Baruch dayan ha-emet. The Jewish Angel of Death has once again swooped down to collect one of his most beloved sons, and to take him to his—well, not his eternal reward or heavenly abode since we don’t believe in any of that, so let’s just say grave. The latest to board the metaphorical Space Mountain car in the never-ending Disneyland line to this oblivion that is life? Entertainer David Gest, who found dead in his hotel room at the London Four Seasons. He was 62.
A television producer, talent manager (he guided the career of Al Green, among others), and childhood friend of Michael Jackson (one might even say the Robert Kardashian to Jackson’s O.J, if one has a) just re-binge-watched American Crime Story: The People Vs. O.J. and, b) decided to throw all caution and political correctness to the winds), Gest is perhaps best known for his short-lived marriage to Liza Minnelli, which produced some of the most indelible pop cultural images of the early 21st century.
Who could forget their lavish, televised ceremony, frequently interrupted so that middle-aged bride and bridegroom could passionately make out at the altar? Or the famous photograph of the wedding party—of whom Liza is now the only surviving member, as we somehow all knew she would be—with Elizabeth Taylor in that feathered hat, and an unsmiling Michael Jackson in what appeared to be the same Arnold Scaasi pantsuit Barbra Streisand wore to the Oscars the year she won for Funny Girl, with those customary ersatz pre-WWI military decorations attached? Or the acrimonious divorce only a year later, in which Gest alleged that Minnelli had been physically abusive to him, had thrown blunt objects at his head during gin-fueled rages, and infected him with an STI (precisely which one has never been made public; there are no points for guessing).
In his second (or was it the third, or fourth?) act, after he’d been made a punchline in his native country as a star of British reality television, Gest managed to show an entire country that he had the essential makings of every camp icon: that he was in on the joke. On shows like I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here and Celebrity Big Brother, Gest was warm, funny, and authentic in the way that only a man with tattooed eyebrows and none of his original skin can be—skillfully moderating fights between contestants, cheerfully consuming all manner of creepy-crawlies so his teammates could have access to clean water and regular food. He was the ultimate good sport, and the ultimate Old Hollywood Jewish showman in a way that has gone out of fashion here, stateside: He was vulgar, yes, and far from sophisticated in terms of self-presentation; but he did it with such an optimistic razzamatazz and unshakable belief in the value of fame and fortune, that it proved utterly infectious to a country of people more accustomed to hiding their light under a bushel basket and cruelly mocking those who don’t.
David Gest let the British have fun again. I only wish we’d been smart enough to let him do the same for us.