Two incredibly talented people died on the same winter weekend -- pop star and actress Whitney Houston and Wall Street Journal columnist and best-selling author Jeffrey Zaslow. Both touched millions of lives, bringing inspiration, joy, and empowerment to their fans around the world. Both were superstars in their respective fields. But in death, one superstar dominated media attention, while the other's passing was noted in print but practically ignored by TV and social media. Why the difference in coverage?
Were he able to comment on the disparity in media attention, Zaslow would probably be the first to say, "It's all about the story." Whitney Houston's life story had all the elements of a classic Shakespearean tragedy. Born into a musical royal family (gospel star Cissy Houston, cousin Dionne Warwick, and godmother Aretha Franklin), she was a precocious young talent selected for greatness by Queen-maker Clive Davis. Houston was beloved by the masses, who felt she was singing the songs in their own hearts. Her marriage to Bobby Brown added danger and drama to her life story, as he seemed to cast her under his bad-boy spell with the aid of magic love potions: alcohol and drugs. Houston's adoring fans watched in horror as her bright star flamed out and she fell from grace.
Her final years were spent trying to mend her ways and find her way back to the royal station in music that seemed her birthright. But alas, it was not to be. Was she hoisted by her own petard -- a victim of the cliché, self-indulgent, Hollywood lifestyle? Truly, this is the stuff that makes for riveting story-telling. A made-for-TV drama. Little wonder that the media has focused its spotlight on Houston's life and death.
Jeffrey Zaslow's life story is more likely to have been written by Walt Disney and illustrated by Norman Rockwell -- wholesome family fare with nary a scintilla of scandal, debauchery, or danger. Zaslow was a nice Jewish boy from Philadelphia, one of four children whose father was a real estate investor. He earned his degree at Carnegie Mellon, then started his journalism career at the Orlando Sentinel's Sunday magazine. Zaslow was an over-achiever from the get-go ... in three short years he made a giant leap from Orlando to the pinnacle of journalistic excellence that is The Wall Street Journal. At the ripe old age of 28 he entered a contest sponsored by the Chicago Sun-Times to replace their advice columnist Ann Landers. Zaslow entered the contest just for fun -- and won! When people questioned his maturity, wisdom, and advice-giving credibility, Zaslow reportedly replied, "I'm 28, but I have the wisdom of a 29-year-old." I think they call that chutzpah.
Zaslow wrote his advice column, "All that Zazz," until 2001, when he returned to The Wall Street Journal as a features writer. He was a master storyteller and perhaps it was his years of listening to others' stories as an advice-giver that led to his string of best-selling books: The Last Lecture with dying professor Randy Pausch; Gabby: A Story of Courage and Hope with Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and her husband Mark Kelly; Highest Duty, a profile of Captain Sully Sullenberger who safely landed his plane on the Hudson river, saving all passengers and crew aboard; The Girls From Ames: A Story of Woman and a 40-year Friendship; and his last book, The Magic Room: A Story about the Love We Wish for Our Daughters, about the generations of brides who bought their gowns at an old Michigan bridal shop.
Zaslow's personal life mirrored the wholesome quality of the people he wrote about. He was the happily married father of three daughters, Jordan, Alex, and Eden. His wife, Sherry Margolis, is a TV news anchor. The Zaslow family epitomizes the All American ideal of 1950s TV families such as Father Knows Best. In Jeffrey Zaslow's case, Father probably really did know best -- he was an advice columnist, after all.
As the very public mourning of Whitney Houston continues to saturate the media in coming days, let us not forget that we lost a brother as well as a sister on that fateful February weekend. While she sang other people's songs, he wrote other people's stories. Both achieved worldly success, endearing themselves to millions along the way.
Jeffrey Zaslow made a difference in the world -- with his wise advice columns, his insightful feature stories, and his inspiring, uplifting books. His life story may not have had the pathos and tragedy required for a made-for-TV-movie, but his was every bit the American Dream -- demonstrating how much we can achieve by making the most of our gifts and talents.
Two bright stars have been taken from us -- a musical star and a literary star. Let us remember them both; let us honor them both. Let us cherish the legacy of music and words that they bequeathed us. Let us love them. Let us pray for them ... and the loved ones they left behind. God bless Whitney and God bless Jeffrey. God bless us all.
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