Issue #59, Spring 2016
Writer at Work
Obituaries don’t come immediately to mind when we think about creative nonfiction, but they may be the truest form of the genre, particularly as they are being written today, and particularly by Margalit Fox of the New York Times. Fox has a reputation for producing obituaries (about 1,200 so far during her tenure at the Times) that are so well crafted, so detailed, and often so funny that readers forget they were written in a newsroom, on deadline.
I first became interested in Fox’s work because it seemed that whenever I read the obituary of one of my heroes (usually a woman, usually on the front page of the Times), Fox had written it. And it wasn’t just the subject that drew me in; it was Fox’s style and sensibility. Consider, for example, this one-sentence paragraph in the obituary of the poet and essayist Adrienne Rich: “She was never supposed to have turned out as she did.” Or the almost rueful humor in the obituary of Carolyn Goodman, the mother of slain civil rights activist Andrew Goodman and an activist in her own right: “In a telephone interview yesterday,” Fox wrote, “her son David recounted a characteristic incident, which happened in 1999, during the public protest over the death of Amadou Diallo. . . . A colleague came into Mr. Goodman’s office to tell him that his mother had just been seen on television, being taken off to jail.” Fox recorded his reply, “Well, that happens from time to time.”
Fox insists she has “the best job in American journalism” because she “is paid to tell the stories of people who did really interesting and significant things. I truly believe that obits are the most purely narrative sections in any daily paper, and what reader doesn’t love to read stories, and what writer doesn’t love to write them?”
The question most people ask Fox is how she got involved in writing obituaries in the first place. She likes to answer by saying (as she did in a 2014 interview for the Paris Review), “I’d never planned for a career in obits. The child has not yet been born who comes home from school clutching a composition that says, ‘When I grow up, I want to be an obituary writer.’” Fox recently told me she began at the Times as a copy editor for the Book Review in 1994, but “although working on the Book Review was wonderful, I was mostly spending my days shoveling commas. I was able to work my way onto obits because, at that time, it was still, however wrongly, perceived as the job that nobody wanted, or the job that nobody thought he wanted.”
Twenty—or even ten—years ago, she explains, “the obituary department in any newspaper in America was Siberia. It was where they sent you if they wanted to get rid of you but they didn’t have quite enough on you to fire you outright. It was also where they put you out to pasture if you were deemed to be within a couple of years of needing an obit yourself.”
By 2004, Fox was writing obits full-time and had worked over the years with highly regarded writers such as Bruce Weber and Douglas Martin. Martin was the successor to one of the most famous obit writers in the country, Robert McG. Thomas (see 52 McGs: The Best Obituaries from Legendary New York Times Writer Robert McG. Thomas, Jr., compiled by Chris Calhoun). Fox never met McG, who died in 2000, but she credits him with being “the first person to make obits tremendously lively and dynamic, and to really emphasize humor.” (He most famously wrote the obituary of the man who invented Kitty Litter.)
In recent years, writing obits has gone from “being a punitive assignment to a destination section”—so much so that, in addition to the collection of Thomas’s obituaries, there are scores of books on the subject; one of the best (and funniest) is Marilyn Johnson’s The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries. Further evidence that the genre has taken on a life of its own (one cannot resist such puns when writing about obituaries) is the existence of a Society of Professional Obituary Writers (“an organization created for folks who write about the dead for a living”); their 2016 annual conference will be held in Chicago. And if there is a society and an annual conference devoted to a genre, then surely a thirty-credit master’s program in obituary writing cannot be too far behind.
The second most asked question, says Fox, is why the preponderance of obituaries that appear in the Times is about men: “Right now we are writing about people who had an impact on the world in the mid twentieth century; we are just now getting into the Vietnam era. However we feel about this, the reality is that the people who were allowed to shape history and policy forty or fifty years ago were overwhelmingly white men. I’ve been doing obits full time for eleven years, and in that time, I’ve begun to write about more women. We are edging into an era when women were starting to be allowed to be active in public life. It is the same with people of color.”
Fox’s favorite assignments are those of “quirky” people, the “colorful characters” who changed the world or changed culture in some way, particularly those who invented “a pop cultural artifact” but whose identities remained obscure. Fox has written the obituary of the man who invented the crash test dummy, the man who invented Etch A Sketch, the woman who invented Stove Top stuffing, the man who invented the Pet Rock, and most recently, the man who invented the pink plastic lawn flamingo. “It’s very thrilling to be able to write about a single person doing something on a single day fifty years ago and say, ‘That’s where this piece of our culture comes from.’” These are people we have never heard of, Fox explains, but “they put a wrinkle in the social fabric.”
Fox’s favorite assignments are those of “quirky” people, the “colorful characters” who changed the world or changed culture in some way.
One such person was Leslie Buck, a Holocaust survivor who invented the blue, gold, and white paper coffee cup that read We Are Happy to Serve You. Buck used a Greek-inspired design because he knew that most diner owners—the people who were most likely to purchase the cup—were Greek. The cup was a ubiquitous symbol of New York City for more than fifty years, widely used on TV cop shows set in New York City.
My favorite of Fox’s “colorful character” obituaries is one she wrote in January 2014, of Judy Protas, the copywriter and later ad executive who created the “You Don’t Have to Be Jewish to Love Levy’s” campaign, which ran from 1961 through most of the 1970s. The opening line of the obit showcases the style and wit that has made Fox one of the most admired obituary writers in the country: “You don’t have to be Jewish to write an ad for rye bread that has endured in public memory for more than half a century, but in Judy Protas’s case, it certainly didn’t hurt.”
Another of Fox’s signature tactics is to show the result of a person’s accomplishments by quoting someone else. In Protas’s case, Fox evoked the wildly favorable response to the slogan: “As a result of the ads, sales of Levy’s rye bread soared, and the campaign was admired by people as diverse as the syndicated columnist Walter Winchell, who called it ‘the commercial with a sensayuma’ (say it aloud, fast), and Malcolm X, who liked the poster featuring the black child so much that he had himself photographed alongside it.”
The advice in the parentheses reflects Fox’s humor and deep understanding of New York (she was born and raised on Long Island), but it also prepares the reader for the conclusion: “And so, decades before the day in 1989 that David N. Dinkins, then a mayoral candidate, first invoked the phrase ‘gorgeous mosaic’ to describe the city and its people, there they were in the New York subways—the Irish policeman, the Italian grandmother, the Japanese boy, and even an aged but still eminently recognizable Buster Keaton—one after another, breaking bread.”
Fox describes the process itself as “fiendishly difficult.” She usually gets her assignment at about 11:30 in the morning for a 6 PM deadline. “Ninety percent of the time,” she explains, “the obit is for someone I’ve never heard of. Not because we write about obscure people, but because the obits of most famous people have already been written in advance, so those who are left tend to be people who were famous in their field but may not be household names.” This means Fox has about six hours to become an expert. “We obit writers have to be the most extreme kind of generalists in the world. On Monday, we could be writing about the inventor of the reclining dental chair; on Tuesday, about an underwater cartographer; on Wednesday, about the president of Estonia” (all subjects about whom Fox has written). Editors do assign obits based on the backgrounds of writers, and Fox’s training is in classical music and linguistics, but “how many classical musicians and linguists die each day?” she asks. “If I were a writer on any other beat—the Supreme Court, for example—I would know that subject cold; I would know who all my sources were.”
Obit writers have to be the most extreme kind of generalists in the world.
That said, the research process for an obituary is in some ways similar to the work any nonfiction writer does: Fox relies on interviews (after locating the surviving family members and experts in the field) and background reading (albeit very quickly) in databases such as Nexis (and Wikipedia with caution) and in old newspaper clippings (often yellow and shredding).
All obit writers rely on some boilerplate: who died, where, when, cause of death, survivors paragraph. But, Fox explains, writers can use these standard elements “to advance the narrative,” in much the same way they did “in Homeric times using oral formulaic composition and performance.” The information can be “shoehorned in, concealed in a way, to avoid the dry, dull, leaden, predictable writing that one often saw in obits in the past.”
Fox says she writes “with my heart in my mouth.” And not simply because of the time element. Make a mistake in an obituary, and you not only have to run a correction in the next day’s paper, but you also have to deal with the sometimes gloating e-mails and tweets from indignant readers. Far more significantly, you run the risk of hurting or offending survivors, who are grieving and distraught.
It is sometimes the survivors, however, who are most likely to cause problems in the first place. It is the policy of the Times to speak to a family member or close friend whenever possible, but “they are usually sleep deprived and grieving, and they will sometimes tell you stories that have trickled down to them in the oral tradition.” Fox recalls a previous editor who would remind the staff: “Just because the family tells you that Granddad invented electricity . . .” Unlike families of politicians, actors, and others who have been in the public eye all of their lives, the family members of more obscure subjects are not used to dealing with the press. “You have to say things like, ‘I have no doubt, but because we are writing history, we have to check.’” Obituary writers rely on what Fox describes as the need to “under specify,” using phrases such as widely believed to have been the inventor of or believed to have been the first. It’s not an ideal rhetorical device, but obit writers have to protect themselves factually; they have to try to preempt corrections before they occur. “We must work within the absolute constraints of fact,” Fox explains. “You cannot for even one second entertain the thought of saying something in a certain way just because it would make a better story.” If someone’s name is John Smith, Fox has a family member spell John, then Smith.
The issue of what family members want included—and left out—is equally fraught. “Until well into the twentieth century, if a man died, the obit would traditionally only list his present marriage and the children of that marriage,” Fox notes. “Now we are obliged to account for all marriages. We have to ask if the marriages ended in divorce, annulment, or widowhood, and if there were children of those marriages. What are the names of former wives? We ask if there are children from any other relationship. When family members bristle, we remind them that we ask this of everyone. And you have to be very adept at asking these preemptive questions.” Fox, like every obit writer, has gotten phone calls from distraught children saying they were “written out of” their father’s story, and she has no choice but to apologize and say she did not know they existed. “With the possible exception of a therapist,” Fox notes, “no one learns more about family dysfunction than an obituary writer.” If an obit writer is unable to get accurate and full information, Fox explains, “you would say that John Smith was married three times but the family declined to identify his prior marriages.” Perhaps it is no surprise that many of the corrections run for obituaries relate to information contained in the survivor paragraph.
Fox is also always aware of survivors’ tendency to want their loved ones eulogized; people are used to obits being “the kind of vanity pieces that you see in small town papers.” Fox listens patiently as family members explain that their loved one “touched the lives of everyone he met,” but she knows that “such Victorian clichés,” even if she were to include them, “would wind up on the cutting room floor.” Fox explains that “it behooves you both as a journalist and as a mensch to treat family members as decently as possible,” but when a family member calls or e-mails Fox to tell her, “It was the most beautiful thing ever written,” she admits to having a “prickle of apprehension as a journalist,” asking herself, “Have we represented the family’s interest too closely? Is that why they like it?”
Sometimes, family members refuse to talk about the more notorious elements of the deceased’s life. Fox remembers hearing one of her colleagues in the newsroom speaking as softly and gently as he could into the phone as he reminded the family member, “You know we will need to have a paragraph about the four months your dad”—a disgraced politician—“spent in jail.”
You find yourself smiling as you read, even though you have a sort of guilty feeling about smiling at an obituary.
A recent New York Times obituary (written not by Fox but by Sam Roberts, one of four other full-time obit writers on the staff) shows how a newspaper with the Times’s reputation and insistence on accuracy handles a family’s attempts to hide certain facts—in this case, the deceased’s conviction for murder. The subject was the prominent St. Paul lawyer, T. Eugene Thompson. The September 6, 2015, Times obituary began by quoting a paid obituary that had appeared in a local newspaper, calling Thompson “a multifaceted person.” “What the death notice failed to mention,” Roberts wrote in the second paragraph, cutting right to the chase, “was the facet of Mr. Thompson’s story that seized the nation’s attention and induced his Minnesota neighbors to deadbolt their doors and demand the restoration of the state’s death penalty. . . .” The third paragraph of the four-column obituary went on to describe the horrific and gory details of the botched 1963 murder, by a hit man, of Thompson’s first wife, the mother of his four children. Clearly unable to restrain himself, Roberts assured his readers in the seventh paragraph (the boilerplate survivors’ paragraph), that Thompson’s second wife “died of natural causes.”
Fortunately for Fox and her colleagues, most obituaries are not quite so complicated. There was, however, the time when Fox had to interview “a great villain”: Burt Pugach, the young, married hotshot New York attorney who hired hit men to throw lye in the face of his girlfriend, Linda Riss, blinding her, after she tried to end their relationship. He served fourteen years for the crime; when he was released, they got married. “We wrote an obituary of Linda Riss Pugach because the crime was so bizarre, as was the even more bizarre sequel: their marriage,” Fox explains. Following the hard and fast rule that one must speak to a family member, Fox called Burt Pugach. As Fox recalled in an interview for Writing on the Edge, “It was the only time in my life when I can say with extreme confidence that I spent twenty minutes on the phone with a sociopath, but it had to be done. He knew exactly when to cry, exactly when to turn on the charm. Of course, he still denied everything. He said he never wanted to blind her; he just wanted some guys to beat her up—as if that was mitigating. I confess I opened my mail very carefully for the next few weeks after that phone call.”
Obituaries are typically quick projects, but Fox also writes book-length nonfiction, applying the same meticulous standards of research. Talking Hands: What Sign Language Reveals About the Mind (Simon & Schuster, 2007) reflects an almost encyclopedic knowledge of linguistics—and the ability to simplify that information for a lay reader. The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code (Ecco Press/HarperCollins, 2013) tells the story of three scholars working somewhat independently of each other as they tried to crack the code of Linear B. Researching and writing each of these books took years (she is currently writing about an Edwardian-era murder), rather than the six to seven hours she has for each obit.
Like her obituaries, however, Fox’s books reflect her ability to describe the person, the human being, first and foremost. In Talking Hands, for example, Fox helps her readers understand how people who are deaf sometimes sound: the speech of Carol Padden, one of the most renowned linguists in the world, who was born deaf, “sounds like someone with a slight, hard-to-place foreign accent.” In The Riddle, Fox describes the storage method used by the linguist Alice Kober as she recorded the tabulations needed to decipher the code. She did this work shortly after World War II, when paper was in short supply: “Before her death, Kober would cut and annotate more than 116,000 two-by-three-inch slips, as well as more than 63,300 larger slips—some 180,000 cards in all.” The reader needs this information, of course, but there’s something else we need: a reminder that Alice Kober was more like us than not. So Fox gives us one more detail, explaining that Kober stored the smaller cards in “empty cigarette cartons, the one paper product of which she appeared to have no short supply. Even now, more than six decades later, to open one of them is to be met with a faint whiff of mid-century tobacco. FLEETWOOD IMPERIALS: A CLEANER, FINER SMOKE, her ersatz file cabinets say. HERBERT TAREYTON: THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT THEM YOU’LL LIKE.”
Fox’s humor is rarely of the laugh-out-loud variety. You just find yourself smiling as you read, even though you have a sort of guilty feeling about smiling at an obituary. On Gary Dahl, the inventor of the Pet Rock: “Mr. Dahl’s brainstorm began, as many do, in a bar”; on Don Featherstone, the creator of the pink plastic flamingo: “[T]o sculpt his first [plastic lawn ornament], a three-dimensional duck, Mr. Featherstone went out and bought a live one, keeping it tenderly in the sink as he copied it before releasing it in a local park”; on Eppie Lederer (known to the world as Ann Landers, the advice columnist): “She once threw her column open to a discussion of whether toilet paper should be hung with the free end coming over or under the roll; 15,000 letters later, Mrs. Lederer (herself in the ‘under’ camp) had to call a moratorium on further debate.”
In nine out of ten obituaries, you want to make your reader smile, maybe even laugh aloud. But in the tenth, “you want to make him or her cry”
Fox’s general rule is that in nine out of ten obituaries, you want to make your reader smile, maybe even laugh aloud. But in the tenth, “you want to make him or her cry”—for example, the August 26, 2015 obituary of Amelia Boynton Robinson, the civil rights worker who was almost beaten to death on March 7, 1965, Bloody Sunday, as she tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. Fox simply painted the scene: “Walking near the front of the line and subject to the full force of the troopers’ blows, Mrs. Boynton Robinson, then known as Amelia Boynton, was knocked unconscious. One widely produced press photograph shows her lying insensible on the ground with a white officer standing over her, nightstick in hand. Another shows a fellow marcher taking her in his arms and struggling to lift her up.”
Fox has written the obituaries of some of the most influential and famous people in the world: Maya Angelou, Seamus Heaney, Maurice Sendak, Dear Abby. Does she have a favorite? Not exactly, but she describes writing the obituary of Betty Friedan as “a great privilege.” Friedan was, after all, one of the women “edging” their place into public life. Fox recalls that Friedan’s name was on her “dance card,” but that she had not had a chance to get to it before Friedan died on her eighty-fifth birthday, February 4, 2006. Friedan died on a Saturday morning, and it was before the time when writers could regularly write and file from home. “I remember grabbing some cold falafel balls from the refrigerator and running down to the newsroom,” Fox says. “I will forever associate Betty Friedan with cold falafel.” As usual, Fox had very little time to research and then write about three thousand words. “But through the nightmare of being under the gun for an obit that I knew was going to appear on the front page, I do remember being incredibly moved, thinking I would not even be there, having a front-page byline in the New York Times, if it were not for Betty Friedan and the women in that cohort.”
The obit that ran was an impressive summary of an impressive woman’s life. Fox enlisted a quote to help deal with the lifelong criticism and cruelty Friedan endured because she was “unlovely”; she “looked for much of her adult life like a ‘combination of Hermione Gingold and Bette Davis,’ as Judy Klemesrud wrote in the New York Times Magazine in 1970.” She explained the allure of The Feminine Mystique: “as mesmerizing [today] as it was more than four decades ago.” Fox quoted the opening line of Friedan’s own preface to the book by way of illuminating her work: “Gradually, without seeing it clearly for quite a while, I came to realize that something is very wrong with the way American women are trying to live their lives today. I sensed it first as a question mark in my own life, as a wife and mother of three small children, half-guiltily, and therefore half-heartedly, almost in spite of myself, using my abilities and education in work that took me away from home.”
Fox decided this could be one of those obituaries, however important the subject, in which humor was appropriate, but as always, the humor reflects the essence of the subject’s life and work. The ending is classic Fox, quoting Friedan from a 1963 interview in Life magazine: “Some people think I’m saying, ‘Women of the world unite—you have nothing to lose but your men.’ It’s not true. You have nothing to lose but your vacuum cleaners.”
* Image: "Daisy Bouquet" by Tugboat Printshop
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