JOHN DOBSON, AN INVENTIVE ITINERANT GUIDE TO STARGAZING
JAN. 21, 2014
- Hour after hour, night after night, decade after decade all over planet Earth, John Dobson rolled his homemade telescopes to street corners and national parks to show people the heavens. “Look at Saturn,” he would say. “No charge.”
He gave hundreds of thousands of people a fresh view of the stars, prompting Smithsonian magazine to describe him as a “carny barker for the cosmos.” A lanky figure with a ponytail, he toured with his road show in a creaky former school bus, which he called Starship Centaurus A, after a galaxy. It towed one of his bulkier creations, a telescope as large as a midsize automobile.
Mr. Dobson, who died last Wednesday at 98 — or, as he might have put it, 123 days into his 99th orbit around the sun — is credited with developing the first high-powered portable telescope that amateur astronomers could build inexpensively, and tens of thousands have done so. Dobsonian telescopes, as they are known generically, are still a popular item on the market, though Mr. Dobson chose not to benefit from them commercially.
He also founded a stargazing club, Sidewalk Astronomers, which announced his death, in Burbank, Calif. The organization now has chapters on every continent but Antarctica. He wrote books with inviting titles (“Astronomy for Children Under 80” is one) and appeared on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show.” In 2005 he was the subject of a documentary feature, “A Sidewalk Astronomer,” directed by Jeffrey Fox Jacobs.
Most compelling to him was divining what “the whole ball of wax” means. He delved into matters like the origin of the universe with both passers-by on the street and astrophysicists. He denounced the Big Bang theory on the ground that something cannot come from nothing — a view contrary to what many scientists believe — and wrote equations that he contended proved his point.
All this was perhaps par for the course for a man who spent 23 years living as a monk in a monastery of the Vedanta Society, a Hindu-inspired order noted for its intellectual rigor and vows of chastity. The abbot there assigned him to reconcile science and religion, and it was this mission that prompted him to scrounge through trash for materials to make his first telescope.
John Lowry Dobson was born on Sept. 14, 1915, in Beijing, where his parents were Methodist missionaries. As a child, he said, he lay on his back, gazed upward and imagined the sky as a vast ocean.
After leaving China because of political unrest, the family settled in San Francisco, and Mr. Dobson attended the University of California, Berkeley, graduating with a chemistry degree. Afterward he joined the Ramakrishna monastery in Sacramento, Calif., where he led worship services and cared for the flowers.
The head swami assigned him to spend the rest of his life reconciling ancient Hindu scripture with modern physics, Mr. Dobson said. “I don’t know what your problems are, but that was mine,” he was quoted as saying in a biography prepared by friends.
It was as part of this quest that he decided to make a telescope to look at the universe. As material he used plywood, cardboard tubes, glass from ship portholes and even cereal boxes. What resulted was essentially the same as the telescope Newton had developed in the 17th century: a tube with a concave mirror at the bottom to gather light, and a flat secondary mirror near the top to bounce light out to the eyepiece.
Mr. Dobson’s chief innovation was creating an axis at the base on a wooden mount that could move not just up and down but also sideways, like a cannon.
“It looked as if we’re coming in for a landing,” he said. “I thought, everybody has to see this.”
The abbot expelled Mr. Dobson in 1967, saying he was spending too much time outside the monastery with his telescopes. He left with only a $50 bill, slept on friends’ floors in San Francisco and foraged for food in Golden Gate Park. Though he lectured regularly, he never had a steady source of income. He told The Los Angeles Times in 2005 that the last year he had paid income tax was 1944.
Mr. Dobson had a son, Loren, with Ruth Ballard, a professor of genetics at Sacramento State University. They both survive him.
Mr. Dobson had a knack for phrasemaking that delighted audiences at the national parks he often visited. At Yellowstone, he was asked if the sky was part of the park. “No,” he said, “the park is part of the sky.”
His long view was long indeed. Human bodies, he told an audience, are made of stardust. He pointed to a photo of a nebula.
“If you give this cloud another 10 billion years,” he said, “it will go to school and chew gum.”
LESLIE LEE, PLAYWRIGHT OF BLACK LIFE
By BRUCE WEBER
JAN. 22, 2014
- Leslie Lee, a playwright whose award-winning work, much of it with the Negro Ensemble Company, focused on stretching the boundaries of the African-American experience as it was portrayed on the stage, died on Monday in Manhattan. He was 83.
The cause was congestive heart failure, Heather Massie, a friend, said.
Over four decades, Mr. Lee wrote more than two dozen stage works, scouring American history for his subjects and characters. In “Black Eagles,” he wrote about black fighter pilots in Italy in World War II. In “Ground People” (originally titled “The Rabbit Foot”), he wrote about Southern black sharecroppers and visiting minstrel-show performers in the 1920s.
In “Blues in a Broken Tongue,” the daughter of a family that had moved to Russia in the 1930s as an escape from racism discovers a pile of recordings by Billie Holiday, Paul Robeson and others and reconsiders her heritage. An early play, “The War Party,” was about the conflicts within a community civil rights organization in the 1960s.
In “The Book of Lambert,” written in the 1970s and set contemporaneously on an abandoned New York subway platform, a black intellectual has been reduced to despair by the loss of the white woman he loves. In “Colored People’s Time,” Mr. Lee presented a century of black history, from the Civil War to the dawn of the civil rights movement, in a pageantlike parade of vignettes.
“One can be black and also many other things,” Mr. Lee said in a 1975 interview about his writerly concerns. “I want to expand the thinking of blacks about themselves.”
Most of Mr. Lee’s work was produced Off Broadway and on regional stages, though his best-known play, “The First Breeze of Summer” (1975), appeared on Broadway, at the Palace Theater, after moving from the St. Mark’s Playhouse, then the home of the Negro Ensemble Company, in the East Village. It was nominated for a Tony Award for best play. (Tom Stoppard’s “Travesties” was the winner.)
“The First Breeze of Summer” tells the story of a middle-class black family in Pennsylvania whose ambitious and sensitive younger son is emotionally derailed when he learns the past secrets of the grandmother he reveres. Mr. Lee acknowledged that it was an autobiographical work. And at a time when black theater was often polemical, it was notable for its naturalistic drama and its probing of family dynamics and character.
That it had its debut in an earlier era, both theatrically and journalistically, was evident in Walter Kerr’s review in The New York Times.
“For all the explicitly black experience detailed in ‘The First Breeze of Summer,’ ” Mr. Kerr wrote near the conclusion of an unqualified rave that was redolent of surprise, “I have rarely seen a play at which someone who is not black can feel so completely at home.”
Leslie Earl Lee was born on Nov. 6, 1930, in Bryn Mawr, Pa., and grew up nearby in West Conshohocken, one of nine children. His mother, the former Clementine Carter, was a homemaker; his father, John Henry Lee, like the patriarch in “First Breeze,” was a plastering contractor.
Mr. Lee studied English and biology at the University of Pennsylvania — he thought he would be a doctor — and worked as a hospital medical technician, as a bacteriologist for the state health department and as a researcher for Wyeth, the pharmaceutical company, before abandoning his scientific pursuits in the mid-1960s to study playwriting at Villanova University. (For a time, his roommate was David Rabe, who went on to his own award-winning playwriting career).
Mr. Lee taught writing at several colleges, including New York University, and wrote several television scripts, including an adaptation of Richard Wright’s short story “Almos’ a Man.” “The First Breeze of Summer” was broadcast as part of the “Great Performances” series on public television.
His other stage work includes two collaborations with the composer Charles Strouse and the lyricist Lee Adams, creators of “Bye Bye Birdie,” “Applause” and other shows. Together they updated another Strouse-Adams show, “Golden Boy,” the 1964 musical based on Clifford Odets’s boxing drama; the newer version, with Mr. Lee’s book, was presented in 1989 at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Florida.
The three men also worked on a musical about the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that follows Dr. King from his teenage years in Atlanta to the Montgomery bus boycott of the 1950s. The show had its premiere Off Broadway at the Kraine Theater in 2011.
Mr. Lee won numerous Audelco Awards, given to black theater artists and productions. He was married once and divorced. He is survived by a brother, Elbert, and three sisters, Evelyn Lee Collins, Grace Lee Wall and Alma Lee Coston.
In 2008, “The First Breeze of Summer” was revived Off Broadway by the Signature Theater Company in a production that starred Leslie Uggams and was directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson.
“He captured African-American life with all its frailties and all its power,” Mr. Santiago-Hudson said in a telephone interview on Wednesday. “Most of all he bestowed integrity on people, even when they were ne’er-do-wells or people whose intentions weren’t the best for other folks. Leslie wasn’t only poetic; he was authentic.”
SARAH MARSHALL, ACTRESS IN ‘TWILIGHT ZONE’ AND ‘STAR TREK’
By DANIEL E. SLOTNIK
JAN. 25, 2014
- Sarah Marshall, an actress who was born into show business and worked on Broadway, in film and on television with a galaxy of big names, perhaps most memorably in episodes of “The Twilight Zone” and “Star Trek,” died on Jan. 18 at her home in Los Angeles. She was 80.
The cause was stomach cancer, said her grandson, Seamus Marshall Bourne.
Ms. Marshall was the only daughter of the British film and theater stars Herbert Marshall and Edna Best. She left private school at 16 to pursue acting full time, with her mother’s help.
“We decided acting was a better education than school,” she was quoted in Sidney Fields’s syndicated column “Only Human” in 1958.
A winsome young woman, she was often cast as an ingénue. She performed opposite José Ferrer in the 1953 Broadway revival of the cross-dressing farce “Charley’s Aunt” and won a Theater World Award for her work in the 1956 play “The Ponder Heart,” based on a Eudora Welty story.
She was nominated for a Tony for her performance in George Axelrod’s 1959 comedy “Goodbye, Charlie,” which also starred Lauren Bacall and Sydney Chaplin.
“There is a little gem of malicious acting by Sarah Marshall, whose honeyed style is spiked with vinegar,” Brooks Atkinson wrote in his review of that play in The New York Times.
Ms. Marshall’s first film was “The Long, Hot Summer” (1958), with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. She appeared with Kevin Kline and Sigourney Weaver in Ivan Reitman’s political comedy “Dave” (1993) and with Michelle Pfeiffer in “Dangerous Minds” (1995).
She was a mainstay on television, appearing on shows from “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” to “Cheers.” In 1962 she played a woman whose daughter vanishes into the fourth dimension in the “Twilight Zone” episode “Little Girl Lost,” and in 1967 she played a former love interest of William Shatner’s Capt. James T. Kirk in the “Star Trek” episode “The Deadly Years.”
Ms. Marshall was born in London on May 25, 1933. After her parents divorced in 1939, she and her mother moved to Los Angeles. In 1952 she married the set designer Melvyn Bourne. The marriage ended in divorce.
In 1958 she met the actor Karl Held while performing in “The World of Suzie Wong” on Broadway. They were married in 1964. He survives her, as do a son from her first marriage, Timothy M. Bourne, and four grandchildren.
MILLARD L. MIDONICK, SURROGATE TO CHILDREN AND AUDEN
By BRUCE WEBER
JAN. 25, 2014
- Millard L. Midonick, a former Manhattan Family Court judge and surrogate who decided numerous celebrated estate cases, including those of the poet W. H. Auden and the painter Mark Rothko, died on Jan. 18 in Manhattan. He was 99.
His death was confirmed by his wife, Jill Claster Midonick.
Judge Midonick was a lifelong progressive who in 1953, in the aftermath of Adlai Stevenson’s first failed presidential campaign, helped found the Samuel J. Tilden Democratic Club, an organization on the East Side of Manhattan that supports reform-minded political candidates. A lawyer who handled labor arbitrations, and trusts and estates cases, he was appointed temporarily to the municipal bench by Mayor Robert F. Wagner in 1956. He became a Family Court judge in 1962, and in 1971 he was elected to the Surrogate’s Court.
In Family Court, Judge Midonick looked out especially for the rights of children, even those on the verge of adulthood. In one well-publicized case in 1970 in which he was reversed on appeal, he ordered the father of a college student to continue supporting her financially after he stopped paying her bills because her grades had fallen and, against his wishes, she had moved out of her dormitory. The father, a lawyer himself, berated his daughter in court, saying she no longer deserved his support because she had become a “hippie” who “stinks.”
“At some point,” Judge Midonick said in making his ruling, “minors must have some right to their own views and needs for their independent and painful transition from minority to adulthood, short of matching every fancy of their parents.”
The Appeals Court, in contrast, favored the right of the parent, declaring that “the father — in return for maintenance and support — is entitled to set reasonable standards, rules and regulations for his child.”
In one of his final acts on the Family Court bench, Judge Midonick struck a blow for female rape victims, joining a growing chorus of feminist critics of a New York statute that severely limited the state’s ability to prosecute violent sex crimes. (In 1969 there were 1,085 arrests for rape in New York City, resulting in 18 convictions.)
Forced by what he called “Victorian rules” to dismiss rape charges against two 15-year-olds despite his belief that the charges were “proven beyond a reasonable doubt,” Judge Midonick, in his written opinion, assailed the so-called corroboration requirement, which made it impossible to convict an accused rapist unless every material element of the attack — including the identity of the attacker and that the attacker used force — was established by forensic evidence or testimony by someone other than the victim.
“The corroboration requirement denigrates the testimony of women who claim to have been victimized sexually,” Judge Midonick wrote in December 1971. He added, “The sole object of this opinion is to expose again, and to persuade the Legislature to rectify, the miserable state of the law in respect to the requirement for corroboration in cases of sexual assault.”
Three months later, the State Assembly passed a bill modifying the corroboration requirement, and in 1974 Gov. Malcolm Wilson signed a bill eliminating it altogether.
Judge Midonick was elected to the Surrogate’s Court, which administers matters regarding affairs of the dead and their descendants, as a candidate who promised to put an end to a patronage system in which judges appointed political cronies to handle lucrative estate cases. He also pressed for the establishment of an Office of Public Guardian to represent infants and children unable to choose their own lawyers. (The responsibility now falls to the New York State Court System Department of Guardian and Fiduciary Services.) In his nearly 11 years as a surrogate, he handled hundreds of estate cases, many of whose tangled disputes ended up as front-page news articles.
His most famous case was that of Rothko and a years-long dispute over more than $30 million worth of his paintings. A leading abstract expressionist, Rothko killed himself in 1970.
A year later, a suit brought on behalf of his children, Kate and Christopher, charged that their father’s executors, along with a gallery that had contracted to sell 798 Rothko paintings, had cheated them.
The suit, which involved some 500 exhibits and 20,000 pages of testimony, was finally decided in 1975 when Judge Midonick found that the executors had been negligent in selling and consigning the paintings to the gallery for less than their true value. He removed the executors, replacing them with Kate Rothko, and assessed damages and fines of more than $9 million.
“This was a multimillion-dollar case,” he said after his ruling, “but I’ve handled thousands of cases involving neglected children and heart-rending adoption cases involving parents and real parents. I continue to be interested in human beings.”
In the Auden case, Judge Midonick ruled that an archive of the poet’s notebooks and papers rightfully belonged to the New York Public Library, which had received them from Auden’s longtime partner, Chester S. Kallman, rather than to Mr. Kallman’s father, Dr. Edward Kallman, who after his son’s death sued the library for the return of the papers. Among the evidence considered by Judge Midonick was an Auden poem that declared:
Shameless envious Age!, when the Public will shell out more cash for
Note-books and sketches that were never intended for them
than for perfected works. Observing erasures and blunders,
every amateur thinks: I could have done it as well.
Millard Lesser Midonick was born in Manhattan on May 24, 1914, and reared by his father, Abraham, a lawyer, and his mother, Ida Lesser, there and in Ardsley, N.Y.
Known to friends as Will — a nickname that came about when he was a boy and his younger sister could not properly pronounce his name — he received his undergraduate and law degrees from Columbia and then worked for the National Labor Relations Board. During World War II he was in the Coast Guard, achieving the rank of lieutenant commander and for a time serving as commanding officer of the U.S.S. Brownsville, a patrol frigate operating off the California coast.
He married Dorothy Rosenberg in 1941; she died in 1976. He is survived by his wife, a professor of history and former dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at New York University, whom he married in 1979.
Complaining about judges’ poor salaries and mandatory retirement age of 70, Judge Midonick stepped down from the bench in 1982, two years short of that age, and joined the firm of Willkie Farr & Gallagher. He later became counsel to another firm, Fensterstock & Partners.
“I’ve decided not to grow old,” he said after leaving the bench. “I find that when people retire, I get their wills in three years.”
FROM THE ARCHIVES
(Jan. 3, 1998)
(Jan. 6, 1933)
(Jan. 7, 1993)
(Jan. 7, 1989)
(Jan. 11, 1961)
(Jan. 11, 1971)
(Jan. 15, 1984)
(Jan. 17, 1944)
(Jan. 22, 1959)
(Jan. 22, 1984)
(Jan. 23, 1973)
(Jan. 23, 1901)
(Jan. 26, 1947)
(Jan. 28, 1922)
(Jan. 28, 1972)
(Jan. 30, 1963)
(Jan. 30, 1939)
(Jan. 31, 1948)