November 24, 2012

His pride of authorship is such that he can barely wait for that person to drop dead.

Mr. Bad News by Gay Talese

In my first news reporting class, one of our first assignments was to write an obituary for someone who was still living. It's a bit of a morbid task--to write about the living as though they were already dead--but I actually had a lot of fun writing mine; I chose Annie Leibovitz. Gay Talese's Mr. Bad News is about the New York Times' legendary obituary writer, Alden Whitman.

"Joan was fascinated by Whitman, especially by his marvelous, magpie mind cluttered with all sorts of useless information: He could recite the list of popes backward and forward; knew the names of every king's mistress and his date of reign; knew that the Treaty of Westphalia was signed in 1648, that Niagara Falls is 167 feet high, that snakes do not blink; that cats attach themselves to places, not people, and dogs to people, not places; he was a regular subscriber to the New Statesman, Le Nouvel Observateur, to nearly every journal in the Out-of-Town Newsstand in Times Square, he read two books a day, he had seen Bogart in Casablanca three-dozen times. Joan knew she had to see him again, even though she was sixteen years his junior and a minister's daughter, and he was an atheist. They were married on November 13, 1960." (p. 174)

"The obituaries that leave Whitman untroubled are those that he is able to complete before the individual dies, such as the rather controversial one he did on Albert Schweitzer, which both paid tribute to "Le Grand Docteur" for his humanitarianism yet damned him for his lofty paternalism; and the one on Winston Churchill, a 20,000-word piece in which Whitman and several other Times men were involved and which was finished almost two weeks before Sir Winston's death. Whitman's obituaries on Father Divine, Le Corbusier, and T.S. Eliot were produced under deadline pressure but caused him no panic because he was quite familiar with the work and lives of all three, particularly Eliot, who had been the poet-in-residence at Harvard during Whitman's student days there. His obituary on Eliot began: "This is the way the world ends / This is the way the world ends / This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper," and it went on to describe Eliot as a most unlikely poetic figure, lacking "flamboyance or oddity in dress or manner, and there was nothing romantic about him. He carried no auras, cast no arresting eye and wore his heart, as nearly as could be observed, in its proper anatomical place." (p. 176-7)

"This is part of an occupational astigmatism that afflicts many obituary writers. After they have written or read an advance obituary about someone, they come to think of that person as being dead in advance ... Furthermore, he admits that, after having written a fine advance obituary, his pride of authorship is such that he can barely wait for that person to drop dead so that he may see his masterpiece in print. While this revelation may mark him as something less than romantic, it must be said in his defense that he thinks no differently than most obituary writers; they are, even by City Room standards, rather special." (p. 177-8)

"Occasionally all reporters must do their share of the smaller obituaries, which are bad enough, but the long ones are hard work; they must be accurate and interesting, they must be infallible in their analysis, and will be later judged, as will the Times, by historians. And yet for the writer there is no glory, no byline, it being a policy of the newspaper to eliminate bylines from such stories, but Whitman does not care. Anonymity superbly suits him. He prefers being everyman, anyman, nobody--Times Employee No. 97353, Library Card No. 663 7662, the possessor of a Sam Goody Courtesy Card, the borrower of his mother-in-law's 1963 Buick Compact on sunny weekends, an eminently unquotable man, a onetime manager for the Roger Ludlowe High School football, baseball, and basketball teams who is now keeping toll for the Times. All day long while his colleagues are running this way and that, pursuing the here and now, Whitman sits quietly at his desk near the back, sipping his tea, dwelling in his strange little world of the half-living, the half-dead in this enormous place called the City Room." 

Alden Whitman died on Sept. 4, 1990. His Times obituary is rather dull in my opinion.

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