August 2022: Vin Scully, David McCullough, Olivia Newton-John
Three happily married legends recently died. They were masters of broadcasting, history and song. In showcasing their voluminous works of art, each were vital, romantic, cheerful, enduring and strong. There are lessons in their works and lives—genuine lessons for life—and this article skims the surface. The legacy these three leave is rare, astonishing and of a caliber of work that’s quickly slipping away.
They come from Pittsburgh, the Bronx and Australia—places with reputations for toughness, labor and industry. The three were old or older when they died. They’d each chosen challenging lives. They were largely adored—later in their lives—often for a superficial reason. That sex and skin color dominates today’s obituaries—if not on Autonomia—as anyone who’s read about the late Nichelle Nichols, Colin Powell, Mary Tyler Moore and Madeleine Albright knows, is unfortunate. It’s rare to read praise of persons of ability for having ability—especially recognition of the freethinker, particularly if one’s white and male. Each of these artists explicitly deviated from or defied this dreadful orthodoxy of misidentification.
One was a U.S. Navy veteran. Another was descended from a physicist. One was the child of men who started an electric company. Each is an artist who adds value to millions of lives with enriching, inspiring and dazzling displays of history, song, dance, spectacle, storytelling, triumph, courage, strength and passion for excellence.
Their names are associated with the most respected names of our time including Yale, Cambridge, Fordham and Buckingham Palace. They brought perspective, distinction and legendary works of art to the Panama Canal, the World Series, Hollywood, Fenway Park, Paramount, the Brooklyn Bridge, Ebbetts Field, London Symphony Orchestra, the Wright brothers, Hank Aaron, Dodger Stadium, the Olympics, Sandy Koufax and America’s revolution, founders and pioneers and industrial progress. These three were dressed and awarded for the highest accolades of our time—from baseball’s Hall of Fame, aristocracy, Grammys, Pulitzers, and for “excellence in broadcasting”—and each romanticized man, the manmade and life here on earth. Will anyone honestly be able to say this about those dominating today’s culture?
They were honest brokers of their arts. They were indelibly decent. They were honorable. With America’s fading arts and letters, there is frankly no one with similar qualities to replace them. This is an obituary for three who were guided by goodness, wonder and enlightenment. They are wrongly portrayed in the press as primarily popular. Each primarily worked as a solo artist—the lone purist in a world going bad—and were self-made individualists.
Vin Scully: objectivity and optimism
Vincent Scully, born in the Bronx on Nov. 29, 1927, lost his father when he was four. According to an Associated Press obituary, he considered his stepfather, who was a sailor, to be his dad. Scully enlisted in the Navy. He became a storyteller and baseball broadcasting legend.
Most obituaries emphasize Scully’s poetic commentary yet fail to identify the virtue which both explains and defines his exceptional work: his ability to be objective. Scully said he fell in love with baseball during the 1936 World Series. While walking past a laundry, he reportedly saw a window sign announcing a great loss by the New York Giants to the New York Yankees. Breaking from the herd, New Yorker Scully chose the Giants as his favorite team. The Giants’ had a left-handed hitter and right-handed right-fielder named Melvin, Mel Ott, who became Scully’s hero. Years after the Giants moved to San Francisco and Brooklyn’s Dodgers moved to LA, the Yankees tried to recruit Scully to leave Los Angeles and broadcast Yankees’ games in his former hometown. Scully, citing loyalty to LA’s Dodgers, rejected the offer.
Having listened to Vin Scully broadcast Dodger games for half of his career—he was the lead broadcaster for a stunning 67 years—I can attest that he was objective about reporting on each baseball game. He had mastered a measured calm in an even-handed vocal tone. He reported what happened and didn’t distract from the field in play. He accentuated exciting plays, of course. But he did not distort, sensationalize or propagandize statistics, facts or plays. Vin Scully observed, judged and reported as if each inning was an entry in an archive. He didn’t judge by statistics or emotions—he also didn’t preclude them from the story—he judged by relevant and essential facts.
The former NBC and CBS football, golf and tennis journalist retired from Dodgers broadcasting after 2016’s season, capping a career which began in 1950 at Ebbetts Field. Scully is the longest-term broadcaster with a single team in the history of professional sports. According to AP, the Fordham University graduate’s “detailed and dramatic description of the ninth inning of Sandy Koufax’s 1965 perfect game sounded as if it were scripted rather than spoken extemporaneously.” Scully’s commentary was included in Charles Einstein’s anthology The Baseball Reader. Broadcasting solo for most of his more than 9,000 baseball games, AP notes that he used the microphone for radio or TV broadcasting of 28 World Series and for Hank Aaron’s famous 715th home run in 1974. Scully said his favorite moment, however, was the Dodgers’ victory in the 1955 World Series. The Dodgers, having moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, beat the Yankees in seven games—the only world championship the Dodgers won in Brooklyn.
“There will be a new day and eventually a new year,” Scully commented upon his historic retirement, addressing listeners and Dodger fans. “And when the upcoming winter gives way to spring, rest assured” that Dodger baseball will carry on. Vin Scully, an orthodox Catholic who was preceded in death by his son, Michael, and wife, Sandra, in 2021, died at his suburban Los Angeles home on August 2 at the age of 94.
McCullough: marvel at man, the USA and the manmade
Days later, author, historian and native Pittsburgher David McCullough died at the age of 89 (on August 7th). As a boy in Pittsburgh, he once wrote that the Carnegie Library created and donated by self-made American capitalist Andrew Carnegie represented a whole world of stories and “infinite possibilities.” Among the late Mr. McCullough’s bestselling history books—none of his 19 books have been out of print—are Truman and John Adams, both of which won a Pulitzer Prize. According to his publisher, the most recent book he wrote, The Pioneers:
traces the ambitious and courageous journey of the men and women who settled the Northwest Territory that encompasses present-day Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Illinois. His two previous books, The Wright Brothers and the speech collection The American Spirit, were both major bestsellers. The Wright Brothers debuted at #1 on the New York Times bestseller list upon its publication in May 2015 and remained on the list for nine months. The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, also a #1 bestseller, has been called “dazzling…history to be savored.” His 1776 has been acclaimed “a classic,” while John Adams, published in 2001, remains one of the most praised and widely read American biographies of all time.
McCullough, whose father and grandfather founded the McCullough Electric Company, was born in Pittsburgh in 1933. As a boy, he reportedly reveled in history, recalling lively dinner conversations and portraits of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln and a field trip to a battleground where young soldier Washington fought in Western Pennsylvania’s French and Indian War. McCullough studied and majored in English at Yale, where he met playwright Thornton Wilder, who encouraged him to write. According to the AP, McCullough worked at the United States Information Agency, Sports Illustrated and the American Heritage Publishing Company until choosing to write about the Johnstown flood of 1889.
Published in 1968, The Johnstown Flood was an unlikely, counter counter-cultural success. Publishers tried to recruit him to write about the Chicago Fire and the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Instead, McCullough decided to write an engineering, construction and design story of the manmade. His topic was the Brooklyn Bridge. “That I knew little or nothing about civil engineering, that I had never done well in math or physics or had much interest in things mechanical didn’t deter me in the least,” he later wrote. “I was too excited. There was so much I wanted to know.”
For his biography of the first American president to drop the atomic bomb, recognize the state of Israel and propose socialism in medicine, Harry Truman—McCullough had considered writing about Franklin Roosevelt but became more interested in reporting on Truman instead—McCullough conducted research for a decade, living in Truman’s Missouri hometown, ritualizing Truman’s morning walking routine. The city of Pittsburgh renamed the 16th Street Bridge the David McCullough Bridge for his 80th birthday. Besides his books on history, including his book on John Adams, which became the basis for the HBO miniseries, McCullough narrated episodes for The American Experience on PBS as well as Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary.
Interviewed in 2001 by The Associated Press, McCullough responded to criticism that he was too soft by saying that “some people not only want their leaders to have feet of clay, but to be all clay.” Like the former Pittsburgher who’d created his treasured hometown library, Andrew Carnegie, McCullough died in his adopted home state of Massachusetts, weeks after losing his wife, Rosalee.
Olivia Newton-John: grace, fortitude and embodiment of counter counter-culture
The consensus on the pop star, who died at the age of 73 on August 8—the same date as the anniversary of her film Xanadu’s debut in 1980—is that she was popular, nice and kind. Having had the pleasure to interview Olivia Newton-John, whom I met several times over the course of our careers, my perspective is different. Olivia Newton-John was extremely talented. Her artistry lies in her complexity. She combined sexuality with innocence in a way which was both rare—similar to Marilyn Monroe and Doris Day—and luminous.
I may write about Olivia’s musical career in depth in the future. However, her career can be essentialized in five parts:
1. Folk Music Mixed with Ambition
The early years combined Olivia Newton-John’s interest in folk music with ambition resulting in talent show appearances and contests—which she both lost and won—and her making key connections in England and Australia to break through in 1971 with a hit cover of a Bob Dylan song.
2. Lightness in the Seventies
The Seventies were her golden years with some of pop’s most refreshing musical compositions to counter the counter-cultural darkness of downbeat music that often urged audiences to get lost, depressed or stoned. Clarity in her voice echoed throughout the country on AM radio and she earned multiple awards for pop and country music with various hits including duets with Andy Gibb and John Denver, the aching “Please Mr. Please,” Peter Allen’s haunting ode to unrequited love, “I Honestly Love You,” the nonchalant “Something Better to Do,” “Sam,” “Don’t Stop Believin’”, and a pair of bartitone-backed, upbeat and insistent country tunes, “Let Me Be There” and “If You Love Me (Let Me Know)”.
ONJ’s 1975 single, “Have You Never Been Mellow,” was a defining moment. The song is a kind of masterpiece. Released in the middle of a decade of presidential resignation, cyanide-laced mass suicide by a socialist cult, Arab terrorists slaughtering Jews at the Olympics, radical leftists hijacking and blowing up airplanes and bombing businesses or assassinating people, her sweet, gentle song of superior strength, calm and softness incurred the wrath of dominant intellectuals, mobilizing them against Olivia Newton-John. They conferred horrible nicknames; they wrote terrible reviews—several artists and intellectuals tried to destroy her career—even as the broad American middle class embraced her song of triumph, peace and magnanimity. The hit song was a turning point. In spite of how it’s been portrayed, ignored, vilified and rejected or minimized, even by those who like it, the number one pop hit, like Olivia Newton-John, stands out as a defiant, lone and courageous voice against living in fear and anxiety—a soft repudiation of the modern era’s horror and madness. The song title is both question and statement. Yet it also renders unequivocal judgment. Listen and judge.
3. Control, Mastery, Riches, Fame and Glory
Olivia’s bestselling songs for Grease, Totally Hot, Xanadu and Physical showcase this amazing artist’s ability to resolve, triumph and prevail. Readers probably know the most about these albums, movies, soundtracks and songs. They are exceptional on their merits. The Rumour, which features some of her best pop songs, including the title tune by Elton John, should’ve been a smash. But it was released in the late Eighties when pop music was turning from melody into rap, hip-hop and worse. But this era’s collaborations with The Tubes, Electric Light Orchestra, Robert Stigwood, Cliff Richard, Barry Gibb, Carl Wilson, Gene Kelly and her exquisite partnership with composer and songwriter John Farrar produced outstanding music.
Olivia Newton-John’s daring experiments—with B-sides and a range of recordings including an extended 21st century play for her nephew, Hotel Sessions, the 1985 album Soul Kiss and what amounts to her audition for a leading cinematic or Broadway role in Evita in 1977 with her refined rendition of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina”—rarely became popular. An album of children’s lullabies, Warm and Tender, a pitch-perfect Nineties album blending pop, rock and country Back with a Heart, a salty collection of songs for Del Shores’s gay-themed Sordid Lives, and an excellent album of duets—represent the artist’s remarkable commitment to growth, depth and range.
While Madonna, Beyonce, Janis Joplin, Barbra Streisand, Linda Ronstadt, Aretha Franklin and others were getting scads of magazine covers, awards and disproportionate praise and attention—often for doing the same plain, blank or mediocre schtick in different getups—Olivia Newton-John was risking everything with radical moves, raised stakes and departures from form and not merely the character makeover in Paramount’s film adaptation of the Broadway musical Grease. Olivia Newton-John never got the recognition, attention and respect she deserved. She lost major recording contracts. She was ignored by the press for her artistry. She was penalized or diminished for being beautiful, blonde, romantic, decent and wholesome. Even in death, she’s underestimated.
5. Egoism, Recovery and Serenity
Recovery is the overarching theme of her Nineties and later albums. Their titles tell tales: Stronger Than Before, Grace and Gratitude, Gaia—various cancer coping-themed and Christmas albums, especially the album I like to give to those struggling with cancer, A Celebration in Song, and her collaborative album about grief, dying and death, Liv On, which I listen to with fuller perspective. Olivia Newton-John could be shy and awkward. She was sweet and innocent—I know this firsthand—and she was savvy, astute and as bright and cheerful as you’d have every reason to expect. She lived large. She loved animals and nature. She lead by example in every way and, ultimately, leaves a legacy for the living which includes taking death in stride.
Born in Cambridge, England, this granddaughter of a 1954 Nobel Prize-winning physicist immigrated to Australia where she was raised in Melbourne. Her parents divorced, which she sang about in “Changes,” one of many songs she wrote. She moved to America on the advice of another pop star, lived in Florida, Las Vegas and California, failed and succeeded in retail and hospitality business ventures and sued to win control of her master recordings. Olivia Newton-John co-wrote and published her memoirs, detailing her encounters and work, partying with Sammy Davis, Jr., auditioning for Tootsie, watching Elvis perform her hit song in Vegas and meeting Doris Day backstage as well as getting advice from Gloria Swanson. ONJ lost her parents, brother and sister to cancer and was diagnosed with cancer several times—she outlived a stage four diagnosis by many years—and never gave into it, to paraphrase a song she wrote about overcoming disaster and adversity.
Like her parents, Olivia divorced. One romantic partner vanished in an unsolved boating mystery. Whenever she’d lose a man, she would start to love find again—she did this many times throughout her life and this is one of her most admirable qualities and legacies—until finding romantic love with her second husband, John Easterling, who, with her daughter Chloe Lattanzi, survives her.
“Phenomenal Woman” is the title Olivia gave to one of her many triumphant later career songs, which she wrote, taking inspiration from the late Maya Angelou’s poem. This is the essence of the sexual, daring, simple, courageous, peaceful and resolute Olivia Newton-John; against everything in the culture, she was dismissed as a lightweight, bland joke, punchline or airhead—as insubstantial as white bread—while, in reality, Olivia Newton-John was phenomenal.