RIP April 2019

Anyone who starred in a movie called "Santa Claus is rubbish" is guaranteed a place in The Reaper's roll call of death. Along with Italian mobsters, footballers, poets, fashion designers and many, many more.

April is the cruellest month wrote T. S. Eliot, incorrectly, “breeding/Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/Memory and desire, stirring/Dull roots with spring rain.” Every month is cruel if your life is taken from you; but there are some who die in stupid ways, or far too young, or who (if there was any justice) should be immortal. Les Murray probably has already joined the immortals. Rated one of 100 Australian Living Treasures by the National Trust of Australia, he was Australia’s most famous poet before he died, aged 80, on 29 April. A kind of outback hero, Murray published around 30 volumes of poetry – here’s the first verse of his poem The Meaning of Existence:

Everything except language
knows the meaning of existence.
Trees, planets, rivers, time
know nothing else. They express it
moment by moment as the universe.

The worst invention ever, the internal combustion engine, did for more than 96,000 people around the world this month – the same as every month throughout the year. Notable road accident casualties in April included Răzvan Ciobanu, the Romanian fashion designer who loved cats; he was 43 and idiotically was speeding, not wearing a safety belt, and lost control of the car which crashed into trees. Was it suicide? Who knows. Josef Šural, the footballer who played for the Czech Republic national squad, was killed aged 28 in a minibus crash.

If cars were smokeable they’d be banned

Even more stupid was the death of Rodrigo Goiana de Lima, also 28, the Brazilian former competitor in the Ultimate Fighting Championships. He was travelling in an Uber taxi with some mates when the driver asked them to pipe down. So de Lima punched him, as you do when you have more testosterone than you can handle. Then they got out of the car, and the driver accelerated and ran de Lima down, killing him. Braulio Lara was a Dominican baseball player, killed in a car crash on 20 April, aged 30. Luis Fernando Páez González, a Paraguayan footballer was killed (yes, by a car) aged 29. Elriesa Theunissen-Fourie was 25 when she – and the child she was carrying – died in a car crash in Stilfontein, South Africa. She was a talented all-rounder who played cricket for South Africa. Sinethemba Jantjie, a South African footballer, was 30 when he died – also killed in a car accident. How have we reached the situation whereby any adult can be in charge of a ton of metal flung at speed? If cars were smokeable they’d be banned.

He shot himself with a pistol that was a gift from the Peruvian Navy

Of suicides, the most dramatic this month was that of Alan Garcia (pictured), the former President of Peru, who shot himself in the head on 17 April. He was 69. When he was just 36 he became President for his first term in April 1985, and was immediately dubbed by the media “Latin America’s Kennedy”, not for any good reason except his youth. One can sum up this first term by citing one statistic – before Garcia, about 42% of Peruvians lived in poverty, after Garcia the figure was 55%. Hyperinflation, human rights abuses, currency collapse, international debts spiralling out of control – the script reads like that of a classic Latin American caudillo. Another joker, Alberto Fujimori, then took over as President in 1990 but the poor Peruvian electorate fell for Garcia a second time in July 2006. Most who voted for him to be President thought he was the lesser of two evils. He shot himself with a pistol that was a gift from the Peruvian Navy, while being served with an arrest warrant by officers investigating accusations of bribe-taking. One day, no doubt, Andrew Lloyd Webber will write a musical based on his colourful life.

“I nearly married Adolf Hitler.” Not a boast that everyone could, or would, like to make, but it was true of Verena Wagner Lafferentz, who died in April aged 98. She was the youngest daughter of Siegfried Wagner and the great-granddaughter of Franz Liszt. Hitler, a big fan of Wagner’s music,  charmed Verena with his plans for world domination. But she had to settle for a lesser Nazi and married instead Bodo Lafferentz, an SS-Obersturmbannführer who had joined the NSDAP in 1933, and who founded and oversaw the “Institute for Physical Research”, part of the Flossenbürg concentration camp, to develop the V-2 rocket. Despite her obvious knowledge of the Nazis’ genocide, after 1945 Verena was allowed by the Allies to live a happy, rich and and peaceful life near Lake Constance, on the Swiss border. Another ghastly person to expire was Mario Fabbrocino, leader of the Fabbrocino mafia clan that gathered around the Vesuvius area near Naples. He carried out a murder in 1982, was on the run until 1997 when he was extradited from Argentina. He died in prison hospital aged 76.

Rumble Fish (1983) was one of Francis Ford Coppola’s rare box office disasters, the bone-headed critics failing to appreciate on first release its über-cool existential themes and characters. It should be in everyone’s top ‘100 great movies’ list. It stars Mickey Rourke in a thoughtful role, and a young Matt Dillon as his younger brother. Barry M. Malkin edited the movie, along with just about all Coppola’s films; he died aged 80 in April. Berit Elisabeth (‘Bibi’) Andersson (pictured left), a radiant Swedish beauty who acted in numerous movies directed by Ingmar Bergman, including his masterful The Seventh Seal (1957), had a stroke in 2009 that left her speechless – an irony given her work – and she finally died in April aged 83. 

Every Christmas Kelsey liked to scoff a lot of caviare as a treat

Eunice Fay McKenzie reached 101 and was still working as an actor when she died in Los Angeles. She first appeared in silent movies as a child, then graduated to Westerns opposite Gene Autry, and used her talent for singing to take on roles that others couldn’t manage. Edward Kelsey, loved (or loathed) by millions who listened to BBC Radio 4’s weekday soap opera The Archers for playing ‘lovable’ crusty old Joe Grundy, died aged 88. Every Christmas Kelsey liked to scoff a lot of caviare as a treat. In France, Anne Bourguignon, known professionally as ‘Anemone’, who numbered among her movie credits Santa Claus is garbage (1982) died aged 68. John Singleton, the US movie director who was best known for his Boyz n the Hood (1991), for which he was nominated for the Oscar for Best Director, became the first African-American and the youngest person to be so nominated. He had a stroke in early April and died some days later after life-support was withdrawn; he was 51.

Karol Modzelewski, an honorary citizen of Wroclaw, in Poland, died at the age of 81. The adopted son of a Polish communist who lived in exile in Moscow, he became an academic in Warsaw and joined the PUWP (Polish United Workers Party) but was expelled from the party in 1964 for opposing certain policies – he co-authored the famous ‘Open Letter to the Party’ with Jacek Kuron, and for his pains was jailed for three years. Remaining in opposition, in 1980 he came up with the name Solidarity (Solidarnosc) to christen the striking workers’ movement. Menachem Mendel Taub, a rabbi in Jerusalem and a survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp, where he was subjected to one of Josef Mengele’s “experiments” and thus left unable to have children or grow facial hair, died aged 96. He wrote prolifically – including a 13 volume series on the Torah and Jewish holidays. Povl Falk-Jensen used the code name Eigil (meaning ‘sword’s edge’) when he joined the Danish resistance to the occupation by the Nazis in 1940-45, during which time he killed eleven collaborators; when he died on 25 April he was 98.

Few people are known by their first name, but if your Christian names are Jean Benoît Guillaume Robert Antoine Louis Marie Adolphe Marc, then just “Jean” is certainly easier to remember. Jean, Grand Duke of Luxembourg (pictured right), died on 23 April aged 98. He reigned between 1964 until he abdicated in 2000, in favour of his son Henri. During the Second World War he served in the Irish Guards, fought at the Battle of Caen, and helped liberate Luxembourg. Charity Sunshine Tillemann-Dick lived to the age of 35; she was an American singer who, by a terrible twist of fate, suffered from pulmonary hypertension and had a double lung transplant in 2009, and then another in 2012, before contracting cancer in 2018.

Let’s have a round of (silent) applause for Angel Cecelia Helene Walker, aka Satan’s Angel, who died in San Francisco aged 74. Walker won an amateur burlesque contest in 1961 and then took it up professionally. Her signature act was to set light to her tassels, then put the flames out by vigorous rotation of her breasts. She would sometimes twirl five tassels at a time: two on her nipples, two on her buttocks, and one on her navel. Her act might have tickled “Ian Cognito”, the stage name of Paul John Barbieri, a stand-up British comedian who reputedly had a short temper; he collapsed and died on stage in April, aged 60, thus paying an inadvertent homage to a greater comedian, Tommy Cooper, who similarly expired before an audience in 1984.

See you at the end of May – maybe.

Picture source: Manuel González Olaechea, Ingmar Bergman, Jac Nijs