Movies · Stuff You Should Know · Television

R.I.P. Howard Zinn and Zelda Rubinstein (and, updated, J.D. Salinger)


Howard Zinn, an author, professor and political activist whose A People’s History of the United States was one of the most influential books in shaping my political attitudes has gone on to his rich reward, having died yesterday at the age of 87 of a heart attack in Santa Monica, CA. His book, first published in 1980, became an unlikely best seller and a favorite of many individuals, including singer-songwriter Bruce Springsteen (whose album Nebraska was inspired by Zinn’s tome), film director Oliver Stone, and actor Matt Damon (who mentions People’s History in the Academy Award-winning screenplay he co-authored with actor pal Ben Affleck, Good Will Hunting [1997]).

People’s History was adopted as an alternative history text for many a high school and college curriculum; many of its controversial views—the “Founding Fathers” violation of human rights by owning slaves, Christopher Columbus’s genocidal actions toward Native Americans, etc.—were championed by the likes of fellow activist Noam Chomsky and disdained by liberal historians like Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., who once described Zinn as “a polemicist, not a historian.”

Howard Zinn

During his years of teaching, Zinn was a lightning rod for controversy. After receiving a doctorate in history from Columbia University, he was offered the position of chairmanship of the history and social sciences department at the all-black women’s school known as Spelman College in 1956. Loved by students (one of his pupils was The Color Purple author Alice Walker), this affection was not returned by Spelman’s Powers That Be, who fired Zinn in 1963 for “insubordination.” He later landed a job at Boston University, but soon earned the enmity of President John Silber for his stance against the Vietnam War and other issues of the day. Howard retired in 1989, and appropriately spent his last day on the picket line in support of an on-campus nurses’ strike.

Zinn’s 1994 autobiography, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, was later filmed as an award-winning documentary in 2004, and Howard also made appearances in documentaries like The Corporation (2003) One Bright Shining Moment (2005), and An Unreasonable Man (2006). Among his other written works: The Southern Mystique and LaGuardia in Congress.

R.I.P, Howard. You will be sorely missed, but as someone on Facebook remarked yesterday, if you were here you’d say: “Don’t mourn…organize!”

Zelda Rubinstein

I’ve seen the diminutive actress known as Zelda Rubinstein in too many movies to count: Under the Rainbow (1981—her feature film debut), Frances (1982), Sixteen Candles (1984), Teen Witch (1989), etc. But to me, her best-known showcases remain in Poltergeist (1982), where she played spiritualist Tangina Barrons (a role she reprised in Poltergeist II: The Other Side [1986] and Poltergeist III [1988]), and television’s offbeat dramatic series Picket Fences (1992-96), in which she played Rome, WI police department dispatcher Ginny Weedon (though she left the series after two seasons). Tom at Motion Picture Gems gave me the heads-up on Rubinstein’s passing at the age of 76 though I must confess I had read earlier statements online that they had removed the actress from life support, and it was only a matter of time. (I kicked around the idea of “pre-writing” an obit to post when the inevitable happened—as many news departments do—but decided to wait, considering it bad karma.)

I revisited Poltergeist on TCM a while back, but I’ll probably remember Zelda more for Picket Fences—one of the most bizarre shows ever to come down the television pike (of course, it was created by David E. Kelley, so that should have tipped me off right there). I followed the series faithfully on Friday nights (this was during a time when I pretty much didn’t have a life) and marveled constantly at the fact that Fences was renewed each season even though I’d swear I was the only one watching it. (I gave up on Fences in its last season, when Kelley turned the writing over to others to concentrate on different projects.) Populated with a cast of genuine eccentrics, Rubinstein’s character fit right in with the day-to-day activities of a town where popes were witnesses to murder and people spontaneously combusted.

“Do y’all mind hanging back? You’re jamming my frequencies…” Zelda Rubinstein has made it into the light, but she shall be sorely missed.

Update: This just in (thanks to Eddie Copeland for the heads-up):

‘Catcher in the Rye‘ author J.D. Salinger dies

catcherNEW YORK (AP) — J.D. Salinger, the legendary author, youth hero and fugitive from fame whose “The Catcher in the Rye” shocked and inspired a world he increasingly shunned, has died. He was 91.

Salinger died of natural causes at his home on Wednesday, the author’s son said in a statement from Salinger’s literary representative. He had lived for decades in self-imposed isolation in the small, remote house in Cornish, N.H.

“The Catcher in the Rye,” with its immortal teenage protagonist, the twisted, rebellious Holden Caulfield, came out in 1951, a time of anxious, Cold War conformity and the dawn of modern adolescence. The Book-of-the-Month Club, which made “Catcher” a featured selection, advised that for “anyone who has ever brought up a son” the novel will be “a source of wonder and delight — and concern.”

Enraged by all the “phonies” who make “me so depressed I go crazy,” Holden soon became American literature’s most famous anti-hero since Huckleberry Finn. The novel’s sales are astonishing — more than 60 million copies worldwide — and its impact incalculable. Decades after publication, the book remains a defining expression of that most American of dreams — to never grow up.

As Mr. Copeland so eloquently put it: “The recluse can truly rest in peace now.” R.I.P, J.D.

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