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Keeping Up With the Dead

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Death, however, is fair. Preston Robert Tisch, 79, of the New York real-estate dynasty, gets nearly half a page above the fold, plus pull quote and photo. But he’s still dead. In the end he’s no different from “Junior” Percey, a nice guy who used to run Percey’s Taxi Service in the Vermont town where I have a house. According to the lengthy front-page notice in the Bennington Banner, Percey was a member of the Fraternal Order of Eagles, the Loyal Order of Moose, and V.F.W. Post 1332. “He enjoyed traveling, driving, going to OTB and attending the horse races in Saratoga Springs.” (Driving?)

“You’re sick,” my friend Katha says when I describe the morbid order of my matutinal progress through the Times. But, like Johnson, I defend it on purely literary grounds: The obit beat has produced some of the best writing ever to appear in the paper. One of the most notable practitioners of the form, Alden Whitman, gathered string for years on such world-historical figures as Picasso, Charlie Chaplin, and Ho Chi Minh. He would ransack the yellowed clippings in the Times’s morgue (a word appropriate to the task) and travel great distances to interview his subjects while they were still alive (the only possible way, it occurs to me). He produced what were in essence brief biographies, supplementing his account of the milestones in his subjects’ careers with vivid character sketches. “Picasso,” he wrote, “was a short, squat man with broad, muscular shoulders and arms. He was most proud of his small hands and feet and of his hairy chest. In old age his body was firm and compact; and his cannonball head, which was almost bald, gleamed like bronze.”

Whitman’s obit hegemony lasted from 1964 until his retirement in 1976. The Times had to wait two decades for a worthy successor. Robert McG. Thomas Jr. was a classic underachiever whose career at the paper had been, according to his Times colleague Michael Kaufman, “more circuitous than meteoric.” It wasn’t until he was in his mid-fifties that Thomas found his way (or was relegated) to the obit desk, where he discovered that he had a knack for the concise appraisal and the vivid detail that make for a memorable obit. His best work was collected in a book, 52 McGs. Most, if not all, of his subjects were obscure, but Thomas made their obscurity his theme. Anton Rosenberg, for instance, he described as “a storied sometime artist and occasional musician who 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.” Fred Rosenstiel, who lost his entire family at Auschwitz, “spent his life planting gardens to brighten the lives of his fellow New Yorkers, and to alleviate an abiding sadness in his heart.” Thomas’s own obit, when he died of abdominal cancer at the premature age of 60, read like one he’d written. “Mr. Thomas, a tall man with wavy hair,” was depicted as “the sympathetic stranger at the wake listening to the friends and survivors of the deceased, alert for the moment when one of them would tell a memorable tale that could never have made its way into Who’s Who but that just happened to define a life.”

It’s interesting that Thomas was in his fifties when he took up the obit beat. (So was Whitman, for that matter.) Maybe you have to be that age to grasp the full import of the obituary. Thomas’s leave-no-corpse-behind method was a protest against the astonishing fact that begins to dawn on you around the time you start getting invitations to join AARP: No one’s going to be spared, no matter how distinctive he is (or was). “There goes one, the only one, the last of his kind, the end of a particular strand of DNA,” as the fervent Johnson puts it.

One day I come across an obit for the literary critic Roger Shattuck. Bummer. I admired The Banquet Years, his book on the French avant-garde. On the other hand, he gets four columns and a photograph above the fold. He had a good life: He taught at prestigious universities, won a National Book Award, and retired to his home in Vermont. “Mr. Shattuck,” the piece ends, “wrote painstakingly on an old Remington typewriter in a tiny shack with a kerosene heater, and liked to pursue the traditional way of cutting grass in his meadow with an old-fashioned scythe. He won hand-mowing contests at the local county fair.” We won’t see his like again.

The problem with my obit obsession is that it forces me to think about the one I won’t get to read. Just as well, probably. No news is good news. Not that they’d ever get it right. Won this, lost that . . . Who cares? Unless I get lucky like Shattuck, they’ll miss the stuff that mattered: “Loved winter sun on snowy fields . . .”, “. . . read Boswell’s Johnson when depressed . . .”


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