Designer Judith Leiber dies at 97

Handbag designer Judith Leiber died Saturday at her home in Springs, N.Y., only a few hours after the death of her husband, abstract painter Gerson Leiber.

Both Leibers were age 97, according to Ken Yardley of the Yardley and Pino Funeral Home in East Hampton, N.Y. They died of natural causes, he said.

Judith Leiber was born Judith Peto in Budapest, Hungary, on Jan. 11, 1921, to Emile and Helene Peto. She grew up to become the Queen of Minaudieres, whose fanciful designs — including animals and vegetables — were carried by a long list of First Ladies, beginning with Mamie Eisenhower, along with many wealthy social women and movie stars. Leiber gave each First Lady one of her minaudieres as a gift. Greta Garbo, Elizabeth Taylor, Claudette Colbert, Anne Bass and Barbara Walters also carried them, while Beverly Sills was a big fan and had a large collection.

Before the war, her father sent Judith to University College, London to study chemistry, which he believed would help her become a chemist in the cosmetics industry. He also hoped that it would keep her out of the way of World War II. When she returned to Hungary, however, the war broke out. Her family was Jewish, but her father, a commodities broker, ran the grain business for a big bank, and he was able through connections to get his family into a safe house for Swiss citizens. Toward the end of the Nazi period, this safe house was disbanded. Though her family was sent to a ghetto, they survived the war.

“When I was a young girl, my father used to go [on trips] to Western Europe,” she told WWD many years later. “He would always bring my mother a handbag as a gift. My mother always loved her handbags, and I loved them very much, too. So I decided that I was going to do that.”

Judith was apprenticed to one of the top handbag makers in her home city, where she learned how to do everything herself. It was an invaluable training period. “It was not a women’s industry,” she said to WWD. “I was the first girl in Budapest to apprentice in handbags. I thought that it would be a good way to immigrate to the U.S.”

Hollywood's best Judith Leiber moments
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Hollywood's best Judith Leiber moments
NEW YORK, NY - MAY 04: Lily Aldridge attends the 'China: Through The Looking Glass' Costume Institute Benefit Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 4, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Jamie McCarthy/FilmMagic)
Actress Jennifer Love Hewitt arrives at the 61st Primetime Emmy Awards held at the Nokia Theatre on September 20, 2009 in Los Angeles, California.
THE OSCARS(r) - The 90th Oscars(r) broadcasts live on Oscar(r) SUNDAY, MARCH 4, 2018, at the Dolby Theatre� at Hollywood & Highland Center� in Hollywood, on the ABC Television Network. (Rick Rowell via Getty Images) EMILY BLUNT
LOS ANGELES, CA - SEPTEMBER 22: Actress Jane Krakowski (with Judith Leiber Couture Jellybean Crocodile Rectangle Clutch in Chartreuse) arrives at the 65th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards held at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on September 22, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images)
Actress Kristin Davis arrives for the premiere of ''Sex and the City'' at Leicester Square in London. Dress by Guy Laroche Couture; jewelry by Fred Leighton; clutch by Judith Leiber. (Photo by rune hellestad/Corbis via Getty Images)
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NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 19: Actress Blake Lively attends 'The Age of Adaline' premiere at AMC Loews Lincoln Square 13 theater on April 19, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Taylor Hill/FilmMagic)
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 19: Actress Blake Lively, clutch detail, attends 'The Age of Adaline' premiere at AMC Loews Lincoln Square 13 theater on April 19, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Taylor Hill/FilmMagic)
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She also began selling her bags to members of the armed forces. She met Gerson Leiber, known as Gus, an American who was stationed in the city as a member of the U.S. Signal Corps and, she said, “It was love at first sight.” She asked him whether he knew someone in the service who would like to rent a room in her parents’ house. He didn’t, but he soon became captivated by this young woman, who spoke excellent English, as he later recalled. He began to court her. They married at her parents’ place in 1946 and then moved to New York.

Judith worked for several handbag manufacturers, where it became clear that she was one of the few women who could not just design but could make a handbag from start to finish. In 1993, she observed to WWD, “Today, most kids want to be designers, but they don’t want to get glue on their fingers.”

In 1953, she created a pink rhinestone bag at Nettie Rosenstein for Mamie Eisenhower to carry to her husband’s presidential inauguration; it caused a stir. Gerson suggested that she go out on her own. But it took 10 years. In 1963, they began with a factory and four other employees.

One early reference to Leiber in WWD is from 1968, and the sketches show designs including owl and swan minaudieres. Leiber’s evening bags took the form of everything from peacocks to piglets and penguins, along with cats, lions, rabbits, frogs and dogs, with inspiration from Faberge eggs to Mondrian paintings, all sparkling with 5,000 to 8,000 rhinestones and even semiprecious stones. She created other luxurious bags, often in exotic skins such as ostrich, alligator, whipsnake and frogskin, but the playful minaudieres amounted to about 40 percent of her business. Saks Fifth Avenue, Marshall Field, Henri Bendel, Neiman Marcus, I. Magnin, Bloomingdale’s and Amen Wardy were some of her top retailers, and she had a shop-in-shop at Bergdorf Goodman.

In 1973, she became the first woman in her field and the first accessories designer to win a Coty award. In 1980, she won a Neiman Marcus award, and in 1986, she won the Spirit of Achievement Award from the N.Y. Chapter, National Women’s Division, Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University. In 1994, Leiber received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the CFDA.

Meanwhile, her husband, a painter, lithographer and sculptor, was continuing his own career while also running the business side of the firm. He was always signally supportive of her endeavors and came up with many ideas to enhance their enterprise.

She observed that it took about five years to train beaders to spangle her bags. In 1981, she told WWD, “Our industry is shrinking by the second. Years ago, with immigration, you could hire talented people from Italy, Germany and Hungary. Now no one knows how to make a bag from start to finish. It’s all section work.”

The original idea for her best-known bags, she told WWD in 1998, “was a variation on the solid gold evening bags women once carried. Solid gold bags were timeless and classic, but they also were expensive. Women constantly had to go from parties to the vault, where they kept the bags. I started putting rhinestones on brass, beginning with partly beaded bags and then, full beading.’”

In 1993, when she sold her firm to Time Products PLC, she estimated that she had created about 4,000 styles of bag during her lifetime, saying that she usually designed 100 different styles each year. Her firm was later sold to the Pegasus Investment Advisory Group. Judith Leiber retired in 1998. Authentic Brands Group later acquired the brand and, last year, Dee Ocleppo Hilfiger became a co-owner and its creative director. Last week Hilfiger revealed to WWD that the brand plans to expand into children’s wear, footwear, apparel and jewelry.

In 2009, the Leibers set up a museum for her handbags in East Hampton. Her bags are also in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Dallas Museum, the Museum of the City of New York and the Smithsonian.

In the fall, winter and spring of 2016 and 2017, three exhibitions about Judith and Gerson Leiber’s works were mounted in succession. They were “The Artist & Artisan” at the Flomenhaft Gallery, which opened in November 2016; “Brilliant Partners: Judith Leiber’s Handbags and the Art of Gerson Leiber” at the Long Island Museum of Art in Stony Brook, which was launched in February 2017, and “Judith Leiber: Crafting a New York Story” at the Museum of Art and Design, which opened in April 2017.

Notable deaths in 2017
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Notable deaths in 2017

Clare Hollingworth, a veteran war correspondent widely known for breaking the news that WWII had started, died on January 10. She was 105 years old.

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Eugene A. Cernan, the last NASA astronaut to walk on the moon, died at the age of 82 on January 16.

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Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka, a professional wrestler, died on January 15. He was 73.

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John Hurt, known for his role in the Harry Potter series and Elephant Man, died on January 25 at the age of 77. The English actor was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2015.

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Legendary actress Mary Tyler Moore died on January 25. She was 80.

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Actor Miguel Ferrer, known for his roles in 'NCIS: Los Angeles' and 'Crossing Jordan' died from cancer in January. He was 61.

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Brenda Barnes, the former Sara Lee Corp. and Pepsi CEO, died in January from complications of a stroke. She was 63.

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Tilikum, the killer whale featured in the documentary 'Blackfish' died in January.

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Michael Chamberlain was the father of Australian baby Azaria Chamberlain, who was snatched by a dingo at Uluru in 1980 died in January at the age of 72. The 32-year legal mystery over the baby's death in Australia's outback came to an end in 2012 when a coroner found a dingo was responsible for the killing.

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William Peter Blatty, author of 'The Exorcist,' died in January. He was 89 years old.

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Norma McCorvey, who used the pseudonym "Jane Roe" in the landmark Supreme Court Case Roe v. Wade, died on February 18. She was 69 years old. 

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Judge Joseph Wapner, known for his tenure on the reality TV show "The People's Court," died at the age of 97 on February 28.

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Actor Bill Paxton, known for his roles in 'Titanic,' 'Aliens' and 'Twister,' died after experiencing complications from surgery in February. He was 61.

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Physicist Mildred Dresselhaus, known as the 'Queen of Carbon' and pioneer of nanoscience, died in February. She was 86.

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Legendary professional wrestler George 'The Animal' Steele died in February. He was 79.

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Omar Abdel-Rahman, the extremist known as 'the blind sheik' who was convicted in 1993 World Trade Center bombing died in a North Carolina prison in February. He was 78.


Billionaire philanthropist David Rockefeller died in his sleep on MArch 20 at the age of 101.

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Jimmy Breslin, a New York Daily News columnist and best-selling author, died on March 19. He was 88 years old. 

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Martin McGuinness, former Irish Republican Army leader and Sinn Fein poitician, died on March 21. He was 66 years old.

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Emma Morano, who at 117 was believed to be the world's oldest person and the only one left who had touched three centuries died in April.


Former NFL star Aaron Hernandez reportedly committed suicide in the jail cell where he was serving a life sentence for murder in April. He was 27.

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Legendary insult comedian Don Rickles died on April 6. He was 90-years-old.

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Erin Moran, who is known for her role in TV sitcom "Happy Days," died in April at the age of 56 after a battle with cancer.

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American bobsledder Steven Holcomb unexpectedly died on May 6. He was just 37 years old when he was found dead in bed at the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid. Holcomb had sleeping pills and alcohol in his system when he died.

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Roger Ailes, who founded FOX News, died at the age of 77 on May 18.

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Jim Bunning, a former professional baseball pitcher and U.S. senator for Kentucky, died on May 26. He was 85.

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Gregg Allman, founding member of the Allman Brother Band, died on May 27. He was 69 years old.

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Frank Deford, a sports journalist and novelist, died on May 28 at the age of 78. He was known for his longtime tenure at Sports Illustrated.

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Former Auschwitz guard Reinhold Hanning, died in May before going to prison after being convicted of being an accessory to murder of at least 170,000 people. He was 95.


Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell committed suicide in his Detroit hotel room in May. He was 52 years old.

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Zbigniew Brzezinski, former National Security Adviser under President Jimmy Carter, died in May. The father of 'Morning Joe' co-host Mika Brzezinski was 89.

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Otto Warmbier, a University of Virginia student who was imprisoned in North Korea for 17 months, died less than a week after being returned home in coma in June. He was 22.

(KYODO Kyodo/Reuters)

Prodigy, who made up one half of Mobb Deep, died in June. He was 42.

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Author of the Paddington Bear books, Michael Bond, died at his home from a short illness in June. He was 91.

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NFL player James Hardy's body was pulled from an Indiana river in June. The coroner later ruled his death a suicide, he was 31 years old.

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Fashion designer Carla Fendi, who helped transform her parents' small leather workshop into a luxury fashion brand died on June 19 at the age of 79.


Nelsan Ellis, who starred in the HBO series True Blood, died on July 8 from alcohol withdrawal after years of struggling with substance abuse. He was 39 years old.

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Lead singer of rock band Linkin Park Chester Bennington was found dead on July 20 from an apparent suicide. He was 41 years old.

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Margaret Bergmann Lambert, the German Jewish high jumper who was thrown out of the 1936 Berlin Olympics by the Nazis because of her heritage died in July. She was 103 year's old.

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John Heard, known for his role as the father in the Home Alone films, died on July 21. Some reports say he was 71-years-old, however, others have his age listed as 72.

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Critically ill baby Charlie Gard, the infant at the center of legal battle over further treatment died in July. He was 11 months old.

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Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, who won the Nobel Peace Prize while jailed, died of multiple organ failure in July at the age of 61.

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June Foray died on July 26 at the age of 99. The iconic voice actress is known for voicing Rocky and Natash in the Rocky and Bulwinkle Show, as well as Cindy Lou Who in "How the Grinch Stole Christmas."

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Bob Wolff, the pioneering television voice of the Washington Senators, died in July at the age of 96.

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Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright and Oscar-nominated actor Sam Shepard died on July 27 at the age of 73.

(Photo by Walter McBride/Getty Images)

Dick Gregory, comedian and civil rights activist, died on August 19 at the age of 84.

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Haruo Nakajima, who dressed in a rubber suit to play the original Godzilla, died from pneumonia in August. He was 88 years old.

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Jeannie Rousseau de Clarens, one of the remarkable spies of World War II, died on August 23 in France at the age of 98.

Comedian Jerry Lewis died on August 20. He was 91 years old.

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Swedish journalist Kim Wall died while on board Danish inventor Peter Madsen's submarine for an interview in August. She was 30 years old.

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Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner died in his home at the Playboy Mansion of natural causes on September 27. He was 91 years old.

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Gay rights pioneer Edith Windsor, whose landmark legal case paved the way for gay marriage died in September. She was 88.

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Boxing legend Jake La Motta, who was played by Robert De Niro in the movie 'Raging Bull,' died at the age of 95 on September 19. 

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Liliane Bettencourt, heiress to the L'Oreal fortune and world's richest woman, died at her home in September. She was 94.

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Troy Gentry of the country duo Montgomery Gentry died in a helicopter crash in September. He was 50 years old.

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Watertown, Massachusetts resident David Henneberry, the man who found Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev hiding in his boat in his backyard, died in September. He was 70 years old.

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Robert ' Red' Miller, the former Denver Broncos coach who led them to their first ever Super Bowl, died in September at the age of 89.

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Michelle Rounds, Rosie O'Donnell's ex-wife reportedly committed suicide in September. She was 46.

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58 people were killed in October when a gunman opened fire on the Route 91 Harvest country music festival in Las Vegas. They ranged in age from 20 to 67.

  • Charleston Hartfield, Brett Schwanbeck, Austin Meyer, Pati Mestas, Nicol Kimura, Christopher Hazencomb, Andrea Castilla, Carly Kreibaum, Steve Berger, Brian Fraser, Derrick "Bo" Taylor, Denise Cohen, Christiana Duarte, Candice Bowers, Lisa Patterson, Rocio Guillen Rocha, Jordyn Rivera, Austin Davis, Laura Shipp, Keri Galvan, Tara Roe Smith, Calla Medig, Carrie Parsons, Cameron Robinson, Michelle Vo, Brennan Stewart, Erick Silva, Dorene Anderson, Heather Alvarado, Hannah Ahlers, Stacee Etcheber, Christopher Roybal, Victor Link, Melissa Ramirez, Kelsey Meadows, Dana Gardner, Bill Wolfe, Jr., Carrie Barnette, Thomas Day Jr., Jennifer Parks, Kurt Von Tillow, Jack Beaton, Denise Burditus, Sandy Casey, Angie Gomez, Jennifer Irvine, Jessica Klymchuk, Rhonda LeRocque, Jordan McIldoon, Sonny Melton, Adrian Murfitt, Rachel Parker, John Phippen, Quintin Robbins, Lisa Romero-Muniz, Bailey Schweitzer, Susan Smith, and Neysa Tonks

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Tom Petty, the famed and beloved rocker behind hits like 'American Girl' and 'Free Fallin,' died in October following a cardiac arrest. He was 66.

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Legendary New Orleans musician Fats Domino died of natural causes at the age of 89 at the end of October.

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Jalal Talabani, the Kurdish leader who became Iraq's first president after the ouster of Saddam Hussein died in October. He was 83 years old.

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Phoenix Suns Hall of Famer Connie Hawkins died in October at the age of 75. 

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Maltese investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was killed in October when a powerful bomb blew up her car. She as 53.

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U.S. Army Special Forces Sergeant Jeremiah Johnson, U.S. Special Forces Sgt. Bryan Black, U.S. Special Forces Sgt. Dustin Wright and U.S. Special Forces Sgt. La David Johnson were killed in an ambush in Niger, West Africa on October 4th.

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Former MLB pitcher Roy Halladay died after his plane crashed in the Gulf of Mexico in November. He was 40 years old.

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A man killed 26 people, including an unborn child, when he opened fire at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs in Texas in November. 

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Charles Manson, the cult leader who sent followers known as the "Manson Family" out to commit gruesome murders, died of natural causes at the age of 83 on November 19.

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Renowned Russian baritone Dmitry Hvorostovski died from complications from brain cancer in November. He was 55.

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Former NFL wide receiver Terry Glenn was killed in a car crash in Texas on November 20 at the age of 43.

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Tennis star Jana Novotna of the Czech Republic, a Wimbledon champion and 16-time grand slam winner, died in November after a long battle with cancer. She was 49.

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David Cassidy, 'The Partridge Family' star and '70s heartthrob died November 21 after being placed in a medically induced coma. He was 67 years old.

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Bobby Doerr, Boston Red Sox legend and Hall of Fame second baseman died in November. The 99-year-old was the oldest living major league baseball player.

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American gospel singer and actress Della Reese, from the television show 'Touched by an Angel' died at her California home in November at the age of 86.  

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Russian extreme sport star Valery Rozov died while attempting a massive base jump from a mountain in the Himalayas in November. He was 52.

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Former Chicago Bears defensive end John Thierry died in November. One of his former teammates said the 46-year-old suffered a heart attack.

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Popular New York gossip columnist writer Liz Smith died in November. She was 94 years old.

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Jim Nabors, widely adored for playing Gomer Pyle on "The Andy Griffith Show," passed away in November 2017 at age 87.

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Anthony Senerchia, the activist who helped inspire the 'Ice Bucket Challenge' phenomenon in 2014, died after a long battle with Lou Gehrig’s disease on November 25. He was 46.

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Lowell Hawthorne, the founder of the Golden Krust Caribbean Bakery chain died in December. New York's medical examiner said the 57-year-old shot himself in the head.

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John Anderson, a former Republican congressman who ran an independent campaign against Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter in the 1980 presidential election, died in December. He was 95.

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San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, died on December 12, hours after appearing at a public event.  The city's first Asian-American mayor was 65 years old.

(David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Erica Garner died of a heart attack. She was the daughter of Eric Garner, who died in July 2014 when police subdued him with a chokehold under suspicion of selling loose cigarettes. She was 27.

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Detective novelist Sue Grafton was best known for her "alphabet series," which included titles like "'A' Is For Alibi." She was 77.

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