This morning I read Colin McEnroe’s column from yesterday’s Courant, where he confessed his grief over the recent deaths of Robin Williams and Philip Seymour Hoffman. “We are not wrong to grieve them elaborately,” McEnroe said in opposition to people who feel like our sadness over the deaths of celebrities is distracting us from real tragedies in other parts of the world.
On the surface, the idea of us grieving celebrities seems strange. We don’t know them, they don’t know us. Their exaltation seems superfluous in a world plagued by tremendous amounts of suffering. But for many people, myself included, the connection to a celebrity transcends fandom.
I remember hearing about Philip Seymour Hoffman. My sister sent me a text right before the curtain went up at a local production of Evita. I mentally missed the whole show thinking about it. A week later, I heard about Shirley Temple Black via Facebook. I cried. She was my childhood hero, and her death seemed morbid somehow, as if she had died an 8-year-old girl instead of an 85-year-old woman. In my mind, probably in many people’s minds, Shirley Temple could never die. Neither could Mickey Rooney, but he did two months later. If I had been around in 1969 when Judy Garland was found dead in London, I’m not sure what I’d have done.
It’s hard for me to describe the effect Old Hollywood had on me. To me, it’s enough to say that it profoundly shaped the direction of my life, but to others, that might seem dramatic. How could I have connected so strongly to Shirley, Mickey, and Judy when I was around their ages myself, watching them from a point of view two or three generations behind them? Nonetheless, I did. I took tap and permed my hair to be more like Shirley. In 7th grade, I wrote a script for and attempted to direct an all-girls version of Boys Town, starring my own family members and, of course, me as Whitey (or Jocelyn) Marsh. I did a few projects on Judy Garland and received so many books on her as gifts, which stoked my fascination with her tragic life. If they’re gone, is part of me gone too?
Admittedly, Shirley and Mickey’s deaths weren’t tragedies. But Judy’s was. Philip’s was. Robin’s was. No one is making our current global horrors any less horrible by acknowledging this and mourning them for it. McEnroe exalts the latter two as heroes for taking the horrible truths of the world and bringing light to them through their art.
Making art in a world full of suffering is not selfish or irrelevant or ignorant. Leonard Bernstein said this before and it remains true today: “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.” The power of artists to pull people, individually and together, out of despair and anger is tremendous. We mourn them because they lived in us and shaped our souls. That’s about as human an experience anyone can have.