DONNA SUMMMER, QUEEN OF DISCO WHO TRANSCENDED THE ERA
Donna Summer performed in Norway in 2009. More Photos »
By JON PARELES
Published: May 17, 2012
Donna Summer, the multimillion-selling singer and songwriter whose hits captured both the giddy hedonism of the 1970s disco era and the feisty female solidarity of the early 1980s, died on Thursday at her home in Naples, Fla. She was 63.
Memories of Donna’s Disco Nights(May 20, 2012)
The cause was cancer, her publicist, Brian Edwards, said.
With her doe eyes, cascade of hair and sinuous dance moves, Ms. Summer became the queen of disco — the music’s glamorous public face — as well as an idol with a substantial gay following. Her voice, airy and ethereal or brightly assertive, sailed over dance floors and leapt from radios from the mid-’70s well into the ’80s.
She riffled through styles as diverse as funk, electronica, rock and torch song as she piled up 14 Top 10 singles in the United States, among them “Love to Love You Baby,” “Bad Girls,” “Hot Stuff,” “Last Dance” and “She Works Hard for the Money.” In the late ’70s she had three double albums in a row that reached No. 1, and each sold more than a million copies.
Her combination of a church-rooted voice and up-to-the-minute dance beats was a template for 1970s disco, and, with her producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte, she pioneered electronic dance music with the synthesizer pulse of “I Feel Love” in 1977, a sound that pervades 21st-century pop. Her own recordings have been sampled by, among others, Beyoncé, the Pet Shop Boys, Justice and Nas.
Ms. Summer won Grammy Awards for dance music, R&B, rock and gospel. Her recorded catalog spans the orgasmic moans of her first hit, “Love to Love You Baby,” the streetwalker chronicle of “Bad Girls,” the feminist moxie of “She Works Hard for the Money” and the religious devotion of “Forgive Me,” a gospel song that earned her another Grammy.
Through it all, Ms. Summer’s voice held on to an optimistic spirit and a determination to flourish. She garnered loyal fans. In 2009 she performed in Oslo at the concert honoring the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to President Obama.
On Thursday, the president released a statement, saying, “Her voice was unforgettable, and the music industry has lost a legend far too soon.”
Jon Landau, the chairman of the nominating committee at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, also issued a statement — an unusual one in which he said it was unfortunate that the hall had never inducted her.
“There is absolutely no doubt that the extraordinary Donna Summer belongs in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,” Mr. Landau wrote. “Regrettably, despite being nominated on a number of occasions, our voting group has failed to recognize her — an error I can only hope is finally and permanently rectified next year.”
LaDonna Adrian Gaines was born Dec. 31, 1948, in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston, one of seven children. She grew up singing in church and decided in her teens to make music her career. In the late 1960s she joined the Munich company of the rock musical “Hair” and relocated to Germany, where she became fluent in German and worked as a studio vocalist, in musical theater and briefly as a member of the Viennese Folk Opera. She married an Austrian actor, Hellmuth Sommer, in 1972, and after they divorced she kept his name but changed the spelling. She had already recorded her first single under the name Donna Gaines, an unsuccessful remake in 1971 of the Jaynetts’ “Sally Go ’Round the Roses.”
Her work as a backup singer brought her to the attention of Mr. Moroder and Mr. Bellotte. Her 1974 debut album with them, “Lady of the Night,” was released only in Europe. But with “Love to Love You Baby” in 1975, Ms. Summer became a sensation. She said she recorded that song’s breathy, moaning vocals lying on her back on the studio floor with the lights out, thinking about how Marilyn Monroe might coo its words.
The American label Casablanca signed her after hearing the song in its initial European version, titled “Love to Love You,” and asked her to extend it for disco play. The resulting 17-minute single contains more than 20 simulated orgasms and became an international hit, reaching No. 2 on the American pop chart. Ms. Summer quickly released two more albums, “A Love Trilogy” and “Four Seasons of Love,” a concept album tracing a romance over the course of a year.
But she was increasingly uncomfortable being promoted as a sex goddess. “I’m not just sex, sex, sex,” she told Ebony magazine in 1977. “I would never want to be a one-dimensional person like that.”
She became so depressed that in late 1976 she attempted suicide, she wrote in her 2003 autobiography, “Ordinary Girl: The Journey,” written with Marc Eliot. She began taking medication for depression and seeking consolation in religion, becoming a born-again Christian in 1979.
“I Remember Yesterday,” one of two albums Ms. Summer released in 1977, revolved around the concept of mixing disco with the sounds of previous decades. But it was a song representing the future, “I Feel Love,” that would make the most impact. Its all-electronic arrangement was a startling new sound for a pop song, and its contrast of human voice versus synthetic backdrop would echo through countless club hits in its wake.
Ms. Summer was still demonstrating her versatility. She followed up with an orchestral album, “Once Upon a Time,” a set of songs telling a Cinderella story, and then a live album in 1978, “Live and More,” which yielded a hit with a version of “MacArthur Park.” That was the first of four No. 1 singles she would have in a year, followed by “Hot Stuff,” “Bad Girls” and a duet with Barbra Streisand, “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough).” Ms. Summer won her first Grammy Award — for best R&B vocal performance, female — with “Last Dance,” a song by Paul Jabara. It was introduced on the soundtrack to the 1978 movie “Thank God It’s Friday” and has ended many a wedding party ever since.
Disco as a fad was peaking, and Ms. Summer strove to outlast it. Her 1979 double album, “Bad Girls,” put some rock guitar into songs like “Hot Stuff”; it won a Grammy for best rock vocal performance, female. Her first collection of hits, “On the Radio: Greatest Hits Volumes 1 and 2,” also reached No. 1 in 1979, and the newly recorded title song was a Top 10 single.
Another hit from 1979, “Heaven Knows,” reached No. 4 on the pop chart, with personal repercussions. Ms. Summer recorded it with the group Brooklyn Dreams, and she married its co-founder, Bruce Sudano, in 1980. He survives her, along with three daughters — Brooklyn Sudano, Amanda Sudano and Mimi Dohler — and four grandchildren. She is also survived by a brother, Ricky Gaines, and four sisters: Dara Bernard, Mary Ellen Bernard, Linda Gaines and Jeanette Yancey.
“On the Radio” was Ms. Summer’s last album for Casablanca. As disco receded, she moved to Geffen Records, seeking to hold her broader pop audience. She tried new wave rock on “The Wanderer” in 1981, then switched to the R&B produced by Quincy Jones for “Donna Summer” in 1982. But she would reach her 1980s commercial peak with “She Works Hard for the Money” in 1983, collaborating with the producer Michael Omartian. It was her last Top 10 album, and amid its gleaming pop productions it included “He’s a Rebel,” an indirect Christian rock song — “He’s a rebel, written up in the lamb’s book of life” — that won a Grammy for best inspirational performance.
Ms. Summer’s career waned in the mid-1980s. Pop fans paid little attention to two albums from that period, “Cats Without Claws” and “All Systems Go,” and she alienated gay fans when she was quoted as having described AIDS as divine punishment for an immoral lifestyle. Though she repeatedly denied making that statement, many gay listeners boycotted her music, and by the time she had reconciled with gay organizations, her hitmaking streak was broken. Her last Top 10 hit, “This Time I Know It’s for Real,” was in 1989.
But she continued to record and perform. She and Mr. Sudano moved to Nashville (they maintained homes there and in Florida) and wrote songs together, including a No. 1 country single for Dolly Parton, “Starting Over Again.” A 1997 remix of a song Ms. Summer recorded in 1992 with Mr. Moroder, “Carry On,” won her the first Grammy given for best dance music. Well into the 2000s, she continued to appear on the dance-music charts: three songs from her last studio album, “Crayons,” in 2008, reached No. 1 on that chart, as did her final single, “To Paris With Love,” in 2010.
“This music will always be with us,” Ms. Summer told The New York Times in 2003. “I mean, whether they call it disco music or hip-hop or bebop or flip-flop, whatever they’re going to call it, I think music to dance to will always be with us.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: May 17, 2012
A previous version of this article misstated Jon Landau’s title as chairman of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He is the chairman of its nominating committee.
“Someone found a letter you wrote me, on the radio
And they told the world just how you felt
It must have fallen out of a hole in your old brown overcoat
They never said your name But I knew just who they meant.
Oh, I was so surprised and shocked, and I wondered too
If by change you heard it for yourself I never told a soul just how Ive been feeling about you
But they said it really loud They said it on the air
On the radio whoa oh oh On the radio whoa oh oh
On the radio whoa oh oh On the radio whoa oh oh now, now.”
I first heard the beautiful Ms. Donna Summer on the radio. Unique she was, with a sultry and vibrant voice.
She was the epitome of disco, a dance and music genre that people either loved or hated. I for one loved disco and its energetic music and dancing. I especially loved Ms. Summer and the profound impact she had on the world of music. Her tenacity. Her elan, her vivacity.
Yes, disco is no longer with us.
Ms. Summer is no longer with us.
Now we have only videos, records, and compact discs to remember her image by.
But, her spirit and voice will live on inside those of us who were her many admiring and loyal fans.
To you Ms. Summer, here is your eternal dance that will not be the last dance.
Rest in peace, Ms. Summer.
Rest in peace.
CHUCK BROWN, GODFATHER OF GO-GO
Chuck Brown performing in New York in 2001.
By BEN SISARIO
Published: May 18, 2012
Chuck Brown, who became a local hero in Washington for creating go-go music — a strutting funk variant that is the city’s signature dance genre — and kept the beat going for decades, died on Wednesday in Baltimore. He was 75.
The cause was multiple organ failure as a result of sepsis, Tom Goldfogle, his manager, said.
Known as the godfather of go-go, and almost invariably dressed, onstage and off, in a slick black suit, fedora and shades, Mr. Brown was as much a celebrity on the streets of Washington as any national politician. With steady, midtempo beats that could be extended for hours in concert, his biggest songs, like “Bustin’ Loose” and “We Need Some Money,” became unofficial anthems, even if they never crossed over to a wider national audience.
On Wednesday evening impromptu vigils formed outside Washington landmarks like the Howard Theater, and local officials like Mayor Vincent C. Gray praised Mr. Brown’s role in the city’s cultural scene.
“Go-go is D.C.’s very own unique contribution to the world of pop music,” Mayor Gray said. “Today is a very sad day for music lovers the world over.”
In the mid-1970s, with disco luring dancers away from live bands, Mr. Brown drew on James Brown’s funk, Latin rhythms and the crowd-pleasing good humor of Cab Calloway-era big bands to create go-go.
Playing bluesy guitar and leading call-and-response chants in a grainy baritone, Mr. Brown wove the beat seamlessly from one song to the next, keeping people on their feet all night. He also made whimsical musical connections, dotting his go-go sets with the “Woody Woodpecker” theme and jazz standards like “Moody’s Mood for Love.”
The style got its name, Mr. Brown once said, because “the music just goes and goes.”
Charles Louis Brown was born on Aug. 22, 1936, in Gaston, N.C., and was raised in poverty by his mother, Lyla Louise Brown, a housekeeper. He never knew his father.
As a teenager in Washington he drifted into crime and served eight years in prison for shooting a man in what he said was self-defense. While there, he traded another inmate five cartons of cigarettes for a guitar.
On his release, in 1962, he began to play music around Washington, first at backyard barbecues and churches — his parole officer would not let him play anyplace that served liquor — and eventually in clubs. He scored a few minor hits in the early 1970s, including “We the People” and “Blow Your Whistle,” before developing his go-go sound.
Led by Mr. Brown and his band, the Soul Searchers, the sound spread throughout Washington with groups like Trouble Funk and Rare Essence. But despite a blip in the mid-1980s, when it drew the interest of major record companies and could be heard in a Hollywood movie (“Good to Go” in 1986) , go-go’s extended jams never fit into pop radio formats, and it remained a regional phenomenon. “Bustin’ Loose” was Mr. Brown’s only single to reach Billboard’s Top 40, in 1979, although it held at No. 1 on the R&B chart for four weeks.
With its repetitive, sing-speak vocals, go-go is sometimes cited as an influence on early rap. In 2002 the rapper Nelly sampled “Bustin’ Loose” in his No. 1 song “Hot in Herre.”
In recent years Mr. Brown often performed with his daughter, Takesa Donelson, a rapper known as KK. He continued to tour and release records, most recently “We Got This” in 2010. But wider success was elusive.
By the 2000s Mr. Brown had come to be seen as a hometown treasure in Washington. In 2005 the National Endowment for the Arts gave him a National Heritage Fellowship award, and in 2009 the city gave the honorary name Chuck Brown Way to a block of Seventh Street in the Northwest section of the city, near the Howard Theater. In 2011 he was nominated for his first Grammy Award, for best rhythm and blues performance by a duo or group with vocals, for his song “Love,” featuring the singer Jill Scott and the bassist Marcus Miller.
Besides his daughter, Mr. Brown is survived by his wife, Jocelyn, and three sons, Nekos Brown, Wiley Brown and Bill Thompson. Another son, Charles Jr., died in the 1990s.
DUCK DUNN, BASSIST IN BOOKER T. AND THE MG’S
By PETER KEEPNEWS
Published: May 13, 2012
Duck Dunn, whose simple but inventive bass playing anchored numerous hit records and helped define the sound of Memphis soul music, died early Sunday in Tokyo, where he had been on tour. He was 70.
His death was announced online by the guitarist Steve Cropper, a longtime associate and fellow member of the instrumental quartet Booker T. and the MG’s, who said Mr. Dunn died in his sleep but did not specify a cause. Mr. Dunn and Mr. Cropper had been performing at the Tokyo Blue Note with a Stax Records alumni band.
As the resident bassist at Stax’s studio in Memphis for much of the 1960s, Mr. Dunn provided the solid, bluesy foundation for classic soul records like Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour,” Sam & Dave’s “Hold On, I’m Coming,” Albert King’s “Born Under a Bad Sign” and a long string of hits by Otis Redding, with whom he and other Stax studio musicians also performed at the Monterey International Pop Festival in 1967.
Stax recordings were known for their raw, down-home soulfulness, a striking contrast to the urbane slickness of Stax’s friendly rival, Motown. Mr. Dunn’s playing was an essential element of the Stax sound.
Booker T. and the MG’s (the initials stood for Memphis Group), whose members — Mr. Dunn, Mr. Cropper, the drummer Al Jackson and the organist Booker T. Jones — were also the core of the Stax studio band, had a few memorable hit singles on its own, among them “Hip Hug-Her” and “Time Is Tight.” (Mr. Dunn did not play on the group’s first and biggest hit, “Green Onions,” which reached No. 3 on the Billboard chart in 1962; at the time he was a member of another instrumental ensemble, the Mar-Keys, which had a No. 3 hit of its own in 1961 with “Last Night.”) The group was unusual for the era in that it was racially integrated: Mr. Dunn and Mr. Cropper were white, Mr. Jones and Mr. Jackson were black.
After Booker T. and the MG’s disbanded in the early 1970s, Mr. Dunn remained active at Stax as a session musician and occasional producer. He also performed or recorded with a long list of well-known artists, including Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Levon Helm, John Fogerty and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Reviewing a concert by Mr. Clapton in 1985, Robert Palmer of The New York Times praised Mr. Dunn as “perhaps rock’s most impeccably springy bassist” and said that his presence raised the band’s “level of playing all by itself.”
One of Mr. Dunn’s most high-profile sideman jobs was with the band that backed John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd in their incarnation as the Blues Brothers, playing a repertory that mixed Chicago-style electric blues with Stax-style R&B. The members of the band, who also included Mr. Cropper, had speaking as well as musical roles in the 1980 movie “The Blues Brothers” and were also in the belated sequel, “Blues Brothers 2000” (1998), which starred Mr. Aykroyd and John Goodman.
“Other than Booker’s band, that’s the most fun band I’ve ever been in,” Mr. Dunn told Vintage Guitar magazine in 2007.
Booker T. and the MG’s reunited periodically, although they were without a regular drummer after Mr. Jackson was fatally shot in 1975. Their later appearances included a tour as Neil Young’s backing band in 1993. The band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992 and received a lifetime achievement Grammy Award in 2007.
Donald Dunn was born in Memphis on Nov. 24, 1941, and acquired his nickname as a child. After Mr. Cropper, a childhood friend, began playing guitar, Mr. Dunn took up the electric bass — because, he liked to say, it had two fewer strings than a guitar — and the two were working around town while still in high school with the band that would become the Mar-Keys. He followed Mr. Cropper into the Stax studios and was a member of Booker T. and the MG’s by the mid-1960s.
Survivors include his wife, June; his son, Jeff; and a grandson.
MIKE MCGRADY, KNOWN FOR A LITERARY HOAX
By MARGALIT FOX
Published: May 14, 2012
Mike McGrady, a prizewinning reporter for Newsday who to his chagrin was best known as the mastermind of one of the juiciest literary hoaxes in America — the best-selling collaborative novel “Naked Came the Stranger,” whose publication in 1969 made “Peyton Place” look like a church picnic — died on Sunday in Shelton, Wash. He was 78 and lived in Lilliwaup, Wash.
The cause was pneumonia, said Harvey Aronson, who with Mr. McGrady was a co-editor of the novel, written by 25 Newsday journalists in an era when newsrooms were arguably more relaxed and inarguably more bibulous.
Intended to be a work of no redeeming social value and even less literary value, “Naked Came the Stranger” by all appearances succeeded estimably on both counts.
Originally issued by Lyle Stuart, an independent publisher known for subversive titles, the novel was a no-holds-barred chronicle of a suburban woman’s sexual liaisons, with each chapter recounting a different escapade:
She has sex with a mobster and sex with a rabbi. She has sex with a hippie and sex with at least one accountant. There is a scene involving a tollbooth, another involving ice cubes and still another featuring a Shetland pony.
The book’s cover — a nude woman seen from behind — left little to the imagination, as, in its way, did its prose:
“Ernie found what Cervantes and Milton had only sought. He thought the fillings in his teeth would melt.”
The purported author was Penelope Ashe, who as the jacket copy told it was a “demure Long Island housewife.” In reality, Mr. McGrady had dreamed up the book as ironic commentary on the public’s appetite for Jacqueline Susann and her ilk.
For interviews and public appearances, Mr. McGrady conscripted his sister-in-law Billie Young to pose as Mrs. Ashe.
“Naked Came the Stranger,” which remains in print, has sold about 400,000 copies, according to its current publisher, Barricade Books, which rereleased it in 2004.
That year, The Village Voice rapturously described the book as being “of such perfectly realized awfulness that it will suck your soul right out of your brainpan and through your mouth, and you will happily let it go.”
First published in summer 1969, “Naked Came the Stranger” quickly sold 20,000 copies. Later that summer, Mr. McGrady and his co-conspirators came clean, and news of the book’s genesis made headlines round the world. By the end of the year, the novel had spent 13 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list.
“What has always worried me,” Mr. McGrady told Newsday in 1990, “are the 20,000 people who bought it before the hoax was exposed.”
Michael Robinson McGrady was born in New York City on Oct. 4, 1933. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Yale; in 1968 and 1969, he studied at Harvard as a Nieman fellow.
For Newsday, Mr. McGrady covered the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. His series of columns from the front, “A Dove in Vietnam,” won an Overseas Press Club Award in 1967 and was published as a book.
Mr. McGrady conceived “Naked Came the Stranger,” fittingly, in bed.
“It came after a night of reading ‘Valley of the Dolls,’ ” he later told Newsweek, “which I couldn’t put down because I was asleep.”
Surely, he reasoned, a newsroom full of journalism’s best and brightest could together produce something just as schlocky — and just as successful. He fired off a memo to his colleagues.
“As one of Newsday’s truly outstanding literary talents, you are hereby officially invited to become the co-author of a best-selling novel,” it read. “There will be an unremitting emphasis on sex. Also, true excellence in writing will be quickly blue-penciled into oblivion.”
Two dozen journalists — mostly men and a few women — signed on, each contributing a chapter. True to his word, Mr. McGrady rejected submissions that were too well written.
Among the contributors was Bob Greene, Newsday’s distinguished investigative reporter; Gene Goltz, a Pulitzer Prize winner; and George Vecsey, a sportswriter who went on to work for The Times.
Reviewing the novel in The Times before the hoax was divulged, Martin Levin wrote, “In the category of erotic fantasy, this one rates about a C,” a quotation that quickly found its way into the book’s print advertisements.
Neither Mr. McGrady nor his co-authors were involved in the cinematic adaptation of “Naked Came the Stranger,” a pornographic film released in 1975.
Mr. McGrady was later a film and restaurant critic for Newsday. His other books include two as-told-to memoirs by the pornographic film actress Linda Lovelace, “Ordeal” (1980) and “Out of Bondage” (1986), and an instructional manual, “Stranger Than Naked: Or, How to Write Dirty Books for Fun and Profit” (1970).
After an early marriage that was dissolved, Mr. McGrady wed Corinne Young. She survives him, along with two sons, Sean and Liam; a daughter, Siobhan Benoit; a brother, Seamus; and five grandchildren.
Also surviving is Mr. McGrady’s sister-in-law Billie, who went on to write books of her own under the name Penelope Ashe.
CARLOS FUENTES, MEXICAN MAN OF LETTERS
By ANTHONY DePALMA
Published: May 15, 2012
Carlos Fuentes, Mexico’s elegant public intellectual and grand man of letters, whose panoramic novels captured the complicated essence of his country’s history for readers around the world, died on Tuesday in Mexico City. He was 83.
His death was confirmed by Julio Ortega, his biographer and a professor of Hispanic studies at Brown University, where Mr. Fuentes taught for several years. He died at the Angeles del Pedregal hospital after his doctor, Arturo Ballesteros, found him in shock in his Mexico City home, The Associated Press reported. The doctor told reporters that Mr. Fuentes had had an internal hemorrhage.
Mr. Fuentes was one of the most admired writers in the Spanish-speaking world, a catalyst, along with Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa and Julio Cortázar, of the explosion of Latin American literature in the 1960s and ’70s, known as El Boom. He wrote plays, short stories, political nonfiction and novels, many of them chronicles of tangled love.
Mr. Fuentes received wide recognition in the United States in 1985 with his novel “The Old Gringo,” a convoluted tale about the American writer Ambrose Bierce, who disappeared during the Mexican Revolution. It was the first book by a Mexican novelist to become a best seller north of the border, and it was made into a 1989 film starring Gregory Peck and Jane Fonda.
In the tradition of Latin American writers, Mr. Fuentes was politically engaged, writing magazine, newspaper and journal articles that criticized the Mexican government during the long period of sometimes repressive single-party rule that ended in 2000 with the election of an opposition candidate, Vicente Fox Quesada.
Mr. Fuentes was more ideological than political. He tended to embrace justice and basic human rights regardless of political labels. He supported Fidel Castro’s revolution in Cuba, but turned against it as Mr. Castro became increasingly authoritarian. He sympathized with Indian rebels in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas and skewered the administration of George W. Bush over its antiterrorism tactics and immigration policies, calling them unduly harsh.
He was also critical of Venezuela’s leftist leader, Hugo Chávez, however, calling him a “tropical Mussolini,” and of his own country’s failure to stem its rampant drug violence. On the day he died the newspaper Reforma published a hopeful essay by him on the change of power in France.
Mr. Fuentes was appointed the Mexican ambassador to France in 1975, but he resigned two years later to protest the appointment of Gustavo Díaz Ordaz as ambassador to Spain. Mr. Díaz Ordaz had been president of Mexico in 1968 when Mexican troops opened fire on student protesters in Mexico City.
But it was mainly through his literature, Mr. Fuentes believed, that he could make his voice heard, and he did so prolifically and inventively, tracing the history of modern Mexico in layered stories that also explored universal themes of love, memory and death. In “The Death of Artemio Cruz,” a 1962 novel that many call his masterpiece, his title character, an ailing newspaper baron confined to his bed, looks back at his climb out of poverty and his heroic exploits in the Mexican Revolution, concluding that it had failed in its promise of a more egalitarian society.
His novels remained ambitious and topical. His last, “Destiny and Desire” (2011), is a sprawling work that Michael Wood, writing in The New York Times Book Review, described as “not exactly a parody of ‘War and Peace,’ but certainly a spectral, playful revision of the idea of a novel that competes with history.”
He added, “It offers lavish quantities of comedy, satire, allegory, fantasy and brilliant political commentary; makes coded allusions to recognizable celebrities like the communications magnate Carlos Slim; evokes the work of Spinoza and Machiavelli; includes ghosts, graves, murders, a voluble flying prophet and a talking severed head.”
The severed head had fallen victim to Mexico’s drug-gang wars, which Mr. Fuentes believed pose an ever-graver threat to Mexican society. The head speaks in darkly comic tones.“I speak of my body because I’ve lost it,” the character says, then adds: “I am a 27-year-old man, one meter seventy-eight centimeters tall. Every morning I look at myself naked in my bathroom mirror and caress my cheeks in anticipation of the daily ceremony: Shave my beard and upper lip, provoke a strong response with Jean-Marie Farina cologne on my face, resign myself to combing black, thick, untamable hair. Close my eyes. Deny to my face and head the central role my death will be certain to give them. Concentrate instead on my body. The trunk that is going to be separated from my head. The body that occupies me from my neck to my extremities, covered in skin the color of pale cinnamon and tipped with nails that will continue to grow for hours and days after death, as if they wanted to scratch at the lid of the coffin and shout I’m here, I’m still alive, you made a mistake when you buried me.”
Though Mr. Fuentes wrote in just about every genre, including opera (a 2008 work inspired by the life of Gen. Antonio López de Santa Anna, the wooden-legged president of Mexico during the Texas Revolution), he declined to write an autobiography.
“One puts off the biography like you put off death,” he once said. “To write an autobiography is to etch the words on your own gravestone.”
Carlos Fuentes was born on Nov. 11, 1928, in Panama, the son of Berta Macías and Rafael Fuentes, a member of Mexico’s diplomatic corps. As his father moved among Mexican embassies, Mr. Fuentes spent his early childhood in several South American countries. Then, in 1936, the family was transferred to Washington, where Mr. Fuentes learned to speak English fluently while enrolled in a public school.
In 1940 the family was transferred again, this time to Santiago, Chile, where he began to experiment with writing. In an interview with The Times in 1985, Mr. Fuentes said he first had to decide “whether to write in the language of my father or the language of my teachers.” He chose Spanish, he said, because he believed that it offered more flexibility than English. There was also a practical reason. English, he said, “with a long and uninterrupted literary tradition, did not need one more writer.”
He was 16 when his family finally returned to Mexico. He knew his homeland through the stories that his grandmothers had told during the summers he spent with them.
“I think I became a writer because I heard those stories,” he said in 2006 in an interview with the Academy of Achievement, a nonprofit organization in Washington. His grandmothers fascinated him with their tales of bandits, revolution and reckless love. “They had the whole storehouse of the past in their heads and hearts,” Mr. Fuentes said. “So this was, for me, very fascinating, this relationship with my two grannies — the two authors of my books, really.”
When he told his family that he wanted to be a writer, his father was encouraging, but insisted that he also study law, which he did in Mexico and Switzerland.
After completing his degree, Mr. Fuentes entered Mexico’s diplomatic service, while also carving out time for his fiction. His first novel, “Where the Air Is Clear,” was published in 1958 when he turned 30. It was a literary sensation, mixing biting social commentary with interior monologues and portrayals of the subconscious. His reputation established, Mr. Fuentes left government service to devote all his energies to writing.
As an author, he said, he did not spend much time rewriting and never suffered from writer’s block. He liked to write on the right-hand pages of lined notebooks, making changes and corrections on the left-hand pages before sending a manuscript to be typed.
Professor Ortega called Mr. Fuentes “an unleashed cultural force” who avoided some of the trappings of literary celebrity. In a retrospective book that he wrote about Mr. Fuentes’s life when the writer turned 80 in 2008, Mr. Ortega wrote, “Fuentes detests the literary life, its obligations and commitments.”“He hasn’t created his own group, and he belongs neither to parties nor ideologies,” Mr. Ortega added. “He isn’t controlled by either the power of the state nor the power of the market.”
Mr. Fuentes’s independent thought and reputation for supporting leftist causes led to his being denied visas to enter the United States in the early 1960s. When he was refused permission to come to New York in 1963 for a presentation of an English translation of one of his books, he reacted angrily, saying, “The real bombs are my books, not me.”
Congress intervened in 1967, and the restrictions against him were lifted. Later he traveled to the United States frequently, teaching at several Ivy League universities.
Mr. Fuentes is survived by his wife, Silvia Lemus, and a daughter, Cecilia, by a previous marriage to the actress Rita Macedo, who died in 1993. Two children from his marriage to Ms. Lemus, Carlos and Natasha, both died of illness before they were 30.
For much of his career Mr. Fuentes competed for recognition and influence in Mexico and abroad with another titan of Mexican letters, the poet Octavio Paz. Mr. Fuentes received the National Order of Merit, France’s highest civilian award given to a foreigner; Spain’s Prince of Asturias Award for literature in 1994; and, in 1987, the Cervantes Prize, the Spanish-speaking world’s highest literary honor. Mr. Paz, however, won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1990. Mr. Fuentes, a perennial on the shortlist for the honor, never did.
The two became friends in 1950, when Mr. Paz published his landmark work on Mexican identity, “The Labyrinth of Solitude.” They worked together on several literary projects. But by the mid-1980s their political opinions had started to differ. Mr. Fuentes supported the Sandinistas, the leftist rebel group in Nicaragua, but Mr. Paz, who had more conservative views, condemned them. Then, in 1988, the literary magazine Vuelta, which Mr. Paz directed, published an article fiercely critical of Mr. Fuentes, accusing him of lacking true Mexican identity. That set off an often public feud that lasted until Mr. Paz died in 1998. Neither man apologized, diminishing the reputations of both.
Still, in his later years, Mr. Fuentes became an elder statesman of international letters. On his 80th birthday hundreds gathered at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to celebrate his life and work. He was introduced by Rubén Beltrán, the consul general of Mexico in New York at the time.
“To speak about Carlos Fuentes is to engage inexorably in Mexican history and culture,” Mr. Beltrán said. “We cannot fathom a debate on Mexican literary and humanistic traditions in which his name and work are absent.”