“It is a sobering thought that when Mozart was my age, he had been dead for two years.” –Tom Lehrer
I noticed when writing (actually reposting from my sff.net newsgroup) my recent memoriam for Lin Carter that I am now the age at which he died of mouth cancer. Actually, I'm a little older than he was, so I beat Lin Carter.
Dan Fogelberg, who was not quite a year younger than I, died late last year, so I beat Dan Fogelberg, too, and, for that matter, John Entwistle, who died a few months shy of 56.
There's a whole raft of pop culture icons who died in their early-to-mid 50's. Frank Zappa, Jerry Garcia, Michael Landon, Bill Bixby, John Ritter, Jim Henson. All of us guys from the peak of the Baby Boom who are still around, we win the slow bicycle race, right?
My favorite headline from the now defunct Weekly World News was "Elvis Dead at 57!" which they published in 1992, when Elvis would have been 57. Or perhaps I should say, when Elvis was 57 in Earth-WWN. Elvis actually died in 1977, when he was 42. I have slightly-better-than-urban-legend knowledge (a friend of mine knew one of the ER staff that dealt with the body when they brought it in) that he was really D-E-A-D on arrival. They tried to revive him anyway, of course. I mean, it was Elvis.
"The parallels are astonishing. Elvis died on a toilet. Kennedy died in Dallas." –David Feldman
Kennedy was 46 when he died, so he beat Elvis. He beat Marilyn Monroe, also. But Elvis and Marilyn both beat Mozart. Hell, everybody beats Mozart.
Except, no, not everybody does. Mozart was just shy of 36 when he died. James Dean was only 24 when he died. Sal Mineo barely beat the Mozart mark by a little over a year, while Natalie Wood was and august 43, when she died, thus rounding out the doomed "Rebel Without a Cause" crew. Nick Adams, friend of Elvis, who played "The Rebel" on television (and also appeared in the sixth Godzilla film for Toho studios), just barely passed the Mozart mark and died of an apparent drug overdose at 36.
Hollywood can chew them up fast. Heath Ledger wasn't yet 29 when he died recently. River Phoenix didn't even beat James Dean. Even Jimi Hendrix did better than that; he was 27 when he died, as was Janis Joplin, and Brian Jones, for that matter. Keith Moon was a relative oldster when he died at 32, as was John Bonham. None of them beat Mozart.
Buddy Holly was 22 when his plane crashed. Richie Valens was 27. Jiles Perry "J. P." Richardson, Jr., aka "The Big Bopper" was 28. The pilot was named Roger Peterson, who was 21.
Duane Allman was in James Dean territory, dying from a motorcycle accident a month shy of 24. His bandmate Berry Oakley managed to make it to the full 24 before dying in his motorcycle accident. The rest of the Allman Brothers gave up motorcycles after that.
Part of the "famous death" thing is that you have to have time to get famous, and that tends to favor the artists and the warriors. Shelly was shy of 30 when he died, but both Poe and Baudelaire still managed to beat Mozart. Keats didn't, though; he died at 25. Christopher Marlowe died at 29, although there are legends that say he just skipped town, like Elvis.
Évariste Galois, the mathematician died in a duel at the age of 20. Mathematics and politics do not mix.
Joan of Arc was 19 when she died, and that's pushing the envelope for someone to actually accomplish something before their deaths. Sure, King Tut was a teenager, but he just died and was buried with a lot of gold that didn't get graverobbed. And history is awash with young royals dying of a plague or a murderous plot before they came of age.
But we do have child actors, and such folks as Heather O'Roark, of Poltergeist fame. She was 12, and did not die of a drug overdose, or a set accident. She had congenital intestinal stenosis, and died of septic shock following successful surgery. She died too young. Almost everyone does.