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When celebrities die, truth is often collateral damage

Louis C.K. tells us he has a very simple rule of thumb in his current HBO special “Oh, My God”: “If you’re older, you’re smarter.”

Say what? might be the response of technologically virtuosic younger people so accustomed to media pandering and exploitation that they think little is important beyond what they know. Simple, says Louis. If you get into an argument with an older person, they’re right because they have more information. “Even if they’re wrong, their wrongness is rooted in more information than you.”

It would be nice if Louis C.K.’s understanding were perfect but I don’t think it is. In our much-vaunted Age of Information, older “information” is seldom considered information at all. (God help history in the future.)

Which certainly makes for a world of problems when prominent people die.

We’ve been through an unusually concentrated period of prominent deaths of natural causes lately among people whose lives couldn’t possibly be better known or more disparate. Most of them suffered from long terrible illnesses: Roger Ebert (ravaging cancer), Annette Funicello (multiple sclerosis leading to years of coma), Margaret Thatcher (dementia) and Jonathan Winters.

Watching the “information” that followed their deaths has been fascinating but grim beyond even the news of the deaths themselves.

We have, for one thing, turned into euphemizers who routinely cheat death. Some people have all but banished the word. They don’t even say that people “die.” Instead, they say that people “passed,” a euphemism that, quite frankly, I loathe.

Death is, in fact, the only certainty in all of our lives. It’s lovely to have enough religious faith that you believe that when we die we’re all going to “pass” into a higher realm, but all we really know for sure is that the bodies we’ve all got on loan from eternity are destined to stop working at some point and decompose.

Every last one of us.

If you’re born, you die. It’s the ineluctable fact of life. Why are people euphemizing it as “passed?” To lessen the sting for survivors? Those old enough to possess a lot of information know that nothing does that but time. It’s the only cure for the pain death leaves behind.

“Memento Mori” – “remember that you will die” – the ancient Romans used to tell each other. Not “remember you will pass.”

The way media now treat death has become a kind of puerile travesty you’d expect in a world where people are actually trying to kill the word “die” and replace it with “pass.”

The sudden spurt of prominent deaths was a kind of crash course for one and all in 21st century “information.”

Ebert’s was accompanied by so much reverence for his noble and heroic triumph over his final years of suffering that people routinely refused to acknowledge that he’d led a very big life separable into three distinct public phases: 1) A popular but far from universally respected stage where he and Gene Siskel created an all-thumbs TV format and an itinerant squabbler’s act; 2) Senior movie critic stage starting with Siskel’s death from cancer and expanding with idealism every year without him and 3) Extraordinary nobility and heroism in his magnificent occupational persistence and battles for journalism itself in the era when disease robbed him of the ability to speak or even eat conventionally.

Funicello’s death followed years in a coma. All we really knew of her was her early life – a childhood of youth permanently affixed to adorability and energy and then surrendered completely to private life that made her protracted disease an early reminder of mortality for all her original fans.

Thatcher’s death was the most fascinating of all in the world of modern “information.” It was the exact opposite of Ebert’s; so many people were in a hurry to consign her to history’s damnation that the biggest “news” to come out of it was the sudden disconcerting popularity of the song “Ding Dong, The Witch Is Dead” from “The Wizard of Oz.”

In other words, endless euphemism is fine for some who die; pitiless media cannibalism is preferred for some others.

Winters’ death at the fine old age of 87, I think, was attended by the least information of all. He hadn’t been out of the public eye as long as Funicello, but the strongest memories of him were from the same general period – the late ’50s and ’60s when his improvisational comic genius made him one of the funniest human beings alive.

Which, frankly, I’ve always thought must have been agony for such a sensitive man. When your comic genius is so large that you can transform a host’s (Jack Paar’s) mere stick into an endlessly mutating comic prop, you’re likely to live an entire life displaying your talent wherever you go. I’d love to have interviewed Winters – to have asked if he could just go to parties and gatherings and be quietly entertained by others.

I suspect that because of his astonishing and universally acknowledged gift for improv, he wound up a bit like jazz pianist Oscar Peterson, a musician so great that he could probably never enter a room with a piano in it without everyone expecting him to sit down and play. Was there ever a private party Winters could enter without turning the whole place into a nightclub in short order?

A book of Winters’ short stories called “Winters’ Tales” became something of a best-seller in the mid-’80s. It was followed up by a book of his paintings called “Hang-Ups.” (His surreal art was influenced, he said, by Dali and Magritte as well as Native American art. It’s full of wire hangers which, he says, symbolized psychological “hang-ups” in his paintings.)

Winters was a middle American rebel so frank about his troubles with mental illness and alcoholism that he made allusions to them in his comic performance art – his history of residences at the “funny farm” (I’d bet that phrase itself was his), his former reliance on “the sauce.”

About one of his paintings in “Hang-Ups” he said: “I classify myself as a survivor; a survivor of a lot of things. I overcame alcohol. I overcame smoking. I overcame chocolate ice cream. Now I know many people have bigger problems and I have some myself. But for anyone who has survived I have great admiration. Just going through life is surviving. Just going crosstown.”

That’s the voice of wisdom – at the very least the voice of one with a lot of “information.”

Who finally made it all the way crosstown.