This past year, like every year, many celebrated and significant people left us – an eclectic group, from Alexander Haig to Gary Coleman, from Lynn Redgrave to J.D. Salinger. With one tragic jetliner crash, we lost much of Poland’s political elite. But here, as published each year, are some of the other people whose deaths you might not have noticed, whose names you might not know, but who are certainly worth saluting.
1. Tsutomu Yamaguchi: Double A-Bomb Survivor
This Japanese engineer had a knack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time… but his appearance on this list suggests that he was a very lucky man. Yamaguchi was on business in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, when it became the first city struck by an atom bomb. Badly burned, he went home to Nagasaki three days later… and once again, found himself facing an atom bomb attack. Last year the Japanese government formally recognized him as the sole “nijuuhibaku”, the only person officially recognized to have survived the A-bomb attacks on both Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He later became a teacher and worked for Mitsubishi. But he believed that the radioactive fallout had delayed side-effects. When his son died of cancer in 1995, Yamaguchi blamed the radioactivity in his bloodstream. This inspired him to become an anti-nuclear campaigner, writing his memoirs and addressing the United Nations.
On the subject of lucky war survivors, 2010 also saw the passing of U.S. Air Force flyer Col. Bud Mahurin, who was shot down over both the Atlantic and Pacific during World War II… and once again during the Korean War, for old times’ sake. (It wasn’t all agony for him. He was also the only American to shoot down enemy planes over both oceans during World War II.)
2. Francisco Varallo: World Cup Survivor
Paul the Octopus wasn’t the only significant football World Cup death this year.
Another football luminary lived to be 98 years older than the famous eight-limbed clairvoyant. Francisco Varallo, the last surviving player of the first-ever World Cup final in 1930, was a forward for Argentina, known for his bravery and accurate shooting. Argentina (still a football superpower) lost 4-2 to Uruguay in the 1930 final, played in Montevideo. At the time, of course, the World Cup had yet to become the world’s most popular sporting event.
It was a big year to say goodbye to "last survivors." In addition to Varallo (who was 100), 2010 saw the deaths of Jack Babcock, 109, Canada’s last World War I army veteran; Jeanette Scola Trapani, the last survivor of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire (!), who was four years old when the city was leveled; and (less distantly) Willard Wirtz, the last surviving member of President Kennedy’s cabinet.
3. Vladimir Raitz: Package Holiday Pioneer
Vladimir Raitz, a Russian Jew who had moved to London a child, invented the modern package holiday. The idea had come when a Russian friend invited him to a beachside “holiday camp” in Corsica, set up for Soviet expatriates. Here, Raitz saw the potential for selling happiness to the depressed, post-war UK. With £3,000 inherited from his grandmother, Raitz chartered surplus British military aircraft and set up Horizon Holidays in 1949. Eleven paying customers boarded a Dakota DC3 from London for the maiden flight in 1950. The tourists were treated to a week in the sun, staying on the beach in large canvas tents (each with two beds). It was a hit. Middle-class Britons could now visit the Meditteranean – a comparative luxury, previously available only to the wealthy – for an affordable price, with meals and local wine included.
Within a few years, Horizon was flying to many destinations in Europe, and established airlines had to lower their prices to keep up with Horizon’s bargains. According to critics, the tourists were loud, uncouth drunks – the ugly side of English travelers. Yet Raitz argued that he was bringing “a social revolution” to the average Briton.
“The man in the street acquired a taste for wine, for foreign food, started to learn French, Spanish or Italian, made friends in the foreign lands he had visited,” he said. Whatever the case, Raitz helped to start a tourism boom.
4. Beatrice Sinclair: Reluctant Role Model
Though she refused to talk about Fawlty Towers for 30 years, Beatrice said in 2002 that the series was unfair to her late husband, who had been “turned into a laughing stock.” “The entire [Monty Python] cast behaved so badly it beggared belief,” she recalled of their stay in the hotel, “and if there was one thing my husband couldn’t stand, it was bad manners.”
She did note, however, that Cleese and his co-writer Connie Booth were correct that she was the driving force in the hotel, starting the business while Donald was serving in World War II. She sold the hotel after his death in 1981, and the new owners attracted tourists with Fawlty Towers-themed events. She steadfastly refused to be involved.
5. “Baby” Marie Osborne: Hollywood’s First Child
In our list two years ago, we saluted Anita Page, one of the last surviving stars of the silent movie era. However, she wasn’t the very last. Child actor Virginia Davis, who starred in many of Walt Disney’s early films, passed away last year – and 2010 saw the death of Hollywood’s first major child star, Marie Osborne, an audience favorite during World War I. Osborne (nee Helen Alice Myres) was born in Colorado in 1911, made her movie debut at age three, and starred in nearly 30 pictures before she was 10, including Little Marie Sunshine and Joy and the Dragon (both 1916), usually billed as “Baby Marie.”
“I set the trend for virtually every other child star that followed,” she said, nearly 90 years later – but she wasn’t proud. “I was the first of Hollywood’s washed-up child stars.” By her tenth birthday, her career was over and her foster parents, struggling actors, had frittered away her hard-earned fortune on their gilded Hollywood lifestyle. As an adult, she appeared in numerous films as an extra, or a stand-in for various stars, both children (Deanna Durbin) and adults (Ginger Rogers, Betty Hutton). After World War II, she worked as a costume supervisor. Once the youngest of Hollywood’s stars, her death at age 99 would suggest that she must surely be the last of Hollywood’s silent stars — except late-1920s star Barbara Kent is still apparently living in Idaho at age 104!
6. Doris Eaton Travis: Last of the Ziegfeld Girls
Like Marie Osborne, Doris Eaton Travis was the last of her era – and while “Baby” Marie was just short of 100, Travis achieved an even greater feat. The 5-foot-2 showgirl was the last of the legendary chorus girls of the Ziegfeld Follies, which brought glamor and sex appeal to the Broadway stage in the early twentieth century. Discovered by the legendary producer Florenz Zeigfeld (the Hugh Hefner of his time), many of the Ziegfeld girls (Marion Davies, Billie Burke, Louise Brooks, Barbara Stanwyck) became stars in their own right before the Follies ended in 1931. Travis continued to sing and dance in Broadway shows, and later had a second career as a dance instructor. At a reunion of Ziegfeld girls (only four of them) in 1997, she proved that she was the only one who could still dance. Eventually, she outlived all the others by a) being the youngest when she joined in 1918, aged only 14, and b) living to the age of 106.
7. David Warren: Life-Saving Inventor
Australian wireless enthusiast David Warren’s invention did not make him wealthy or famous. However, he was happy in the knowledge that it had saved untold thousands of lives. As a rocket fuels chemist in 1954, researching a series of unexplained high-altitude explosions involving Britain’s de Havilland Comet (the world’s first jet airliner), Warren noted that, had it been possible to record the events in the aircraft before the explosion, the mystery would have been solved easily. Using his prowess as a tinkerer, he developed the “black box” flight memory recorder, which could store four hours of crew conversations and eight instrument readings in a casing strong enough to withstand fire or explosion. (If the whole aircraft were made of the same casing, it would be too heavy to leave the ground!)
Though it initially had a lukewarm reception, the device was eventually sold to Britain. Countless times, the ability to recover the data after a crash has allowed manufacturers and safety authorities to correct oversights and design flaws, preventing similar accidents. Similar devices are now installed in trains and ships. One problem: the “black box” is usually orange, yellow, or red. But with all these lives saved, that’s just nitpicking!
8. George Nissen: Inventor with Bounce
Inspired by trapeze artists leaping off small “bouncing beds,” Iowa teenager George Nissen invented the trampoline in 1934. Basically a large-scale bouncing bed, it was originally used as a gimmick by Nissen and two university classmates in their acrobatic troupe, the Three Leonardos. The name “trampoline,” a Spanish word for diving board, was adopted while touring Mexico City. Going into business with his college gymnastics coach, he marketed the trampolines with little success, until the US military used them to train pilots and parachutists. By the 1960s (as “bounce centers”), they became a fad, in backyards all over the world, and Nissen designed other gym equipment. He visited Sydney for the 2000 Olympics, to see the start of trampolining as an event. In so doing, he became one of the very few people in history to witness his invention become an Olympic sport. “That was always my goal and my dream,” he said. “The struggle and the journey—that's the Olympic spirit.”
9. Lawrence Garfinkel: The Bane of Big Tobacco
It’s astonishing today to realize that, until 1948, smoking was not generally linked to lung cancer, nor even to bad health – and perhaps nobody did more to enlighten us of this shocking truth than Lawrence Garfinkel. The studies that exposed the links were co-designed by Garfinkel, an epidemiologist with the American Cancer Society. Remarkably, Garfinkel (a lifetime non-smoker) had no relevant scientific qualifications, joined the ACS as a statistical clerk, and learned epidemiology on the job. Nonetheless, he ultimately published 147 articles in scientific journals on the link between cancer and many lifestyle aspects, mostly famously smoking.
Despite all the best efforts of the tobacco industry, Garfinkel’s work ensured that cigarettes and cancer are now inextricably linked. Were in not for Garfinkel, cigarettes might still be advertised during children’s television hours (by such characters as Fred Flintstone), and they would certainly not be sold with warning labels.
10. Helen Wagner: Turning for 54 Years
She never had the awards of Katharine Hepburn, or the popularity of Lucille Ball, but veteran actress Helen Wagner could boast an equally impressive record. Though the soap opera As the World Turns seemingly began at the dawn of time, it really lasted a mere 54 years – that’s 19,700 turns – and through that, there was one constant: Nancy Hughes, the Wagner’s mild-mannered character. She spoke the first line (“Good morning, dear”) when the series premiered in April 1956, and the 91-year-old Wagner was last seen on the series this year, soon after the CBS had announced its cancellation – with eerie precision. She held the Guinness record for the longest time that one actor has inhabited a television character (a record that will not be equaled for at least four years, if actor William Roache is still in British soap opera Coronation Street).
After all these decades, actor and character might become so close that they are difficult to tell apart – but fortunately for Wagner, Nancy was not central to any of the more shocking storylines involving drugs or incest. “Nothing ever happens to Nancy,” admitted Wagner.
Mark Juddery is an author and historian based in Australia. His latest book, Overrated: The 50 Most Overhyped Things in History (Perigree), is already causing a stir. You can order it from Amazon or Barnes and Noble. You can see a slideshow excerpt from the book, and you can argue with Mark's choices (or suggest new ones) on his blog. Mark offers one tip: If you want to say "This book is overrated"... it's been done.