Monday, July 11, 2011

Wrong Place, Wrong Time

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I've never had much interest in watching frat boys attach baby alligators to their nipples or detonate Port-O-Potties, so I was only marginally aware of the key players in the Jackass franchise. So when a more obscure cast member named Ryan Dunn --whose most infamous prank, apparently, was cramming a toy automobile up his colon -- fatally crashed his Porsche at an alcohol-fueled 130 mph and claimed the life of his 30-year-old passenger, Zachary Hartwell, it reminded me of a few other people who were unfortunate enough to become cultural footnotes simply because they hitched their wagons to an unstable star.

Late one hot evening in August of 1969, an 18-year-old boy named Steven Parent stopped to visit a casual friend who worked as a caretaker at an estate in the hills above Los Angeles. As he was about to activate the electronic gate to leave the property, he encountered a man who slashed at him with a Bowie knife, cutting the band of his wristwatch, and who then shot him four times in the face and chest. He'd had the incredibly bad luck to stop by the same night as the Manson family, who proceeded to viciously murder eight-months-pregnant actress Sharon Tate, wife of director Roman Polanski, and three others. Parent wasn't carrying identification, so he was initially listed as homocide victim "John Doe" while the vastly more famous victims became part of a media storm. Parent's father, a contractor, complained that his son's murder was treated as an uninteresting detail in the deaths of a prominent actress, a Folger's coffee heiress and a celebrity hairdresser who was the inspiration for Warren Beatty's character in Shampoo.

Here's another one that's just as tragic. Imagine your good friend phones you and insists you meet this incredibly amusing painter she's having an affair with, so you decide to go out to Long Island for a fun weekend of mild bohemian mayhem. The next thing you know you're standing up in the back seat of a 1950 Oldsmobile with a monstrously drunk Jackson Pollock at the wheel, screaming to be let out of the car. That's what happened to poor Edith Metzger, a 25-year-old woman who had managed to escape Nazi Germany but couldn't elude the self-indulgence of a mid-century art star and enfant terrible. The car flipped, crushing her and killing Pollock, while her friend Ruth Kligman survived (she died just last year, 54 years after the tragedy). Thanks a lot, tortured artist.

As for Ryan Dunn, the joke goes: Ryan Dunn died the way he lived -- with car parts up his rectum.

Too soon?

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