Before the Last Teardrop Falls

by Denis Welch / 30 December, 2006
Dame Te Atairangikaahu's tangi in August mesmerised the nation with its powerful images of transition and grief.

No death had a greater impact on New Zealanders this year than that of Dame Te Atairangikaahu, the Maori Queen, whose tangi in August mesmerised the nation with its powerful images of transition and grief. Two other great Maori figures passed away in 2006: Ngati Whatua paramount chief Sir Hugh Kawharu and Te Atiawa weaver Erenora Puketapu-Hetet. Almost unnoticed, though, was the death at 72 of Margaret Orbell, who devoted her life to tracking down and preserving tales of Maori mythology in danger of being lost.

It was an awful year for Tonga. First, Prince Tu'ipelehake, the king's nephew, and his wife Princess Kaimana died along with their driver in a San Francisco crash allegedly caused by a speeding teenager. The prince had been an advocate of the kind of democratic reform that, on the evidence of the riots later in the year, Tonga badly needs. Then King Tupou IV died, after a long illness, at 88, and Tonga ended the year in a fraught state.

The most shocking accidental death was that of Australian wildlife entertainer Steve Irwin, killed by a stingray's barb in September.

Two great economists completed their mortal curve this year. Both had a powerful influence on the 20th century, the length of which they almost lived: John Kenneth Galbraith died at 97 and Milton Friedman at 94. Here, we also mourned the loss of heart surgeon Sir Brian Barratt-Boyes, eminent judge Lord Cooke and history professor Peter Munz.

Pioneer modern feminist Betty Friedan, author of the highly influential Feminine Mystique, died in February at 85; a few weeks later came the relatively unmarked death of Cherry Raymond, saluted in a Listener tribute by Douglas Lloyd Jenkins as "from the 1950s until the late 1970s, the intelligent, enquiring, leftish female voice of print, radio and television".

Although only two name artists died during the year - Korean video artist Nam June Paik and Kiwi Trevor Moffitt - death cut a swathe through the world of music, taking Gene Pitney, Lou Rawls, Wilson Pickett, Ruth Brown, Anita O'Day, Billy Preston, Pink Floyd founder Syd Barrett, the Go-Betweens' Grant McLennan, sopranos Elizabeth Schwarzkopf and Birgit Nilsson, and composers Malcolm Arnold and Gyorgy Ligeti (whose music defined the last half hour of 2001: A Space Odyssey). It was hasta la vista, too, to Baldemar Huerta, aka Freddie Fender, Mexican singer of "Before the Next Teardrop Falls" and the definitive version of "Secret Love".

In the world of sport, three great cricketers - Clyde Walcott, Fred Trueman and Walter Hadlee - left the field for the last time; rugby lost 1956 All Blacks captain Bob Duff; and racing driver Peter Brock was killed when he ploughed into a tree in his Daytona Coupe. Other sporting legends who died included golfing great Byron Nelson, former world heavyweight boxing champion Floyd Patterson, archer Neroli Fairhall, horseman Ken Browne and softballer Kevin Herlihy.

Actors Glenn Ford, Shelley Winters, Don Knotts, Red Buttons and Jack Palance will be auditioning for St Peter by now; local theatre lost Wi Kuki Kaa and Red Mole's Sally Rodwell, unable to carry on after the death of her partner Alan Brunton.

Film directors John Hughes and Robert Altman are gone, as is revered Swedish cinematographer Sven Nykvist, who shot many of Bergman's films and also worked with Tarkovsky.

Less mourned by some, perhaps, will be dictators Slobodan Milosevic and Augusto Pinochet; other leading political figures no longer with us include Caspar Weinberger, P W Botha, Ireland's Charles Haughey and Yao Wenyuan, last surviving member of the "Gang of Four". Veteran New Zealand diplomat Bryce Harland died, as did former SIS chief Paul Molineaux. Martin Luther King's widow, Coretta Scott King, passed away; so did chef Robert Carrier, sexologist John Money, wartime air ace Wing Commander Johnny Checketts and the irrepressible English entertainer Anna Russell.

Writers? Muriel Spark, Mickey Spillane, Nigel Cox, Naguib Mahfouz, Jaws creator Peter Benchley and Leonard Cohen's mentor Irving Layton, plus three colourful Kiwi journalists: Michael Forbes, Pat Plunket and longtime Listener stalwart Alex Fry. When Jean Bartlett died at 94 this month, she took with her one of the last living links with the Auckland literary world of the 1930s.

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