What do the names Jimi Hendrix, Sylvia Plath, and Terry Fox have in common? Two notable commonalities for which they are all remembered – bright, burning passion, and the fact that they died too young.
All too frequently, the most bright and brilliant stars burn out early, leaving the world grieving their youth and their talent. Whether by illness, accident, substance abuse, suicide or other means, death is a tremendously difficult loss to navigate, but it seems even more tragic when the death in question is someone remarkable, and someone young. We're left wondering what might have been.
In the world of music, it’s a refrain heard too often. Stuart Sutcliffe was one of the founding members of The Beatles, and credited with coming up with the band's name, along with John Lennon. However, he was also an artist whose paintings showed real talent, for which he was beginning to receive notice. He died at age 21 of a brain hemorrhage. In The Beatles' Shadow: Stuart Sutcliffe and His Lonely Hearts Club, Sutcliffe's sister Pauline, an established psychologist, openly examines her brother's life, his death, his musical and artistic talents, and his place in one of history's most groundbreaking musical groups.
Born in the southern U.S. in Georgia, Otis Redding sang in his Baptist church choir and won numerous talent shows in his adolescence. However, he was only active in the professional music scene for seven years before his death at age 26, when his chartered plane crashed into a lake in Wisconsin, killing him, his manager, the pilot of the plane, and four members of Redding's band, the Bar-Kays. Journalist Scott Freeman, whose writing has earned him numerous awards and two Pulitzer nominations, tells us all about the king of soul in Otis! The Otis Redding Story.
Janis Joplin was famous for her throaty, occasionally gravelly, heart-rending voice. She has been called rock and roll's first female superstar, and while she collaborated and toured with many groups (Big Brother & the Holding Company, the Kozmic Blues Band and the Full Tilt Boogie Band) she was often a solo artist, and a driving creative force behind everything she did. Love, Janis is a loving tribute to Joplin by her younger sister Laura, inspired by a collection of letters written by the singer, who was just 27 when she died from a heroin overdose.
The sports arena sees more than its fair share of young death, as well. Athletes push their bodies to amazing extents to achieve what they do, and despite seeming invincible, aren't. Some are so inspirational that they leave the world a better place than they found it, such as Canadian athlete and cancer activist Terry Fox, who died at age 22 from complications of Osteosarcoma. At age 18, Fox developed the cancer in his right knee, and had to have his lower leg amputated. Three years later, he decided to run from one coast of Canada to the other, a length of a marathon every day, raising money for cancer awareness along the way. Sadly, the cancer had metastasized to his lungs, and he was forced to abort his Marathon of Hope after 143 days. He had run 5,373 km or 3,339 miles. Fox died nine months later, one month before he would have turned 23. Read more about Fox and his journey in Terry Fox: His Story by Leslie Scrivener.
Stanislaw Kiecal (Stanley Ketchel) was a Polish-American boxing middleweight champ, who was well-known and beloved in the boxing community. He was nicknamed the 'Michigan Assassin', and was famous for taking on boxers who greatly outweighed him. He became obsessed with Jack Johnson, who was the first black heavyweight champion of the world, and challenged him for the heavyweight crown. While Johnson prevailed, many were astounded at how good a fight Ketchel put up. In 1910, when Ketchel was 24, he was robbed and shot to death while staying on a friend's ranch, a horrific crime detailed in The Killings of Stanley Ketchel by James Carlos Blake. Ketchel's killers were sentenced to life in prison.
Soccer player Duncan Edwards signed to Manchester United when he was just a teenager, and became England's youngest player since WWII. He had played all through his school years, and been captain of his team for two years running, before attracting the attention of a scout. Edwards played for less than five years professionally before his death, but helped Manchester United win two League Championships, and reach the semi-finals for the European Cup. He was a victim of the Munich air disaster, surviving the crash, but dying from his injuries 15 days later. Seven of his teammates were killed in the disaster as well. Their story and Edwards' is told in The Lost Babes: Manchester United Forgotten Victims of Munich.
And their stories, memorable as they are, are not so unusual. Musicians, actors, athletes, authors and more – the figures we admire and look up to are no more impervious than the rest of us, and the list of those who died in their prime – or before – is a lengthy one. Fortunately, there are tireless researchers, authors and biographers who make sure that the talent and life of these young people is never forgotten,
These are the books that remember some of the brightest brief stars we lost too soon.