People who died in 2011 

Lesser-known but significant figures

  • Illustrations by Ben Claassen

The whole world knew when Korean dictator Kim Jong Il died. Likewise with Osama bin Laden, Elizabeth Taylor and Steve Jobs. When sideman’s-sideman Clarence Clemons, screen icon Elizabeth Taylor and irascible essayist Christopher Hitchens died, Facebook lit up with bursts of YouTube memorial vids and R.I.P. messages, as a plugged-in world mourned in synchronicity.

Then there were those whose deaths didn’t cause such a stir – lesser-known figures whose impact on our lives was measured less in Twitterverse mentions and hashtags than in quirky cultural contributions, underappreciated musical legacies or maybe just quiet dedication to their crafts. They shaped the world we live in, sometimes in more significant ways than the famous and infamous whose faces filled up our newsfeeds, status updates and inboxes all year long.

This is our annual tribute to those dearly departed who, whether you noticed them or not, helped give our world some character.

Tura Satana

Russ Meyer scream queen

Tura Satana was known to most for a single role – but what a role. As the unrivaled star of Russ Meyer’s 1965 cult classic film Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, she tore across the screen at the wheel of a speeding sports car and made mincemeat of dumb hick himbos, alternately bedding and beating them to death. Her severe bangs, kohl-dark eyes, yawningly low-cut black top and leather boots made her a literal icon, but her character’s sexual/physical confidence and fuck-you-Jack attitude impressed themselves on the brains of generations of trash hounds and grrrls as well. Meyer, a purveyor of schlock titillation, had unwittingly created a proto-feminist heroine; pop-culture-wise, if the film and Satana’s character had not existed, somebody – the Cramps, Quentin Tarantino, somebody – would have had to invent them.

Satana came by her outrageous screen presence honestly. Born Tura Yamaguchi in Hokkaido, Japan, in 1938, she was the daughter of a Filipino-Japanese actor father and a half Native-American circus performer mother, an unusual heritage that shaped her exotic-anywhere good looks. The family relocated to the United States in 1942, just in time to land Tura and her father in a Japanese internment camp in California for the duration of World War II. Her voluptuous figure blossomed early, and when she was 9 years old and living in Chicago, she was gang-raped by five teenagers. During her tumultuous teenage years, she learned martial arts (at the behest of her father, so she could defend herself), joined a girl gang, spent time in reform school and began a career as an exotic dancer. A brief arranged marriage left her one important legacy: the legal name Tura Satana.

She soon moved to Hollywood, where she dated Elvis Presley, among other notables. While still dancing, she won a smattering of small movie and TV roles before Russ Meyer, ever on the lookout for buxom talent for his exploitation flicks, cast her as the star of his new movie. He typecast her, in a way, since her character, Varla, was a go-go dancer and the leader of an ad hoc girl gang, but Satana’s physical brawn (she was nearly 6 feet tall) and no-nonsense combativeness proved perfect for the character, too. She not only stood up to Meyer’s hapless male characters, she stood up to their creator – in an interview for a documentary film on director Ted Mikels, she recounted getting so mad during an argument with Meyer over how to shoot a scene that she punched a wall, breaking her hand. Faster, Pussycat! wasn’t a hit on its initial release, but her sheer forcefulness onscreen, not to mention her character’s mold-breaking badassness, made the film a slow-burning cult smash.

Satana landed a few more acting gigs, either small parts in bigger projects or starring roles in shoddy exploitations before she gave up acting and then dancing. While her life after her minor fame as a performer was not without drama – she was shot in the stomach by an ex in the mid-’70s and broke her back in a car accident in 1981 – she lived quietly for the most part, working as a nurse and in hotel security while settling down with her third husband, a former police officer. She also made the usual rounds of fan conventions and fanboy interviews, game and forthcoming to the last. She died Feb. 4, 2011, at age 72, but thanks to Meyer, she will always be kicking ass in brutal black and white on some screen somewhere. – Lee Gardner

Owsley Stanley

The king of LSD

If you want to understand about half the reason nice, middle-class white folks shit themselves in the ’60s, it will help you to remember that Augustus Owsley Stanley III was the financial force, sound engineer and acid dealer behind the Grateful Dead, and that he also supplied the LSD that stoked the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour, fueled Ken Kesey’s band of Merry Pranksters, aided Hunter S. Thompson’s (and, by extension, the Hell’s Angels’) brand of bad craziness and inspired Jimi Hendrix.

He made at least a million doses of the stuff, by various estimates. Maybe 5 million. As Rolling Stone asked in its 2007 reprisal of that time, “Would the Summer of Love have ever happened without Stanley … ?”

Stanley, who was known as “the Dancing Bear” to the Dead and its army of followers, and (in the Steely Dan lyric) as “Kid Charlemagne,” began life in Kentucky in 1935, the grandson of a U.S. Senator. His parents divorced and were living a continent apart when he got himself thrown out of Charlotte Hall, a military prep school in Maryland, for smuggling booze into the homecoming soiree. He spent some time in a mental hospital, then studied engineering at the University of Virginia, where he’d sell his textbooks back to the store at full price a week after their purchase – having, he said, memorized their contents. He was a radio operator and, for a time, a ballet dancer.

In 1963, Stanley moved to Berkeley, Calif. He sold pot and other drugs before scoring some Sandoz Laboratories acid in 1964. Three weeks later he’d figured out how to make it better than the venerable Swiss lab did, and a legend was born.

But making the purest LSD was not Stanley’s only trick. He also joined the Grateful Dead as a sound engineer, building some of its equipment, designing its lightning-bolt-with-skull logo and shaping the famous “wall of sound” that brought throngs to the band’s shows. Stanley’s early recordings of the band are still being released.

Stanley and the Dead eventually parted company, and his eccentricities were known to cause rifts – like Stanley’s insistence that the band only eat meat. Stanley believed that vegetables were toxic. He claimed he ate only meat for 50 years or more, and that the diet helped save him from throat cancer.

Famously reclusive, in the 1980s he moved to the Australian outback to work on his jewelry, a trade he learned during a two-year prison stint in the early ’70s. “I don’t want my life exposed publicly,” he told Rolling Stone. “I’m interested in the work I’ve done and the things I’ve discovered and in some of my philosophical stuff, because I think it’s of value, but I’m not into being a celebrity, because I think celebrityhood has no value to anyone, least of all to the celebrity. I’ve watched wonderful people get destroyed by it.”

Stanley was, himself, destroyed when his car went over an embankment on March 13. His wife survived the crash.

And the philosophical stuff? Stanley had said he moved to Australia to escape a coming ice age he expected would envelope the Northern Hemisphere. His view of things beyond was inspired by The Kybalion, a book of ancient wisdom he read decades ago. The book, he told Rolling Stone, “was perfect because it put into total context all the things I had experienced on acid. The universe is a creation entirely within a being that is outside time and space, and dreaming what we are. Everything is connected, because it’s all being created by this one consciousness. And we are tiny reflections of the mind that is creating the universe.” – Edward Ericson Jr.

Robert Ettinger

Father of the cryogenics movement

To say Robert Ettinger is dead is not entirely accurate, at least not in his mind and those of his followers. Legally dead, maybe, and certainly dead to the current world, but not, necessarily, dead-dead, as in permanently.

Ettinger, whose life went on extended pause on July 23, was the father of the cryogenics movement – the freezing of humans and other mammals upon declaration of clinical death with the idea that at some point in the future sufficiently advanced technology will exist to warm them back up and allow them to continue healthy lives. Ettinger passed after a brief illness at the age of 92, surrounded by a cadre of nurses, EMTs and family members with coolers of ice carefully arranged ahead of time in order to ensure his body be frozen as quickly as possible.

Born in 1918, in Atlantic City, N.J., Ettinger was an early lover of science fiction. In the ’30s he read Neil R. Jones’ “The Jameson Satellite,” a short story depicting a professor who jettisons himself into the cold vastness of space before he dies, to be awoken millions of years later and revived by a race of technologically advanced aliens with organic brains and robotic bodies. Ettinger cites the story as the catalyst for pursuing his own ideas of cryogenics, which stemmed from his childhood belief that human immortality would eventually be achieved – and why wait for aliens when we could learn ourselves? When he realized, as he grew older, that no one was actively working toward this goal, he wrote his own short story, “The Penultimate Trump” (so named in reference to the angel Gabriel’s final trumpet), published in March 1948 in pulp science fiction magazine Startling Stories.

At the time Ettinger first began seriously pursuing what would eventually be called cryogenics in the early ’60s, the country was beginning to realize concepts that had previously been the stuff of science fiction, most notably the rise of space programs in the United States and Russia. The culmination of Ettinger’s early ideas came in the form of his groundbreaking 1964 book The Prospect of Immortality, which garnered Ettinger, previously a college physics professor, attention and fame from national publications. His growing fame spawned organizations like the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, the American Cryonics Society and eventually the Cryonics Institute, which today hosts 107 human “patients,” including Ettinger and his mother and two wives. CI materials include references to scientific accomplishments that make resurrecting cryogenics patients seem not so implausible, including that fertilized eggs can be frozen and later revived to create healthy children.

In a 1987 edition of Immortality, Ettinger details his motivations in a foreword, discussing why cryogenics is a possibility, and how much of the lack of advancement is due to skepticism. “Since 1962, most of you have done nothing,” he writes. “That’s mostly not your fault; many of you had the good sense not to be born until later dates; and most of you had few clues to the real scientific promise of immortalism, or the existence of organized groups of immortalists. Now is your chance to come in out of the dark and secure your unbounded future. … Partake, therefore, of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” – Laura Dattaro

Michael S. Hart

Founder of Project Gutenberg

On July 4, 1971, Michael S. Hart typed the Declaration of Independence onto the mainframe computer at the University of Illinois, where he had just been given an account after enrolling at the school where his father taught Shakespeare and his mother taught math. He followed soon after with entire books – the Bible, Shakespeare’s plays, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – with the idea of using the network of computers to banish ignorance and illiteracy.

“In retrospect, Project Gutenberg was both prescient and revolutionary,” Richard Poynder wrote in a 2006 blog post featuring an interview with Hart. “In effect, Hart had become the first ‘information provider’ 20 years before Tim Berners-Lee invented the Web, and at a time when there were, says Hart, just 100 people on the network. Indeed, what was to become the Internet was then viewed as little more than a powerful mechanism for crunching data – not a publishing platform.”

After 17 years, Hart had only about 300 books typed in. Then he got a boost from the University of Illinois PC Users Group, and volunteers got to work. By 2006, Project Gutenberg had about 17,000 e-books uploaded. Now there are more than 36,000.

The Disney-driven Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 threatened the enterprise, leaving millions of works that would have become copyright-free protected for decades longer. Hart was recruited to be the lead plaintiff fighting that law, but when he told the lawyer – now a Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig – that he envisioned the suit as a way to “challenge the entire social and economic system of the United States” (in the New York Times’ words), they parted company.

“I am trying to change the world, and I make no attempt to hide that I am trying to change the world,” Hart wrote on his own blog, “though I must admit that every day it seems as if I am forced to learn more and more how very much the people of the world, at least those who have voices in such things, resist the simple effort I am making to provide books to the masses of the entire planet without regard to all those boundaries.”

And so now, If you want to grab a copy of, for instance, Nang Bata Pa Kami (in Tagalog), Project Gutenberg ( is there for you. G.K. Chesterton’s The Napoleon of Notting Hill is on the same page. Pretty much everything Mark Twain ever published is there, too.

A look through Hart’s writings reveals a single-minded, true believer in first-wave Internet nirvana. Remember that “information wants to be free” moment when the Mosaic browser ruled, “commercialism” was shunned and everyone who mattered on the Web was a Palo Alto-based hippie/nerd with long hair and ripped jeans? Those guys, who changed their minds, are all billionaires now. Hart died poor on Sept. 6 at age 64 at his home in Urbana, Ill.

“I know that sounds odd to most people, but I just never bought into the money system all that much,” he told Poynder. “I never spent it when I got it. It’s all a matter of perspective; most people spend the vast majority of their money on things I just don’t care about.” – EE

Sylvia Robinson

The mother of hip-hop

Sylvia Robinson was not necessarily the person you’d imagine as the birth mother of hip-hop. She was in her early 40s in the late ’70s and already a veteran of several waves of pop music. Born Sylvia Vanderpool in New York City in 1936, she was a professional singer from her teens. At age 20, she joined forces with her guitar teacher, Mickey Baker, to form a duo. The combination of her sultry but sweet vocals and his agile electric guitar led to a mega-hit in 1957: “Love Is Strange,” a knowingly flirty tune released under the name Mickey and Sylvia. But Vanderpool wasn’t just a pop puppet; she co-wrote songs with Baker, too.

After marrying Joe Robinson in 1964, Sylvia Robinson continued in the music business, both behind the scenes and in front of the mic. She and her new husband ran a nightclub and built their own recording studio, Soul Sound, in their new hometown of Englewood, N.J. They soon formed All Platinum Records, where Sylvia Robinson not only helped run the company, she wrote songs for its artists, such as vocal group the Moments, and produced many of the label’s records. (Female producers remain rare today; female label executives rarer still.) She even sang All Platinum’s biggest hit, 1973’s “Pillow Talk,” a slinky disco number that ended with Robinson cooing in feigned coital bliss, years before Donna Summer would become famous for that.

As the ’70s waned, disco did too, as did All Platinum. The Robinsons had purchased the catalog of the legendary Chicago blues label Chess Records, an investment that backfired and all but sank its new home label. But their teenage son Joey Robinson had been going to parties uptown in New York and caught on to this crazy new scene where kids chanted rhymes over the instrumental breaks from old funk records. Stories vary on how it all came together, but there’s no dispute that Sylvia Robinson heard something in the nascent sound, recruited three utterly unknown MCs, appropriated Chic’s disco hit “Good Times” as a backing track (the first de facto uncleared sample), and recorded and released the first hip-hop single, 1979’s “Rapper’s Delight.”

More than a hit, “Rapper’s Delight” was a phenomenon, and the Robinsons’ new Sugar Hill label would become the first company devoted to releasing hip-hop. In addition to releasing any number of deep old-school party cuts, such as the Sequence’s epic “Funk You Up,” Robinson also scouted a young party DJ named Joseph Saddler, aka Grandmaster Flash, and basically browbeat him into being the artist of record, so to speak, for a more serious-minded rap written by Sugar Hill house musician/producer Ed “Duke Bootee” Fletcher. Fletcher recorded his lyrics with Flash’s cohort Melvin “Melle Mel” Glover and co-produced the track with Robinson. With its gritty description of inner-city living and despairing tone, “The Message” proved another sensation, and also tipped anyone paying attention that hip-hop could be, and would be, capable of more than starting a party. And Robinson made that happen every bit as much as Fletcher, Glover or Saddler did.

Times changed, as they do, and Sugar Hill had trouble keeping up with hip-hop’s explosive evolution. The Robinsons eventually sold the label (and later divorced). Sylvia Robinson never had any more hits, but it’s no exaggeration to say that the hits she did have, and the influence of the genre she helped put on the map, will outlive us all, as they outlived her. She died on Sept. 29 at age 75. – LG

John McCarthy

Coined the term “artificial intelligence”

No one invented the Internet. Much like the Internet itself, its birth was an amorphous collaboration of people and organizations over time, each contributing something to a whole the purpose of which still remains somewhat elusive. There was Tim Berners-Lee, the man who’s responsible for the World Wide Web. Before that there was ARPANET, a defense project designed to wire computers together to a mainframe. And before that there was John McCarthy.

McCarthy, who died Oct. 24 at the age of 84 from heart disease complications, coined the term “artificial intelligence,” a concept that emerged from the same seeds that eventually spawned the Internet. Though he mistakenly dismissed the personal computer as little more than a toy, McCarthy was among the first to envision interconnected computers and technology that could “think” rather than just compute. (Think Watson’s reasoning powers instead of Deep Blue’s chess match.) Among his earliest accomplishments is time-sharing, the concept of multiple users accessing a mainframe simultaneously for general-purpose use. And all of this in the 1950s and ’60s.

Born in 1927 in Boston to an Irish immigrant father and a Lithuanian Jewish mother, McCarthy saw early exposure to political climes. Both parents were members of the Communist party, an affiliation he would entertain briefly as a doctoral candidate at Princeton. (He later told an interviewer that the two other members of the Communist group were a gardener and a cleaning lady.) As the ’60s approached and the Vietnam War ensued, McCarthy grew disillusioned with left-wing ideas and became increasingly conservative.

Like many of our most admired, McCarthy created a stir early, finishing high school in two years and getting expelled from CalTech as an undergraduate, though he later returned to finish his degree after a stint in the Army. Over the course of his career, he worked at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Princeton, Dartmouth and Stanford, the latter of which became his working home for nearly 40 years until his retirement in 2000.

Over the course of those years, McCarthy created LISP (List Processing Language), now the second-oldest computer language still in use (after Fortran) and an early ancestor of programs like JavaScript. He also created the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (SAIL), a Pentagon-backed project to create working artificial intelligence within a decade.

Not all of McCarthy’s visionary ideas aligned with present-day truth. Rather than the personal computer that’s standard today, McCarthy envisioned a system in which users paid a monthly fee to access a shared computer terminal. But McCarthy, widely remembered by those who knew him as one who had strong beliefs about the future and worked determinedly toward realizing them, saw a fast-moving, interconnected digital age during a tumultuous and wholly analogue decade, creating a generation whose livelihoods and lifestyles are worlds away from his own. – LD

Theadora Van Runkle

Hollywood costume designer

Theadora Van Runkle wrought her magic in a highly visible yet often overlooked corner of the movie industry: She was a costume designer. The illegitimate product of an ill-fated relationship between Eltsey Adair and Courtney Schweppe, of the Schweppes carbonated drink family – she was born Dorothy Schweppe – Van Runkle didn’t break into the field until she was nearly 40. But she did so with a literal bang. A commercial illustrator who specialized in fashion ads, she briefly worked for an established costume designer who subsequently recommended her for “a little Western over at Warner Bros.” It turned out to be Arthur Penn’s 1967 classic Bonnie and Clyde, for which Van Runkle earned an Oscar nomination.

The film’s star, Warren Beatty, had originally hoped François Truffaut would direct Bonnie and Clyde, and Van Runkle’s costuming paid homage to these New Wave aspirations. The clothing in the film was, as The Guardian put it, an “astute fusion of Texas 1932 and Paris Left Bank 1967.” Beatty as Clyde was a dandy, with a cream-colored fedora reminiscent of Pretty Boy Floyd. Faye Dunaway as Bonnie wore knee-length skirts, which subsequently had a noticeable effect on the miniskirt fad, and beret sales went through the roof after the film came out. (It’s hard to believe now, but Bonnie’s influential look was so unusual at the time that Dunaway reportedly had to be convinced Van Runkle wasn’t trying to make her look ugly.)

A self-taught designer who learned to make clothes by using patterns from Vogue, Van Runkle went on to clothe some of Hollywood’s biggest stars. Her work can be seen in films ranging from Steve Martin’s The Jerk – remember that sorry-ass bathrobe? – to Peggy Sue Got Married, with the memorable silver dress that Kathleen Turner’s character wore to her high school reunion. She brought the fringe, the lingerie straps and the sequins to The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and the hilarious, over-the-top Rodeo Drive outfits – quite possibly the best thing about the movie – to 1989’s Troop Beverly Hills.

Van Runkle was, it appears, a fighter, willing to stand up to big-name directors for what she believed. While working on The Godfather: Part II, she decided to dress a 1958 Cosa Nostra family party at Lake Tahoe almost entirely in mohair suits. Francis Ford Coppola was not pleased; he wanted tuxedos. But Van Runkle argued that the Corleone family was trying to blend in and appear WASP-y, thus forgoing tuxedos. Coppola eventually gave in, and Van Runkle was nominated for yet another Oscar. She died on Nov. 4 from lung cancer at the age of 83. – Andrea Appleton


More by Andrea Appleton


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