Photo: A Hot Wheels model of a customized 1963 Cadillac hearse listed on EBay at $6.50.
Queen of the Dead – dateline February 27, 2012
• Do you collect Instant Disaster books? I do. I have same-year accounts of the General Slocum fire, the Johnstown flood, the Titanic, the Iroquois Theater fire—and of course the San Francisco earthquake and fire. News came this week of the death of 109-year-old Rose Cliver on February 18; she was one of the last survivors of the 1906 disaster. She was only three at the time and there is no way she actually remembered it, but having been told of the scene over and over again, she recalled, “We watched San Francisco burn. They wouldn’t let us live in our house afterward. We had to live in the backyard in a tent. We were living like Okies in our own place. It was really a sight to see.” In 2009, Cliver took part in a memorial parade with fellow survivor William Del Monte, then 103 to her 106. “It’s a blind date,” said Del Monte. “I like older women.” And I like William Del Monte: I wonder if he’s still alive?
• Swashbuckling adventurer John Fairfax, 74, died on February 8—at his home, of a heart, attack, surprisingly. No blow-darts or thrashing sharks seem to have been involved. Fairfax was the first person known to have rowed solo across the Atlantic Ocean, in 1969, from the Canary Islands to Florida (me, I take a cab if it’s more than three blocks). In 1972, he and a girlfriend rowed from San Francisco to Australia, surviving a shark attack and a cyclone” (I had a bad date, too, once, but it just involved one of those guys who tried to impress me by yelling at the waiter). As a tot, Fairfax was kicked out of the Italian Boy Scouts, and ran away from home at 13 to live in the jungle; he later captained a gun-, cigarette- and whiskey-selling boat. “He was a man of unbelievable strength and courage and confidence in everything he did,” said his widow, whom I picture as looking like Jill St. John and being a bit breathless.
• Gorgeous 1940s starlet Elyse Knox (who died at 94 on February 16) doesn’t look like a “matriarch,” but that’s what she was: Knox and her husband, football star Tom Harmon, were the parents of show-biz successes Mark, Kristin and Kelly Harmon, and were the grandparents of the annoying 1980s band Nelson. Elyse (who was previously married to photographer Paul Hesse) appeared in dozens of films between 1937 and ’49, both blockbusters and poverty-row: Lillian Russell, All-American Co-Ed, Hi’ya, Sailor, Army Wives (playing, amusingly, a character named Jerry Van Dyke), The Mummy’s Tomb, and Hit the Ice, with Abbott and Costello; she played girlfriend Anne Howe (ha!) in six Joe Palooka films.
• You are going to hate me, but now I am going to get “Limbo Rock” stuck in your head for the rest of the day (why should I suffer alone? “Every limbo boy and girl, all around the limbo world . . .”). Its co-writer (with Kal Mann), Billy Strange, died on February 22, age 81. Strange was also a guitarist, singer, arranger and producer, and can be heard on such classics as the Ann-Margret “Bye Bye Birdie” recording, numerous Beach Boys hits, Dino, Desi & Billy’s “I’m a Fool,” Doris Day’s “Move Over, Darling,” Elvis Presley’s Viva Las Vegas,” the Munsters theme, the Sinatras’ “Something Stupid,” and numerous others. He recorded his own albums, and wrote several other numbers—but it is “Limbo Rock” that will live on (and on, and on) in my head. Now I am off to YouTube that scene from Moonlighting where Dave leads an office limbo party while Maddie is away . . .