Adam Ash

Your daily entertainment scout. Whatever is happening out there, you'll find the best writing about it in here.

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Dead: playwright Wendy Wasserstein, video art inventor Nam June Paik, civil rights campaigner Coretta Scott King

1. Wendy Wasserstein: she never let go of the giggle -- by Michael Feingold

When I think of Wendy Wasserstein, I hear her giggling. I know I'm not supposed to. I know that we live in a time when individuals are supposed to represent their genders and age groups and ethnicities with dignity and correct thinking, and that everyone's behavior to everyone else must be immaculately polite. I know that Wendy, who died Monday after a long and horrible struggle with cancer, was a feminist hero, a significant spokeswoman for the social good, and a major role model for women in the arts. I know all that -- but I still hear Wendy Wasserstein giggling. I can't help it. Wendy giggled the first time I met her, when she was an incoming student playwright at the Yale School of Drama and I was the (rather self-important) literary manager of the Yale Repertory Theatre. She kept giggling, as her playwriting career blossomed over the years, when we ran into each other at various social and theatrical occasions. And she giggled the last time I saw her, as she struggled to sing her part in the little entertainment she had invented to celebrate her dear friend William Ivey Long's 50th Broadway show. She was visibly in pain and may have already known that she was dying, but she still giggled.

Wendy's giggle was both a mask and a revelation: It was an insecure plump girl's defense against a coldhearted world that mistakes anorexic for beautiful, and a smart, observant child's satirical comment on the absurdities of that world. The product of a high-pressure family that urged its children toward success, and got its wish, she learned early on that she could succeed by turning her insecurities and embarrassments into comedy. Having achieved that success, she extended it into a long-running series of triumphs by turning the world that had laughed at her into a target of laughter -- and demonstrated the superior quality of her own comic sense by mixing compassion, irony, and incredibly astute social observation into the joke. She became a social commentator, an essayist, a spokesperson, and an eminence grise. She evolved, in her late forties, into the proudly independent single mother who steadfastly refused to reveal the identity of her child's father. Yet behind this imposing figure there always stood the shy, dateless Seven Sisters coed of her first successful play, Uncommon Women and Others, the nervous novice playwright who, when a friend introduced her to the novelist Joseph Heller as a brilliantly funny writer, responded to his request, "Say something funny, Wendy," by barfing on his coat.

That Wendy in later life had no shame in recollecting this story was a mark of the fundamental honesty that led to her skill at observing, and making dramatic capital of, so many different kinds of people and ways of life. Not for her the easy oversimplifications of television writing, which comes in for merciless ridicule in what is probably her best play, The Heidi Chronicles . (Remember the devastating line: "Just tell us who these women are and why they're funny.") Her project, insofar as a playwright has an overall project, was to dramatize the female life of America in her time without scanting its complexity, its pain, its inconveniences, or its lapses into the absurd. If sometimes in her later plays, as in the laborious An American Daughter , she seemed to be layering issues onto her characters simply because the issues needed representation, you could always feel her struggling, as all artists inevitably struggle with their material, to make the issues make human sense, to give them three-dimensional embodiment. That, as some have pointed out, the original cast of Uncommon Women was sprinkled with future stars only demonstrates the great chance that awaited Wendy: A newly aware generation of women was coming into its own. That she had the prescience to seize her chance and make herself a principal chronicler of that generation with the plays that followed, from Isn't It Romantic? through The Sisters Rosensweig, is the highest tribute to her intelligence and skill.

For the giggling girl who had enlivened the Yale School of Drama with endearingly foolish extravaganzas like Montpelier Pa-zazz and When Dinah Shore Ruled the Earth, this achievement was a triumphant evolution. But the even higher compliment is that, through all her travails, she never let go of the giggle; her puckish, uneasy comic sense pervades the most unfairly underrated of her plays, Old Money, in which the ironies of this generation's feminist progress are played off, cannily, against those of a century ago. This canniness, too, was the essence of Wendy: While she was giggling, and making you giggle with her, she was watching for her opportunity, and took it. As a result, she is a permanent part of our social as well as our theatrical history, an artist who began by making herself an unforgettable character, and concluded by impressing that character's achievements upon the world.

2. An American Woman -- by GAIL COLLINS

Wendy Wasserstein and I had a running e-mail joke in which we took turns taking responsibility for everything bad that happened. "I'll bring the Iraqi constitution and we can work on it in the bar," she wrote last year before a theater date. I congratulated her for getting Michael Brown the FEMA job. We both claimed to be in charge of the Middle East peace process.

We were making fun of Wendy's reputation for good-heartedness. Her outrageously premature death yesterday deprived the nation of a beloved playwright, but it also stripped the city of one of its best people.

The first time I met her, she was rushing to a speaking engagement at a small library in a faraway section of Brooklyn. I assumed that either this was the historic spot where she had learned to read or that she was related to the librarian. But no, it was simply a place that had the moxie to ask a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright to come and do its event.

"Last month I was voted Miss Colitis," Wendy once wrote. "I was honored at the Waldorf-Astoria and presented with a Steuben glass bowl — by Mary Ann Mobley Collins, a former Miss America. It's not that the treatment of colitis is an unworthy mission, but I have no connection to the cause except that I received a letter from the Colitis Committee asking me to show up. In other words, I became Miss Colitis because I am very nice."

Sometimes it was almost impossible to resist taking advantage. Wendy and I once jointly agreed to give talks at a convention of women journalists being held in Montana, under the theory that it would be an excellent opportunity to see one another. (We had reached that circle of scheduling hell in which two people who live less than a mile apart have to traverse the continent in order to have coffee.) After I arrived, I got a call from Wendy, who had missed the plane. Her only alternatives were to cancel or fly in at midnight, give her address at breakfast and then immediately return to the airport.

"You should do whatever you think best," I said cruelly. "The only thing I can tell you is that these women are really nice and they're looking forward to meeting you."

I picked her up at midnight. "You were right," she said, as we drove back to the airport 10 hours later. "They were awfully nice women."

Wendy was a charter member of the company of nice women, a river of accommodating humanity that flows through Manhattan just as it flows through Des Moines and Oneonta, N.Y., organizing library fund-raisers, running day care centers, ordering prescriptions for elderly parents, buying all the birthday presents and giving career counseling to the nephew of a very remote acquaintance who is trying to decide between making it big on Broadway and dentistry.

In the essay that began with the Miss Colitis story, she noted that niceness had become unfashionable, and promised to be crankier in the future. It was just a literary device. Wendy understood that being considerate in a society of self-involved strivers was not for wimps. It required a steely inner toughness that was the hallmark of many of her heroines.

She also knew her own nature. "Frankly, I never want to leave a room and be thought of as a horrible person," she admitted. But Wendy never explained what the rest of us were supposed to do when she left the room before us.

3. Wendy Wasserstein Dies at 55; Her Plays Spoke to a Generation -- by CHARLES ISHERWOOD

Wendy Wasserstein, who spoke for a generation of smart, driven but sometimes unsatisfied women in a series of popular plays that included the long-running Pulitzer Prize winner "The Heidi Chronicles," died yesterday at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan. She was 55 and lived in New York.

The cause was complications of lymphoma, said André Bishop, the artistic director of Lincoln Center Theater.

Starting in 1977 with her breakthrough work, "Uncommon Women and Others," Ms. Wasserstein's plays struck a profound chord with women struggling to reconcile a desire for romance and companionship, drummed into baby boomers by the seductive fantasies of Hollywood movies, with the need for intellectual independence and achievement separate from the personal sphere.

"She was known for being a popular, funny playwright, but she was also a woman and a writer of deep conviction and political activism," Mr. Bishop said. "In Wendy's plays women saw themselves portrayed in a way they hadn't been onstage before — wittily, intelligently and seriously at the same time. We take that for granted now, but it was not the case 25 years ago. She was a real pioneer."

The lights on Broadway are to be dimmed tonight in her honor.

Her heroines — intelligent and successful but also riddled with self-doubt — sought enduring love a little ambivalently, but they didn't always find it, and their hard-earned sense of self-worth was often shadowed by the frustrating knowledge that American women's lives continued to be measured by their success at capturing the right man. Ms. Wasserstein drew on her own experience as a smart, well-educated, funny Manhattanite who wasn't particularly lucky in romance to create heroines in a similar mold, women who embraced the essential tenets of the feminist movement but didn't have the stomach for stridency.

For Ms. Wasserstein, as for many of her characters and fans, humor was a necessary bulwark against the disappointments of life, and a useful release valve for anger at cultural and social inequities. Her work, which included three books of nonfiction and a forthcoming novel as well as about a dozen plays, had a significant influence on depictions of American women in the media landscape over the years: Heidi Holland, the steadily single, uncompromising heroine of "The Heidi Chronicles," can be seen as the cultural progenitor of "Sex and the City's" Carrie Bradshaw. (Coincidentally, Sarah Jessica Parker, who starred in that HBO series, played a series of small roles in the original production of "The Heidi Chronicles.")

Ms. Wasserstein, who grew up in New York, recalled attending Broadway plays as a young woman and being struck by the absence of people like herself onstage: "I remember going to them and thinking, I really like this, but where are the girls?" she once said. Ms. Wasserstein would fill the stage with "girls" — a term she used with a wink despite taking flak for it — in a series of plays that pleased loyal audiences even when the critics did not always embrace them.

"The Heidi Chronicles," her most celebrated and popular play, opened on Broadway in 1989 after receiving critical acclaim Off Broadway. It ran for 622 performances and collected the Tony and New York Drama Critics Circle awards for best play as well as the Pulitzer Prize. Joan Allen created the title role in the play, which toured nationally and was later filmed for television with Jamie Lee Curtis.

Reviewing the play in Newsday, Linda Winer called it "a wonderful and important play." She continued, "Smart, compassionate, witty, courageous, this one not only dares to ask the hard questions ... but asks them with humor, exquisite clarity and great fullness of heart."

Ranging across more than two decades, "The Heidi Chronicles" was an episodic, seriocomic biography of an art historian seeking to establish a fixed and fulfilling sense of identity amid the social convolutions of the 1960's and 70's, a period when the rulebook on relationships between men and women was being rewritten. Heidi's allegiance to her ideals and her unwillingness to compromise them for the sake of winning a man's attentions caused conflict with friends who chose easier or different paths. Looking around at her materialistic, married, self-obsessed peers two decades after the exhilarating birth of feminism, Heidi observes: "We're all concerned, intelligent, good women. It's just that I feel stranded. And I thought the whole point was that we wouldn't feel stranded. I thought the point was that we were all in this together."

In the play's bittersweet final scene, Heidi has become a single mother to a new infant — a path Ms. Wasserstein would herself pursue many years later, ultimately at great physical cost, when she gave birth, at age 48, to her daughter, Lucy Jane, in 1999.

Her next play, "The Sisters Rosensweig," brought the issues of ethnicity and religion into her continuing conversation about the making and remaking of women's identities as it focused on three sisters with different relationships to their Jewish roots. It opened on Broadway in 1993, ran for 556 performances and was nominated for a Tony Award for best play. Less successful was her 1997 play, "An American Daughter," inspired by the harsh attacks on women in politics, which lasted only 89 performances on Broadway, though Ms. Wasserstein later adapted it for television.

Ms. Wasserstein's other plays were produced Off Broadway, and included "Isn't It Romantic" (originally produced, to mixed notices, in 1981 and revised in 1983, when it was largely acclaimed) and "Old Money" (2000), a time-traveling comedy about the well heeled. Her most recent play, "Third," about a female professor who is forced to question her staunchly held ideas about politics and ethics, opened in the fall at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center.

Ms. Wasserstein's abundant gift for comedy and her plays' popularity disguised the more serious ambitions underpinning her writing. "My work is often thought of as lightweight commercial comedy," she told The Paris Review in 1997, "and I have always thought, No, you don't understand: this is in fact a political act. 'The Sisters Rosensweig' had the largest advance in Broadway history," for a play (not a musical). Therefore, she continued, "nobody is going to turn down a play on Broadway because a woman wrote it or because it's about women." When Ms. Wasserstein won the best-play Tony for "Heidi Chronicles," it was the first time a woman had won the prize solo.

Ms. Wasserstein was born in Brooklyn on Oct. 18, 1950, the youngest of five siblings. Her father was a textile manufacturer, her mother an amateur dancer. In addition to her daughter, Ms. Wasserstein is survived by her mother, Lola Wasserstein; her brothers, Abner and Bruce, the chairman of the investment banking giant Lazard and the owner of New York magazine; and her sister Georgette Levis of Vermont. The family moved to Manhattan when Ms. Wasserstein was 12. After earning her undergraduate degree from Mount Holyoke College in 1971, she studied creative writing at City College with Joseph Heller and Israel Horovitz. Her first play, "Any Woman Can't," found its way to Playwrights Horizons, then a small Off Broadway company, and was produced in 1973, shortly before she began to study playwriting in earnest at the Yale University School of Drama. ("My parents only let me go to drama school because it was Yale," she said in an interview for the magazine Bomb. "They thought I'd marry a lawyer.")

Ms. Wasserstein's career would be closely linked both with Playwrights Horizons, which under its artistic director, Mr. Bishop, would first produce "The Heidi Chronicles," and with many of the artists she met at Yale, including the designer Heidi Ettinger and the director James Lapine, who remained lifelong friends. (Mr. Bishop left Playwrights Horizons to move to Lincoln Center Theater, which has produced all her subsequent plays.) Ms. Wasserstein's classmate, the playwright Christopher Durang, was a particular friend; she used his introductory icebreaker — "You look so bored, you must be very bright" — directly in "The Heidi Chronicles," and they collaborated on a revue for the school's cabaret group.

After receiving a master's degree in fine arts in 1976, Ms. Wasserstein returned to Manhattan, and essentially never left. Her first major success came quickly, with "Uncommon Women" in 1977, produced by the Phoenix Theater. Depicting an informal reunion of a group of Mount Holyoke graduates that dissolves into scenes of their college days, it was described as "funny, ironic and affectionate" by Edith Oliver in The New Yorker, who added, "Under the laughter there is ... a feeling of bewilderment and disappointment over the world outside college, which promised so much, and with their own dreams, which seem to have stalled." The play, which was filmed and telecast on PBS's "Great Performances," was also an important breakthrough in the careers of the actresses Glenn Close, Swoosie Kurtz and Meryl Streep, who played Ms. Close's role in the television version.

Ms. Wasserstein's other writing included a spoof of self-help literature, "Sloth" (Oxford University Press, 2005), and two books of essays, "Bachelor Girls" (Knopf, 1990) and "Shiksa Goddess" (Knopf, 2001), eclectic collections that embraced such disparate topics as Chekhov, her sister's battle with breast cancer, and the life and career of Mrs. Entenmann, creator of a bakery empire and fosterer of much guilt. Included in "Shiksa Goddess" was an essay Ms. Wasserstein wrote for The New Yorker, as poignant as it was hilarious, in which she discussed the medical complications of her late-life pregnancy and her newborn daughter's early struggles. "Although I remain a religious skeptic," she wrote, referring to the disorienting days following Lucy Jane's premature birth, "I had a kind of blind faith. I believed in the collaboration between the firm will of my one-pound-twelve-ounce daughter and the expertise of modern medicine. Of course, there was more than a bit of random luck involved, too."

Lucy Jane will live with Ms. Wasserstein's brother Bruce.

Ms. Wasserstein also wrote a children's book, "Pamela's First Musical," which she adapted for the stage in collaboration with Cy Coleman and David Zippel, and wrote the libretto for "The Festival of Regrets," one of three one-act operas presented under the collective title "Central Park" at the New York City Opera. She had also completed a libretto for another opera with music by Deborah Drattell.

Ms. Wasserstein worked intermittently for Hollywood, although her sole produced screenplay credit was for "The Object of My Affection," a 1998 romantic comedy that starred Jennifer Aniston. Her first novel, "Elements of Style," is to be published by Knopf in April.

But the object of Ms. Wasserstein's deepest affection was always the stage, and her relationship with the theater permeated all aspects of her life. Her friendships in the theatrical community (and out of it) were wide and deep, and she generously gave of her time and resources to benefits of all kinds. A recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, she later served on the Guggenheim Foundation board, and she also taught playwriting at several universities.

In 1998, seeking to help instill her love for theater in a new generation of New Yorkers, she personally instigated a program to bring smart, underprivileged students from New York's public high schools to the theater. In an essay about the program for The New York Times, she wrote: "As far as I'm concerned, every New Yorker is born with the inalienable right to ride the D train, shout 'Hey, lady!' with indignation and grow up going regularly to the theater. After all, if a city is fortunate enough to house an entire theater district, shouldn't access to the stage life within it be what makes coming of age in New York different from any other American city?"

The program, administered by the Theater Development Fund, has steadily expanded since Ms. Wasserstein first held a pizza party for eight students from DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx after a matinee of "On the Town." Now officially called Open Doors, it consists of 17 groups (more than 100 students), chaperoned to a season's worth of theater offerings by interested mentors.

Of course Ms. Wasserstein's devotion to theater took its purest and most enduring form in her writing for the stage, which allowed her the freedom to explore the evolving lives of American women with a fluidity and frankness that befitted the complex experience she was writing about. Although it was always laced with comedy, her work was also imbued with an abiding sadness, a cleareyed understanding that independence can beget loneliness, that rigorous ideals and raised consciousnesses are not always good company at the dinner table. But she shared her compassion among a wide array of characters, those who settled and those who continued to search.

"No matter how lonely you get or how many birth announcements you receive," a character says in "Isn't It Romantic," "the trick is not to get frightened. There's nothing wrong with being alone." The popularity of her work speaks for her ability to salve a little of that feeling of aloneness in her audiences with her deeply felt portraits of women — and occasionally men — seeking solidarity in their individuality, finding comfort in the knowledge that everybody else is sometimes uncomfortable with the choices they've made, too.

4. Nam June Paik, 73, Dies; Pioneer of Video Art Whose Work Broke Cultural Barriers -- by ROBERTA SMITH

Nam June Paik, an avant-garde composer, performer and artist widely considered the inventor of video art, died Sunday at his winter home in Miami Beach. He was 73 and also lived in Manhattan.

Mr. Paik suffered a stroke in 1996 and had been in declining health for some time, said his nephew, Ken Paik Hakuta, who manages his uncle's studio in New York.

Mr. Paik's career spanned half a century, three continents and several art mediums, ranging through music, theater and found-object art. He once built his own robot. But his chief means of expression was television, which he approached with a winning combination of visionary wildness, technological savvy and high entertainment values. His work could be kitschy, visually dazzling and profound, sometimes all at once, and was often irresistibly funny and high-spirited.

At his best, Mr. Paik exaggerated and subverted accepted notions about both the culture and the technology of television while immersing viewers in its visual beauty and exposing something deeply irrational at its center. He presciently coined the term "electronic superhighway" in 1974, grasping the essence of global communications and seeing the possibilities of technologies that were barely born. He usually did this while managing to be both palatable and subversive. In recent years, Mr. Paik's enormous American flags, made from dozens of sleek monitors whose synchronized patterns mixed everything from pinups to apple pie at high, almost subliminal velocity, could be found in museums and corporate lobbies.

Mr. Paik was affiliated in the 1960's with the anti-art movement Fluxus, and also deserves to be seen as an aesthetic innovator on a par with the choreographer Merce Cunningham and the composer John Cage. Yet in many ways he was simply the most Pop of the Pop artists. His work borrowed directly from the culture at large, reworked its most pervasive medium and gave back something that was both familiar and otherworldly.

He was a shy yet fearless man who combined manic productivity and incessant tinkering with Zen-like equanimity. A lifelong Buddhist, Mr. Paik never smoked or drank and also never drove a car. He always seemed amused by himself and his surroundings, which could be overwhelming: a writer once compared his New York studio to a television repair shop three months behind schedule.

Mr. Paik is survived by his wife, the video artist Shigeko Kubota.

Mr. Paik got to television by way of avant-garde music. He was born in 1932 in Seoul, Korea, into a wealthy manufacturing family. Growing up, he studied classical piano and musical composition and was drawn to 20th-century music; he once said it took him three years to find an Arnold Schoenberg record in Korea. In 1949, with the Korean War threatening, the family fled to Hong Kong, and then settled in Tokyo. Mr. Paik attended the University of Tokyo, earning a degree in aesthetics and the history of music in 1956 with a thesis on Schoenberg's work.

He then studied music at the University of Munich and the Academy of Music in Freiburg and threw himself into the avant-garde music scene swirling around Cologne. He also met John Cage, whose emphasis on chance and randomness dovetailed with Mr. Paik's sensibility.

Over the next few years, Mr. Paik arrived at an early version of performance art, combining cryptic musical elements — usually spliced audiotapes of music, screams, radio news and sound effects — with startling events. In an unusually Oedipal act during a 1960 performance in Cologne, Mr. Paik jumped from the stage and cut off Cage's necktie, an event that prompted George Maciunas, a founder of Fluxus, to invite Mr. Paik to join the movement. At the 1962 Fluxus International Festival for Very New Music in Wiesbaden, Germany, Mr. Paik performed "Zen for Head," which involved dipping his head, hair and hands in a mixture of ink and tomato juice and dragging them over a scroll-like sheet of paper to create a dark, jagged streak.

In 1963, seeking a visual equivalent for electronic music and inspired by Cage's performances on prepared pianos, Mr. Paik bought 13 used television sets in Cologne and reworked them until their screens jumped with strong optical patterns. In 1963, he exhibited the first art known to involve television sets at the Galerie Parnass in Wuppertal, Germany.

In 1965 he made his New York debut at the New School for Social Research: Charlotte Moorman, a cellist who became his longtime collaborator, played his "Cello Sonata No. 1 for Adults Only," performing bared to the waist. A similar work performed in 1967 at the Filmmakers Cinematheque in Manhattan resulted in the brief arrest of Ms. Moorman and Mr. Paik. Mr. Paik retaliated with his iconic "TV Bra for Living Sculpture," two tiny television screens that covered Ms. Moorman's breasts.

Mr. Paik bought one of the first portable video cameras on the market, in 1965, and the same year he exhibited the first installation involving a video recorder, at the Galeria Bonino in New York. Although he continued to perform, his interests shifted increasingly to the sculptural, technological and environmental possibilities of video.

In 1969, Mr. Paik started showing pieces using multiple monitors. He created bulky wood robotlike figures using old monitors and retrofitted consoles, and constructed archways, spirals and towers, including one 60-feet tall that used 1,003 monitors. By the 1980's he was working with lasers, mixing colors and forms in space, without the silvery cathode-ray screen.

For his 2000 retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum, Mr. Paik arranged monitors faceup on the rotunda's floor, creating a pondlike effect of light and images. Overhead, one of the artist's most opulent laser pieces cascaded from the dome in lightninglike zigzags — an apt metaphor for a career that never stopped surging forward.

5. Coretta Scott King, 78, Widow of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Dies -- by PETER APPLEBOME

Coretta Scott King, first known as the wife of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., then as his widow, then as an avid proselytizer for his vision of racial peace and non-violent social change, has died, her sister in law, Christine King Farris, said this morning.

She was 78 and had been in failing health since suffering a stroke and heart attack last August. Mrs. King appeared at a Martin Luther King Day dinner on Jan. 14, but did not speak.

Andrew Young, the former United Nations ambassador and longtime family friend, said at a news conference this morning that Mrs. King died in her sleep. "She was a woman born to struggle," Mr. Young said, "and she has struggled and she has overcome."

In a statement, the King family said that "Mrs. Coretta Scott King, first lady of human and civil rights, died overnight." Mrs. King rose from rural poverty in Heiberger, Ala., to become an international symbol of the civil rights revolution of the 1960s and a tireless advocate for a long litany of social and political issues, ranging from women's rights to the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, that followed in its wake.

She was studying music at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston in 1952 when she met a young graduate student in philosophy, who on their first date told her: "The four things that I look for in a wife are character, personality, intelligence and beauty. And you have them all." A year later she and Dr. King, then a young minister from a prominent Atlanta family, were married, beginning a remarkable partnership that ended with Dr. King's assassination in Memphis on April 4, 1968.

Mrs. King did not hesitate to pick up his mantle, marching before her husband was even buried at the head of the garbage workers he had gone to Memphis to champion. She then went on to lead the effort for a national holiday in his honor and to found the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Non-Violent Social Change in Atlanta, dedicated both to scholarship and to activism, where Dr. King is buried.

Aside from the trauma of her husband's death, which left her alone with four young children, Mrs. King faced other trials and controversies over the years. She was at times viewed as chilly and aloof by others in the movement. The King Center was criticized first as competing for funds and siphoning energy from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which Dr. King had headed. In recent years, it has been widely viewed as adrift, characterized by intra-family squabbling and a focus more on Dr. King's legacy than continuing his work. And even many allies were baffled and hurt by her campaign to exonerate James Earl Ray, who in 1969 had pleaded guilty to her husband's murder, and her contention that Ray did not commit the crime.

But more often, Mrs. King has been seen as an inspirational figure around the world, a dogged advocate for her husband's causes and a woman of enormous spiritual depth who came to personify the ideals Dr. King fought for.

"I think the way I will remember her is as a totally faithful, totally devoted wife and mother who nevertheless found time to offer her leadership skills and be involved with other children in need all over the world," Mr. Young said today.

"She'll be remembered as a strong woman whose grace and dignity held up the image of her husband as a man of peace, of racial justice, of fairness," said the Rev. Joseph Lowery, who helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Dr. King and then served as its president for 20 years. "I don't know that she was a civil rights leader in the truest sense, but she became a civil rights figure and a civil rights icon because of what she came to represent."

Coretta Scott was born April 27, 1927, the middle of three children born to Obadiah and Bernice Scott. She grew up in the two-room house her father built on land that had been owned by the family for three generations.

From the start there was nothing predictable about her life. The family was poor, and she grew up picking cotton in the hot fields of the segregated South or doing housework. But Mr. Scott hauled timber, owned a country store and worked as a barber. His wife drove a school bus, and the whole family helped raise hogs, cows, chickens and vegetables. So by the standards of blacks in Alabama at the time the family had both resources and ambitions out of the reach of most others.

Some of Coretta Scott's earliest insights into the injustice of segregation came as she walked to her one-room school house each day, watching buses full of white children kick up dust as they passed. She got her first sense of the world beyond rural Alabama when she attended the Lincoln School, a private missionary institution in nearby Marion, where she studied piano and voice, had her first encounters with college-educated teachers and where she resolved to flee to a world far beyond the narrow confines of rural, segregated Alabama.

She graduated first in her high school class of 17 in 1945 and then began attending Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, where two years earlier her older sister, Edythe, had become the first black to enroll. She studied education and music and after graduation went on to the New England Conservatory of Music, hoping to become a classical singer and working as a mail order clerk and cleaning houses to augment the fellowship that barely paid her tuition.

Her first encounter with the man who would become her husband did not begin auspiciously. Dr. King, very much in the market for a wife, called her after getting her name from a friend and announced: "You know every Napoleon has his Waterloo," he said. "I'm like Napoleon. I'm at my Waterloo, and I'm on my knees."

"That's absurd," Ms. Scott, two years his elder, replied. "You don't even know me."

Still, she agreed to meet for lunch the next day, only to be put off initially that he wasn't taller. But she was impressed by his erudition and confidence and he saw in this refined, intelligent woman what he was looking for as the wife of a preacher from one of Atlanta's most prominent ministerial families. When he proposed, she deliberated for six months before finally saying "yes" and they were married in the garden of her parents' house on June 18, 1953. The 350 guests, elegant big-city folks from Atlanta and rural neighbors from Alabama, made it the biggest wedding, white or black, the area had ever seen.

And even before the wedding she made it clear she intended to remain her own woman. She stunned Dr. King's father, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Sr., who presided over the wedding, by demanding that she wanted the promise to obey her husband removed from the wedding vows. Reluctantly, he went along. After it was over, the bridegroom fell asleep in the car back to Atlanta while the new Mrs. King did the driving.

Mrs. King thought she was signing on for the ministry, not ground zero in the seismic cultural struggle that would shake the South when he became minister of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery in 1954. But just over a year later the Montgomery bus boycott brought Dr. King to national attention and then like riders on a runaway freight train, the minister and his young wife found themselves in the middle of a movement that would transform the South and ripple through the nation. In 1960, the family moved back to Atlanta, where he shared the pulpit of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church with his father.

With four young children to raise — Yolanda born in 1955, Martin 3d in 1957, Dexter in 1961 and Bernice in 1963 — and a movement culture dominated by men, Mrs. King, for the most part, remained away from the front lines. But the recognition of danger was always there, including a brush with death when Dr. King was stabbed while autographing books in Harlem in 1958.

What role she would play was a source of some tension between them. While wanting to be there for their children, she also wanted to be active in the movement. He was, she has said, very traditional in his view of women and balked at the notion she should be more conspicuous.

"Martin was a very strong person, and in many ways had very traditional ideas about women," she told The New York Times Magazine in 1982. She continued: "He'd say, "I have no choice, I have to do this, but you haven't been called,' " "And I said, "Can't you understand? You know I have an urge to serve just like you have.' " Still, he always described her as a partner in his mission, not just a supportive spouse. "I wish I could say, to satisfy my masculine ego, that I led her down this path," he said in a 1967 interview. "But I must say we went down together, because she was as actively involved and concerned when we met as she is now."

Instead, she mostly carved out her own niche, most prominently through more than 30 "Freedom Concerts" where she lectured, read poetry and sang to raise awareness of and money for the civil rights movement.

The division disappeared with Dr. King's assassination. Suddenly, she was not just a symbol of the nation's grief but a woman very much devoted to carrying on her husband's work. Exactly how to do that was something that evolved over time. Marching in Memphis was a dramatic statement, but Ralph Abernathy, one of Dr. King's lieutenants, was chosen to take over his movement. In stepping in for her husband after his death, Mrs. King at first used his own words as much as possible, as if her goal were simply to maintain his presence, even in death.

But soon she developed her own language and own causes. So when she stood in for her husband at the Poor People's Campaign at the Lincoln Memorial on June 19, 1968, she spoke not just of his vision, but of hers, one about gender as well as race in which she called upon American women "to unite and form a solid block of women power to fight the three great evils of racism, poverty and war." She joined the board of directors of the National Organization for Women as well as that of his Southern Christian Leadership Conference and became widely identified with a broad array of international human rights issues rather than being focused primarily on race.

That broad view, she would argue, was completely in keeping with Dr. King's vision as well. And to carry on that legacy, she focused on two ambitious and daunting tasks. The first was to have a national holiday in his honor, the second was to build a nationally recognized center in Atlanta to honor his memory, continue his work and provide a research center for scholars studying his work and the civil rights era. The first goal was achieved despite much opposition in 1983 when Congress approved a measure designating the third Monday in January as an official Federal holiday in honor of Dr. King, who was born in Atlanta Jan. 15, 1929.

President Ronald Reagan, who had long opposed the King Holiday as too expensive and inappropriate, signed the bill, but pointedly refrained from criticizing fellow Republicans such as Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, who continued to denigrate Dr. King, saying he had consorted with Communists. The holiday was first observed on Jan. 20, 1986.

The second goal, much more expensive, time consuming and elusive remains to this day a work in progress — and a troubled one at that. When Mrs. King first announced plans for a memorial in 1969, she envisioned a Lincolnesque tomb, an exhibition hall, the restoration of her husband's childhood home, two separate buildings for institutes on non-violent social change and Afro-American studies, a library building an archives building and a museum of African-American life and culture. And she envisioned a center that would be a haven both for scholars and a training ground for advocates of non-violent social change.

Even friends say it may have been too ambitious a goal. Building the center was an enormous achievement in itself. But many of Dr. King's allies, particularly the leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, grumbled that the center was draining scarce resources from the movement. And over the years the center struggled to find its mission. Critics worried it had become too much a family enterprise with her two sons, Dexter and Martin 3d vying to be its leader. Those problems became particularly acute after she suffered a stroke and heart attack in August 2005 and the two brothers struggled for control over the center while she was recuperating. As a result, many feel it has not become the scholarly resource it could have become, while never becoming a center for civil rights activism.

And many supporters were saddened and baffled by the family's campaign on behalf of James Earl Ray, who confessed to the murder, then recanted and died in 1998 while still seeking a new trial. After his death, Mrs. King issued a statement calling his death a tragedy for his family and for the nation and saying that a trial would have "produced new revelations about the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. as well as establish the facts concerning Mr. Ray's innocence."

Still, to the end Mrs. King remained a beloved figure, often compared to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis as a woman who overcame tragedy, held her family together and became an inspirational presence around the world. Admirers said she bore her own special burden — being expected somehow to carry on her husband's work and teachings — with a sense of spirit and purpose that made her more than just a symbol.

If picking up Dr. King's mantle, in the end, was something of an impossible task, both of them described a relationship that was truly a partnership. "I think on many points she educated me," Dr. King once said. And she never veered from the conviction, expressed throughout her life, that his dream was hers as well. "I didn't learn my commitment from Martin," she once told an interviewer. "We just converged at a certain time."


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