RIP March 2018

They say the good die young, which doesn't imply that the bad die old - it just seems that way. Read all about some of the bad in this month's roundup.

If you read the obituaries of Peter Munk, who died on 28 March aged 90, you might be convinced that here was a noble character, who miraculously escaped the Nazis at 16, arrived in Canada in 1948, and built a business empire that dispensed hundred of millions of Canadian dollars to worthy causes. A thoroughly good chap, in other words.

There was a darker side to Munk; he was a nasty bully

But there was a darker side to Munk; ‘Fedora Man’, as he was known for his preference for hat garb in all climates and occasions, was a nasty bully and an unscrupulously greedy man.He had the good fortune to marry Linda Joy Gutterson in 1958, who was just 19 when he was 29; his new father-in-law stumped up a smallish sum for him to start a business making stereos. Greedy as hell, Munk managed to drive that business into the dirt amid accusations of insider trading; Munk and his partner quietly sold 29,000 of the stereo company’s shares  in 1967 for $9 a share, just prior to publication of the company’s financial report warned that the company was failing – whereupon the shares plunged to just $1. His main business venture was the formation of Barrick Gold at the start of the 1980s; Barrick grew to be the world’s biggest gold mining company. A former regular skiing partner of Prince Charles, Munk became the titular head of Barrick, from which position of power he threatened professional death to any analyst who took a dim view of the gold price – while nevertheless supervising the selling-forward of gold for the best price available, thus helping to push the price down, rather than trusting that the price would rise. The Nazis were bastards; and Munk may well have learned a lot from them.

katie boyle

I well remember the remark of a Granada TV producer on first seeing Katie Boyle (pictured), who has died at the age of 91: “Look at the tits on that!” It was a remark in deliberate bad taste, designed to offend me and others listening, and which says much about said producer and the general culture of British commercial TV in the mid-1980s. Boyle was by then no spring chicken but nevertheless ‘well-preserved’, as the cliché had it. She was appearing on a mid-afternoon show of a very short run, a filler designed to plug a gap in the schedules. It was all about women who had experienced a tragedy in their life – Anna Raeburn and P. D. James were two others – and I was the very junior researcher. Of all the guests I remember Boyle giving the least away about herself, hiding behind her long-practised flamboyance. She once appeared in a TV show alongside the comedian Lance Percival, called Lance That Boyle: it died after three episodes. If she has a lasting place in the popular imagination it will be for her presenting a few episodes of the Eurovision Song Contest, when she impressed by her fluent language skills. By odd coincidence March also saw the death of Lys Assia (born Rosa Mina Schärer), the Swiss singer who won the first Eurovision song contest in 1956; she was 94.

I well remember the remark of a Granada TV producer on first seeing Katie Boyle, who has died at the age of 91: “Look at the tits on that!”

This column always likes to pay attention to those centenarians who have died, as much because I am always surprised that anyone wants to live that long as anything else. So here goes.

Angelo Eugenio Dorfles, an Italian painter who turned to academic life as a professor of aesthetics, died at the age of 107; it is remarkable he lived that long, given that he was Jewish – he managed to avoid the final year of slaughter of Jews that took place in 1944 in Italy. An orphan at the age of just eight, Clarence F. Stephens was only the 9th black American to gain a doctorate in mathematics; he died aged 100. Jacques Clemens was a Dutch Roman Catholic priest who lived to 108. Millie Dunn Veasey enlisted in 1942 with the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion in the US army, the only all-women and all-black battalion to serve overseas during the Second World War; she later became a prominent figure in the civil rights movement in the US. Noorjahan Kakon Bibi – who was born Kaket Hanchiata – was a heroic freedom fighter and spy for Bangladesh in the war of liberation in 1971, during which she was captured and badly tortured, including by use of a red-hot iron rod, by the Pakistani army. Because her birth was unrecorded there are doubts about how old she was when she died of pneumonia, but we’ll settle on 103. Johan Wilhelm van Hulst made it to 107; he was a teacher, author, chess player and politician in the Netherlands, but above all he saved as many as 1,000 Jewish children and babies during the Nazi occupation. He once said: “You know for a fact that the children you leave behind are going to die. I took 12 with me. Later on I asked myself: ‘Why not 13?'” The Hungarian pianist Lívia Rév, a child prodigy, made it to 101, while Drue Heinz, publisher of The Paris Review, reached 103. Pride of place this month goes to Huguette Masson, an obscure Frenchwoman who died when she was 113, and was thus a super-centenarian.

Oskar Gröning, a junior SS leader at Auschwitz, died at the age of 96, shortly before he was due to start a four-year sentence for war crimes

Few prayers will be said for Rosendo Rodriguez III, who was executed in America at the age of 38 for the rape and murder in 2005 of 29 year-old Summer Lee Baldwin, a prostitute who was five months’ pregnant at the time of her death. Millions of duped Russians who lost all their money in a get-rich-quick fraud will have partied on the news of the death of Sergei Mavrodi, the Russian financial criminal and former member of the Russian Duma. Mavrodi was the crafty creator of MMM and similar pyramid schemes; he died from heart problems aged 62. Oskar Gröning, who was a junior squad leader in the SS at Auschwitz, died at the age of 96, shortly before he was due to start a four-year sentence for war crimes. His case was particularly poignant; more than 40 years after the events he made public his time at Auschwitz (where it appears he did not participate in any killings) in order to attack those who denied that the Holocaust took place. This openness led to his being charged by German prosecutors as an accessory to murder. Reynaldo Bignone, the 41st President of Argentina (between July 1982 and December 1983), died at the age of 90. In 2010 he was sentenced to 25 years in jail for his part in the kidnapping, torture and murder of 56 people in the Dirty War. The oldest living British Olympian, William Ernest Lucas, who ended the Second World War as a squadron leader in the RAF Bomber Command and who ran in the 1948 5,000 metre race, met his end aged 101.


Bozo the clown is no more – or at least, one of his incarnations, Frank Avruch, is no more

The French actor Stéphane Audran – born Colette Suzanne Dacheville – died on 27 March at the age of 85. For more than 50 years she was a familiar figure in French movies, marrying in 1964 the director Claude Chabrol, in whose early movies she had a leading role, notably in his Le Boucher of 1970. In 1972 she appeared in Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, but for my money her most moving role was as the mysterious chef in Babette’s Feast, which in 1987 became the first Danish film to win the foreign language Oscar. In it she plays a cook for a pair of elderly and deeply pious sisters, who are used to bland meals and austerity. One day Babette – Audran – wins the French lottery and spends the whole 10,000 francs on preparing a fabulous meal for the sisters and their friends, as a way of thanking them for their generosity in taking her in when she was friendless; the meal acts as a symbolic representation of human generosity and warmth. She will be missed but her movies live on.

Bozo (pictured) the clown is no more – or at least, one of his incarnations, Frank Avruch, is no more. The character Bozo first appeared on US television in 1949 and Avruch played him for almost a decade in the 1960s. According to his manager Stuart Hersh: “He brought the Bozo the Clown character to life better than anyone else’s portrayal of Bozo the Clown.” Dick Wilmarth, an American dog musher who won the first Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in 1973, died aged 75. Madge Bester, who suffered from osteogenesis imperfecta and was once the world’s shortest woman (just 65 cm tall) died aged 54.

The Ukrainian pilot Vladyslav Voloshyn, who was accused by Russia of shooting down the Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 in 2014, killing all 298 people on board, apparently killed himself at the age of 29. He denied the allegation and Dutch investigators concluded that a Russian Buk missile was responsible. His death is a bit of a mystery – he was reportedly happily married and adored his children – and it is being investigated as “premeditated murder”. Another mysterious death was that of Nikolai Glushkov who was a former deputy director of the Russian state airline Aeroflot. He was jailed for three years in 1999 on charges of channeling Aeroflot money through another company, although this charge was levied at him after he claimed that Aeroflot was “a cash cow to support international spying operations”. Glushkov gained political asylum in the UK in 2010 but was sentenced to eight years in prison in absentia by a Russian court – and the UK refused to extradite him. Initially his death was officially “unexplained” but the Metropolitan police now regard it as murder by strangulation.

Ken Dodd

One cunning slip and you might survive.

Who else to pick? Not Sir Ken Dodd (pictured), that jolly cheeky-chappie from Liverpool who would bore me to tears when I was forced to watch him on TV; not Stephen Hawking, who made a career of fantasising about the unknown and incomprehensible, and who owed a lot to his wheelchair; not Sir Roger Bannister, perhaps the last athlete who didn’t take drugs to boost his career; not even Yann Arnaud, the 38 year-old Cirque du Soleil “aerialist” who fell to his death during a performance in Florida – a fine metaphor for life, perhaps; one slip and you are finished.

One cunning slip and you might survive. The story of Fergus Gordon Anckorn is quite remarkable and largely ignored. When he died in March this 99 year-old had been the longest serving member of the Magic Circle, which he joined when a schoolboy in Kent. Calle up into the British army in the Second World War as a gunner in the Royal Artillery, Anckorn had the bad luck to be immediately shipped of to Singapore in February 1942. There he was swiftly taken prisoner by the Japanese and ultimately was a forced labourer on the Burma Railway, where his magic came in handy; he performed tricks for the camp commandant using food as props which, when it “disappeared” later found its way into his stomach. He survived the war – just: he weighed less than 84 pounds when he was freed – and played tricks happily ever after.

Until April: stay alive.

Picture sources: Olga Carlisle, Rogerbozo, David A Ellis