1990s, I worked on the Republican Senate HELP committee, where Kennedy was the ranking Democratic member of the committee. He hired smart staff and, more often than not, they were genuinely interested in helping reach an acceptable compromise on your legislation.  We were able to easily approve child care tax credits, for example, because we had Kennedy’s staff on board from day one.

Of course, part of the fun of watching Kennedy work was watching Kennedy work.  Like many members, once he got wound up on the floor of the Senate, he could be a shouter and a flailer, waving his arms madly as he all but shouted at the top of his lungs. His voice was easily imitated  — and believe me, once the door was closed, even Democratic staff would sometimes drop into that familiar cadence, starting sentences with “Ayr, uh” in a way Kennedy himself really never did, but which made it all that much funnier. But Kennedy himself was in on the joke, and was smart enough to know that all those impressions only sealed his iconic reputation. (Fortunately for writers on The Simpsons, that accent is not trademarkable — otherwise, Mayor Quimby might sound like Comic Shop Guy.)

I’ll close with one of my favorite Kennedy stories, which didn’t happen to me, but should give you a feel for the kind of charm and reputation the man possessed: my friend Anne, who worked for Republican Senator Alan Simpson of Wyoming — one of nicest, and funniest members of Congress ever — had her mother coming to town.  As part of her visit, Anne had arranged for her mother to have lunch with her Senator in the Senator’s Dining Room — a fairly exclusive and impressive place — then take a private tour of the Capitol, sit with the Senator in a committee meeting, and generally shadow Simpson as he worked throughout a typical day.

About a week after her mother had left, I was talking with Anne about the visit, and how impressed I was with all she had planned out.  “What was your mother’s favorite part of the day?” I asked her.  She scowled slightly, then laughed.  “Her favorite part was an elevator ride in the Dirksen Building, when Senator Kennedy stood next to her.”

That was the Kennedy charm.  Love it or hate it, you likely won’t see anything like it again.