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BOOKS & THE CULTURE IDTo Die For The Art and Science of Remembrance in the Paper of Record BY LOUIS DUBOSE FAME AT LAST: Who Was Who According to the New York Times Obituaries. By John C. Ball, Ph.D. and Jill Jonnes, Ph.D. Andrews McNeel Publishing. 407 pages. $24.95. The most jarring line in my 1983 obituary in the Liberty Vindicator was the one that informed readers that I had died in Lib erty. 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 tightassed east Texas town, run by four or five prominent familiesa 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 lifeand deathin 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 I have written several elegiac remembrances since, but my unpublished 1983 Liberty Vindicator announcement was my last attempt at the obituary form.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, Gellhom’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 nimbleas well as the most genteel, elegant, and amusingly ironicwriter 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 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 dressed 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 goatweary 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 6 THE TEXAS OBSERVER DECEMBER 22, 2000