Leading Article: Fascinated by the deaths of the famous

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The Independent Online
LOATH though most people are to contemplate their own deaths, no such reluctance extends to those of others, and especially of the famous.

Two news items of the past few days confirm this fascination, which has become positively cultish in this century. As it happens, the two currently in question, Martin Luther King and Jimi Hendrix, exemplify the main types of death that tend to be raked over: the assassination of a major political figure, and the self-destruction of talented entertainers.

The most famous instance is, inevitably, that of President John F Kennedy, shot dead in Dallas just over 30 years ago. To those with non-conspiratorial minds, the evidence that Lee Harvey Oswald was solely responsible looks overwhelming. This has not stopped the growth of a huge industry offering more exciting theories.

As with Kennedy, plenty of people had reason to kill Martin Luther King, who was shot 23 years ago. Hitherto, interest has focused on revelations of the black American civil rights leader's vigorous sex life shortly before his death. Now a retired American businessman is reported to have confessed to hiring King's assassin - and it was not James Earl Ray, still serving a 99-year sentence for the crime but allegedly a mere decoy. This one may also run and run.

Among heroes and heroines of high or popular culture whose deaths have attracted constant attention are Shelley, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Elvis Presley, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Jim Morrison of the Doors - and now, once again, Jimi Hendrix, the rock guitarist. Hendrix died in an ambulance after taking barbiturates and, according to the inquest, inhaling his vomit. New evidence seemingly involves the precise timing of his death and whether enough was done to save him.

In the case of the victims of assassination, it evidently matters greatly how they died, especially if the wrong person was convicted. Where self-destructive popular heroes are concerned, preoccupation with the details of their last hours probably represents an unconscious desire to keep them alive.

It may also serve as an acceptable way of examining the possibility of one's own demise, reflecting not least our fear that the manner of our going may be altogether less dignified than we hope.

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