1. Joseph Patrick Kennedy, Jr. AKA “Joe” (1915-1944)
Even those familiar with the “Kennedy Curse” may not know that the 35th president’s big brother died at 29 years old in 1944. He was manually launching an explosive-laden plane. It was a new project of the U.S. military: planes meant to be flown into their targets remotely, after the pilot ejected. Defective wiring caused the plane’s explosives to detonate before the eldest Kennedy kid could bail.
2. Medgar Wiley Evers (1925-1963)
Like Kennedy, Evers was a WWII veteran that served in the European theater. He survived the war, becoming instrumental to the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi. He was assassinated by a KKK member less than a year before the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed segregation.
3. Huey Pierce Long, Jr. (1893-1935)
This traveling salesman’s controversial rise to become governor of Louisiana and a U.S. Senator served as the inspiration for Robert Penn Warren’s famous novel All the King’s Men. That book has spawned songs, staged performances, a children’s opera, and four films (the most recent in 2006, featuring Sean Penn as Long’s doppleganger from the book, Willie Stark).
But the real story is even more fascinating. Long’s ruthless political tactics gave him unprecedented power, essentially creating a dictatorship in Louisiana. He planned to challenge FDR in the 1936 presidential election, but his regime fell apart after his assassination in 1935. T. Harry Williams wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Long, based on interviews with his staff and rivals. It’s definitely worth checking out.
4. Ida Bell Wells-Barnett (1862-1931)
Civil Rights before they were cool: That’s Ida Wells. Born a slave, she refused to give up her seat on a train car, 71 years before Rosa Parks and the famous bus.
She stood up against lynching in the south, going on speaking tours in the United States and Europe to spread awareness about lynch law and the extralegal murder of blacks in the South. She even called out the growing women’s rights organizations of the early 1900s for ignoring the oppression of African Americans, male and female.
5. John Davison Rockefeller (1839-1937), and John Davison Rockefeller, Jr. (1874-1960)
There may not be a picture in existence of a richer pair of people, adjusted for inflation. Daddy Rockefeller co-founded Standard Oil in 1870, which created the first trust (essentially a corporation made out of corporations). They’re everywhere today, but Rockefeller’s was the first and definitely the sexiest. ExxonMobil, BP, Chevron, and Pennzoil were all just pieces of their original oil empire. The younger Rockefeller first purchased and developed today’s Rockefeller Center during the Great Depression.
Remember that this terrifying, top-hatted bad ass is responsible for that place you stand outside with signs, hoping for a glorious 5-second cameo on the Today Show.
6. Eileen Evelyn Greer Garson (1904-1996)
Giggety. A prolific actress, Garson won the Oscar starring as the titular character in Mrs. Miniver in 1942. The film depicted a family’s struggles during the period in 1940 when Hitler’s forces repeatedly bombed civilian targets in Britain. The original column upon which the movie was based followed the fictional Minivers as they prepped a bomb shelter and gas masks, which helped drum up American support for intervention against Nazi Germany.
If you end up watching Mrs. Miniver, you ought to know that she later married the guy who plays her son in the film.
Knowing this transforms the movie from drama into a hilarious (if creepily oedipal) romantic comedy. L to R: Miniver’s son’s girlfriend, Miniver’s son, and Mrs. Miniver.
Who said history can’t be fun? Also, keep in mind while watching that the Minivers were supposed to be a middle class family in Britain. It’s only $1.99 on YouTube, and you’ll feel more than $2 poorer after seeing what their “middle class” lives were like.
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