Who was the most significant death of 2017?
The year is drawing to a close, and so far 29 people have died who were famous enough to have biographies in Who2. That’s down from 2016, when the number was 43 and included luminaries like Muhammad Ali, Carrie Fisher and Antonin Scalia. Of course, 2017 still has 8 days left to go.
Let’s look at the five most important figures who died in 2017. This is not a ranking by wonderfulness — it’s a ranking of those 2017 decedents who had the most impact on the world during their short stay on Earth.
5. Jerry Lewis. The rubber-faced and persnickety comedian had three distinct phases: as part of Martin & Lewis, his superstar comedy pairing with Dean Martin; as a stand-alone movie director and star in movies like The Nutty Professor; and as host of the annual Muscular Dystrophy Association telethon for 45 years, during which time he raised over $2 billion for MDA. He was a huge star in the 1950s and 1960s, and while he was both loved and loathed, he made his mark.
4. Chuck Berry. The rock-n-roll guitarist, singer and composer “defined rock & roll during its early years and for decades to come,” according to Rolling Stone. His years of greatest influence lasted little more than a decade: his first hit was “Maybellene” in 1955, and he continued with hits like “Johnny B. Goode” and “Roll Over Beethoven” until he went to jail in 1962 for shenanigans with an underaged girl. He influenced The Beatles and Keith Richards and many others and remains one of rock’s iconic guitarists. Chuck Berry was inducted into the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.
3. David Rockefeller. You want to talk influence? Let’s talk Rockefellers. By the time he died at 101, David Rockefeller had been CEO of Chase Manhattan Bank (during which time “Chase spread internationally and became a central component of the world’s financial system”), had been chums with and advisor to world leaders as disparate as Henry Kissinger and Fidel Castro, and gave away over $900 million to schools, public health and poverty eradication. Oh, and he also served as a captain in the U.S. Army during World War II. All in all, an impactful life.
2. Hugh Hefner. Well, what can you say about the old boy? Long before he became the aged parody of himself, the geezer in the red velvet pajamas, Hugh Hefner was a canny businessman who shook up the sexual mores of America. “He was compared to Jay Gatsby, Citizen Kane and Walt Disney, but Mr. Hefner was his own production,” said The New York Times in its obituary. (On the other hand, NY Times columnist Ross Douthat called Hefner “a pornographer and chauvinist who… died a pack rat in a decaying manse where porn blared during his pathetic orgies.”) Love him or hate him, Hefner’s impact on sex in America (and its reverberations in related issues like birth control, abortion and women’s rights) probably changed more lives than did the impact of Chuck Berry or Jerry Lewis.
1. Roger Ailes. “He did all the damage he could do in 77 years” should be the epitaph on Roger Ailes’s tombstone. (If one exists.) With cash from billionaire Rupert Murdoch, Roger Ailes founded and nurtured Fox News, the scurrilous fear factory and propaganda machine which has so warped the political conversation in America. Ailes started out as an entertainment producer, but he went to the dark side with Richard Nixon and never looked back. (Along the way, he also became a malignant sexual predator who told one woman “If you want to play with the big boys, you have to lay with the big boys.”) For the malevolent power of Fox News, for refining the art of the truth-twisting political attack ad, for setting the stage for ever more strident propagandists like Andrew Breitbart, Matt Drudge and Steve Bannon — for all this and more, Roger Ailes was the most impactful person who died in 2017.