RIP December 2017

Attention-seekers, aristocrats, dullards, misfits, fakers...all went in December, an end-of-year bonus for The Reaper. He snatched away - as usual - the worthy and the unworthy, showing no discrimination.

Christine Keeler (pictured) was no conventional beauty, but when young she had a gritty allure, her chiseled features a memorable image from the myriad black-and-white photos that were taken of her. Her fame was entirely based on her looks, and her notoriety, a victim of supposedly scandalised (but in reality salacious) society. Her chutzpah disguised a deep vulnerability, one that exposed her to the abuse of men throughout her life. By the time she died at the age of 75 in December she had been used and abused by countless males, from childhood onward. At just nine years old a school inspector judged she was suffering from malnutrition; when she was 17 she gave birth to a child, the result of a brief fling with a US Air Force type; the child died six days later.

Keeler’s fate was to become an icon of the shabby hypocrisy of 1960s England

She graduated in the 1960s into topless dancing in the seedy London clubs and, step by step, came to the attention of men looking for an easy fling, landing up attending ‘parties’ at Cliveden, the mansion home of Lord Astor, where Keeler rubbed shoulders – and much else – with the ‘great and the good’ including John Profumo, the UK’s Secretary of State for War. Her brief affair with him, and with Yevgeny Ivanov, a Soviet spy, brought about the downfall of Profumo; the suicide of Stephen Ward, an osteopath who was maliciously found guilt of living on ‘immoral earnings’ from Keeler (she paid him a small amount to help out with household expenses when she lived in his flat); and a short spell in prison for Keeler as a result of a separate police investigation.

Keeler’s fate was to become an icon of the shabby hypocrisy of 1960s England, living out the remainder of her life famous for a small but memorable walk-on part in an era when everything was supposedly ‘swinging’; despite her personal courage, power crushed her, and Stephen Ward, like a rock on a beetle. Had her antics caught the attention of today’s media she could have made a fortune as a celebrity; and few would have cared about the security ‘threat’ she supposedly represented. Truly RIP Christine.

It’s always sad to see the death of those who not only speak truth to power, but who actually face real threats to themselves in so doing. One such was the Russian Arseny Roginsky, who died in Israel on 18 December aged 71. Roginsky, a historian, was one of the founders of the International Historical and Civil Rights Memorial, and its head since 1998. He was also a leading editor of samizdat publications, delving into the history of the former Soviet Union and its satellite states, serving a four-year sentence from 1981 on trumped-up charges of forging documents. The crushing of creative work under Soviet communism paradoxically acted both as stimulus and obstacle – while it gave many artists something to kick against, others were simply kicked over by it. One of the latter was Drahomíra Vihanová, the Czech film director who died aged 87; she scarcely go going before being forced to stop, her first feature film, Squandered Sunday (Zabitá nedele), featuring a day in the life of a disaffected drunk soldier, being banned before it could be released in 1969.

What is to be said of ‘Angry Grandpa’, who conquered the Internet in a late flowering of his ‘talent’ as an old grumpy bastard?

Charles Marvin Green Jr, a former firefighter from South Carolina, died aged 67, having belated made a packet from his appearance on YouTube among others. He symbolises the absurdities of the world we now inhabit, in which serious individuals can posit that a cigar-shaped asteroid is an alien spacecraft, and that Jean-Claud Juncker is a principled person rather than a minor politician who legitimised tax evasion on a massive scale in his home country of Luxembourg. Green, who suffered from cirrhosis of the liver, may well have exploded from apoplexy, either real or fake. One of Green’s more memorable Internet snippets features him throwing a jar of pickle juice over his adult son Michael, and shouting “pickle boy! pickle boy!” again and again. In a mad country such madness passes for artistry; Laurel and Hardy did it better.

Some lived an entirely quiet, retiring life, such as the dressmaker Ana María Vela Rubio, who was Spain’s oldest person ever, and who died on 15 December at the age of 116 years and 47 days. The American Lieutenant General Edward Leon Rowny had a much noisier time, seeing action in the Second World War, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, before passing out on 17 December, aged 100. The Swiss abstract painter Walter Mafli reached 102, while Magda Fedor, the Hungarian sports shooter who was nicknamed Aunt Baby, achieved 103. Wang Qun, the former Communist Party Secretary of Inner Mongolia, died aged 91. At the other end of the age spectrum Max Burkhart, a German alpine skier, died in a downhill race accident aged just 17.

One of the more interesting characters to die this month was Charles Robert Jenkins (pictured), who lived till he was 77. He must have many times regretted his decision to desert his army unit in South Korea in 1965, crossing the border into North Korea, from where he hoped to be sent to the Soviet Union. Instead he and three other US service personnel were locked in a one-room house and made to study daily the Juche texts of the former dictator Kim Il-Sung. Being forced to study Kim’s gobbledegook rendition of sub-Leninist garbage might be thought to be punishment enough; not at all. When Jenkins finally voluntarily returned to the US in 2004 he was tried by a military court, sentenced to 30 days, and forfeited all back pay and benefits; considering he was on the army payroll for 14,949 days he would otherwise been quite a wealthy man. He died aged 77 in Japan, where he had settled with his Japanese wife, a 21 year-old nursing student who had been abducted by North Korea in 1978 and ‘given’ to Jenkins when he was 40.

Clifford Irving, the American journalist and novelist, went at the age of 87 on 19 December. In many ways his greatest achievement was typically American, concocting a fake and thereby gaining a mountain of money. He spent 17 months in jail, having been sued for penning a supposedly real (but entirely fake) autobiography of the billionaire weirdo Howard Hughes, for which he obtained an advance of $765,000. Nothing daunted, when Irving cast off his prison garb he immediately wrote up the story of the fake autobiography, cheekily called it The Hoax, and sold the film rights. In 2006 it was made into a movie and starred another strange man, Richard Gere (who is still with us). Judith Miller, an American journalist whose stories about Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction in 2003 were later deemed by her employer, the New York Times, to be false, died aged 69. She was herself the victim of a hoax when in 2001 she opened an anthrax hoax letter posted to her NYT office. She ended her career at the place best suited to reporters who are too casual about their sources, Fox News.

He also accumulated a fine collection of oddities, including a glass eye that once belonged to Sammy Davis Jr.

Another faker, María Aline Griffith Dexter, Countess of Romanones, died in December, at 94. An American by birth, she started her working life as a model working for Henrietta Kanengeiser. The Kanengeisers emigrated from Vienna to America, where Henrietta took the name ‘Hattie Carnegie’. Aline Griffith claimed to have been recruited by the OSS (the Office of Strategic Services, the wartime intelligence agency of the US) to go to wartime Spain and spy. In 1947 she met and married there Luis Figueroa y Pérez de Guzmán el Bueno, Count of Quintanilla, and the couple later became the Count and Countess of Romanones – Aline had achieved her lifetime ambition of being able to host lavish parties, where guests included Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Donald Trump, and Salvador Dalí. By all accounts a woman with a nasty temper, the historian Nigel West once wrote of her espionage claims that her “supposedly factual accounts were completely fictional.”

The mentally disabled Prince François of Orléans, the Dauphin of France – the eldest son of the Orleanist pretender to the French throne – died on 31 December aged 56; his disability resulted from his mother, the Duchess Marie Therese of Württemburg, suffering from toxoplasmosis during the pregnancy. María del Carmen Franco y Polo, 1st Duchess of Franco, Grandee of Spain, and the Dowager Marchioness of Villaverde, died aged 91. She was the only child of the Spanish dictator General Francisco Franco. She was given the title Duchess of Franco in 1975 by King Juan Carlos. She was head of the Fundación Nacional Francisco Franco, which refers to the 1936 coup he led as an “armed referendum”, and which is dedicated to defending the memory and deeds of her fascist father. At the age of 80, Mariam Nabieva died in a fire at her home in the city of Khujand, in Tajikistan. She was the widow of Rahom Nabiev, the first post-Soviet president of the Central Asian republic, who died in 1993 from a heart attack; his death may well have been brought on by the raging civil war that started in March 1992 and ended five years later, during which an estimated 100,000 died.

Of course Britain has its fair share of hoaxers, too, and one of the most notorious, Max Clifford (pictured), died in December aged 74. Clifford liked to call himself a publicist, although he worked hard for his clients to keep their embarrassing stories out of as much as getting them into the media. Like many hoaxers, Clifford was a paradox: on one hand, he revelled in exposing the hypocrisy of some of the more pompous members of the establishment, was a lifelong Labour Party supporter, and was active in various charities; on the other he was a liar and a defender of some extremely dubious public figures. His life was brought to a halt by a heart attack in prison, where he was serving eight years for sexual offences against girls aged 14-19.

Of the numerous fakers who died this month perhaps only one made a profession of his skill. John Robert Fox – his stage name was Johnny Fox – was an American professional sword-swallower and magician, who died aged 64 from liver cancer, possibly brought on by his early experiences as a fire-eater. He spent months practising sword-swallowing and eventually he could take down his gullet 22 inches of steel. He also accumulated a fine collection of oddities, including a glass eye that once belonged to Sammy Davis Jr.

Finally, it’s now certain the 44 crew members of the missing Argentine submarine San Juan are dead. The Argentine navy gave up hope on 1 December but the search for the sub’s whereabouts continues. The 34 year-old West German-built sub was updated during 2008-2013, when the vessel was first cut in half and then had its engines and batteries replaced. In an odd footnote to this incident, the worst submarine loss since the Russian Kursk sank in the Barents Sea in August 2002, killing all 118 crew members, a Royal Air Force aircraft – part of the international recovery effort – became the first RAF plane to land at Comodoro Rivadavia, an Argentine airport, since the 1982 Falklands War.

We hope that 2018 brings you joy, and keeps The Reaper from you and your loved ones.

Picture sources: Open Media Ltd, US Army, Howard Lake