It’s always a bit depressing to read the year-end obituary wrap-ups, especially when several well-known people pass on in the last days of the year, as happened in this one. For a change, in the past several years I’ve made lists of famous birth anniversaries of that year from past centuries, noting those who changed their world for the better, or at least made it more interesting. As for those who made it worse, who wants to end the year with a list of history’s monsters? (Here are the links to my lists for ’09, a banner year; ’10; and ’11.)
This year saw the centennials of many notable births — especially in the past century, but also much longer ago. It starts in 912 with Otto I (Otto the Great), founder of the Holy Roman Empire, who ruled from 936 to 973 in one of the first successful attempts to rekindle state power and rebuild civilization in Europe after the fall of Rome.
The 18th century saw the dawn of the Enlightenment, marking the emergence of the modern Western view of the world. In 1712 were born two men who defined that shift, the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose views on nature and politics helped inspire the French Revolution, and Frederick II (the Great) of Prussia, whose military brilliance changed the map of Europe. They were joined by the artist Francesco Guardi, the last prominent member of the Venetian school of classical painting (some of whose works can be seen here).
Reaching the century before last, a distinguished crop of writers and artists uttered their first cries in 1812 (as did a bevy of Union and Confederate American Civil War generals, whom I shall refrain from listing here). The year began with one of the greatest authors in the English language, Charles Dickens, on February 7, so read a page-turner about Victorian London before next year is too far gone. And Dickens had good company, including his fellow Englishmen, the poets Robert Browning and Edward Lear (follow the links to their poetry), and Scottish popular writer Samuel Smiles, whose Self-Help remained a touchstone of the 19th-century reform movement. On the other side of the continent, Russian author Alexander Herzen, who became the intellectual godfather to Russian reformers and socialists, was born in Moscow to a Russian father and a German mother. Other newborn artists in 1812 included the great German composer Robert Schumann and the American jeweler Charles Lewis Tiffany, who lived to the hoary age of 90, redefining the aesthetics of luxury goods.
Tiffany died just a decade before the arrival of a long list of luminaries born in 1912, many of whom are well-remembered today. Artists of various stripes emerged by the bushelful in the year Woodrow Wilson was first elected president, including the macabre cartoonist Charles Addams, master of modernism Jackson Pollock, and illustrator Garth Williams. I’d like to think the most influential was Chuck Jones, of Bugs Bunny fame, though. Writers such as the historian Barbara Tuchman, dystopian author Pierre Boulle (Planet of the Apes and the anti-war classic Bridge over the River Kwai), absurdist dramatist Eugene Ionesco (Rhinoceros), Partisan Review circle member Mary McCarthy, Chicago fixture and chronicler of the common man Studs Terkel, and quintessential New Englander John Cheever would soon be acquainted with their first alphabet blocks. The background music would be provided by babes who first clinked spoons against feeding tables in 1912, including longtime Chicago Symphony Orchestra conductor Georg Solti, jazz musician Stan Kenton, bandleader Les Brown (“and his Band of Renown”), crooner Perry Como, and radical folk singer Woody Guthrie.
A passel of those born in 1912, when vaudeville was at its height, would shape American entertainment through the movies and television,, including the mold-breaking actor John Garfield (The Postman Always Rings Twice), actor Karl Malden, and dancer/actor Gene Kelly. They were joined by actress Eve Arden (Our Miss Brooks and, for later viewers, Grease) and comedians Morey Amsterdam (Buddy on The Dick Van Dyke Show), Phil Silvers (Sgt. Bilko), and radio and television host Art Linkletter. Chef Julia Child also belongs on this list of media personalities.
Entertainment of a different sort was provided by sports greats such as the skater Sonja Henie, golf legends Ben Hogan and Sam Snead (all three of whom would play unseen roles in the comic strip Peanuts in later years), and baseball legends Babe Dahlgren, Arky Vaughan, and Birdie Tebbets.
The 20th century saw perhaps the greatest advances in the history of science, thanks to the endeavors of ’12 babies Glenn T. Seaborg, Nobel-winning chemist; German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun; cryptanalyst and father of computer science and artificial intelligence Alan Turing; along with electronics pioneer David Packard (of Hewlett-Packard fame). The dismal science of economics would never be the same after the birth of Nobel Prize winner and champion of free enterprise Milton Friedman.
Political power brokers in the “American Century” included Democrats such as former speaker of the House Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill and moderate senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson, along with Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox. Nor can we discount the importance of first ladies Lady Bird Johnson and Pat Nixon, who lived through tumultuous times in Washington, D.C. Among the Americans sent off to fight the wars the politicians voted for were U.S. Marine fighter pilot Pappy Boyington, an ace over the Pacific, and Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., who became one of the first black Americans to become a general (in the U.S. Air Force).
Finally, 1912 saw the births of those who fought for individual freedom and dignity, including Pope John Paul I; the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who saved thousands of Jews during World War II; and civil- and women’s-rights activist Dorothy Height, who passed away, at the age of 98, in 2010.
One hopes that 2013 will welcome into the world babies who will be as accomplished as these, making a better future for all. Happy New Year.
— Michael Auslin is a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.