Lives, finished and unfinished + my 100th post

Philip Seymour Hoffman’s private funeral is being held today at a church in Manhattan. There will be a memorial service later. Hoffman died February 2 of a drug overdose at the age of 46.

Pete Seeger’s memorial service was held in Beacon, NY, where he lived—on the day Hoffman died. The service was a moment of quiet reflection about Seeger’s life along with plenty of his songs. He died at 94 on January 27 after being hospitalized for a few days.


Springsteen and Seeger at Pete’s birthday party in 2009. Copyright Kevin Mazur/WireImage.

I can’t help but think of the contrast between the two lives. Seeger was a singer, songwriter, political and environmental activist for more than 70 years. At 17, he joined the Young Communist League and later the Communist Party; he severed his CP ties in 1949. He started singing with the Almanac Singers in 1941; their work included antiwar and other leftwing political songs. Over the years, he was investigated by HUAC and blacklisted; sang on public television and on college campuses and coffeehouses when he couldn’t get more commercial gigs because of the blacklist. But he never quit songwriting, performing and political activism. He has a huge repertoire of songs and recordings and is considered a national treasure by the public and a role model by many current musicians, including Bruce Springsteen and Tom Morello.


People Magazine cover, 2//12/2014, cropped.

Hoffman was a brilliant, prolific actor with some 50 movies plus TV shows and stage performances on his resume. Recently he played Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. In 2000 he and John C Reilly performed Sam Shepard’s ultimate sibling-rivalry play, True West, switching roles occasionally thru the run. My favorite Hoffman films are probably Synecdoche, New York, and Capote.

Many writers have commented in the last week about his talent and how he fully inhabited every role. A.O. Scott said he “made unhappiness a joy to watch.” He lived only half the life that Pete Seeger lived. Think how many amazing movie experiences we are going to miss because of the drug habit he kicked and then kicked him back.

We can’t possibly know what demons tortured Hoffman and made him rely on prescription drugs and heroin. But the loss of his life is a loss to us as well as to his family and friends.

There are many unfinished lives in the literary, music and entertainment businesses, and in everyday life. This is a topic that interests me, as I’ll explain below.

Buddy Holly, the early rock and roll musician, died at 23 in a wintry plane crash 55 years ago last week.

John Kennedy Toole, the bizarrely comic novelist and author of The Confederacy of Dunces, died at 32 in 1969.

Janis Joplin, the great blues and rock singer/songwriter, died at 27 in 1970.

Jimi Hendrix, perhaps the world’s best guitarist (and left-handed too) died at 27 in 1970.

John Millington Synge, the Irish playwright and author of Playboy of the Western World, died at 37 in 1909.

John Wellborn Root, the Chicago architect and design partner of Daniel Burnham’s firm, Burnham & Root, died at 41 in 1891. The house where he lived is a block away on my street.

And my sister Lynda died at 27 in 1970 when a drunken driver crashed into the passenger side of the family car, killing her and her 3-month-old baby. Even after four decades, I find it difficult to talk about her death, so few of my friends know the details. Some day I’ll dedicate stories of unfinished lives to Lynda.

* * *

 Nancy Bishop’s Journal: My 100th post

This is my 100th post. When I started this blog in July 2012, I wasn’t even sure what I was doing or where I was going. Since then, I’ve become much more focused on writing about the things I love—movies, theater, music, books, art and Chicago stories. It’s been more fun than I thought possible. I feel as if after all those decades of business writing, I’ve finally become a writer.

Those 100 posts average 800-900 words each, so in the last 18 months, I’ve written about 85,000 words, the equivalent of a book, a substantial book at that. In addition, since May 2013, I’ve written 80 stories—mostly theater and art reviews—for Gapers Block, the Chicago-centric website. That’s another ~40,000 words, in case we’re counting.  So in ~20 months, I’ve written the equivalent of two books. That’s not bad productivity.

6 Comments on “Lives, finished and unfinished + my 100th post”

  1. Christa Even says:

    Some deaths, like Lynda’s because of a drunken driver, are tragic because of someone else’s flaw. But, in actor Hoffman’s case, he had a choice & chose something horrible which in the end killed him. Both of these deaths were caused by someone’s reliance on destructive substances to relieve demons? flaws? tragedies? misunderstandings? failure? what?
    We’ll never know what horrors these people carry. Or whom it will affect. What’s the answer…..


  2. nancysbishop says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Christa. Yes, we can consider how the artist died as well as the loss to the world without his or her work. Both Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix died at the same age and in the same year as my sister. Joplin and Hendrix died of drug-related causes (altho the details of Hendrix’s death are disputed). Can we say we should have been able to enjoy many more years of their work if they had not engaged in self-destructive behavior? Yes, but as with Hoffman, we don’t know what demons or angels may have driven them to seek relief or creative highs thru drugs.


  3. Joan Chandler says:

    This is a heartfelt post and I loved reading it. There’s a wonderful photo of Pete Seeger in this week’s New Yorker. Bill was a producer on Synecdoche NY. He also worked with Hoffman on The Talented Mr. Ripley and Cold Mountain. He, as everyone, was devastated with the news. I was listening to Mike Tyson on the radio yesterday. He is here with a show. He sounded so distraught about his own addictions. He said: “If a man can be clean for more than 20 years and then go back, how can any of us be safe?”


  4. June Dreznick says:

     Nancy, I’m captivated by your writing. I’m sharing you with an old friend. I assume that’s OK with you. So sorry to hear about your sister and the baby.


  5. nancysbishop says:

    Thanks, June. I will be happy for you to share my blog with a friend. I write for myself and because I want people to read my work.


  6. Pam Miller says:

    This is such an insightful and touching post, Nancy. My eyes were a little misty after reading it. Peter Seeger gave a concert back in the 1970’s when I was at Northern Illinois University – an experience I will never forget. To this day, I cannot sing or even hear the song “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” without crying like a baby. Peter Seeger was truly one of a kind.


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