I haven't ever done one of these, but I was inspired to write a bit about notable people that died this year by the Los Angeles Times' very long list. Among those I found most interesting were people I may add to my list of heroes (which I keep track of on Myspace, one of the only redeeming features that site has), and some that don't fit that title but still contributed in some way to our society. Additionally, I was interested in the stories of heads of corporations or philanthropic foundations, for what they did (or did not do) to leave a legacy.
In general, the deaths that most struck me were the biggest (and I felt very differently about all of them): Kurt Vonnegut. Jerry Falwell. Boris Yeltsin. Benazir Bhutto just a few days ago.But I just was a little more interested and paused a bit longer to think about the lives of these people:
There was no more prominent American philanthropist in the late 20th century, and I believe the setting of NYC has as much to do with that as her surname and the wealth that came with it. I'm still a wild-eyed kid when I visit New York, even though my adulthood is quick to point out that it's also a brutal and very lonely city in many ways, and Brooke Astor supported much of it. Outside of this, I followed her family's battle over her care and her estate in the last couple of years, particularly at the disbelief over how public it became. In her final years, I feel that Mrs. Astor would have been appalled at even a bit of what was reported about her family. In any case, it wasn't just the New York Public Library (though I love it, having visited the research library--yes, the one with the lions--and a branch, and I love the scope of it, 90 locations and more opening, intendedfor everyone) but the support of schools and parks and New Yorkers that made her mark for me.
No, I won't ever wear a Liz Claiborne suit (and not because it's primarily a women's line but because I'm one generation too late to witness the height of her work), but there's no doubt she was a visionary business leader. Upon Estée Lauder's death in 2006, I learned all about the cosmetics company that she built, and this was a similar story in some ways. I recall the website that Liz Claiborne, Inc. set up when she died where people could write messages about her; I don't think it's still up (can't find it anyway; I'd be grateful for a URL if anyone has it), but it was filled with thousands and thousands of notes from women who loved (and depended on) her designs. I particularly like what The Economist said about her in July: " ... she grasped exactly what American women needed as the aproned housewife of the 1950s morphed into the professional of the 1970s. Good tailoring, classic styling, quality material, mix-and-match colours, a dash of panache: just the tops and trousers and skirts, set off with a Claiborne scarf and a Claiborne leather tote, in which to stride down Fifth Avenue or into the halls of power." She and her husband also started a foundation focusing on conservation projects, including work in the American West.
Advertising is an industry that constantly catches my attention, and here was a man that made a splash there. Another life that probably had more impact on my (much) older brothers and cousins than on me, but I still know what The Pepsi Generation is, and now I know who started it. Building a campaign to take on the ubiquitous Coca-Cola is no easy feat, but his was attention grabbing and notably long lasting, starting in 1963. Pottasch was exactly what you call the organization man; he worked at Pepsi for almost all of his career, retiring after almost 40 years! But as far as giant, faceless corporations go, I can't help but think this one is sort of cool (first Indian-American woman Fortune 500 CEO is at PepsiCo, yes? I'm forming a theme here), and that was his mission.
I'm not sure what kind of leader she was in one of the biggest real estate holding companies in Hong Kong, but I find her story irresistible. Having married a childhood friend that became the billionaire head of a Chinese company (what they actually did is sort of murky) and disappeared decades later, I wouldn't have expected the heir to such a huge amount of money and power to be as quirky and offbeat as she. I think twice now about my expectations when I realize that this was the richest woman in Asia. Like Mrs. Astor, I was saddened to read the very public legal mess that was the final years of her life; I don't know what she would have liked to do with the (somewhat questionable) fortune willed to her by her husband, but I've got to feel for a woman who built this in her husband's honor; the taller tower is named Teddy Tower!