Hal Kornell: 1919-2011

Hal Kornell died, quietly and without pain, at beautiful, beautiful Sarah House, in the depth of the night, with the rain outside his window. Like everyone on these pages, the reality of his life was richer and more strange than can be packaged into a few words. Here’s an obituary he enjoyed:

Hal Kornell was born in Chicago in 1919, the son of a burlesque dancer and a handsome ne’er-do-well. In 1933 the family (minus early-vanished father) took the bus to Los Angeles. In 1937, as a senior at LA Poly High, he ran the world’s first four-minute mile. After returning from Europe and WWII (where he was the last scout for the Normandy landing, swimming the English Channel in the dead of night to deliver crucial intelligence), he entered his scientific career. Over the next ten years, he discovered the actinide elements californium, einsteinium, and fermium, for which he won Nobel Prizes in both Physics and Chemistry. During this period, he also ghost-wrote all of Philip Larkin’s poetry. In the 60’s, he introduced Alan Watts and Fritz Perls to Michael Murphy, and provided the first “controlled substance” to the Harvard group that included Leary and Alpert. He did some arranging (uncredited) for the Beatles, as well. In his spare time he wrote the bulk of the text for the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Hal Kornell: 1919-2011
Courtesy Photo

It was in the early 70’s that his first marriage fell apart. He never deviated from his claim they were all “just friends” but the cumulative weight of his time with Hedy Lamar, Marilyn Monroe, Julie Christie, and Brigitte Bardot (who kept calling in the middle of the night) was finally too much. He laid low for many years, some ghosting (the funny parts of Civilization and Capitalism for Ferd Braudel, some math help for Alan Guth and then Mike Green). He really did find true love in his 70s (an achingly sweet story that doesn’t fit here at all). He was always vague about his travels in Eastern Europe in ’88 and ’89, but many believe he played a critical role in the various peaceful revolutions of the time. Finally, at the recent World Veteran’s Games, he high-jumped 1.79 (5’10 1/2), setting a new world record for 90-and-over.

He will be missed by his children, kind of missed by his grandchildren, and sort-of-kind-of missed by his great-grandchildren. (Mr Kornell approved of this [fanciful] obituary before he died, although he did wonder why we failed to mention his first transpacific balloon flight.)


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