The death pool

Culture | Bookmaking celebrity deaths and other cultural buzz

Issue: "Palau: Renaissance Man," Jan. 24, 1998

Another man's time The recent deaths of Sonny Bono and Michael Kennedy probably made somebody a big winner in cyberspace's grimmest game: the death pool. You or a team draw up a list of famous people. Predict more fatalities than your opponents and win. Bonuses are awarded for unexpected deaths of celebrities too young to die. One pool, the Lee Atwater Invitational, calls itself "the fun side of death." It charges 11 bucks to enter and calls its site "" In 1997, someone collected $1,500 predicting the demises of Jeanne Calment, Mother Teresa, Deng Xiaopeng, Willem de Kooning, and Jimmy Stewart. This player guessed wrong about James Earl Ray, Katharine Hepburn, Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, Bob Hope, and Strom Thurmond. To participate in this macabre sport, you send in an entry plus a few dollars to add to the kitty. A contestant can pick anybody as long as he is famous. In one pool, somebody picked the entire Mormon Tabernacle Choir to go down in a plane crash. Once the entries are collected by New Year's Eve, a referee counts the cadavers as they fall across the AP wire. Prizes are awarded at the end of the next year. Thus, the humble office betting pool gets a morbid, high-tech twist. Maybe this is a backlash against the beaucoup bucks spent turning people into branded commodities to be fed to the masses via satellite. After all, obituaries are the last curtain calls. As the culture continues its death slide, will CNN's Headline News have to carry a running obit ticker similar to its CNN-SI sports ticker? Guessing Oscar With Oscar season lurking, one flick picked as a heavy favorite is the pulp cop drama LA Confidential (rated R). Here filmmakers turned a James Ellroy novel into Chinatown for the '90s. This tale of 1950s police corruption contrasts Southern California's slime and grime with the scrubbed-up TV image presented to Middle America. Historians may see this as the last great postmodern thriller. Happy pop tunes are playing while guns are blazing. Suspects always watch TV when the cops show up. The only clean-nose on the force (Guy Pearce) always goes by the book but uses his successes to push his career. One LA crooked cop (Kevin Spacey) is a consultant to a Dragnet-ish TV show. He's teamed up with a sleazy magazine reporter (Danny DeVito) for scoops in exchange for high-profile arrests. The tabloid hack sets up crimes so he can cover him. Then he sells salacious stories to the masses about how the boys in blue are cleaning up LA. Naturally, the movie takes many jabs at the just-the-facts-ma'am police portrayal. Meanwhile, there's a lot of unplanned shooting going on in a city that supposedly defeated organized crime. One victim is a corrupt policeman. There's also an evil pornographer running amok (when do you ever see one of those?) and, of course, most of the characters get killed by the end of the movie. Lessons from a bombing victim David Gelernter walked into his office at Yale on June 24, 1993, checked his mail, and was blown up by the Unabomber. Recovery gave him plenty of time to think-and the computer scientist poured out his thoughts in Drawing Life (Free Press, ISBN 0-684-83912-1), a book worth pondering as the trial of Unabomber suspect Ted Kaczynski plays itself out. Mr. Gelertner's pensees ponder everything from his recovery to his Judaism to homeschooling. Instead of merely re-living the explosion that crippled him, he takes the occasion to castigate civil society's conquest by a new class of arrogant intellectuals. Taking off his artificial thumbpiece to type, Mr. Gelernter calls the new order the "civil-rights religion." The angels are archetypal oppressed African-Americans. The demons are white males who must be socially engineered out of their unconscious intolerance. Mr. Gelertner's correctives are rather moderate. He wants people to go back to being civil to one another. Above all, he says, the mind-set of victim-speak must end now. Mr. Gelertner, who has real credentials as a victim, tells how he fought to keep the media from throwing him into its elitist mental boxes. To some he was merely the object of the stock human-interest-story clichés. To others, his views on technology represented the "pro" side to be positioned against Hut Man's "con" side, as if the Unabomber and his victim were members of some bizzaro debating society. Mr. Gelertner's ideas are nothing new. Most sane people hate political correctness now. But this author's circumstances and position among the intellectuals may make a few members of the ruling class ask hard questions. That makes the book important.

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