Those We Lost

Maeve Binchy.
Maeve Binchy.

By Irish America Staff
October / November 2012

Recent passings in the Irish and Irish-American communities.

Maeve Binchy
1940 – 2012
One of Ireland’s most successful and beloved novelists, Maeve Binchy passed away on July 30, following a brief illness. Taoiseach Enda Kenny praised Binchy, author of such bestsellers as Circle of Friends and Tara Road, and mourned Ireland’s loss of “a national treasure.”

Binchy was born in Dalkey, a Dublin suburb, on May 28, 1940, the eldest of four children of William Binchy, an attorney, and Maureen, a nurse. After graduating from University College Dublin, Binchy found work as a teacher, and at 23 went to Israel to spend some time in a kibbutz. It was William who gave his daughter a nudge towards writing when he passed all of the letters Binchy had written from Israel on to the Irish Times. Binchy returned to Ireland and found herself a published writer.

In 1968, she became the Women’s Editor of the Irish Times, and in the early ’70s she moved to England to become the paper’s London correspondent. Her insightful prose and delightfully unselfconscious style garnered both praise and loyal readers. In London, she met and married BBC correspondent and children’s book author Gordon Snell.

Though Binchy missed Ireland, she also credited her fourteen years in England with leading her to write fiction. “We have too good a time here [in Ireland],” she said in a 2007 interview with Irish America. “We sit in bars talking about our plans to write, but very few of us do it. We simply sit there until closing time talking about it. In England, if you tell someone you’re going to write a book, the next time they meet you they’ll ask how the book is going. That was good for me.”

Binchy published her first novel, Light a Penny Candle, in 1982, when she was 42. She went on to write sixteen others, including Echoes, The Lilac Bus, and, most recently, Minding Frankie. Tara Road became a runaway success when Oprah Winfrey declared herself a fan and Binchy appeared on her show in 1999. Tara Road, Circle of Friends, and a short story titled “How About You” were all made into films. Though Binchy had announced that 2000’s Scarlet Feather would be the last of her big novels, she completed 5 more – in spite of a heart condition and  arthritis.

Binchy is survived by her husband, Gordon, with whom she wrote every day, at their own desks in the same room in their modest house in Dalkey. She is also survived by a brother, William, and a sister, Joan. Binchy’s final novel, A Week in Winter, will be published in October.

Malcolm Browne
1931 – 2012
Malcolm W. Browne, a reporter best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the Vietnam War, died on August 27 in New Hampshire, from Parkinson’s disease-related complications. He was 81.

Browne was born in Manhattan in 1931. He was given the middle name Wilde after his grandfather’s first cousin, the Irish writer and wit Oscar Wilde. A seasoned reporter, Browne got his start in writing during his service in the Korean War, when he was assigned to write for the Stars and Stripes, the newspaper of the U.S. Armed Forces, despite his lack of journalistic experience (Browne had previously worked as a chemist and, in the war, operated a tank). After the army he found work with the Associated Press, and in 1961 he was named chief of their Saigon bureau. He later worked for the New York Times and Discover magazine.

In 1964, he shared the Pultizer for international reporting with David Halberstam of the New York Times. Earlier that year he had famously photographed the self-immolation of a Buddhist monk protesting the South Vietnamese government. Many U.S. newspapers chose not to print the graphic image, but it nonetheless created a wave of awareness and outrage throughout the States and the world.

Browne chronicled his experiences in Korea and Vietnam in an autobiography, Muddy Boots and Red Socks. He is survived by his wife, Le Lieu, whom he met in Saigon. He is also survived by a son, Timothy; a daughter, Wendy; and two grandchildren.

Robert Hughes
1938 – 2012
The art critic and historian Robert Hughes died August 6 at Calvary Hospital in the Bronx after a long illness. He was 74. Hughes, a native of Australia, worked for over three decades at Time magazine, where he was the chief art critic.

In addition to a keen critic – unsparing and insightful – Hughes was also a master of the English language. The Fatal Shore, his 1987 history of his homeland, Australia – which he left in 1964 – became an international best seller. Throughout his career, Hughes wrote extensively on his favorite subjects, which included Goya, Lucian Freud, fishing, and himself. He continued writing despite suffering a near-fatal car crash in Australia in 1999 that left him with numerous health problems.

Among his many works as an art critic and author, Hughes also created an eight-part documentary, The Shock of the New, which was seen by more than 25 million viewers when it first ran on BBC and then on PBS. His spin-off book to the show was also hugely popular. In 1997, the writer Robert S. Boynton called him as “the most famous art critic in the world.”

Robert Studley Forrest Hughes was born July 28, 1938 in Sydney, Australia to a family of Irish descent. His father, Geoffrey Forrest Hughes, was a pilot during WWI, and died when Robert was 12. Hughes studied art and architecture at the University of Sydney.

He had a son, Danton, now deceased, with his first wife, Danne Patricia Emerson. In addition to his present wife, Doris Downes, he is survived by two stepsons, Freeborn and Fielder Jewett, and two brothers and a sister. Though his accident in ’99 slowed Hughes down, he continued to study and travel. The longevity of Hughes’s career is something of a marvel, but even more profound wad its quality.

Mark O’Donnell
1954 – 2012
Tony Award winner Mark O’Donnell passed away on  August 6 in Manhattan. The 58 year old co-author of the book for the Broadway musical Hairspray collapsed suddenly in the lobby of his apartment building. The cause of death was unknown, according to his agent, Jack Tantleff.

Prior to Hairspray, O’Donnell had published cartoons and poetry and written Off Broadway plays, but had never written a Broadway musical. The first draft was a long process that took O’Donnell and his co-writer, Thomas Meehan, years to complete, but the show would be well worth the wait. Hairspray opened in August 2002 and was a huge hit, winning eight Tonys, including best book of a musical. Its success was praised by Hairspray’s original creator, John Waters, who made the 1988 film of the same name. O’Donnell would go on to adapt another of Waters’ films, Cry-Baby, for the stage. Though the musical received mixed reviews, O’Donnell’s work was honored with another Tony nomination in 2008.

O’Donnell was born in Cleveland on July 19, 1954. He and his twin brother, Steve, were the youngest of 10 children in an Irish-American family. His father was a welder and his mother a homemaker. O’Donnell graduated from John Marshall High School in Cleveland, where he was active in the local theater scene as a teenager, and then received a scholarship to Harvard, where he worked with the humor magazine the Harvard Lampoon.

His other works for the stage include That’s It, Folks!, Fables for Friends and Tots in Tinseltown. He also wrote two novels, Getting Over Homer and Let Nothing You Dismay, and published two collections of stories. In addition to his twin, O’Donnell is survived by his eight other siblings.

John Phelan
1931 – 2012
John J. Phelan Jr., the former chairman of the New York Stock Exchange, who introduced computerized trading technology to the Big Board in the 1980s, died on August 4 of complications from prostate cancer. He was 81.

Phelan, who was known by those he worked with as soft-spoken and private, first served as president of the exchange from 1980 to 1984, and then as chairman and chief executive from 1984 to 1990. His true claim to fame, however, was his reaction to the stock market crash of October 1987, known as Black Monday. According to the New York Times, John, with his calm disposition, became “the public face of the stock exchange,” in the crash’s aftermath, “seeking to assure a nervous country that confidence in the markets was justified.”

Phelan was born in New York City in 1931. Instead of finishing college, he enlisted and served as a staff sergeant in the Marines during the Korean War. He later joined his father’s financial firm, Phelan & Co, and became its head when his father died in 1996. In 1970, he graduated from Adelphi University with a degree in business administration, after 6 years of night classes.

He served as Chairman of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York, and was a Knight of Malta.

Phelan is survived by his wife, Joyce, and three sons, John, Peter and David.

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