Categories: Misc.

alex.jpgAlex, the renowned African grey parrot who helped researchers better understand the avian brain, died on Sept. 6. Cause of death was “a sudden, unexpected catastrophic event associated with arterosclerosis” (hardening of the arteries). He was about 31 years old.

Irene Pepperberg, a professor at Brandeis University’s Department of Psychology, purchased Alex from a Chicago pet store in 1977. Over the next three decades, she taught the parrot how to count to six and identify seven different colors. Alex could name 50 different objects in English and grasped the numerical concept of zero. Even in his advanced age, Alex continued to learn new things. In August, he pronounced the word “seven” for the first time.

The parrot could be ornery, though. When he grew tired of participating in repetitive scientific trials, Alex would demand to be returned to his cage. Once there, he’d slam the door. And when the other parrots in the lab mumbled during tests, Alex would order the birds to “talk better.” Pepperberg said he showed the emotional equivalent of a 2 year old child and the brain of a typical 5 year old.

Pepperberg’s work with Alex shattered the generally held notion that parrots are only capable of mindless vocal mimicry. Her study of avian intelligence also helped other scientists create therapies to treat children with learning disabilities.

One of the most famous African grey parrots in history, Alex was featured in print and broadcast media across the globe and on numerous science programs for the BBC, the Discovery channel and PBS. He was also the main subject of Pepperberg’s 1999 book, “The Alex Studies: Cognitive and Communicative Abilities of Grey Parrots.”

Read an Interview With Alex



Categories: Site News


An epitaph is an inscription on a tombstone or monument in memory of the person buried there. It’s also a summary statement of commemoration of a dead person. For the Final Farewell Contest, we asked our readers to give us their preferred epitaphs in 15 words or less.
The winners are:
Kathy Beth Quintalino Buchsbaum
Wife, Mother, Librarian
Permanently Checked Out

–Kathy Buchsbaum, Sherman Oaks, Calif.
Here lies the winner of Blog of Death’s Final Farewell Contest.
–Danny Groner, Silver Spring, Md.
Quiet Neighbors at Last
–David Warde-Farley, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
She loved bad dogs, good coffee, writing well, and making trouble. In exactly that order.
–Martha Garvey, Hoboken, N.J.
Decidedly Uncommon.
–Tiffany “Gwyn” Hope Cox, Des Moines, Iowa
Each winner will receive:
* “The Portable Obituary: How the Famous, Rich and Powerful Really Died” by Michael Largo
* “Final Exits: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of How We Die” by Michael Largo
* Skeleton lollipops
* Published epitaph on The Blog of Death
Congratulations! You will all be remembered forever.


Betty Matas

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Categories: Extraordinary People

The final year of Betty Matas’ life was full of adventure.
Last April, she and her husband Bob decided to retire to the desert. To make the 2,500-mile trip from Queens, N.Y., to Sedona, Ariz., the couple didn’t rent a car or take a train. Instead, Betty and Bob hailed a yellow taxi cab.
The Matases were life-long New Yorkers, the kind who never learned how to drive and relied entirely on public transportation. Since flying would have been difficult for their cats, Pretty Face and Cleopatra, the pair decided to hire cabbie Douglas Guldeniz to take them on a road trip across 10 states.
The Brooklyn hack, who had driven the Matases on a shopping trip three months earlier, was happy to get out of the city for a change. At the standard rate, the six-day trip would have cost about $5,000 each way, but Guldeniz only asked for a flat fare of $3,000, plus gas, meals and lodging.
When the trio left New York City on April 3, their story had already been featured in newspapers across the country. The Daily News even had a reporter follow Guldeniz’s cab and blog about the journey.
Guldeniz drove for about 10 hours a day, following a U-Haul truck carrying the couple’s possessions. At each stop, Betty took the time to stretch her legs and make conversation with the many waitresses, truckers and reporters she encountered. “Every state that we hit, people would say ‘Are you the ones?’ and we would say ‘Yes, we are the ones,'” Bob said.
The cross-country trek in the 2006 Ford Escape Hybrid SUV was said to be the longest taxi ride in New York history.
Upon their arrival in Sedona, the trio were met by a welcoming committee and a crowd of well-wishers. Sedona Mayor Pud Colquitt gave Betty and Bob a bag of souvenirs, and their real estate agent presented them with the keys to their new retirement home.
Betty spent 38 years working as an executive secretary to the president of Klemptner Advertising. Although she missed New York, she had no regrets about moving to Arizona.
Betty died on Aug. 20 of pneumonia and a heart attack. She was 75.


Leona Helmsley

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Categories: Business, Criminals

Leona Helmsley, a Manhattan hotelier with a reputation as the “Queen of Mean,” died on Aug. 20 of heart failure. She was 87.
Helmsley was born Leona Mindy Rosenthal in Ulster County, N.Y. The daughter of a hat maker, she attended college for two years before dropping out to become a model. Leona wed attorney Leo E. Panzirer, and had a son Jay Robert Panzirer. The pair divorced in 1959; their son died at the age of 40 in 1982. She later married and divorced garment industry executive Joe Lubin. Their union lasted for seven years.
Leona was working as a real estate agent in 1969 when she met Harry Helmsley at an industry ball. Within a few weeks, she went to work for the “King Kong of Big Apple real estate.” Leona and Harry wed in 1972 after he divorced Eve Helmsley, his wife of 33 years. Society pages soon filled with glamourous images of the couple, who were said to be utterly devoted to each other. Leona annually hosted a party for his birthday in which all of the guests donned buttons that read “I’m Just Wild About Harry.” His button said, “I’m Harry.” For her birthday in 1976, Harry spent $100,000 to have the Empire State Building illuminated in red, white and blue lights.
The couple lived in a 10,000-square foot penthouse high above Central Park, a mountaintop home near Phoenix and a penthouse in Palm Beach. The Florida estate lost some of its luster in 1973 when the Helmsleys were stabbed by an intruder. The assault resulted in two life changes: the hiring of bodyguards and a reconciliation with Leona’s son, with whom she’d been estranged for five years.
The Helmsleys increased their fortune by selling commercial and residential properties in Manhattan. Their $5 billion empire included management of the Flatiron Building, the East Side residential complex called Tudor City, the Empire State Building, the Palace Hotel, the Park Lane and the New York Helmsley. In 1980, Harry made Leona president of Helmsley Hotels, a subsidiary that operated more than two dozen hotels in 10 states. Her appearance in glossy advertisements promoting the hotels’ first-rate service helped increase occupancy from 25 to 70 percent.
Leona was also a generous philanthropist, giving away millions to those in need. Her charitable activities included a $25 million gift to New York Presbyterian Hospital, $5 million to Katrina relief and $5 million to help the families of firefighters after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Despite these activities, Leona was known in the New York press as the “Queen of Mean.” She had a reputation for being a harsh task master with a hair-trigger temper. Employees were so afraid of Leona that they created a warning system to signal her comings and goings. Detractors say she also nickel-and-dimed merchants on her personal purchases and stiffed contractors who worked on her summer house in Greenwich, Conn.
Then in 1988, federal and state authorities indicted the Helmsleys on more than 200 counts of tax evasion. Leona was also charged with defrauding Helmsley stockholders by receiving $83,333 a month in secret consulting fees. Although 80-year-old Harry was deemed too ill to stand trial, Leona faced the music, and the wrath of the public.
In the highly publicized court proceedings, prosecution witnesses described Leona as extravagant, stingy, mean and spiteful — the kind of woman who terrified everyone around her. Her former housekeeper, Elizabeth Baum, testified that she heard Leona say: “We don’t pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes.” Leona denied having said it, but the statement cemented her reputation and helped convict her of evading $1.2 million in federal taxes.
The judge gave Leona a four-year prison term and fined her $7.1 million. She also had to pay $1.7 million in back taxes. When the trial ended and the couple left the courthouse, a crowd taunted and jeered them. The infamous case, which showcased the “greed is good” mentality of the 1980s, became the basis of several books and the 1990 TV movie “Leona Helmsley: The Queen of Mean” starring Suzanne Pleshette.
Leona was incarcerated on April 15, 1993, and spent 21 months behind bars. Although she was ordered to do 750 hours of community service, a judge added 150 more hours after learning employees had done some of the chores for her. Upon her release from prison, Leona relinquished all executive involvement in the Helmsley Hotel organization because as a convicted felon, she could not be an officer, shareholder or partner in any entity holding a liquor license.
When Harry died in 1997, he left Leona his entire fortune, worth about $1.7 billion at the time, and made her the chief executive officer of Helmsley Enterprises. During the final years of her life, she managed the company’s real estate and hotel portfolio, sold most of her property empire and fought off numerous law suits from former employees.
Despite all the bad press, Leona truly loved her dog, Trouble. In her 14-page will, she bequeathed the 8-year-old Maltese to her brother, Alvin Rosenthal, and provided a $12 million trust to pay for the dog’s care. Rosenthal will also get $10 million in a trust and another $5 million outright. Her grandsons, David and Walter Panzirer, will receive $5 million each outright and another $5 million in trusts, provided they visit their father’s grave every year. Her other two grandchildren, Craig and Meegan Panzirer, and all 12 of her great-children were disinherited. The rest of her fortune, including the proceeds from the sale of all her residences and belongings, will be given to the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust.


John Wallowitch

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Categories: Musicians

jwallowitch.jpgJohn Wallowitch, a Broadway songwriter and composer who penned more than 2,000 songs, died on Aug. 15 of bone cancer. He was 81.
The Philadelphia native was only seven years old when he wrote “Waiting on Passyunk Bridge,” a song about committing suicide over unrequited love. He had hoped to become a high school music teacher when he grew up, but World War II altered his plans. Wallowitch joined the Army and served his enlistment in the United States singing in USO clubs.
After the war ended, Wallowitch attended Temple University for a short time, then moved to New York City to study classical piano at the Juilliard School of Music. He attended the prestigious institution on scholarship, supporting himself by playing piano for dance classes and coaching singers. He made his debut at the Carnegie Recital Hall, then traveled all over Europe, performing concerts for the State Department. When he returned to the states, he became a rehearsal pianist for Broadway shows, a nightclub singer and a professional songwriter.
Over the course of his five-decade career, Wallowitch played in many of Gotham’s top cabaret rooms, performing original songs like “Bruce,” “Manhattan, You’re a Dream,” “I See the World Through Your Eyes” and “Back on the Town.” He had a long-running hit revue called “The World of Wallowitch” and released seven albums. Wallowitch also coached aspiring performers and penned songs that were recorded by Tony Bennett, Blossom Dearie, Doc Severinson, Dixie Carter and Shirley Horn.
Beginning in 1980, Wallowitch produced a late-night public-access TV show called “John’s Cabaret,” which featured him singing songs from Tin Pan Alley and Hollywood that he found at yard sales and memorabilia shows. Tapes of the shows are ensconced in the Rodgers and Hammerstein Archive at Lincoln Center.
Wallowitch and his longtime partner Bertram Ross, who was Martha Graham’s principal dance partner, made their debut as a cabaret team in 1984 at The Ballroom in SoHo. John S. Wilson of The New York Times described the act as “hilarious, outrageous, sublime.” Their 34-year romance, both on-stage and off, was the subject of the 1999 documentary “Wallowitch & Ross: This Moment.” Ross died in 2003.
The talented songwriter won both the MAC and the Bistro Award for Composer of the Year. But friends say he was best known for his natty style of dress, self-proclaimed obsession with Joan Rivers and wicked sense of humor.
Each year on Christmas Eve, Wallowitch would honor his mentor, Irving Berlin, by gathering a group of friends together to sing “White Christmas” in front the lyricist’s home. In 1983, Berlin came out and told Wallowitch the annual concert was the nicest Christmas present he ever received. The tradition continued for 36 years. After Berlin’s death in 1989, the home was taken over by the Luxembourg consulate. Charmed by the holiday performance, delegates invited Wallowitch and the other carolers inside to perform in Berlin’s former library.

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