August 11, 1998
Essayist Roger Rosenblatt considers considers some people who have disappeared.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: We don't always know that people are here, but we know when they are missing. A wealthy woman, Irene Silverman, disappeared under suspicious circumstances from her Manhattan townhouse. For the weeks of her disappearance it was her disappearance that made her present. Missing persons of a certain prominence or status, that is, seize the public's attention, because in some way we do not believe that disappearance is possible. The Internet has street maps to our homes. The credit card company knows where our money is. Every salesman in America has our phone number. How, in this reach-out-and-touch-everyone culture can a person not be here? Absence makes the heart grow fascinated.
In the 1920's, the popular and blatantly nutty evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson disappeared for over a month, claiming unpersuasively to have been kidnapped. Her flock heaved with worry during her absence and lost interest in her when she returned. When Agatha Christie disappeared in 1926, her readers were in a state. Ambrose Bierce disappeared in Mexico in 1914, Amelia Earhart in 1937. A famous explorer fell off the earth to be discovered by H.M. Stanley. Dr. Livingstone, I presume? Butch Cassidy gone, Patty Hearst gone. Until Jimmy Hoffa dropped from sight, there was no more celebrated vanishing act than Judge Joseph Force Crater's. On August 6, 1930, the New York playboy judge with gangster connections walked out of a Broadway restaurant and into a cab and poof! He may not have been the first person whose life was forever changed by entering a New York taxicab, but he was the best known. Exactly how fascinated the public grows with these disappearances depends on the romance attached to the disappeared.
Earhart and Hoffa were intriguing presences in their own ways and became more so as absences. Judge Crater was an odd duck, but it was nicely weird to see a judge go AWOL. Jokes followed the legend. "To pull a Crater" referred to absentees. Over PA systems, you would hear, "Judge Crater, call your office." Sometimes we envy the missing. We don't like to think of them as dead. We like to think of them in some paradise, leading a new life. Somewhere, Judge Crater sits in a nightclub, sipping champagne from a floozy's slipper. Somewhere, Amelia Earhart tends her garden and watches jet planes overhead. Recently, the repentant Russians buried the bones of Anastasia of the Romanovs. DNA, mistrusted by the Russian Church alone, took away forever that tantalizing myth of the missing heir to the czars. The missing persons are the ones we want, our eagerness for them made intense by their disappearance. Mrs. Silverman is no Anastasia, but she was never so clearly in view as when she vanished from sight.
When the imagination idles, it can picture all these people together on a separate planet. They convene in the Land of the Gone. The truth is more prosaic, but for the time of their vanishings, they do something strange to the public mind. Counting becomes caring. We are moved to know that all are present and accounted for, thus, the relentless search for POW's missing in action; thus, the continued efforts to identify the unknown soldiers. The world moves along in great masses of people who largely go unnoticed by one another. Take one of us away, and we know that something is missing, something irreplaceable.
I'm Roger Rosenblatt.