It happens time and time again. Two celebrities — like Robin Williams and Lauren Bacall — die within a couple of days of each other, and people start holding their breath.
“Celebrities always die in threes,” they say, post and tweet. “Who’s next?”
Probably nobody, if history is any guide. Despite the all-too-human desire to find patterns in life, there really are none here.
We took a look at celebrity deaths, using data from the New York Times obituary archives. We defined “celebrity” as anyone whose obit ran at least 2,000 words, roughly two-thirds of a printed page when photos are added. (For comparison, Bacall’s was about 3,000 words. The longest, for Pope John Paul II, ran 13,363 words.)
Since 1990, 449 such people have died. In 75 cases, two of them died within three days of each other. But in only seven cases did three of them die within a five-day period. According to my colleague Boris Chen, a statistician, this is about what you’d expect by random chance.
And this is using a pretty elastic definition of celebrity. The Times frequently gives obituaries of 2,000 words or more to people who led important but not glamorous lives, like Albert Shanker, the teachers’ union leader (who did have a moment of celebrity as the punch line of a joke in Woody Allen’s movie “Sleeper”), and Dr. Jonas Salk, inventor of the first polio vaccine. Notorious villains, like the mass-murdering dictators Idi Amin and Pol Pot, also qualify.
But it’s also true that this standard overlooks some pop-culture figures whom many would count as celebrities. Amy Winehouse received just more than 1,000 words when she died in 2011.
So, for the purpose of inspiring barroom debates about who is a celebrity, here are details of the clusters we found:
September 1997: Conductor Georg Solti, Mother Teresa and Mobutu Sese Seko, the deposed dictator of Zaire.
April 1998: Mexican writer Octavio Paz (who actually rated more space in the paper than Bacall); Constantine Caramanlis, a former prime minister of Greece; and James Earl Ray, the assassin of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
March 2002: Milton Berle, Billy Wilder and the Queen Mother of Britain.
September 2003: Leni Riefenstahl, the nuclear scientist Edward Teller and Johnny Cash.
December 2006: The biggest cluster, with James Brown, former President Gerald R. Ford, Saddam Hussein and CBS executive Frank Stanton.
December 2011: Writer Christopher Hitchens, writer-turned-political-leader Václav Havel and Kim Jong Il, a “Dear Leader” but not much of a writer.
And, most recently, this July: Conductor Lorin Maazel, writer Nadine Gordimer and actress Elaine Stritch. Maazel and Gordimer both died July 13.