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People who died in 2011

Lesser-known but significant figures

Photo: Illustrations by Ben Claassen, License: N/A

Illustrations by Ben Claassen


Born in 1927 in Boston to an Irish immigrant father and a Lithuanian Jewish mother, McCarthy saw early exposure to political climes. Both parents were members of the Communist party, an affiliation he would entertain briefly as a doctoral candidate at Princeton. (He later told an interviewer that the two other members of the Communist group were a gardener and a cleaning lady.) As the ’60s approached and the Vietnam War ensued, McCarthy grew disillusioned with left-wing ideas and became increasingly conservative.

Like many of our most admired, McCarthy created a stir early, finishing high school in two years and getting expelled from CalTech as an undergraduate, though he later returned to finish his degree after a stint in the Army. Over the course of his career, he worked at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Princeton, Dartmouth and Stanford, the latter of which became his working home for nearly 40 years until his retirement in 2000.

Over the course of those years, McCarthy created LISP (List Processing Language), now the second-oldest computer language still in use (after Fortran) and an early ancestor of programs like JavaScript. He also created the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (SAIL), a Pentagon-backed project to create working artificial intelligence within a decade.

Not all of McCarthy’s visionary ideas aligned with present-day truth. Rather than the personal computer that’s standard today, McCarthy envisioned a system in which users paid a monthly fee to access a shared computer terminal. But McCarthy, widely remembered by those who knew him as one who had strong beliefs about the future and worked determinedly toward realizing them, saw a fast-moving, interconnected digital age during a tumultuous and wholly analogue decade, creating a generation whose livelihoods and lifestyles are worlds away from his own. – LD

Theadora Van Runkle

Hollywood costume designer

Theadora Van Runkle wrought her magic in a highly visible yet often overlooked corner of the movie industry: She was a costume designer. The illegitimate product of an ill-fated relationship between Eltsey Adair and Courtney Schweppe, of the Schweppes carbonated drink family – she was born Dorothy Schweppe – Van Runkle didn’t break into the field until she was nearly 40. But she did so with a literal bang. A commercial illustrator who specialized in fashion ads, she briefly worked for an established costume designer who subsequently recommended her for “a little Western over at Warner Bros.” It turned out to be Arthur Penn’s 1967 classic Bonnie and Clyde, for which Van Runkle earned an Oscar nomination.

The film’s star, Warren Beatty, had originally hoped François Truffaut would direct Bonnie and Clyde, and Van Runkle’s costuming paid homage to these New Wave aspirations. The clothing in the film was, as The Guardian put it, an “astute fusion of Texas 1932 and Paris Left Bank 1967.” Beatty as Clyde was a dandy, with a cream-colored fedora reminiscent of Pretty Boy Floyd. Faye Dunaway as Bonnie wore knee-length skirts, which subsequently had a noticeable effect on the miniskirt fad, and beret sales went through the roof after the film came out. (It’s hard to believe now, but Bonnie’s influential look was so unusual at the time that Dunaway reportedly had to be convinced Van Runkle wasn’t trying to make her look ugly.)

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