From rock stars to feminist pioneers: the notable Americans who died in 2017


This year we bid goodbye to beloved celebrities Tom Petty and Mary Tyler Moore, as well as controversial figures Charles Manson and Roger Ailes, and others

Tom Petty

The Heartbreakers frontman Tom Petty died after suffering a cardiac arrest in his Malibu home in October. He was 66. Petty produced a string of hits with the Heartbreakers such as You Got Lucky and Change of Heart, and the band were inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002. He was still touring in 2017. “It’s shocking, crushing news,” Bob Dylan, who had collaborated with Petty, told Rolling Stone in a statement of Petty’s death. “I thought the world of Tom. He was a great performer, full of the light, a friend, and I’ll never forget him.”

Kate Millett

American feminist, writer and activist Kate Millett in Paris, 1980. Photograph: Ulf Andersen/Getty Images

Kate Millett was one of the pioneering voices in the women’s movement, whose work helped lay the foundations of second-wave feminism. She wrote the groundbreaking bestseller Sexual Politics, which developed the theory of the institutional power that men have over women. “A revolution needs leaders, and with Sexual Politics, Kate Millett came forward to give the Women’s Liberation Movement a national voice and a strong connection to higher education,” said cultural critic Elaine Showalter. Millett, who published several books after Sexual Politics and was also a sculptor, died of a heart-attack in Paris in September. She was 82.

Chuck Berry

Chuck Berry performing at the Las Vegas Hilton in Las Vegas, March 1972. Photograph: Gary Angel/Las Vegas News Bureau/EPA

This year also claimed the life of the father of rock’n’roll, Chuck Berry. Aged 90, Berry died at his home near St Louis in March. He helped found a new genre in the 1950s by blending upbeat tempos with blues, creating an endless list of classics including Roll Over Beethoven and Johnny B Goode. Tributes to Berry poured in from the generations of artists that he inspired including Questlove, Mick Jagger, and Ringo Starr. “Chuck Berry was rock’s greatest practitioner, guitarist, and the greatest pure rock’n’roll writer who ever lived,” said Bruce Springsteen, who played with one of Berry’s pick-up bands early in his career.

Charles Manson

Charles Manson, aged 35, during a courtroom press conference in 1970. Photograph: Bettmann/Bettmann Archive

The leader of the Manson Family cult has loomed large over popular culture for the past half a century, after he directed his followers to brutally murder seven people including, Sharon Tate, the pregnant wife of film director Roman Polanski. After being spared the death penalty in the 1970s, Charles Manson died of natural causes in November. “Today, Manson’s victims are the ones who should be remembered and mourned on the occasion of his death,” said Michele Hanisee, president of the Association of Deputy District Attorneys for Los Angeles County. Manson was serving multiple life sentences in state prison in Corcoran, California, when he died aged 83.

Roger Ailes

Roger Ailes, Chairman and CEO of Fox News, in 2001. Photograph: Catrina Genovese/Getty Images

Roger Ailes died in May, a year after his shocking fall from the pinnacle of media. A series of sexual assault allegations and a lawsuit from former host Gretchen Carlson led to his resignation from Fox News, the network he built from the ground up and had been at the helm of for two decades. Shortly before Ailes passed away, star host Bill O’Reilly was forced out of the network in similar circumstances. Ailes had an outsized impact on national politics and media, both as an advisor to successive Republican presidents and a television executive.

Edith Windsor

Edith Windsor, aged 83, leaves the supreme court in March 2013. Photograph: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Gay rights icon Edith Windsor died at age 88 this year. She was the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against the federal government that led to the legalization of gay marriage in 2013. Following the death of her lifelong partner, Thea Spyer, the IRS said Windsor owed over $300,000 in estate tax as the government did not recognize their 2007 marriage in Toronto, Canada. Windsor sued the government and her eventual victory led to the striking down of the Defense of Marriage Act (Doma) of 1996, a law which meant the federal government did not recognize same-sex marriages. The dismantling of Doma paved the way for a series of lawsuits against states that refused to recognize same-sex marriages, culminating in the 2015 supreme court decision in Obergefell v Hodges which legalized gay marriage across the country. After Windsor died, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, Anthony Romero, said: “Today, we lost one of this country’s great civil rights pioneers.”

Mary Tyler Moore

Mary Tyler Moore on the set of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Photograph: Moviestore/Rex/Shutterstock

“Mary Tyler Moore changed the world for all women,” Ellen DeGeneres wrote after the actor passed away in January. Moore redefined television in the 1970s as the lead in The Mary Tyler Moore show. Her character Mary Richards battled unequal pay and grappled with issues related to working women that were just entering the national conversation at the time. For decades, Moore was known as “America’s sweetheart”. She featured in a number of films and was nominated for an Academy Award for her role in Ordinary People. Moore was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in 1969 and was an active campaigner on the issue as the chair of the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation International.

Chris Cornell

Chris Cornell performing in Stockholm, Sweden. Photograph: IBL/REX/Shutterstock

The untimely death of Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell was met with shock from his family and fans alike. A medical examiner confirmed that the 52-year-old grunge star committed suicide. Only hours before he was performing to a sold-out crowd in Detroit with his band Soundgarden. Cornell had struggled with drugs and alcohol but had reportedly been sober since checking into rehab in the early 2000s. He was one of the founders of the 1990s Seattle grunge scene that also produced Nirvana and Pearl Jam. Cornell also found success with the supergroup Audioslave, which he joined after Soundgarden broke up in 1997. His death led to an outpouring of tributes to Cornell from rock legends such as Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page, Mark Lanegan, Billy Idol and Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist Dave Navarro.

Roy Halladay

Roy Halladay in the dugout. Photograph: Networ/Sipa USA/Rex/Shutterstock

This year also brought the untimely death of baseball star Roy Halladay. The eight-time All-Star for the Toronto Blue Jays and Philadelphia Phillies died when his small aircraft crashed into shallow water in the Gulf of Mexico in November. He was 40. Halladay was widely considered one of the best pitchers of his generation and had been tipped as a future Hall of Famer. He is also known for pitching only the second ever no-hitter in a postseason game in 2010. Former team-mate Carlos Ruiz, the catcher behind the plate when Halladay threw the 20th perfect game in major-league history, paid tribute to him after his death: “Roy was one of the greatest pitchers I ever caught, and an even better person and friend.”

Norma McCorvey

Norma McCorvey (left) with attorney Gloria Allred outside the supreme court. Photograph: J Scott Applewhite/AP

At age 22, in 1969, Norma McCorvey became an icon of the feminist movement as Jane Roe, the anonymous plaintiff in the landmark Roe v Wade case that established a constitutional right for women to end their pregnancies. But by the time of her death at the age of 69 this year her views had undergone a dramatic reversal and McCorvey had become a mainstay of the anti-abortion movement. The 22-year-old McCorvey wished to terminate her pregnancy and sued the government for the right to do so, prompting one of the most hotly contested supreme court rulings in recent American history.

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