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Nora Ephron

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Categories: Hollywood, Writers/Editors

Nora EphronAcclaimed filmmaker and essayist Nora Ephron, who almost singlehandedly defined the romantic comedy genre of the 1980s and 1990s, died on June 26 of pneumonia brought on by acute myeloid leukemia. She was 71.

Born in New York and raised in Beverly Hills, Ephron was the daughter of screenwriters Henry and Phoebe Ephron, who wrote “There’s No Business Like Show Business” and “Desk Set.” Though life at home was often difficult — her father was in and out of mental hospitals and her mother was an alcoholic — writing became the family business. Nora and her sisters, Delia and Amy, all grew up to become screenwriters while her sister Hallie became a journalist and novelist.

After graduating from Wellesley College and working briefly as an intern in the Kennedy White House, Ephron moved back to New York City. There she toiled in the mail room at Newsweek, launched a satirical newspaper and became a reporter for the New York Post. Over the next four decades, Ephron would pen essays for numerous publications — including Esquire, The New York Times Magazine and The Huffington Post — and develop a reputation as one of America’s best known humorists.

Ephron began working on screenplays in the 1970s after penning a rewrite of William Goldman’s script for “All the President’s Men.” Although her version was not used in the final film, the experience gave her the opportunity to begin writing for the big screen. Concerned that Hollywood wasn’t ready for films by or about women, however, Ephron decided to try her hand at directing as well. Her directorial debut was “This Is My Life,” co-written with her sister Delia, and starring Julie Kavner as a single mom who wants to become a stand-up comedian.

Ephron’s stories featured strong female characters, realistic heroes and a charming blend of humor and romance. Her tales of happily ever after were often scorned by critics, but they found a devoted audience of female moviegoers who were always eager to see the latest Ephron “chick flick.”

In 2008, “When Harry Met Sally…,” which Ephron wrote, was ranked #6 on the American Film Institute’s list of the 10 greatest films in the romantic comedy genre. “Sleepless in Seattle” and “You’ve Got Mail,” both penned and directed by Ephron and starring Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks, became blockbusters at the box office, prompting studio execs to begin greenlighting more movies for and by women.

Hollywood also honored her creative achievements with three Academy Award nominations for screenwriting (“Silkwood,” “When Harry Met Sally…” and “Sleepless In Seattle”). Ephron’s most recent film, “Julie & Julia,” based on the life of Julia Child and a New York-based blogger who aimed to emulate her, garnered Ephron more than a dozen award nominations and earned Meryl Streep a Golden Globe for best performance by an actress.

When she wasn’t toiling on a script or a directing a film, Ephron also wrote several plays and essay collections, including “I Feel Bad About My Neck,” which topped The New York Times bestseller list. In her final years, she continued to publish essays on a variety of subjects, from aging and feminism to politics and food.

“You do get to a certain point in life where you have to realistically, I think, understand that the days are getting shorter, and you can’t put things off thinking you’ll get to them someday,” Ephron told NPR in 2010. “If you really want to do them, you better do them. There are simply too many people getting sick, and sooner or later you will. So I’m very much a believer in knowing what it is that you love doing so you can do a great deal of it.”

Ephron wed three times. Her first marriage to novelist Dan Greenburg ended in divorce. Her second marriage to investigative journalist Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame also ended in divorce after she learned he had cheated on her with a mutual friend. That experience inspired her to write the 1983 novel “Heartburn,” which was later adapted into a feature film starring Streep and Jack Nicholson.

Ephron is survived by her third husband, novelist/screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi, with whom she was married for more than two decades, and two sons, Jacob and Max. As she noted in her six-word biography that was published in “Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs By Writers Famous and Obscure” edited by Larry Smith and Rachel Fershleiser: “Secret to Life, Marry an Italian.”

In her 2010 collection “I Remember Nothing: And Other Reflections,” Ephron dedicated an entire chapter to the things she’ll miss after she dies. The top 5 were: “My kids, Nick, Spring, Fall, Waffles.”

(Photo by Charles Eshelman/Getty Images for AOL. Used with permission.)

 

–This obituary previously appeared in The Huffington Post

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Christopher Hitchens

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Categories: Writers/Editors

Christopher Hitchens Journalist Christopher Hitchens died on Dec. 15 of pneumonia, a complication of esophageal cancer. He was 62.

Hitchens was born in Portsmouth, Hampshire, England in 1949. His father, Ernest, a commander in the British Royal Navy, and his mother, Yvonne, a bookkeeper, scrimped and saved so that he could attend the independent Leys School in Cambridge, and later Balliol College, Oxford. They were determined that he would receive a top-notch education and join the upper class.

During his time at university, Hitchens studied philosophy, politics and economics, but the more he learned, the angrier he became. Hitchens’ disgust with racism and opposition to the Vietnam War led him to the political left. He would eventually join the International Socialists, a faction of the anti-Stalinist left, and participate in political protests against the war.

Attending college in the 1960s introduced Hitchens to a more hedonistic way of life as well. Although he eschewed drugs, Hitchens became both a heavy smoker and hard drinker. He claimed such practices supported his writing efforts. “Writing is what’s important to me, and anything that helps me do that — or enhances and prolongs and deepens and sometimes intensifies argument and conversation — is worth it to me. So I was knowingly taking a risk,” he said.

Writing was also the perfect outlet for him to enrage and enlighten. The British monarchy, Henry Kissinger and the Roman Catholic Church were just a few of his favorite targets in the 1970s. Despite being a bon vivant, Hitchens resolved to spend time at least once a year in “a country less fortunate than [his] own.” As such, the early part of his career was dedicated to wandering the globe, reporting on the world’s trouble spots and shining a light on those he considered cruel or evil.

After immigrating to the U.S. in 1981, Hitchens began writing for The Nation magazine. He would later edit and contribute articles to numerous publications, including Vanity Fair, the Atlantic Monthly, Slate, Harper’s, The Washington Post and The Huffington Post. His surprising advocacy for the war in Iraq, which was prompted by his growing conviction that radical elements in the Islamic world posed a danger to the West, gained Hitchens a wider readership, and in September 2005 he was named one of the “Top 100 Public Intellectuals” by Foreign Policy and Prospect magazines.

Hitchens penned two dozens books — including “Letters To A Young Contrarian,” “God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything” and “Hitch-22: A Memoir” — and frequently made television and radio appearances. He also taught as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Pittsburgh and the New School of Social Research.

As a cultural pundit, Hitchens loved picking fights. He offered unsparing insight on a wide range of subjects, from politics to religion to his own his mortality, but was perhaps best known for his criticism of Mother Teresa, both in his 1994 documentary “Hell’s Angel,” and in Vanity Fair.

“[Mother Teresa] was not a friend of the poor,” Hitchens said. “She was a friend of poverty. She said that suffering was a gift from God. She spent her life opposing the only known cure for poverty, which is the empowerment of women and the emancipation of them from a livestock version of compulsory reproduction.”

His negative portrayal of a woman many considered to be a saint prompted hundreds of readers to cancel their magazine subscriptions. And yet, after word of his death was reported, India’s Missionaries of Charity order said it would pray for Hitchens’ soul, despite his aggressive campaign against its Nobel prize-winning founder.

In 2008, amidst a nationwide discussion of “enhanced interrogation techniques, Hitchens decided to subject himself to a waterboarding treatment to see if it was truly a form of torture. He lasted for 16 seconds.

“It’s annoying to me now to read every time it’s discussed in the press — or in Congress — that it simulates the feeling of drowning,” he said. “It doesn’t simulate the feeling of drowning. You are being drowned, slowly.”

Ever the contrarian, Hitchens adopted the U.S., warts and all, and took an oath of citizenship in 2007 on his 58th birthday. The ceremony was conducted by former President George W. Bush’s homeland security chief, Michael Chertoff.

An outspoken atheist — or as he preferred to be called, an antitheist — Hitchens rallied many to a belief in rational thinking by describing organized religion as the main source of hatred and tyranny in the world. In the final years of his life, he debated both religious and political figures about the nature of faith and the existence of God.

“Faith is the surrender of the mind; it’s the surrender of reason, it’s the surrender of the only thing that makes us different from other mammals,” Hitchens said. “It’s our need to believe, and to surrender our skepticism and our reason, our yearning to discard that and put all our trust or faith in someone or something, that is the sinister thing to me. Of all the supposed virtues, faith must be the most overrated.”

Even after being diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus in 2010, Hitchens refused to turn to a deity or organized religion for comfort. He made it clear that if anyone ever claimed he had converted at the end of his life, it would be either a lie propagated by the religious community or an effect of the cancer and treatment that made him no longer himself.

“The entity making such a remark might be a raving, terrified person whose cancer has spread to the brain. I can’t guarantee that such an entity wouldn’t make such a ridiculous remark, but no one recognizable as myself would ever make such a remark,” he said.

“There will never be another like Christopher. A man of ferocious intellect, who was as vibrant on the page as he was at the bar,” said Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter. “Those who read him felt they knew him, and those who knew him were profoundly fortunate souls.”

Hitchens is survived by his wife, the writer Carol Blue, and three children.

Listen to an excerpt from “Hitch 22″ by Christopher Hitchens

–This obituary previously appeared in The Huffington Post

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Ralph Steinman

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Categories: Medicine

It is not the policy of the Nobel Committee to award posthumous honors unless a laureate has died after the announcement was made but before the Dec. 10th award ceremony. This year, however, the committee plans to make an exception.

On Oct. 3, the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to Canadian cell biologist Ralph M. Steinman, American Bruce A. Beutler of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas and the Scripps Research Center in San Diego, and Jules A. Hoffmann, a former research director of the National Center for Scientific Research in Strasbourg, France. When the award was announced, the committee was unaware that Steinman had died three days prior. But after holding an emergency session to discuss the situation, the Swedish foundation reported that the coveted honor would remain in effect. As such, Steinman will posthumously receive his half of the $1.5 million award.

Born in Montreal, Steinman earned a bachelor’s degree from McGill University and an M.D. from Harvard Medical School. After completing an internship and residency at Massachusetts General Hospital, he joined Rockefeller University in 1970 as a postdoctoral fellow. It was there, three years later, that Steinman and his mentor, Dr. Zanvil A. Cohn, discovered dendritic cells, a new class of cells that have a unique capacity to activate T-cells, which help the body fight off infection. Steinman spent the rest of his life studying these cells to better understand how they function.

Beutler and Hoffmann were cited for their discoveries in the 1990s of receptor proteins, which can recognize bacteria and other micro-organisms as they enter the body. These proteins then activate the first line of defense in the immune system, known as innate immunity. Together, these discoveries have enabled scientists to develop better vaccines against infectious diseases, and could in the future, be used to treat arthritis, cancer, diabetes and multiple sclerosis.

Steinman was named the Henry G. Kunkel Professor in 1995, and appointed director of the Christopher H. Browne Center for Immunology and Immune Diseases in 1998. Prior to becoming a Nobel laureate, he was the recipient of the Gairdner Foundation International Award, the Novartis Prize in Immunology, the New York City Mayor’s Award for Excellence in Science and Technology, the Debrecen Prize in Molecular Medicine, the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award, the Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research and the A.H. Heineken Prize for Medicine. He also edited two volumes of the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences (“Cancer Vaccines: Sixth International Symposium” and “Human Immunology: Patient-Based Research”).

Steinman was so determined to prove that dendritic cells were integral to the way the body fought off disease that he used a dendritic-cell based immunotherapy of his own design to battle the cancer destroying his pancreas. “Ralph worked right up until last week,” Michel Nussenzweig, the head of molecular immunology at Rockefeller, said. “His dream was to use his discovery to cure cancer and infectious diseases like HIV and tuberculosis. It’s a dream that’s pretty close.”

Steinman died on Sept. 30 at the age of 68. He is survived by his wife, Claudia, and three children.

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Amy Winehouse

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Categories: Musicians

Amy Jade Winehouse, the Grammy Award-winning soul singer who spent years struggling with drug and alcohol abuse, was found dead in her London home on July 23. Cause of death is under investigation. She was 27.

Born in 1983 to taxi driver Mitch and his pharmacist wife Janis, Winehouse was raised in a middle class neighborhood in northern London. Around the time she turned 10, Winehouse formed a rap group with her best friend called Sweet ‘n’ Sour (she was Sour). While school didn’t interest her — she was expelled from the prestigious Sylvia Young Theatre School for piercing her nose — music did and by the time she was 12, she had picked up a guitar and immersed herself in the sounds of Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington.

Although Winehouse was still in her teens when she cut her demo, it soon found a home at Universal Island Records. Her critically acclaimed debut album, “Frank,” did well in Britain — earning her nominations in 2003 for best female singer and best urban act at the Brit Awards — but the jazz-tinged record was never released in the United States. It did, however, showcase her extraordinary voice and songwriting skills, and earned her an Ivor Novello award and a spot on the shortlist for the Mercury Music Prize.

In 2006, her sophomore effort, “Back to Black,” rocketed Weinhouse to international stardom. The quasi-autobiographical album sold 3 million copies worldwide and won five Grammy Awards. Fans have been waiting for Weinhouse’s much-anticipated third album for five years. To date, it has not been released.

Weinhouse’s look was a unique combination of retro pop star and modern hard rocker. Her towering ebony beehive, heavy cat-eye makeup and multiple tattoos made her a much-copied fashion icon, yet she dismissed that label. “I just dress like…I’m an old Jewish black man. I just dress like it’s still the ’50s,” she once told Harper’s Bazaar Magazine. Winehouse would eventually collaborate with British brand Fred Perry on a 17-piece clothing and accessories collection.

Privately, Winehouse suffered from insecurity and depression. But it wasn’t until she began getting drunk and high that these traits became a liability. Her downward spiral was ubiquitous; she became intoxicated onstage and got arrested for possessing drugs and attacking people off-stage. The self-destruction knew few bounds; she rarely slept, grew skeletal from eating disorders and began cutting. During one interview, she even used a shard of mirror to carve her boyfriend’s name into her stomach.

Winehouse’s biggest hit was “Rehab,” which she wrote in response to pressure from her label to go into treatment, but the years of abusing cocaine, crack, ecstasy, ketamine, valium, marijuana and alcohol eventually affected her ability to sing. In recent years, many of her fans began booing her half-hearted concerts and demanded their money back. Multiple stints in rehab and encounters with police led promoters to cancel her tour dates.

The spotlight of celebrity revealed the troubled singer’s successes and failures, and the paparazzi documented her very public breakdown. Yet Winehouse never cared for fame. “If I had my choice, I’d be a roller-skating waitress in the middle of nowhere, singing songs to my husband while I’m cooking grits somewhere,” she told The Washington Post in 2007. “What I’m doing I’m so grateful to be doing — it’s so exciting, so fun. But I’ve never been the kind of girl who knocks on someone’s door and says, ‘Make me famous.’”

Along with her struggles with addiction, Winehouse made headlines for her abusive relationship to former music video producer Blake Fielder-Civil. During their two-year marriage, Winehouse and Fielder-Civil fought constantly, and frequently appeared in public looking bloodied and bruised from their altercations. The couple divorced in 2009.

Photo by Fionn Kidney.

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Jack Kevorkian

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Categories: Medicine

To those who believe that people with terminal illnesses should have the right to take their own lives, Dr. Jack Kevorkian was a heroic advocate for dying with dignity. To his opponents, he was a cold-blooded killer who preyed on more than 130 people suffering from mental illness, disability and chronic pain.

Kevorkian was born in Pontiac, Mich., to a family of Armenian immigrants. As a teenager, he built his own chemistry set and lab and began inventing gadgets, including a one-tube radio and a water bicycle. After skipping several grades in school, Kevorkian attended the University of Michigan School of Medicine, where he specialized in pathology. By the time he graduated at 24, he had mastered five languages.

His medical career was interrupted for a year and a half by the Korean War, when he volunteered to serve as a medical officer in the Army. But upon his return to the states, Kevorkian began studying ways to predict imminent death by observing the eyes of patients. This research earned him the nickname “Dr. Death.”

When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1976 that states could reinstate the death penalty, Kevorkian launched a campaign to harvest the organs of consenting death row inmates for use in transplants. He deeply believed that doing so would save lives. However, these efforts were rebuffed.

In the 1980s, Kevorkian became a polarizing figure in medical circles for advocating the legalization of euthanasia. He did not believe that helping adults end their lives was a form of killing or murder; to him it was a compassionate medical service. To some religious conservatives, health care providers, disability advocates, politicians, members of the legal community and more centrist “death by dignity” organizations, it was an illegal act, one that could lead to the eradication of the aged and infirm.

In 1989, Kevorkian created a “suicide machine” that allowed terminal patients to end their own lives through the use of carbon monoxide gas or lethal drug injection. Over the next decade, he crisscrossed Michigan in his van, using The Thanatron (death machine) to help sick and dying people commit what he called “medicide.” His actions led to an arrest for first-degree murder — a charge that was later dismissed — and sparked a national debate about assisted suicide.

Michigan prosecutors would put the controversial physician through the legal wringer four times before they were able to actually convict him of second-degree murder in 1999. The state’s key piece of evidence was a videotape that Kevorkian made showing the planned death of a terminally ill patient named Thomas Youk. That video, which aired on the CBS News program “60 Minutes,” showed Kevorkian administering the lethal drugs to the 52-year-old man who was suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. “[Thomas] specifically chose a direct injection because he knew that it would be quickly done and it would not fail,” Melody Youk, Thomas’ widow, said.

Kevorkian spent eight years in prison, and was only granted parole in 2007 after promising not to assist in any more suicides. But even while behind bars, people sent him thousands of letters, offering support and seeking advice on how to end their lives. A year after his release, he ran an unsuccessful campaign for Congress. And in 2010, an HBO biopic of his life starring Al Pacino was released.

Privately, Kevorkian loved to read and assemble puzzles. He enjoyed playing the flute and the piano, and even composed classical music. After taking an art class in the 1960s, he painted nearly two dozens canvases, but eventually gave it up because he did not consider himself an artist.

Doctor-assisted suicide is now legal in Oregon, Washington and Montana. In 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that doctors in those states could not be prosecuted for helping terminally ill patients kill themselves.

Kevorkian died on June 3 of a pulmonary embolism. He was 83.

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