Obit (2016) Movie Script

Uh, hello, I'm trying to reach Melody Miller.
Ms. Miller, it's Bruce Weber at The New York Times.
I don't know if you got any of my emails,
but we would like to run an obituary about your husband.
First of all, it's fair to describe your husband
as an advisor to Democratic candidates, right?
I mean, he worked with Kennedy in the--
he was on Kennedy's staff, right?
What I'm gonna do is first go through just the usual questions
that we go through with all families, and then I have
some specific questions about your husband.
Your husband's full name at birth?
William P. Wilson.
That's P-A-R-M-E-N-T-E-R?
September 4th, 9/4/28.
And what was his date of death?
So he was 86.
And where was he when he died?
Washington, D.C., okay, and the cause of death?
Did he go to public schools in Chicago?
So he enlisted in the Army and served in the Korean War,
and then University of Illinois on the GI bill.
What did he study?
People often ask, "Oh, you're an obit writer.
Isn't it depressing?"
Maybe it's macabre, maybe it's a little morbid.
I'm not sure that writing the obits,
the fact of death is really that much
at the forefront of my mind.
It's almost never depressing, because we're almost always
writing about someone in his or her eighties or nineties
who has died after a long, rich,
creative, fulfilling life.
In an obit of 800 words or so,
maybe a sentence or two will be about the death,
and the other 90 percent is about the life.
So it's counterintuitive, ironic even,
but obits have next to nothing to do with death,
and in fact absolutely everything
to do with the life.
We don't have much new going on.
Yeah, I've only got two people.
Oh, I was gonna give you
this Argentine cardinal.
He seems to have had a big role in the Vatican.
I think we looked for him already.
The--and I don't think there was anything, actually.
There aren't too many of us doing this anymore.
I mean, you could count them on one hand.
Most papers just don't devote
an entire department to this.
It's a little bit off-putting, you know, in a party situation.
I say I write obituaries, but sometimes, if I'm in the mood,
I say I am an obituarist,
and the reaction is almost always sort of pulling back
as if I were, uh, you know,
You know, they think it's one step away
from an undertaker's job,
with all due respect to undertakers.
Sometimes people laugh.
Sometimes people look at you in shock.
Sometimes people go, "Oh wow, I love obits."
Sometimes people go, "Oh," and go on to, you know,
go on to talk to somebody more interesting than me.
In Italian, they say--
it has the prefix "necro" in it.
It's like "necrologista,"
you know, "necrologica."
So it could be worse, you know,
I just say I write obituaries.
Huh, that's interesting.
Yeah, what can you tell me about his parents?
Beginning with their names.
Now Jane as the usual spelling,
there's no Y in there or anything.
And what did your husband's father do for a living?
A congressman from where?
From Illinois, from Illinois?
A Democrat, I take it?
This is interesting.
He might be worth something.
Dan, have we looked for Herbert Ellis?
He was a British surgeon commander.
- When did he die? - Yeah, you're right.
He died October 4th, it's too late.
Death strikes suddenly and unexpectedly,
and you don't know who you're gonna be writing about
from day to day when you're on the obits desk.
Literally, I show up in the morning and I say, "Who's dead?"
And somebody puts a folder on my desk and that's,
you know, that's what I do that day.
This is Julie Harris, by the way.
You know, I tend to sort of fall in love
with the people I write about anyhow.
It's sort of how I respond to people,
whether they're alive or dead.
Starting the day getting a name you've never heard of,
knowing that you are going to have to have command
of this person's life, work,
and historical significance in under seven hours
is equal parts exhilaration and terror.
Every single day, I have to fight down panic,
and I've done this a thousand times.
It can be a teacher of belly dancing,
an expert on exotic chickens,
an underwater cartographer.
These are literally people we have all done.
The coverage I had initially seen--and I don't even remember
where it came from-- just said "arranged."
I'm expressing skepticism about whether he actually
wrote the songs or just put his name on them,
but that's hard to prove.
If my suspicions are right and we do the obit,
and we say he co-wrote, people will come out
of the woodwork and say, "No, he didn't,"
but he's never been taken to court, as far as I know.
So maybe my skepticism is misplaced.
I was leaning away from doing him,
and now I'm leaning toward doing him.
- Are you? - Yeah.
Now Richard Rich, I actually flipped through
Mary Wells's book, and she does credit him
as a very creative advertising writer.
Certainly in its day it was one of the big advertising agencies.
It was a very big advertising agency, and they were famous
for doing some very bold advertising.
The editors are besieged by people who don't understand
being a worthy person and a virtuous person
does not make you a newsworthy person.
Often, they'll get a phone call from someone saying,
"My uncle subscribed to The New York Times
all his life, and it was a religion for him,
and it would just be so gratifying to the family
if he could have an obituary in The New York Times."
I'll bet there's 10 or 15 calls like that every day,
and they're utterly sincere.
I think he's worth a short, you know?
- Just for the record. - Wendy's Hot and Juicy campaign.
Benson & Hedges, Alka Seltzer.
Pieces of pop culture history.
We have to decide if we want him to go back
to the lawyer for Waylon Jennings.
Well, you know, a lot of people persuading--
Yardley's concern, as I understand it,
is that if you write the story, you'd have to get into
the uglier aspects of it, and my feeling is, "So what?"
My feeling is that makes it a better story.
The question is who can do him?
I can ask Paul to knock that out.
- Yeah, why not? - Have Paul look into it.
Bruce is gonna continue with Wilson.
- Yeah, right. - Sounds good.
The one thing all the subjects have in common,
besides being dead,
is that their lives
had an impact of one sort or another.
The word "impact" is infinitely elastic.
That impact can be of world-shaking importance.
You know, when Brezhnev died, that was the end
of a particular era in one of the great social experiments
of the 20th century, the beginning
of the decline of the Soviet Empire.
And then you get to the guy who invented the Slinky,
and he had an impact too.
Millions of people bought the Slinky and took pleasure in it.
If you weigh in one hand Slinky and in the other hand,
Soviet Union 20th century,
obviously one hand is gonna dip way down here
and the other hand's gonna be way up here.
But I'll bet a lot of people turn
to the Slinky first to read about it.
Hello there.
"He crossed the Atlantic because it was there,
and the Pacific because it was also there.
He made both crossings in a rowboat
because it too was there,
and because the lure of sea, spray, and sinew,
and the history-making chance to traverse two oceans
without steam or sail proved irresistible.
In 1969, after six months alone on the Atlantic
battling storms, sharks, and encroaching madness,
John Fairfax, who died this month at 74,
became the first lone oarsman in recorded history
to traverse any ocean.
For all its bravura, Mr. Fairfax's seafaring
almost pales beside his earlier ventures.
Footloose and handsome, he was a flesh and blood character
out of Graham Greene with more than a dash of Hemingway
and Ian Fleming shaken in.
At nine, he settled a dispute with a pistol.
At 13, he lit out for the Amazon jungle.
At 20, he attempted suicide by jaguar."
- Thank you! - Very well done.
How does it feel to be--
I take property of this little bit.
Well done, John, well done.
The explosion that ensued,
readers just went nuts.
"This is the original most interesting man in the world."
"This is the most bad-assed obit I ever read,"
which is fascinating for two reasons.
One, when does anyone ever use
the adjective "badass" to preface anything
that appears in the pages of The New York Times?
And two, it's kind of a tacit commentary
on this old but still prevalent
Victorian sensibility that obits
have to be demure, respectful,
lachrymose, God knows not funny.
Heaven forefend if there's a laugh line in there,
and this was an obit that broke all the rules
and proudly announced obits in the 21st century
can be just as rollicking and swaggering
as their subjects.
Was he married before he was married to you?
And how many times?
Okay, and that marriage ended in divorce?
Huh, and what was her name?
Not the daughter, the first wife.
Okay, on to survivors.
Your name is Melody with a Y, right?
Do you want the Jean in there or no?
One daughter, and her name is?
Does she go by Miller as well?
We usually draw the line at names of--
you know, 'cause some people have 26 grandchildren.
So three granddaughters, okay.
Any great-grandchildren, okay.
Unlike a beat writer who is used to covering, say,
Congress or the Supreme Court,
or the New York Philharmonic,
we don't have this bristling Rolodex of sources.
You spend your day juggling phone calls
to families, friends and associates,
speed-reading clippings printed out from online sources,
and tenderly handling these yellowed,
crumbling clippings from the morgue.
God willing, the families who've contacted us
have provided a phone number so that we can call them
and do the basic leg work of confirming the death.
Where, when, the cause, who were the survivors?
Sometimes in their exhausted grief, quite understandably,
families forget to provide contact information.
So you spend precious hours with the clock ticking down
working public records databases
to try to find a phone number for someone
or even a phone number of a neighbor.
It was a weekend, it was a Sunday,
I think, that we found out.
I got a call from the office that said,
"David Foster Wallace has died,
and we don't have an advance, and we need an obit,
can you do it?" and I did.
You know, I'd read a little bit of him.
You know, I didn't know his oeuvre,
but one of the things that
I thought was important was that since
he was only in his forties to find out
the circumstances of his death.
We'd heard he committed suicide, but we didn't know for sure.
He was living in California at the time.
But I knew--I'd found out that his parents
lived in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois,
and so I went to the--
I just dialed all the Wallaces
um, until I found his parents.
I didn't expect them to talk to me, but they did.
And his father explained that, you know, his son
was suffering from serious depression.
It had gone--he'd had electro-shock therapy.
It was a horrifying,
horrifying story.
But, you know, it was... was really explanatory,
and I think, and I think
it worked well for readers,
I mean, to explain why this immensely talented
and obviously--
if you read his work, you know he's obviously--
this is a guy who obviously lives inside his own head,
you know, with a great intensity.
And I hope the obit explains
some of--explains some of this to people.
We got an email from somebody saying that
his father had helped save
the Spacelab, I think--Skylab.
It was such a preposterous claim, I thought,
"This is just ridiculous."
Many times, people send in notes about their loved ones
that grossly exaggerate their accomplishments,
because maybe that's the way Daddy used to tell the story,
or maybe they heard the story that way.
This just seemed ridiculous,
but when Dan finished the morgue run
and brought back the clip file,
there was an article about how this guy,
who had never been to college but was sort of a tinkerer,
saved this mission.
There was some failure of heat shields
that threatened this whole mission in space,
and he basically helped come up with
this sort of ingenious tinkerer's fix.
A parasol that could be shoved through
this hole and then opened up.
You know, he bought fishing rods,
and he assembled this thing with a team of people
in two or three days and it worked.
It was the article in the morgue that convinced me
that this preposterous claim was legitimate,
was actually true.
We could document it.
Yeah, Jack Kinzler.
In the morgue, we found a drawing
of how this thing worked, and this was on the front page.
That just made it that much stronger of a story.
You ready?
So this is the Times Morgue.
At the height of it, it was manned by 30 people.
Now one person.
Three shifts a day, seven days a week,
almost 24 hours till 3 A.M.
You had the cutters, the indexers,
the filers, the refilers.
We clipped from about 28 different publications
along with the Times.
Before we moved, there were approximately
10,000 drawers of clippings.
If it went into the new Times building,
all the floors would pancake.
It couldn't stand the weight.
So how much have I actually seen here?
Virtually nothing, I mean, it's not even a question.
I mean, look.
I mean, how could you read all that?
It's just one drawer, there's thousands of those drawers.
And it's just--it's impossible.
Yeah, I mean, when you come in here, it looks...
it looks pretty chaotic, but no.
Everything is organized specifically in certain areas.
Clippings generally over here.
You've got people clippings, you've got subject clippings,
you've gut geographical clipping;
This is the 36 volumes of the Iran Contra hearings.
I don't know, we like to keep the paper copy
because we don't know if the online is gonna work.
Card catalog for the clippings, card catalog for the pictures,
stretches over here still and over there.
People have to figure it out for themselves to a certain extent.
Stretching all of these cabinets are pictures,
but not really, because there's also clips on top.
Ninety percent of the subject photographs are in here.
Biographical photographs, 90 percent are out there.
Biographical pictures, five people to a folder.
Sometimes if it's like a big deal person it's one number.
As I tell everyone, this is not rocket science.
This is very straightforward, but there's no rhyme or reason
really to, like, why there's a picture somewhere.
So next to City Planning Commission, France housing.
So this picture's of houses.
U.S. Navy Marine, ships, the ZuiderKruis,
Central Intelligence Agency.
Key thing is put it back on the right spot.
If you misfile it, man, it's gone.
You misfiled it, it is gone.
And so now, specifically with obituaries,
what happens a lot of times is that, you know,
we'll have a picture that's like 50 years old.
It's kind of the typical thing where, okay,
you're thumbing through the card catalog,
and I might've been looking for some other Seeger.
And I see Charles Seeger, and I know Charles Seeger,
"Oh, that's Pete's pop."
So I was looking through it just purely for my own interest,
There's, like, the Seeger family.
"Professor Charles Lewis Seeger with wife and children
giving an open air concert at camp in Washington
in their tour like minstrels of olden time."
June 4th,1921.
So there's Peter.
That's Pete Seeger.
I always kept saying,
"Hey, when he dies,
you should use--or you should look at that picture,
because no one's gonna have that,"
and no one did have it, because we paid ten bucks for it.
Times, wide world, 1921.
You know, once it ran in the paper and on the website,
the whole world sees it, and so,
it changes the story,
and it changes your perspective.
Here's Pete, two years old and his family is already
going down South trying to figure out
old songs, and so that's--
literally his life is there
from the very beginning.
You always have somebody check to see
if there's stuff in the morgue.
You know, the fear of missing something
is sort of a defining aesthetic.
Every researcher knows that the thing you're looking for
leads you to the thing you weren't looking for,
and is much better than the thing you were looking for.
You know, it's like water on the roof, you know,
you just don't know where it's gonna come through.
It just--it's a story, you know,
and you follow the story to where
it has its greatest power.
In the research of any obituary,
I'm always looking for,
for striking details,
'cause A, they're fun to write, B, they're fun to read,
and C, they tell you stuff about people's lives
that may seem like off the, off the main narrative
of why you're writing the obit,
but it bolsters the narrative.
Bill Haley and his Comets!
I wrote the obituary of the bass player
for Bill Haley and the Comets
when they recorded Rock Around the Clock.
Rock Around the Clock was recorded
the year after I was born,
and it's been a staple of my lifetime.
I wrote a little bit too much and they were cutting,
they were cutting my obit, and there was something
in there that I really wanted to keep, and the thing
that I wanted to keep was that his father was a hog butcher.
He grew up poor in North Carolina during the Depression,
and his father was a hog butcher, and I thought,
"You know, that's a detail that's worth keeping."
It contributes to a narrative, it somehow tells you
about the life that this guy lived.
Thinking of obituaries as something
that can make you laugh as well as cry,
I think that's a fairly recent development.
Like many other kinds of stories at the paper,
they used to be dull, dry, responsible,
very well fact-checked,
but not terribly thrilling to read.
In the old days, there was no part of an obit
more formulaic than the lede paragraph.
John Doe who died when, who died of what,
who died where, who died at what age.
Those facts can often be very intrusive,
stop the narrative.
You're always wrestling with a way of folding them in
without interrupting the flow.
Clearly, you can't throw it out, but you're trying to write
a story, not just deliver a resume.
What I strive to do and try to get our writers to do
is to think big picture in a sense.
There is a kind of form that we adhere to,
but we also like to bend it,
and we like to experiment where we can.
We try to even inject humor.
You have to walk a very fine line,
because you're talking about dead people,
and you don't want to offend,
but you're also there to somewhat--
you know, you're there to educate and illuminate,
and even entertain your readers.
You know, it needs to be sort of seductive.
I don't know if you would be automatically inclined
to read the obituary of the bass player on Rock Around the Clock,
and it's therefore my responsibility
to try and persuade you to do so.
If you're interested in rock and roll,
what does that word "percussive" mean?
Why was that important?
You're trying to weave a historical spell in a way,
and enchant the reader, and do justice to a life.
You have the chance that you can't repeat.
It's a once-only chance to make the dead live again.
"Irving Cohen, who was known as King Cupid of the Catskills
for his canny ability to seat just the right nice Jewish boy
next to just the right nice Jewish girl
during his half-century as the matre d'
of the Concord Hotel, died on Monday.
He was 95."
"Candy Barr, an exotic dancer whose hardscrabble life
became Texas legend as she befriended Jack Ruby,
who killed President John F. Kennedy's assassin,
dated a mobster, shot her husband,
went to prison for drug possession, and starred--
unwillingly, she insisted-- in a famous stag film,
died on Friday in Victoria, Texas.
She was 70."
Well, hello.
I have two daughters, Phyllis...
Cocktail sauce in the fried shrimp...
"Eugene Polly, an inventor whose best known creation
has fostered blissful sloth,
caused decades of domestic discord,
and forever altered the way consumers watch television,
died on Sunday in Downers Grove, Illinois.
Mr. Polly, the inventor of the wireless
television remote, was 96."
"Her three successive names were signposts
on a twisted, bewildering road that took her
from Stalin's Kremlin where she was the 'little princess'
to the West in a celebrated defection,
and finally to decades of obscurity,
wandering, and poverty.
At her birth on February 28th, 1926,
she was named Svetlana Stalina,
the only daughter and last surviving child
of the brutal Soviet tyrant Josef Stalin.
After he died in 1953,
she took her mother's last name, Alliluyeva.
In 1970, after her defection and an American marriage,
she became and remained Lana Peters.
Ms. Peters died of colon cancer on November 22nd
in Richland County, Wisconsin.
'You can't regret your fate,' she once said,
'although I do regret my mother didn't marry a carpenter."'
"Zelma Henderson, a Kansas beautician
who was the sole surviving plaintiff
in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka,
the landmark federal desegregation case of 1954,
died on Tuesday in Topeka.
She was 88 and had lived in Topeka all her adult life."
One of the things obit writers are often asked,
with real anger and real pain is,
"Why doesn't your page represent more women and minorities?"
And what I tell them is the short answer--
this is gonna sound flippant
and I don't mean it to in any way--
is "Ask me again in one more generation."
The longer answer is this:
Obits are an inherently retrospective genre.
Unlike the rest of the paper
which is reporting on what happened yesterday--
or in the internet age, what happened five minutes ago--
we are reporting on people who were in their prime,
moving and shaking, changing the world
40, 50, 60 years ago.
However we feel about it now, and however modern society
and modern sensibilities have evolved,
the harsh reality of our culture is that by and large,
the only people who were allowed to be actors
on the world stage 40 and 50 years ago
were overwhelmingly white men.
One of the really striking evolutions that's happened
just in the 10 years I've been doing this job
is I have seen more women and minorities
creep onto our page
because now this sliding window on past history
that obits look through is moving up and up and up.
When I first started, we were writing
about the World War II era-- overwhelmingly white men--
the Cold War, ditto.
We are now edging into the civil rights era
and the people who made the women's movement.
Will you take camera two, please, Roger?
Can you hear me now, speaking?
Is that about the right tone of voice?
Yeah, and I think it probably all started
on the night-- on September, 26th, 1960.
Yeah, well, I mean, I think that's--
I think a lot of the obituary will--
is gonna try to make that point.
A couple of questions, one is...
I know your husband was the first person hired
as a television consultant on a presidential campaign.
How did that come about?
I mean, how did one become a communications consultant
or television consultant
in the days when very few people had televisions?
I mean there were probably only five
or six people in the world
who actually thought about this stuff at that point.
It's hard to imagine now, you know?
When he talked about the Nixon-Kennedy debates,
were there particular things that he liked to discuss?
I mean, I saw in the C-Span program,
he mentioned that the most important thing
that he did was to insist upon a single stem podium.
- I'm on this side? - Let me see a tight shot
on camera one, please.
I think I better shave.
They were playing chicken with each other
it sounded like.
And Rogers at the last second,
put this Lazy Shave or, you know,
Halberstam calls it Shave Stick,
and a couple of other people have called it
something called Lazy--Lazy Shave.
It's really funny.
You remember what Halberstam wrote about this?
I just read it this morning.
"Kennedy asked Wilson if the press was out there,
and Wilson said yes, and Kennedy said,
'Fuck 'em, I won't do it.'
He was not about to be ambushed by Nixon,
but Wilson insisted that he needed some kind of makeup,
mostly to close the pores and keep the shine down.
And Kennedy asked if Wilson could do it
and Wilson, who knew the neighborhood,
ran two blocks to a pharmacy, bought Max Factor Crme Puff,
and made Kennedy up very lightly.
'Do you know what you're doing?' Kennedy asked.
'Yes,' Wilson said.
'Okay,' Kennedy said.
Wilson was impressed by how relaxed he was
on such decisions.
Max Factor Crme Puff instead of Shave Stick
rode the future leadership of the United States
and the free world."
You know you can actually see it
if you watch the debates with that in mind,
you can actually see it.
And Nixon was not terrible, you know, in those debates.
But, you know, he looked--but...
He looked great, he looked great.
And you know, the story
about how all of these people began,
immediately after the debates--
that the motorcade began attracting bigger crowds,
and young women started coming out.
I think it had to have been a complete revelation
about the power of television.
Yeah, and you know, there had been a few TV stars
but the idea that exposure on TV that way
might confer instant celebrity was, you know...
He did.
I will try and give him an eloquent sendoff.
I'll do my best.
Well listen, it was very nice talking to you.
You know, I'm sorry about the occasion, and once again,
please accept my condolences.
Thanks very much.
Bye-bye now.
Okay, we're good.
I'm working on the story of a man
named Richard Rich, known as Dick Rich,
in the advertising world of the 1960s.
I wasn't familiar with his name,
but the images that he created are everlasting.
No matter what shape your stomach's in.
His work was mostly very visual and edgy at the time.
The question he asked of every piece that he did
was, "Will it play in Japan?"
Meaning, is it visual enough to convey its message
without words.
His theory of advertising was kind of prescient
in the sense that this was in the '60s,
and he was already anticipating the global marketplace.
That every human on the planet
could understand a visual joke of a certain kind.
That was pretty unusual.
I mean that was pretty forward thinking.
All these guys were pioneers in their own way.
The question now is, can freedom be maintained
under the most severe attack it has ever known?
I think it can be.
And I think in the final analysis,
it depends upon what we do here.
I think it's time America started--
You know, you can see that Kennedy's suit fits better.
He looks vigorous, relaxed.
What kinds of programs are we for?
- We are for programs-- - Nixon's sweating,
he looks grim.
Every time he speaks, his eyebrows knit. all Americans their equal chance.
I respect the sincerity
with which he makes that suggestion.
Mr. Vice President, I'd like to follow Mr. Novins' question.
He insisted on a single stem podium
because he knew that Kennedy was more physically robust
and graceful than Nixon, and he didn't wanna--
- he wanted to show off. - I guess the question
is whether, you know, his behind the scenes work
contributed to Kennedy's victory in this debate.
I think it clearly can be demonstrated that it did.
Kennedy acknowledged that the debate won the election.
That one debate.
It's probably a refer, I don't think it would be--
we can promote him as a front page story.
Yeah, I would agree with that.
- When's the meeting? - Four o'clock.
All right, give me a--you know--
I mean, if you could write something.
Yeah, yeah, I will.
You know, it's frustrating
'cause you never meet them.
I mean, the fun thing about being a journalist
is meeting all these interesting people,
and, you know, it never happens
by definition.
I really admire people I write about generally.
It becomes a little love affair in a sense,
and they're important to you.
And I think you bring that feeling,
that warmth,
that you develop over time, to all these people,
to the specific one you're doing at a given time.
Sometimes the backs of their books are on my desk,
and I'm often being looked at by the person
that I'm writing about and, in a way,
I feel their presence in the sense that--
not so much, you know, telling me anything,
but telling me not to misrepresent me.
You know, "get me right.
Do me right."
The music is so wonderful.
I'm coming to the bell.
You can't go fast.
Manson Whitlock was a crotchety old gent
who for 40, 50, 60 years,
when this was a routine and ubiquitous thing to do,
repaired typewriters.
He worked on manuals lovingly, electrics grudgingly,
and computers not at all.
And when he died in 2014,
he was holding fast to the old ways.
And there seemed to be just enough work for him
that he was able to hang on.
I started to think,
what sounds do a typewriter make?
Because it's this music that this man,
like the last member of a community
that knows the old songs, was helping to keep alive.
Now that he's gone, what's going to happen to that music?
The finality of that?
Or this?
Just a minute, George.
Bill, how long is the Wilson obit supposed to be?
Eight hundred words, maybe?
Yeah, 800 words sounds about right.
We were talking yesterday about whether or not
this should be an obituary
that has an ordinary news lede
or an anecdotal lede, and
I think my first attempt, anyway,
is gonna be to write an anecdotal lede,
to talk about the history first.
You know, to create the moment in history that--
in which this guy was significant
rather than to begin with "William P. Wilson
who did such-and-such, died."
We do anecdotal ledes occasionally
when, you know, when it calls for it,
so I think I'm gonna give that a shot.
So have you written the lede yet?
I haven't because, his being in advertising,
clever writer, kind of puts a special demand
on the obit writer to try to at least suggest,
you know, that quality of cleverness.
So I'm struggling with the lede.
Trying to figure out how to get, you know,
jiggling tummies and crushed cigarettes
into one sentence that's coherent.
And I can't figure it out yet, and it's already 3:30.
One of the many perks of working at The New York Times,
free coffee.
We write obituaries according to the scale
of the individual.
So we make these calculations.
We actually put word lengths on human beings, you might say.
A reporter will often come to us and say,
"How many words do you want on this person?"
And we'll say, mmm...600?
Maybe 800.
Nine hundred tops, because if you go over that,
you are making a statement.
If you write 1,000 or 1,400 words on someone
who you originally thought is worth,
in terms of news judgment, 800 words,
to write 1,400, you're going overboard
and you're sending the wrong signal,
in a way, to the reader.
We're not making judgments
about anybody's worthiness as a human being,
but we are making news judgments
about newsworthiness, and so the most prominent,
the kings and the presidents and the movie stars
who just capture the public attention
are gonna get a big obituary.
Maybe a page, maybe two.
I think the Pope's obituary, Pope John Paul,
went something like 15,000 words.
So they are signals, they're visual cues.
Size of pictures.
Number of pictures.
Someone may be worth two pictures,
some may be worth three.
It's the one department in the paper
where we can't rely on a staff of, you know,
excellent photographers.
We have to rely on what's there.
Sometimes there's virtually nothing
that we can find on them,
and so we'll be desperate to find even a head shot,
because we like to run a picture of every subject
with every obituary, if we can.
It's almost a parlor game in some ways.
Who deserves to be on page one,
and not only who deserves to be on page one,
but where on the page?
Above the fold--l mean we still have these conversations.
One day the newspaper will be no more
and "above the fold" will be a term
that will have to go to the dustbin.
I don't put the obit on page one.
It's a judgment call that the managing editors make.
I propose it, and we have a 4 o'clock meeting
for the print paper every day
and the various department heads gather
with various other people,
and they essentially are pitching, selling,
a story that they think should be on the front page.
And sometimes it's automatic,
it's a story that no one would disagree
should be on the front page,
but sometimes an obituary is--
it provokes some discussion.
We've had some very lively discussions
about whether someone is worth--
worthy of page one.
In most cases, the obituary doesn't go on page one.
We might get what we call a "refer,"
which is essentially a little blurb
at the bottom of the page,
which is the next best thing to a front page obit.
Another little visual cue,
which I don't know if readers are onto,
but it's the obit that has the verb,
which is the word "dies" or "is dead," is the lead obit--
it's the most prominent obit of the day.
The lead verb governs the rest of the page.
So you don't have to say everybody is dead.
It's pretty clear that if you're on the obituary page,
you're dead.
We don't use euphemisms like "passed away,"
"taken away by the angels to heavenly rest,"
"was clasped to the Lord's bosom,"
"surrounded by his loving family,"
any of this sort of Hallmark card language
that softens the experience
or gives emotional cast to it that's,
in our view, inappropriate to the newspaper.
Every one of us is going to die,
and that's the word in English that we use for it.
I grew up in Clear Lake, Iowa,
and this is the Clear Lake Mirror from 1930.
And my great-grandmother is the subject of this obituary:
"As the sun sank below the western horizon
Tuesday, April 1st, the soul of Mrs. H.E. Palmetter
was loosed from its moorings,
and she passed over the great divide.
It was a fitting instance that as the sun ceased to shine
in the evening, the life of this noble woman
ceased its work and she was at rest.
In a lonely grave in the silent city,
her body calmly slumbers,
careless alike of sunshine and storm.
But over it too the sunset will glow with purple and red,
and the fleecy clouds roll by
and far above it will shine the brilliant stars of heaven."
What we do now is, of course, the opposite of that
and, um, I don't think a lot is lost,
but it certainly says how the culture has changed.
As anyone who's ever read
a Times obit will have encountered,
we do have to have the requisite second paragraph
that says either what the cause of death was
or "the family confirmed the death,"
or words to that effect.
Now, why do we have that?
The reason is simple, but it's ironclad.
Many years ago, a writer here, now retired,
saw word of this woman's death
in one of the European papers.
She was an eminent Russian dancer.
It was Friday night, too late to reach anybody in Europe,
so he wrote up a very reasonable obit.
When our story ran, the switchboards lit up
with hysterical calls from this woman's family.
Not only was she not dead,
she was in a nursing home in Manhattan.
So, after that, in the second paragraph
we have to not only say that the person is dead,
we have to say how we know, and we'd better be damn sure.
That can often be the most anxious moment
in writing an obit, which is trying to find--
waiting for the phone call or the email
from the person who actually will allow you
to nail this one fact down
and let the thing go to press.
I have very little patience with people
who don't want to tell me what the cause of death was.
I don't see what the embarrassment is
if somebody died of AIDS or if somebody had dementia
or if it was, I don't know,
cancer of the what-- cancer of the pancreas.
I don't know why people find the idea of illness
that causes death embarrassing.
But if somebody's younger, there is a real curiosity
about why someone died, and I'll...
I'll be a little bit of a pest about that.
God, I can't believe these are her clips here now.
Man, what a drag.
These are all the clips on--man!
On Gertrude Berg.
Someone was asking for this recently.
Believe me, this is the first--
I didn't even realize it was here.
I didn't--I didn't think to look here, truthfully.
For some reason, and I don't know why we did this,
we removed famous people, some famous people,
and put 'em all together in this cabinet.
Why? I don't know.
I have no idea.
There was some kind of rhyme to it,
but what happens is that...
as the years and generations of people
working in this facility go on,
the person who knew the reason for that is gone.
See, it's out of order from the sequence over here,
so it just says "VIP," and that was me writing "VIP,"
reminding myself that it was there.
But I rarely look through it,
and I should've looked through it because,
I'm tellin' ya,
I really wish that I would have known that this was here.
Who's the one who does the maintenance
and maintains everything?
Me, I mean, I'm the last person running it.
Am I the one who knows...
where everything is?
No, 'cause I just showed you that I'm not.
Do I know more than anyone else here at this point?
Yeah, but that's just because I spent some spare time
rooting around and trying to figure out
why things were where they were, and how it happened,
and why it was created certain ways.
So that's the only reason why
I know more than anyone else,
because I opened all the drawers, so to speak.
Not all the drawers!
What did I want to be?
You know, I went through various things.
I wanted to be an airplane pilot.
Then I wanted to be an architect.
First I thought I wanted to be a musician.
I was a fairly serious cellist
from about the age of 12 through college.
I wanted to be a ballplayer.
After that I wanted to be a mathematician,
and after that I wanted to be a musician.
It never once occurred to me that I was gonna end up
writing for a daily newspaper.
An obituary editor? Now, who' da thunk that?
We all have the great pleasure of being able
to come out of the closet in this day and age
as obit writers.
Only a generation ago, maybe even more recently than that,
obits were very stigmatized.
The obits section has always been a kind of Siberia
at the paper, you know.
A place where people who were getting on in their careers
were parked as a, sort of, last stop on their way out.
The obits section was where newspapers
typically sent writers whom they were trying to punish
but didn't quite have enough on to fire.
They were where you traditionally got sent
if you were deemed to be a heartbeat away
from needing an obit yourself.
Happily that has changed in the last 20 years or so.
If you think about one of the slang ways
of saying that somebody's died, we say "He's history."
And what an obit actually does,
which I find very compelling and very moving,
is it captures that person at the precise point
that he or she becomes history.
It reminds you-- you're opening the paper,
or if you're online,
and suddenly came upon somebody you haven't thought about,
probably, in 20 years.
It evokes a whole different set of memories,
brings you back to the Kennedy administration,
or it may be your parents--
your parents used to watch this show all the time,
and it drove you crazy!
But you see the obit of the actor
who died from that show, and it brings you back,
and you remember Mom and Dad watching it.
You get retrospectively to see how people got
from A to B to C in their lives.
And you get to interrogate history,
and if you're lucky you get to interrogate fate,
and the question we writers tacitly ask is,
"If someone had an idea,
invented something, started a movement,
wrote a book that changed the world,
what occasioned that?"
Was it the slow, deliberate accretion of free will?
Was everything in the life geared to that?
Or was it, as makers of film noir
would have us worrying about,
the intervention of pure blind fate?
Did someone take a different route to work
one day in 1947 and, as a result,
had an idea that changed the world?
How did people get to be where they are?
How did people get to be the way they are?
How did the world get to be the way it is?
"At 8:15:17 A.M. on August 6, 1945,
Colonel Ferebee, then a 26-year-old major,
pushed a lever in his B-29 bomber,
the Enola Gay, making sure an automatic system
he had activated seconds earlier had functioned."
I could clearly see the city of Hiroshima
within my bombsight.
Then I clutched in and took the run,
and I felt the bump of the airplane.
"He watched as a single, 9,000-pound bomb
turned nose-down and fell toward its target, Aioi Bridge,
which he had personally selected from aerial photographs.
He said, 'Bomb away!'
Forty-three seconds later,
when the bomb had fallen from 31,000 feet
to 1,890 feet above the target,
the sky erupted in dazzling light,
and the earth soon seemed to seethe like boiling liquid.
The bomber, also called a Superfortress,
veered away from the swirling explosion
in a steep, 150-degree turn."
"At least 80,000 Japanese were killed instantly
or would eventually die as a result of radiation
from the explosion.
And the atomic age was born."
"Thomas Wilson Ferebee, the third of 11 children,
was born in 1918
and grew up on a farm outside Monksville,
a town in central North Carolina
about 20 miles southwest of Winston-Salem.
He attended Lees-McRae College
in Banner Elk, North Carolina,
where he won letters in track, basketball and football."
He's just a guy, you know.
He was so ordinary, I mean, he was just a guy who grew up,
played sports, um, went to the little college,
and, um...
and um, ended up in the Army Air Force.
My dad was in the Army Air Force.
My dad flew a glider and was shot down
in the invasion of Holland
and was a prisoner of war for a while.
You know, by chance that happened to him.
By chance this guy ended up, you know,
as a bombardier of probably
the most famous bombing run in history.
I'd like to think that I wouldn't
have pulled the lever, but who knows?
He ended up thinking it was the right thing
that it shortened the war,
as I guess most Americans still think.
Yeah, that's a wonderful picture.
- We love that. - Looks great online.
Yeah, it looks really good.
It's sharp, you know?
And, William Wilson's widow wrote to me
and, well she sent a couple of pictures
that looked like she shot them on her camera phone,
phone camera or something,
and they weren't very good quality so--
You mean pictures of pictures?
Yeah, they're framed on the wall.
She had a picture of him with Bobby Kennedy.
- Was it any good? - But it's a picture of--
But it's a picture of a picture and the quality is--
I don't know how else-- I don't know how to...
She's also in the middle of dealing
with funeral arrangements, and so--
Have we looked in the morgue for him?
And nothing?
- He was very behind the scenes. - Yeah, yeah.
- I mean, she had-- - An advisor.
- Right. - Call the Kennedy Library.
They could provide something.
I'll bet they have something.
We may want this tonight, too.
And Richard Rich.
This one is--
well, this one is actually more fun.
- That's great. - He's in the doorway,
yeah, I love that.
You'd have to run it pretty big, though.
And then there was this, you know,
kind of handout-y, Mad Men-looking--
- Peter, Paul, and Mary. - Or the Mod Squad.
And he's got the cigarette.
Is there a commercial that we can identify him with
and then show an image?
Well, this mentioned Alka-Seltzer.
There's a famous commercial,
"No Matter What Shape Your Stomach ls In."
It's a series of pictures of, or film,
of people's stomachs, just from the neck down.
- And then he did-- - It might be '60s.
He did these Benson & Hedges commercials
where the cigarettes were 100mm.
They were long cigarettes.
So it was all about the cigarette
getting caught in the doors of an elevator,
or you know, poking somebody in the eye
or something like that.
What were they doing smoking in an elevator?
Well, in those days...
Oh, the disadvantages
of the new Benson & Hedges 100's.
They're a lot longer than King-Size.
And that takes some getting used to.
Crushed cigarettes.
Closing elevator doors
or elevator doors shutting?
Jiggling stomachs.
All these things that he had to deal with, I'm sure.
The compacting of language
and using as few words as possible
to say as much as possible, especially in a story
that's only gonna be 500 words long.
Sometimes those are the hardest ones to write.
There's a kind of journalism joke, but true,
about the editor who says to Reporter Joe...
"Keep it short!
You've got to write it short!"
And Joe saying to his editor,
"I don't have time to write it short!"
Anyway, I'll just get to work.
I'll just keep struggling over that lede.
I'm gonna get another cup of coffee, if you don't mind.
Occasionally you get a phone call or a letter
from a person who's close to that person you wrote about
that says, you know,
"Nicely done, appreciate it very much."
And more often than not you get a letter or phone call
that says, "Nicely done, we appreciate it very much,
but..." you know, "and you got something wrong.
And could you, for the record, fix it."
And it's crushing, you know, you feel like, ugh.
Oh, God, it's just-- it's, you know, it's--
it's terrible, it's terrible.
You know, I, um...
You know, every journalist
likes to see his name in the paper.
You love going home from work knowing that you're going
to have a story in the next day's paper.
I was that way my entire career,
until I came to the obituaries department.
Now, I'm terrified when I'm gonna have--
when I have a story in the next day's paper.
I try to check everything I possibly can.
And it's whatever is the thing that I don't check,
that's the thing that I somehow, you know,
missed a little angle on.
That it wasn't a university, it was a college.
It wasn't a cousin, it was a brother-in-law.
But, you know, it's wrong, you gotta correct it.
This shit drives me nuts.
And it keeps me awake at night.
There's so much minutiae in a life,
such biographical detail that,
you know, even if you can double-check various facts,
sometimes the original source is wrong.
We need to be extremely careful with any claims
that anybody fought in such-and-such a battle,
in such-and-such a war,
anyone was the first to do something,
anyone was the inventor of something,
anyone had such-and-such an idea first
or was the last to do something.
There's a funny story about a, um...
about a young reporter at The New York Times
who--a very gifted guy who was really gonna go places.
But he was having a hard time with corrections.
He was having a lot of corrections,
so he went to a more experienced reporter,
and he said, "Listen, I'm having a correction problem.
Do you have any advice for me?"
And the guy said, "Yeah, I do.
Don't put in so many facts!"
Obviously family members
are one of the first sources you go to.
Particularly for family information.
However, there-- it is a minefield
because there's such a thing as family myth.
People believe things that are not in fact true.
And it may be because they've been deceived,
or simply because over time
they just came to think that:
"Okay, Dad played football for Notre Dame,"
and that becomes "Dad was quarterback for Notre Dame,"
and then that becomes "Dad was the leading touchdown scorer
for Notre Dame," and it goes on and on.
Military service is notorious for this.
There are certain things
that you instinctively make a little mark in your mind
that "I have to check this out."
Listen, people have selective memories, you know?
And um, I don't think that they make stuff up.
I think that they-- or at least, not very often--
I think they tell the truth as they recall it.
Families are very powerful things,
and particularly after someone dies,
you are trying to remember some things the way they were,
and some things as better than the way they were, I think.
I think she called me "a worthless piece of shit,"
was her response to the obituary.
There was another fella who--
I wrote about his stepfather, and he told me
to curl my fist into a tight ball
and knock all my own teeth out.
So, you can't please everybody.
Often I will talk to family members
who tell me what they want in the obit.
And I often have to explain,
"You know, I'm sorry that you don't want that in the obit,
but a fact is a fact."
We are not friends, we are not advocates,
we are certainly not any sort of grief counselor.
We are reporting the news.
We would update with the latest details
in the second, third, and fourth graf.
This is just a really quick web version,
we will make it better by the end of the day.
Or even before, or even before, right, Elizabeth?
Even before the end of the day
- we'll make it better! - The end of the day
- is 6 o'clock! - Fabulous.
Okay, great, thank you, Elizabeth.
Okay, obits.
We actually have a very good story
about William P. Wilson, by Bruce Weber.
He was, by all accounts, the first advisor
to a presidential campaign
that was devoted entirely to television.
He was working for J.F.K.,
and he was in charge of all the theatrics,
you know, the effects-- the makeup, the podium.
But he was the Kennedy guy.
And they both had makeup to wear,
but Nixon's was not very effective.
- He was sweating, right? - Kennedy's was great,
Kennedy was well-tailored, tall.
Nixon looked a little haggard.
He had a beard that, you know, needed shaving.
So, you know, it's a small moment in history.
We think it's a refer but, you know,
you can certainly consider it for better.
Okay, thanks very much.
Washington, why don't we come back to you.
You've got two big news stories today.
You can pitch both international and national I think,
whichever way you want to start.
Okay, let's see, I guess I'll start with...
The competitive pressures in journalism
have just picked up and grown exponentially
in the last ten years simply because the internet
is just whipping us like a taskmaster,
and the demand to get not just a day
ahead of the competition,
but 20 minutes ahead of the competition
or 20 seconds ahead of the competition
has editors in an absolute lather all the time.
We have a 24/7 news cycle and obituaries are part of that.
We're a news organization and some deaths are major news.
When Elizabeth Taylor died, you know, "Stop the presses!"
If it's a competitive obit that we think we really need
for that next day's paper--
and maybe on the website sooner--
they will work accordingly.
They may have to forego
certain, you know, ventures into research.
They may have to just skip a few steps.
"Can you give us two paragraphs
just to show us the top of the story?"
"Let us just put like four paragraphs on the web,
and you can add to it later."
The clock is ticking, the clock is ticking,
the gun is to the head.
We have to file at six o'clock, come hell or high water.
One is always making concessions.
You're always robbing from Peter to pay Paul
in terms of where you focus your attention
and how you spend your time.
If you spend even two extra minutes thinking,
"How can I fit in such-and-such?"
there'll be a big white column in the next day's paper
under your name where that obit should go.
So this is due today, yes?
Uh, yeah, in about 20 minutes.
- Have you got your lede yet? - Yes, I have my lede.
It's long, I mean, it's not really a, you know--
"The 1960 Presidential campaign
that pitted Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts
and Vice President Richard M. Nixon
was the first to feature nationally televised debates
between the candidates.
There were four of them, but the first held in Chicago
on September 26th on the theme of domestic affairs
is the one best remembered.
It has been estimated that 70 million viewers or more
tuned in for a close-up look at the candidates,
both of whom spoke with an admirable degree
of eloquence and authority on issues including the economy,
race relations, and the looming Soviet threat.
Some journalists and historians have said
that for those who listened on the radio,
Nixon won the debate.
But there can be no question that Kennedy,
looking tan from a California trip,
natty and fit in a dark suit,
graceful and athletic standing at a podium
with a single narrow pole,
and unflappably cool behind his lightly applied makeup,
had the more appealing figure,
at least in the minds of voters, than his opponent,
who had been ill and had lost weight,
whose bland grey suit seemed to swim on him,
and who sweated noticeably under the television lights.
The telecast conferred a previously unachieved
celebrity on Kennedy
and propelled him to a lead in the polls
that he never relinquished.
Just days after the election,
Kennedy himself acknowledged it was the TV
more than anything else that turned the tide.
The man who negotiated the terms of the debate
for the Kennedy campaign,
who insisted on the single pole podium,
who applied Kennedy's makeup,
and escorted him to the bathroom with scant moments left
before the telecast began, was William P. Wilson,
who died in Washington on Saturday at 86."
Now the question is whether the editors will allow me
to go two fairly lengthy paragraphs
before getting to the name of the guy who died.
However, I would argue that it's in the headline,
and that really, we are writing about this
because of the history.
So I'm actually practicing right now
for the argument that I'm gonna have with Bill
in about 20 minutes, so.
I'm hearing this, I'm hearing this.
I know you are, I did that on purpose.
I'm trying to write an entertaining piece
about history for people who don't know the history.
I think one of the things that I haven't nailed yet
is the effect of this debate
on subsequent presidential campaigns.
I haven't quite figured that out yet.
I have 20 minutes to go.
A fortunate death for me is one that occurs,
and you hear about it at 9 A.M.,
and you have all day to be able to put something together.
The unfortunate death is the one
that occurs late in the afternoon
when you're getting ready--
thinking about getting ready to leave.
There's times when you're starting to walk out the door
and somebody drops off the perch.
An editor comes over to you and says, "Not so fast."
Millions of people around the world
will be in shock tonight--
still in a bit of denial hoping this story's not true.
Late in the afternoon a few years ago,
we were putting Farrah Fawcett into the paper.
She had died earlier in the day.
We were well-prepared for her.
She had been sick for quite a while,
and we were all ready to go home,
and suddenly word comes down through various sources
that Michael Jackson might be dead.
And, of course, you know, you drop what you're doing.
He didn't seem to be ailing.
He was getting ready for a revival tour.
We had done some stories on it.
He seemed to be healthy.
We had no idea, obviously, this could happen.
Solo and behold, here he is.
Categorically dead.
It was around three in the afternoon, I think,
when we really knew it for sure.
And, you have to realize,
we have a print deadline of about 9 o'clock.
I mean that's just-- that's going to the presses.
So for a writer to file a story,
probably 8 o'clock, maybe 7:30.
So, you're talking about a window of time of four hours
to write the entire story of Michael Jackson in four hours
starting from, you know, zero.
It was a real team effort with a lot of help
from people in New York and people in Los Angeles.
Jon Pareles is a veteran music writer for the Times.
He's been writing about pop and rock
for a couple decades now.
He knew so much,
it was in his head already, in effect.
There was probably a loud curse on my side,
and then I basically stared into the computer
and emerged three hours later with a lot less hair
and a finished story.
I'm sure I put on some of his music,
which I tend to do, to just remember and listen
and hear the live person that I'm writing about.
With someone like Michael Jackson,
you've been thinking about him all your life, basically.
He's such a major figure.
He's always going through a critic's mind,
because people are always trying to be him,
people are always trying to learn from him.
So in a way it's been percolating
along the background anyway, and when you have to write
the sudden three-hour Michael Jackson appraisal,
you can just sort of open the floodgates
and there it is.
That's the thing about artists,
they have a hold on our subconscious.
They're talking to us, they're changing the way we see.
They're helping figure out how we react to the world,
how we react to it rhythmically,
how we think about love.
I always think about the stilled voice,
the fingers that don't move anymore,
the fact that you're not gonna hear anything more
that they could've said.
Art makes you immortal.
Art makes you a permanent part of somebody's consciousness.
You don't think that that person
is a physical being like you,
susceptible to aging, susceptible to disease,
susceptible to all the millions of conditions
that our bodies are sensitive to.
You have that perfect image.
You don't want to think of them as perishable.
Those are the ones that cause us the big problems
when they're too young to, um...
too young to really do an advance,
because you think they're gonna be around for a long time.
And yet when they go, they've accomplished so much
that it's front page news,
and you really have to scramble,
you know, to get it done on deadline.
There's no way to predict.
Once in a while we'll get word that someone is ailing
so that'll get our attention,
and we'll make sure we have something ready.
But often we don't-- we just don't know,
or you have a Robin Williams out of the blue,
or a Michael Jackson, you know...
Phillip Seymour Hoffman.
That was a Sunday morning, and that gave us a good,
you know, a few hours to get this thing ready,
but we still had to cobble together the life
of Phillip Seymour Hoffman in a matter of hours.
You know, the websites just light up.
We get emails from people saying,
"Why haven't you-- where's the obit?"
And someone died ten minutes ago,
and we don't have anything ready yet, so...
I mean, we're only human.
Those are the nightmares,
and those are the things that keep me awake.
It's like, okay, so now I have to--
I have to really watch.
I have to watch all the sports world
and the theater world
and the scientific world, et cetera about, you know--
and be ready to be surprised and getting word in email.
I've sat and watched television,
and I'll see a bulletin, you know,
and I'll go, "Oh, God."
So there's a tremendous amount of pressure
to be as prepared as you can,
knowing that you'll never be prepared.
We have about 1,700 advances now,
and it keeps growing.
And that's-- I'm very proud of that,
that despite all the constraints getting them done,
we're still building up this pile.
The standard essentially is if someone is
by all appearances doing okay--healthy,
and they're still in the thick of their lives,
and they're still making whatever they're making--
we don't do them then.
We wait till they're almost--
essentially when their body of work is done.
Then we can take it all as a whole
and sort of make an assessment about it.
The downside of that is that you then
don't do some very important famous people
and, you know, buses come along and airplanes go down,
and you can't-- you have to take that gamble,
because there are too many others
who are in their 80s and 90s--
or even late 70s, who can say--
that we have to do first.
So it's a kind of, you know, triage.
You do the ones you really need to do,
and then you hope some of these other important people,
who are sort of in the middle of their careers, hang on.
Don't go yet.
I've got a bunch of them on file,
I mean, a bunch of really popular,
popular people on file.
They're gettin' up there, so it's not...
It's top secret?
No, I'll tell you who-- Stephen Sondheim,
Mort Sahl, Valerie Harper, who else have I done?
Meadowlark Lemon.
Who's Meadowlark Lemon-- he was maybe the most famous
of the Harlem Globetrotters.
- How are you? - Good, good, yourself?
No, but let me take a look.
I don't know--what I have to do is blow it up,
'cause I can't really see it.
Oh, wait a minute, wait a minute.
We're actually pulling a couple advances today.
We've got, um, Jane Fonda, who obviously everyone knows.
I certainly hope we won't need it anytime soon,
but always better to have these things prepared.
This is the key to the kingdom
of two drawers of advance obits.
Historically, if a reporter said,
"Hey, I'm interviewing Irving Berlin next week,
and I'd like to see his advance before I talk to him."
Verboten, they don't show it.
The only people who can see 'em are us in the morgue,
and the obit editors.
It looks like everyone's dead!
I don't know-- Roy Rogers, definitely dead.
William Rogers I think is dead.
I don't know.
The great George Seldes.
We also have this advance obit on tape."
As in, computer tape.
So try reading it now.
Oh, yeah, here he is-- Ronald Reagan.
So this is the second one, this is the first one.
And we started it pretty early, but with Reagan,
I bet you they didn't have an advance on him.
And remember, his assassination attempt
was only a month and a half into his presidency,
so they were probably really scrambling.
I can bet you that they had nothin'.
They probably had nothin'.
And whether they voted for him or not,
they probably were prayin' that guy survived,
because they had nothin'.
So, you know, kind of the serendipity
of going through this kind of collection
is that you just find the craziest stuff.
We got word that this aviatrix, Elinor Smith, died.
She was this pilot in the 1920s and the 1930s.
So, we pulled her clip file.
As you can tell, there's lots of Smiths.
Okay, Elinor Smith.
And it says clearly "Advance Obit."
So I said, "Wow, that's kinda wild.
Like, we still had a...
we had an advance on her?"
Okay, there it is.
Elinor Smith.
Obit written by Leo Kieren, June 15, 1931.
Since she was this stunt pilot, this aviatrix,
they didn't think that she'd live.
She was in high school at the time.
She was maybe 16 or 17 or somethin' like that.
And she was a big deal because the Times always,
you know, was big writing about Lindbergh
and the Byrd expeditions--
flying and barnstorming and stunt pilots.
"Elinor Smith was born in Freeport, Long Island,
on August 17th, 1911.
Parents vaudeville actors."
I said to Bill, I said, "Man, not for nothin',
but this has got to be the oldest advance obit
we have for someone who was still alive
up until like a year or two ago."
This advance was written in 1931.
We didn't use it for 80 years.
I know it wasn't much use to stay up any longer,
so here I am.
I hope it's all right.
I made a mistake in yesterday's obit,
which is actually-- it's a good illustration
of the pitfalls that are around every corner.
I mean, it's a small error, but it's an error nonetheless.
I said that Wilson's grandfather
was a Democratic congressman from Illinois,
and there was an email this morning with a citation
from a congressional biography that in fact
he was a Republican congressman from Illinois.
Interestingly enough--i mean, I'm kind of shooting myself,
because it was an error that really--
completely, completely avoidable.
Really, I just could have left out,
um, the party designation
and, you know, without hurting the obit at all.
I just could have called him a Congressman from Illinois.
Too many fact, too many facts.
Does writing obituaries change you in some way?
Does it make you look at history
or people, life, or death in a different kind of way?
And I think it...
it does and it doesn't.
Yes, does writing obituaries make you, you know,
think about mortality and what that means?
Absolutely it does, yes.
Yeah, you can ask me, uh, if writing about them every day
makes me think about my own mortality.
I think about it all the time.
There's nothing really...
much more worthwhile to think about
for people in general, I think.
It makes me think about death every day.
Which is--when you, you know, when you...
I mean, think about it, that's fairly profound.
And it's happening at a time when,
you know, I'm in my late 50s.
I'm gonna be 60 at the end of the year.
It's happening at a time in my life when, you know,
when I realize it's not gonna go on--
my life isn't gonna go on forever.
I think a lot of people at my age
begin to consider mortality
and how best to spend whatever time we have left.
Because you're spending a lot of time
with the way lives evolved
and what the arc of a life is like,
it makes you think about...
it makes you think about you own life
and how it's developed over time.
And what will your obituary read like?
What are these defining moments,
and how do they assemble themselves
into some kind of coherent story?
It's not so much that I think, "Well, what will my obit say?"
I don't really care.
I don't think it'll-- it won't be--
if there is one!
But it's not that, but it's--
you're reading about these various people
and seeing what they did in their lives,
and seeing the full circle, the full arc.
It does give you a little bit of--it gives you some pause
to think about your own life.
Am I accomplishing anything?
Am I gonna have any impact?
Am I leaving anything?
You know, the fundamentals of human life remain the same.
Childhood, adolescence, old age.
Life is not a simple arc.
That's what you learn writing obits.
Life is ups, and downs, and bumps, and changes,
and scrapes, and reversals, and tangents.
You're lucky if your life has a consistent theme,
because most of it is buffeted.
It's a good thing that the Times
generally assigns older people to write obituaries,
because we've all had, you know, all the people on the desk,
we've all had loved ones die.
The appreciation of the universality of this situation
is extremely helpful.
It certainly changes your sense of what lives are like
and what accomplishments really mean
and what the experience of death is.
There's nothing you can do about dying, by the way.
I just thought I might point that out.
Did you notice, Dan, in that email,
that he also wrote under a pseudonym.
You could probably check both names.
- I didn't see... - Lemme, lemme--
lemme send it to you again,
maybe you never got the original.
Same person, but...
Oh, he's not dead?
He is 93.
Uh, no, we don't know.
I mean, he's--he's got a lot of black and white pictures,
but he's got a lot, a lot of color pictures too
that are quite beautiful.
Okay, I'll call Bruce off it.
Okay, Bruce--Bruce, you're called off that.
We wanna see if someone who actually knows about this stuff
can write it.
Pretty good story.
Last week was a heavy death week in my life.
Uh,clips,under 833-364-231.
There's no way I'm gonna find it!
Yeah, I know.
Maybe on-- maybe on Peter's desk.
Maybe I should write down the number?
Yeah, that would be great.
We could add it, if you want.
I mean, he worked there for a long time.
I think it, you know, it does--
it does bear mentioning.
- We can add it to the online. - Yeah.
Okay, that's-- that's what the web is for.
- As long as you're okay with it. - Yeah, it's okay.
- It's not a correction. - No, not at all,
definitely not.