What Lives They Led

George Harrison

b. Feb. 25, 1943

Yes, of course, George Harrison was a Beatle. The Quiet One. The one who wrote "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," "Here Comes the Sun" and "Something." But he was also, as his fans labor to add, much more. He was a cultural explorer, introducing Indian sitar to Western ears and adding Hindu thought to our consciousness. And he was a humanitarian, conceiving the all-star benefit with his 1971 Concert for Bangladesh. But let's face it, Harrison was a Beatle, first and forever. Not a bad deal for eternity.

Aaliyah Houghton

b. Jan. 16, 1979

Only 22 when her plane crashed in the Bahamas, Aaliyah was already a full-grown siren. Even at the supposedly tender age of 14, she issued the world an irresistible come-on with her jail-baiting--and million-selling--debut album, "Age Ain't Nothing But a Number." From steamy, snake-filled videos to her role as Anne Rice's "Queen of the Damned," she sold herself as darkly seductive. But those who knew her insist Aaliyah was more angel than devil--a rare spirit who loved her family and friends more than she loved her fame.

Nkosi Johnson

b. Feb. 4, 1989

Xolani Nkosi--a.k.a. Nkosi Johnson, AIDS victim and activist--became a martyr and iconic figure in South Africa's battle against an epidemic. When he was refused admission to a school because he had HIV, Nkosi hit the headlines. His foster mother, Gail Johnson, gave him her name and in return took his, opening Nkosi's Haven, a Johannesburg refuge for those facing death from AIDS. Despite his dwindling health, Nkosi remained a vocal activist in the war on AIDS, even publicly rebuking President Thabo Mbeki in July 2000 for his controversial stance on the causes of the disease. "Babies are dying very quickly," said Nkosi on that occasion. Sadly, Nkosi had to be one of them.

Donald Bradman

b. Aug. 27, 1908

Soon after Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990, he asked Australia's Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser whether "the Don" was still alive. Mandela was referring to Australian Donald Bradman, arguably the greatest batsman in the history of cricket. Bradman averaged 99.4 runs in his 52 test matches during the 1930s and '40s. To this day no other batsman has come close to rivaling the Don's domination of test cricket.

Nguyen Van Thieu

b. April 5, 1923

He once promised that he and his South Vietnamese countrymen would "fight to the last bullet, the last grain of rice." But by April 1975, as communists from the North made their final push into Saigon, Nguyen Van Thieu had evidently changed his mind. He fled, leaving behind the nation he led for 10 corrupt years. Viewed as a puppet by the East and a thankless ally in the West, he ended up friendless and homeless. Despite his crucial role in Vietnam's history, Thieu's passing this year barely rated a mention in his native land.

William Hanna

b. July 14, 1910

If the name doesn't ring a bell on its own, perhaps it will alongside his longtime partner's, Joseph Barbera. For six decades, William Hanna was half of the most famous cartoon imprimatur this side of Walt Disney. But nothing sums up his legacy better than a list of some of the characters he helped create: Fred Flintstone, Barney Rubble, Bamm Bamm and Pebbles, Magilla Gorilla, Quick Draw McGraw, Yogi Bear, Scooby-Doo, Shaggy, George Jetson, his boy Elroy, Papa Smurf, Smurfette, Tom and, of course, Jerry.

Bertie Felstead

b. Oct. 28, 1894

On Christmas Day 1915, Bertie Felstead of the 15th Battalion, Royal Welch Fusiliers, found himself in a freezing trench in France, listening to the sounds of "Silent Night." As the German battalion across the way brought its singing to a halt, Felstead and his men returned the favor with a rendition of "Good King Wenceslas." This was the middle of World War I, but it was still Christmas. The next day Felstead and his men joined the German soldiers in no man's land for an impromptu game of football, until a furious British officer reminded them of their mission: they were to "kill the Hun, not make friends with him." At 106 years old, Felstead was the last known survivor of that Christmas truce.


b. Feb. 21, 1975

As great rivalries go, there's Ali vs. Frazier, Magic vs. Bird, paper vs. plastic. But in horse racing, there's only one: Affirmed and Alydar, head to head in the 1978 Triple Crown series. Affirmed edged his nemesis in all three races, and the chestnut colt's by-a-nose victory at Belmont stands as one of the greatest races to date. No horse has claimed the Triple Crown since. Says his owner, "A horse like Affirmed comes along more by magic than by plan."

Amalia Mendoza

b. 1923

"I cry when I sing because I have known sadness in my life," said Mendoza in 1985. The diva of mariachi music churned out hits on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border for more than 30 years, and her lyrics were always laden with lament. "Amarga Navidad," ("Bitter Christmas") and "Punalada Trasera" ("Backstab") were among the tunes that earned her the sobriquet La Tariacuri--a name local tribes in her native Mexican region of Jalisco used for their king.

Chenjerai Hunzvi

b. Oct. 23, 1949

Born to a peasant family in 1949, Hunzvi rose to become one of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's leading henchmen, adopting the abrasive nom de guerre "Hitler." Hunzvi spearheaded the movement to invade white-owned farms and was widely accused of intimidating and torturing opponents of the country's ruling party during last year's elections. He was a self-confessed megalomaniac, announcing on more than one occasion: "I am the biggest terrorist in Zimbabwe."

Peter Blake

b. Oct. 1, 1948

His wife considered him an "invincible hero." His rivals thought him "generous." (He often gave them advice on how to beat him.) New Zealand's top yachstman, Blake spent most of his 53 years at sea, winning local competitions, the America's Cup and lifting the Jules Verne Trophy for the fastest nonstop circumnavigation of the earth. In October, Blake was nearing completion of an expedition to raise environmental awareness when hooded pirates boarded his yacht in the Amazon. Sadly, he failed to heed some of his own best advice-to "just jump in and swim like hell." Instead, Blake was ruthlessly gunned down while protecting his crew.

Anthony Quinn

b. April 21, 1915

He was Old Hollywood's generic "ethnic"--someone exotic, expressive and earthy. The two-time Oscar winner brought edgy otherness to each of his 130 films, from his role in "The Plainsman" as a Cheyenne Indian, to the amoral Arab sheik he played in "Lawrence of Arabia" to his unforgettable turn in "Zorba the Greek." In a whitewashed era, Quinn's repertoire was often the only glimmer of diversity.

Leopold Senghor

b. Oct. 9, 1906

Born a man of letters, Leopold Senghor grew into a man of laws. The poet-philosopher led Senegal to independence from France in 1960 and served as the nation's president for 20 peaceful years. He tirelessly promoted "Negritude"--the common culture of black Africans--and insisted that state stability was only possible with support from Western democracies. Said French President Jacques Chirac: "Senegal has lost a statesman, Africa a visionary and France a friend."

Gunther Gebel-Williams

b. Sept. 12, 1950

Gunther Gebel-Williams faced wild animals without whip or chair--not even a shirt for protection. In his 30 years with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, he used only his voice. In the ring, with his beloved leopard draped over his shoulders, Gebel-Williams was the greatest show on earth. His act included elephants, horses, tigers, zebras and llamas. The only thing he couldn't train? A house cat, he said: "They do as they please."

Katharine Graham

b. June 16, 1917

When a friend suggested to Katharine Graham that she take over The Washington Post Company (including Newsweek) after her husband Phil Graham's suicide, she had a one-word response: "Impossible." Maybe it seemed that way at the time to the self-described "timid housewife." Her insecurities were deep, and she lacked confidence after years of often trailing in her husband's shadow. She once even referred to herself as "the tail to his kite." Yet Mrs. Graham took the job and ran with it, turning herself into an astute businesswoman and eventually, the most powerful woman in American journalism. Her autobiography, "Personal History," even won a Pulitzer Prize. Quite a remarkable transformation for a lady who had once dismissed herself as a "second-class citizen."


b. Feb. 29, 1908

Balthus (a.k.a. Count Balthazar Klossowski de Rola) was the Vladimir Nabokov of artists: a painter with a Lolita complex. His half-dressed prepubescent girls are certainly erotic, but they're also the focus of wonderful compositions and superb paint-handling. Balthus--possibly the greatest realist of the 20th century--proved that modernism and the tradition of the old masters could coexist nicely in the work of one artist.

Isaac Stern

b. July 21, 1920

He wasn't a child prodigy, or even a virtuoso. But expressive bowing and a fire-warmed tone made Isaac Stern a star. Away from his Guarnerius violin, the great arts patriarch mentored masters like Yo-Yo Ma, Emanuel Ax and Itzhak Perlman, lobbied for the U.S. National Education Association and saved New York's Carnegie Hall from demolition. In his fights, as with his playing, you could dispute technique, but never the passion.


Photo: MENDOZA: Dancing with Hudson in 1960