A look back at some of the acclaimed figures the world lost in 2021
Clockwise from top left, some of the famous figures who died in 2021: Desmond Tutu, Bernard Tapie, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Joan Didion, bell hooks and Colin Powell. © France 24

FRANCE 24 takes looks back at some eminent personalities who died in 2021, from Prince Philip, husband of Queen Elizabeth II, to former US Secretary of State Colin Powell, to literary icon Joan Didion.

  • Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh

Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, died on April 9 at Windsor Castle, aged 99. A charismatic figure renowned for his sense of public duty, Philip was the longest-serving consort of any British monarch – at the queen’s side for more than seven decades, following their marriage in 1947 and her accession to the throne in 1952.

Philip was seen as an embodiment of British culture, though his family origins were a mostly continental mix: He was born on the Greek island of Corfu on June 10, 1921, to Andrew, Prince of Greece and Denmark, and Princess Alice of Battenberg.

Philip’s marriage to then princess Elizabeth followed his service in the Royal Navy during World War II. As the Queen’s consort, he was well-known for his commitment to public service, completing more than 22,000 solo engagements over 65 years until retiring from public duty in 2017 at the age of 96.

At an event to mark their golden wedding anniversary in 1997, the queen paid tribute to Philip: “He is someone who doesn’t take easily to compliments but he has, quite simply, been my strength and stay all these years.”

  • Charlie Watts, Rolling Stones drummer

The legendary Rolling Stones drummer died on August 24, aged 80, after nearly 60 years as in integral part of the revered British rock ’n’ roll band.

Nicknamed the “Wembley Whammer” by frontman Mick Jagger for his high octane, yet jazz-influenced, drumming style, Watts joined the band in 1963, soon after its creation. Watts had started drumming in London clubs in the late 1950s. He spent two years as part of the band Blues Incorporated before he was invited to join the Stones.

Watts contributed to all of the Stones’ albums – including virtuoso drumming performances in their 1969 tour de force, "Let It Bleed" – a fierce, hallucinatory reflection of the mood as that idolized decade closed, when the bright light of flower power turned into something darker.

His devotion to The Rolling Stones was unstinting: He had performed in every one of the band’s concerts since he joined. In September, the Stones resumed their No Filter Tour, interrupted by Covid-19. They were playing live without Watts for the first time in nearly six decades. “We’ll miss Charlie so much, on and off the stage,” Jagger told the crowd at the start of the show.

  • Jean-Paul Belmondo, New Wave cinema icon

Jean-Paul Belmondo, an icon of French New Wave cinema, died on September 6, aged 88. Belmondo launched his acting career in 1953, but his first big break came in 1960, when Jean-Luc Godard cast him in the main role in "Breathless". The film, building on the innovations of François Truffaut’s "The 400 Blows" and Alain Resnais’s "Hirsoshima Mon Amour", both released the year before, was part of a cinematic revolution, showing a different way of making films.

Belmodo’s charismatic features and insouciant look made him the perfect choice for another Godard masterpiece five years later: "Pierrot Le Fou". The actor also had an illustrious theatre career, playing a variety of mythical characters from the classical French repertoire, such as Cyrano de Bergerac.

In 1988, Belmondo won the César award for best actor for his role in "Itinéraire d'un enfant gâté" (Itinerary of a Spoiled Child), an accolade he turned down.

As President Emmanuel Macron said at the ceremony of national homage to the man with the exquisite melancholy, yet amused, face: France loved him because “he is like us”.

  • Bernard Tapie, colorful French tycoon

A month after Belmondo died, France lost another national treasure: the charismatic Bernard Tapie. The businessman, politician, singer, TV personality and football club chairman died on October 3, aged 78.

Tapie came from Le Bourget, a downtrodden Paris suburb. He became rich in his 20s, mainly through buying flagging businesses and turning them around. Charmed by Tapie’s flair, then president François Mitterrand made him urban affairs minister from 1992 to 1993.

But perhaps Tapie’s proudest achievement was making Olympique de Marseille into a football powerhouse. He took over his favorite club in 1986 and proceeded to buy an array of outstanding players. In 1993, the rowdy, working-class, provincial club became the first – and so far only – French team to win the most prestigious trophy in club football, the Champions League.

Tapie’s empire collapsed spectacularly in the late 1990s, starting with the football match-fixing trial that saw him go to prison. Meanwhile Tapie’s sale of sportswear icon Adidas to a bank mired him in lawsuits for two decades.

  • Hubert Germain, France's last surviving Resistance hero

France marked an end of an era – a symbolic moment in the passing of the wartime generation – when Hubert Germain died on October 12, aged 101. Germain was the last of the 1,038 members of the Compagnons de la Libération, an order founded by General Charles de Gaulle in 1940 to honor people who fought the Nazi occupation of France.

Germain joined de Gaulle’s Free French forces soon after the fall of France in 1940. He fought in the North African theatre at the Battle of Bir Hakeim in the summer of 1942, one of the Free French’s biggest moments in World War II.

Later the same year, Germain participated in the Battle of El Alamein – a crucial turning point in the war, which saw British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s forces smash German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps. Germain then served in the 1944 Allied invasions of Italy and Provence, the same year de Gaulle made him one of the Compagnons de la Libération.

After the war, Germain was active in politics, serving as a local mayor in the 1960s, before entering parliament and serving as telecommunications minister in the 1970s.

  • Colin Powell, America's first Black secretary of state

Colin Powell, a renowned army officer who went on to serve as the first ever Black US secretary of state from 2001 to 2005, died aged 84 on October 18.

Born to parents of Jamaican origin, Powell grew up in the working-class South Bronx area of New York City. After signing up in 1958, Powell spent more than three decades as a professional soldier.

As a senior officer during the Vietnam War, from 1968 to 1971, Powell took on various military advisor roles in President Ronald Reagan’s White House, eventually entering the cabinet as national security advisor from 1987 to 1989 and helping negotiate Reagan’s landmark arms control agreements with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

In the run-up to the 1991 Gulf War, as chairman of the joint chiefs of staff under President George H.W. Bush, Powell devised a doctrine arguing that the US should only go to war over a matter of national interest, using overwhelming military force and with a clear exit strategy.

But he was criticized for abandoning this doctrine in the run-up to the Iraq War, when, as George W. Bush’s secretary of state, he presented evidence – which turned out to be false – of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction to the UN General Assembly. “It’s a blot […] and will always be a part of my record,” he told ABC News in 2005.

  • F.W. de Klerk, South Africa's last apartheid president

South Africa’s last apartheid-era president Frederik Wilhelm de Klerk died on November 11, aged 85.

Coming from a prominent Afrikaner family, de Klerk was a cabinet minister in the apartheid government before becoming president in 1989. Soon after taking office, he decided change was necessary and announced, in his famous February 1990 speech, the liberation of Nelson Mandela and an end to the ban on the African National Congress (ANC) and other anti-apartheid movements.

“You have shown courage that few have done in similar circumstances,” Mandela told de Klerk at the latter’s 70th birthday party in 2006.

Mandela succeeded de Klerk after the ANC won South Africa’s first elections under universal suffrage in 1994. De Klerk served as a deputy president under Mandela until 1996.

  • Stephen Sondheim, Broadway musical legend

Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim died on November 27, aged 91, after a glittering career in musical theatre – imbuing a light, frothy genre with literary qualities.

As a child, Sondheim was inspired by revered lyricist Oscar Hammerstein, who lived nearby in Pennsylvania and became his mentor.

Sondheim wrote his most popular work early in his career, West End Story (1957), with music by Leonard Bernstein, superimposing the story of Romeo and Juliet on contemporary New York.

"Company" (1970) that earned Sondheim the most critical acclaim – hailed as a portrait of atomized big city life, relating the story of an immature young man. It won Sondheim his first Tony Award for Best Score.

But perhaps what sticks out in theater goers’ memories more than anything else from Sondheim’s oeuvre is a single song, Send in the Clowds, from "A Little Night Music" (1973), a melancholy tale of middle-aged romance. It has been recorded hundreds of times – including by Frank Sinatra and Dame Judi Dench.

  • bell hooks, writer, academic, activist

Writer, academic and activist Gloria Jean Watkins, best known by her pen name bell hooks, died on December 15 aged 69.

She adopted her lower case nom de plume to honor her great-grandmother, as well as to suggest that the focus should be on her works, not the writer who created them.

bell hooks rose to prominence with her book "Ain’t I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism", published in 1981 but written years earlier when she was a university student. The first of many influential works, this book explored how racism and sexism had combined over the course of US history to put black women at the bottom of the hierarchy of power.

hooks wrote with “clarity, novel insight and extraordinary precision about art, media, race, gender and class” over more than four decades, The New York Times wrote in 2019.

  • Joan Didion, peerless American prose stylist

An icon of US literature, an exquisite prose stylist and a penetrating political observer, Joan Didion died on December 23, aged 87.

Didion was best known for her essay collection “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” (1968) and its title piece, chronicling the drug-addled hippy world of the San Francisco neighborhood Haight-Asbury. Didion gave a rather conservative take on the '60s counterculture, as demonstrated by her taking the title from the W.B. Yeats poem “The Second Coming”, an alarmed portrait of entropy.

Her horror at the dark side of the counterculture was epitomized by her recounting of seeing a small child high on LSD in Haight-Asbury. But when she looked back on that moment in the 2017 documentary “The Center Will Not Hold”, Didion reveled in it as a killer detail: “It was gold,” she said.

In the 1980s Didion turned her attention to politics, notably with a masterpiece essay on the 1988 presidential election campaign, “Inside Baseball”, skewering the disingenuity at the heart of US politics. The opening line stands as a tribute to her masterful sentence style, which twists and turns through subordinate clauses before landing with a thud: “It occurred to me, in California in June and in Atlanta in July and in New Orleans in August, in the course of watching first the California primary and then the Democratic and Republican national conventions, that it had not been by accident that the people with whom I had preferred to spend time in high school had, on the whole, hung out in gas stations.”

  • Sarah Weddington, lawyer who won Roe v. Wade

Sarah Weddington, the Texas lawyer who won the landmark 1972 US Supreme Court abortion case Roe v. Wade, died on December 26 aged 76.

A few years after graduating from university, Weddington brought a class action lawsuit on behalf of a pregnant woman against a Texas state law that banned abortions in the overwhelming majority of circumstances.

The case of “Jane Roe” (real name Norma McCorvey) against Dallas County District Attorney Henry Wade was settled in the former’s favor in a 7-2 Supreme Court decision in 1973 – legalizing abortion throughout the US on the grounds that the “right to privacy” in the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution encompasses a woman’s right to abort a pregnancy.

Weddington’s death came amid what is widely seen as the most serious challenge to Roe v. Wade since the ruling, as the Supreme Court reviews Mississippi’s prohibition of abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy.

  • Desmond Tutu, anti-apartheid activist and Nobel laureate

Desmond Tutu, the South African Anglican archbishop fêted for his tireless campaigning against apartheid, died on December 26, aged 90.

After years as a prominent activist urging international economic pressure and internal non-violent resistance against the apartheid regime, Tutu became in 1986 the first black Archibishop of Cape Town, the top position in the Anglican Church in South Africa.

After Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s first president elected under universal suffrage in 1994, he chose Tutu to take charge of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which pursued restorative justice against violent actors both for and against apartheid, offering amnesty to perpetrators of violence who disclosed the whole truth about their actions and could show they were politically motivated. Tutu insisted that justice should not be seen as “punitive in nature”.

In later years, Tutu campaigned for gay rights and for a Palestinian state. He became disillusioned with the ANC over corruption, denouncing a “gravy train”. But Tutu reconciled somewhat with the party upon the 2018 election of President Cyril Ramaphosa, a longstanding friend who promised to tackle graft.