To Die For
The most jarring line in my 1983 obituary in the Liberty Vindicator was the one that informed readers that I had died in Liberty. I didn’t even want to live in Liberty, and it seemed so sad that I had died there. I was encouraged to read that Wells Mortuary, located west of town in Liberty’s black community, was in charge of my funeral arrangements. And that my requiem mass would be celebrated at Our Mother of Mercy Catholic Church in Ames, the other segregated black community several miles east of town. Liberty was a tight-assed east Texas town, run by four or five prominent families–a place as Protestant, proper, and preoccupied with class as a Louis Auchincloss novel. Even John Wayne found it unbearable. When he arrived in Liberty for a fundraiser in the ’50s, he was reported to have sized up Main Street and said, “Well. If this is Liberty, give me death.”
He was only there for a day. After having lived there for 10 years, I was seriously considering the alternative the Duke proposed. So I wrote my obituary and ran it through what in the earliest days of computer layout was called a “trendsetter.” Even if it wasn’t published, it was better written than the obits sent over by the funeral homes. And it was a little more clever, describing my death as a result of natural causes: boredom and bitterness. Reading about my life–and death–in two column inches of Times Roman type, provided me encouragement enough to sell my house and leave Liberty County. Death in Dayton, located 20 miles to the west on Highway 90, would have represented some small progress.
I have written several elegiac remembrances since, but my unpublished 1983 Liberty Vindicator announcement was my last attempt at the obituary form. I remain, however, an avid reader of New York Times obituaries. The Times obits are, after all, a first draft of history. Consider Rick Lyman’s 1998 obituary of Martha Gellhorn. After reading it, Gellhorn’s second husband, a writer from Oak Park, Illinois, falls into bas relief. “Fresh out of Bryn Mawr College in 1927, she began writing for The New Republic, then became a crime reporter for a local newspaper in Albany,” writes Lyman. “She went to Spain in 1937 with nothing but a knapsack and $50, covered the conflict for Collier’s Weekly….”
Lyman was pitch perfect, his subject was far better, and he was smart enough to allow her work to speak for itself: “In Barcelona, it was perfect bombing weather. The cafes along the Ramblas were crowded. There was nothing much to drink: a sweet fizzy poison called orangeade and a horrible liquid supposed to be sherry. There was, of course, nothing to eat. Everyone was out enjoying the cold afternoon sunlight. No bombers had come over for at least two hours.” Of the men and women in concentration camps at Dachau, Gellhorn wrote, “They have no age and no faces, they all look alike and like nothing you will ever see if you are lucky.”
Hemingway must have envied the ironic quality of “perfect bombing weather,” written on the ground and looking up. The only one of Hemingway’s wives to leave him, Gellhorn would later walk out on the United States, live in Cuba, Italy, Mexico, Kenya, and Britain, and continue to cover wars up through the United States’ invasion of Panama. By then she was 81. After that she quit. “You have to be nimble for war,” she said. If you last encountered Martha Gellhorn in a Hemingway biography, on the occasion of her death you were reacquainted with her and reminded of what an exceptional woman she was.
If “you have to be nimble for war,” you also have to be nimble to man the obit desk. Surely the most nimble–as well as the most genteel, elegant, and amusingly ironic–writer to have worked in this journalistic sub-genre was Robert McG. Thomas, Jr. The Times, according to the authors of Fame, has some 2,000 obituaries of prominent people written and almost ready to publish, but this biographer of the obscure often knew nothing about his subjects until an assignment would land on his desk on the day an obituary was to be published. Yet in his pieces, his subjects came to life. Somehow, Robert (the McG. of the byline was for McGill) Thomas, Jr. always got it. His obits were a perfect admixture of detail and elegant and ironically humorous writing. Of painter and jazz musician Anton Rosenberg, Thomas wrote that he “embodied the Greenwich Village hipster ideal of 1950’s cool to such a laid-back degree and with such determined detachment that he never amounted to much of anything.” Writing of the death of Charles McCartney (“Known for His Travels With Goats, Dies at 97”) Thomas gently addressed McCartney’s habitual dishonesty. “A man given to gross exaggeration when simple embellishment would suffice,” Thomas wrote of the man who claimed to have walked his goats along the highways of every state except Hawaii. “Growing up on a farm outside Sigourney, Iowa, he was considered such an odd child that the family goats were about his only true friends, which helps explain why he took off at 14, married a 24-year-old Spanish knife thrower, served as her exhibition target for a couple of years, then returned to Iowa and married at least twice more. The last marriage ended when he sold his goat-weary wife for $1,000 to a farmer she’d already grown sweet on.”
Thomas’ own obituary, written by his colleague at the Times, Michael T. Kaufman, includes lines from several of Thomas’ most memorable obituaries, which illustrate his tendency to “carry things like sentences, paragraphs, ideas and enthusiasms further than some editors preferred.” In a touch Robert McGill Thomas, Jr. would have appreciated, Kaufman slips into his subject’s voice to describe a party Thomas gave a week before his death. “Last week he officiated at the annual New Year’s Eve party he first started giving at the family home in Shelbyville 32 years ago. About 5 percent of the town’s 12,000 people attended, and Mr. Thomas, wearing a blue silk shirt with an embroidered sun and moon that he bought for the occasion, cheered his guests and the new century. As in past years, he expressed hopes that the fireworks he had ordered would not set fire the Presbyterian church across the road.” Kaufman also quotes writer Joseph Epstein, who was an admirer of Thomas: “I have noted an interesting general-assignment obituary writer with the somewhat overloaded name of Robert McG. Thomas Jr., who occasionally gets beyond the facts and the rigid formula of the obit to touch on–of all things to find in The New York Times–a deeper truth.”
You will find no deeper truth in Fame at Last, which does to obits what the University of Texas School of Journalism does to journalism–reduces its subject to a body of quantifiable research material and pours it all into a database. We learn that there is, in the Times obits, a distinct gender bias: “Of the 2,000 or so obituaries that run each year in the New York Times, only 17 percent are women.” Wealth matters. As does educational achievement. We also learn, in one of a number of observations that are completely lacking in context, that “Jackie Kennedy was, one suspects, a one-of-a-kind historical figure. Certainly no Helen Keller, she nonetheless embodied a kind of elegance, dignity, and determined privacy that was enormously appealing to people.” As this is the authors’ first reference to Helen Keller, the reader is left to fill in the blanks. In a coda on “success and fame” the authors hold Richard M. Nixon up as an example of perseverance: “Forced to resign from the nation’s highest office, over the next two decades, Nixon slowly but surely repaired his battered reputation by publishing a series of serious books about foreign affairs. By the time of his death, he had remade himself into a Grand Old Statesman.” (The definitive Nixon obituary was written by Dr. Hunter Thompson and published in Rolling Stone. Thompson’s observation that Nixon’s remains “should have been burned in a dumpster” did not, however, strike the right tone for a Times obit.)
In fairness to the authors, a compilation of Times obits has already been published. So it was unlikely that anyone would do another such collection. And there are some interesting facts collected here. For example, it is gratifying to know that at 117 column inches Allen Ginsberg had a full inch on Cold Warrior Clark Clifford, and ten inches on Vietnam War architect Dean Rusk. Though Rusk bested Ella Fitzgerald with her 102 inches, she in turn had almost two more feet of obit space than did U.S. Congresswoman Barbara Jordan. Yet all this could have been contained in a smart, slim volume that would have complemented the existing anthology (The Last Word: The New York Times Book of Obituaries and Farewells). When the authors depart from their charts and graphs to recapitulate the stories already told in the Times–without hitting a single coloratura note–Fame at Last becomes deadly. At the end of 14 plodding chapters ranging from “The Millionaires Who Do Not Live Next Door” to “People With Utterly Unusual Lives,” there is even a six-page afterword. Not satisfied with having led readers to predictable conclusions, the authors continue: “Some other observations on success: Location is important. You need to be in the right place to get started: If you want to be a movie star, you better move to Los Angeles, because that’s where movies are made. Book publishing remains concentrated in Manhattan. Big-time lawyers tend to be clustered in power cities such as New York, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles. If you’re interested in government, spend time in Washington, D.C., in the belly of the beast. Cutting-edge medicine is conducted mainly at major medical schools.…” Enough, and enough yet again. Fourteen chapters followed by a homily on success was more than this avid obit reader could endure. Such a view of how to die a good death starts to make even Liberty seem appealing.
In the end, as Thomas so amply demonstrated, it’s the details that make the man. Drs. Ball and Jones did use several of his subjects in their profiles, including, in their chapter on “The Millionaires Who Do Not Live Next Door,” Edward Lowe, who struck it rich after discovering a market for kiln-dried clay. Yet they omit the context given to us by Thomas. “Cats have been domesticated since ancient Egypt, but until a fateful January day in 1947, those who kept them indoors full time paid a heavy price,” he wrote. “For all their vaunted obsession with paw-licking cleanliness, cats, whose constitutions were adapted for arid desert climes, make such an efficient use of water that they produce a highly concentrated urine that is one of the most noxious effluences of the animal kingdom.” That passage didn’t make the cut in Fame at Last, whose authors merely inform us that Lowe made his millions–and the Times obituary page–by developing and marketing kitty litter.
Louis Dubose is politics editor at the Austin Chronicle. He previously worked for the Observer and the Liberty Vindicator.