In the prime of death: The artists who didn't make it to the podium in this life

Bernadine Bishop could be the first writer to win the Costa Book of the Year posthumously

Simon Usborne@susborne
Wednesday 27 November 2013 22:15
Gong but not forgotten: Bernardine Bishop
Gong but not forgotten: Bernardine Bishop

Bernadine Bishop died in July, just months after the publication of her autobiographical novel, Unexpected Lessons in Love. She lived to enjoy ecstatic reviews, but not to see her name on the shortlist for the Costa Book of the Year, announced this week. In January, Bishop may become the first author to win the prize posthumously, an honour that has been bestowed – sometimes after decades – on some of the world's most important cultural figures.

John Kennedy Toole, a young novelist from New Orleans, abandoned a manuscript in his wardrobe after an agonising process of revision and rejection by publishers. Depressed, he killed himself in 1969, aged 31. Toole's mother, Thelma, retrieved the work and spent years battling to convince editors of its merit. "Each time it came back, I died a little," she said.

In 1976, Thelma targeted Walker Percy, an author at a New Orleans university, eventually storming his office and demanding that he read her son's book. He did, "first with the sinking feeling that it was not bad enough to quit, then with a prickle of interest, then a growing excitement, and finally an incredulity; surely it was not possible that it was so good."

In 1980, just 2,500 copies of A Confederacy of Dunces were printed, the first of more than a million. A year later, Toole won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

After her brilliantly matter-of-fact receipt of the news that she had won the Nobel Prize for Literature, the late Doris "Oh Christ!" Lessing later added that, because it couldn't be awarded posthumously, judges "were probably thinking they'd better give it to me now before I've popped off". She was right: Nobel conditions exclude the dead, but once were relaxed for a Swede called Erik Axel Karlfeldt. The poet was also chair of the Swedish Academy, which awards the prize, and in 1918 he politely excluded himself from consideration. He was nominated again in 1931 but died before he could withdraw – and then won.

In 1953, Dalton Trumbo watched as another man received his Oscar. He had been one of the "Hollywood Ten" who refused to testify at the US government's notorious anti-communist trials of the 1940s. Blacklisted in Hollywood, he served an 11-month prison sentence in 1950 for contempt. His screenplay won the Academy Award in 1953, but was presented to Ian McLellan Hunter, an English writer who had worked with him on the script. In 1993, 17 years after Trumbo's death, the Academy retrospectively honoured him, but the Writers Guild of America only restored his credit for Roman Holiday in 2011.

Walt Disney is among more than a dozen people to receive posthumous Oscars, but only two actors have won. Peter Finch died after a heart attack in the lobby of the Beverly Hills Hotel in 1977 while promoting Network, in which he plays a newsreader. Two months later, his wife, Eletha Finch, accepted the award. Heath Ledger, also an Australian, won the best supporting actor award in 2009 for his role as Joker in The Dark Knight. He died in 2008.

Alan Turing used cyanide to kill himself in 1954 at the age of 41. Two years earlier, the father of computer science and wartime codebreaker was convicted with another man of "gross indecency" under laws that prohibited homosexuality, and accepted a sentence of "chemical castration" as an alternative to prison. Last month, Attitude magazine awarded him the Icon Award for outstanding achievement. It printed his image on the cover behind the headline: "The gay man who saved the world."

Additional reporting by Rosie Neve

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