Recently, a good friend of mine e-mailed me about the passing of Ernest Borgnine, commenting that “Borgnine makes it three.” Of course, he was referring to the notion that famous people seem to die in groups of three. In this particular case, we agreed that Andy Griffith and Don Grady made up the rest of the trio, as both men had died shortly before Borgnine, and all three were prominent sitcom stars during the 1960’s. What I’m wondering now is when did this “celebrities always die in threes” theory start, and how much validity is there to it?
I have to believe that the “deaths in threes” concept has its origin in Western civilization’s obsession with the number three, whether it’s the Holy Trinity, the three wise men or “three’s a crowd.” I’m also guessing that the famous people dying in threes business is a 20th century American phenomenon that reflects our celebrity obsessed culture. Prior to the 1900’s, there were not many avenues to fame in our country, as most of the nationally known figures in early America were statesmen and military heroes. The first case of celebrities dying in threes I could come up with was in 1836 when Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie and William B. Travis all passed away at about the same time. I have found no publications from that time period that made any mention of their deaths having any cosmic significance. Of course, it could have been due to the fact that news traveled very slowly back then, and it was weeks before Americans learned that Crockett, Bowie and Travis were dead. Or, it might be because all three men died at the Alamo, making their deaths not so coincidental.
Whereas celebrities were a rare breed in the 19th century, the last 100 years have seen an explosion in the number of famous people. Sports and entertainment have surpassed politics and war in enabling individuals to achieve prominence, with movies, radio and television providing major assistance. Even crime figures such as Al Capone and John Dillinger became household names, some even given cool nicknames like “The Boston Strangler” and “The Underwear Bomber.” So, while it stands to reason that the death of a famous person will undoubtedly get our attention, when did we start grouping them in threes? Surely it came after World War II, as no one applied this practice when Joseph Goebbels, Eva Braun and Adolph Hitler all died within minutes of each other in 1945.
The first time the celebrities dying in threes theory was brought to my attention was in 1977. On August 16th of that year, the world was shocked to learn of the death of Elvis Presley, who died in Memphis at the age of 42. Three days later, comic legend Groucho Marx died in Hollywood, followed by character actor Sabastian Cabot on August 22. It was the day after Cabot’s demise that I heard someone mention that the deaths of Presley-Marx and Cabot were an example of how famous people die in threes. Up to that time, I was unaware of this “fact,” and I have to say that I was skeptical. Although Elvis Presley’s death was a stunner, Groucho Marx was 86, and been ailing, and although I admired Cabot’s work, it wasn’t as if Clark Gable had died. I searched for other examples of the death in threes theory, and the best that I could come up with was John F. Kennedy, C.S. Lewis (both on November 22, 1963), with the “Birdman of Alcatraz” (Robert Stroud) happening a day earlier. Over the years, several so-called death trilogies have happened, the most talked about probably being the Michael Jackson-Farrah Fawcett-Ed McMahon sequence in 2009. With dozens of examples, am I now convinced that famous people tend to die in threes? Not really.
To begin with, there does not seem to be any firm guidelines in place regarding how much time between the first and third deaths to qualify as an official celebrity death threesome. I’ve heard anywhere from one week to 10 days, but 11 days elapsed between Don Grady and Ernest Borgnine’s passing, so who really knows? And what determines if an individual is indeed, a celebrity? Don Grady was an actor who played “Robbie” on “My Three Sons,” and had not been in the public eye for several years….who is to say that joining Andy Griffith and Ernest Borgnine in the famous person death trilogy should have been Nora Ephron, the writer who penned, among other stories, “When Harry Met Sally,” and passed away on June 26, a day before Grady? This brings up another problem…why stop counting at three? I mentioned that C.S. Lewis, JFK and the “Birdman of Alcatraz” all died about the same time. Well, Lee Harvey Oswald, a freshly minted celebrity, was killed on November 24…should he be included instead of Lewis, or should the theory be expanded to four?
I think that it is in our nature to try to place meaning into practically everything that happens. Sometimes events are worthy of reflection and analytical discussion, but not always. Famous people die in ones, not threes, just like the rest of us. But that’s just one of my many opinions, which, of course, come in dozens.
Notes: Since I started writing this piece, I’ve been reminded that there is long term superstition that bad news comes in threes, and it was the tragic airplane crash in February 1959 that took the lives of Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the “Big Bopper” (J.P. Richardson) that began the celebrities die in threes theory. I’d be happy for any further imput.