Wednesday, December 3, 2014
The media starts burying you long before you're dead.
As you might have heard, People magazine killed off screen legend Kirk Douglas this week without waiting for the formality of his death, posting his obituary along with the bold “DO NOT PUB” intended to prevent such an error.
A number of readers sent me the Gawker item revealing this blunder, knowing that I write advance obits for the Sun-Times.
If they expected me to share a snicker at People’s expense, they thought wrong. It could happen to anyone and does. All media outlets are short-staffed and scrambling.
No, what caught my attention were the comments under Gawker’s story. Readers were surprised at the idea of advance obits.
“Do publications frequently have obits for famous people pre-written like this?” one Gawker devotee wondered. “I would love if someone could comment on this article and tell me if this is a common practice.”
Allow me. It is common, and while that might strike you as odd, even macabre, let’s try a thought experiment. Imagine it otherwise. Imagine Richard Nixon has just died, and your job is to capture his complicated career: as red-baiter, vice president and leader straight out of Greek tragedy. Once you might have had until, say, 7 p.m. for the task. But it being 2014, your boss would like it up online immediately, so as to capture the elusive clicks that are our God now.
Imagine that responsibility falling into your lap. Scary, huh? Hard to dig very deep.
Better all around if you accept that Nixon is mortal and will someday die (he already has, in 1994; sorry if I’m the one to tell you) and get busy before the fact.
I started writing obituaries because I worked the night shift, had time on my hands and am unable to sit around doing nothing, waiting for something to catch fire. Judge Abraham Lincoln Marovitz had come to my apartment and officiated my brother's wedding. Marovitz was an amazing guy — fan dancer Sally Rand was his date to the opening of the Empire Room in 1933 — and getting on in years. So I wrote his obit, then fell into the practice, writing many others, from Ronald Reagan to Sid Luckman, Frank Sinatra to George H.W. Bush, whom I should point out is not dead, but has an unexpected Chicago connection, which you will learn about when that sad day occurs.
I continue to write advance obituaries for the simple reason that someone ought to. It's almost a duty. You see a need and are obligated to respond. It's professional negligence not to. Take a recent example, the late Mayor Jane Byrne. I wrote her obit because I attended Rahm Emanuel's inauguration in 2011 and noticed the frail, stooped former mayor slowly crossing the Gehry stage.
Better get started, I thought. One of the first things I did was read her excellent autobiography, "My Chicago." Because I had years to work on it, I could comb other city histories and talk to her associates. The obit was ready to run years ago. So while Byrne's obituary was tossed online in chunks by the Tribune, as if it were a breaking news story or, more likely, they were writing it just as fast as they could, we posted ours in its entirety. Zing!
Yes, having the last word on a person can make you cocky, and I fight that. Once Rich Daley said something particularly brusque and charmless to me. I opened my mouth to reply, "You know, I wrote your mother's obituary. I wrote your wife's obituary. And I wrote yours, too, so why don't you cut me a little slack?" But I held that rudeness back.
Daley notwithstanding, some of the most fun moments in my career were a result of writing obits, from asking former 5th Ward Ald. Leon Despres about his date with art icon Frida Kahlo (she was beautiful), to sharing tea and really good cake with Eppie Lederer, aka Ann Landers. Because I had written her obit, I knew a lot about her, and would drop pertinent factoids about her into print. Which caught her attention. A correspondence developed. Eventually I asked her to dinner. Her secretary called: "Ann doesn't go on dates," she said. But I could come to her apartment on East Lake Shore Drive for tea.
She sent her limo. It was a lovely visit. At one point Ann narrowed her eyes and asked, "Why are you here?" Not agile enough to lie, I replied: "I wrote your obituary, Ann, and was wondering what the truth is about you and your sister." Her twin, Pauline, wrote the also-successful Dear Abby column. Ann was enough of a newswoman, she didn't bat an eye.
So yes, someone has to prepare this stuff in advance. What pops up on your screen doesn't write itself magically in an instant. The Internet can't change one essential truth: Speed is the enemy of both quality and accuracy, as People magazine recently demonstrated. It still takes time to absorb a full life and boil it down into 1,000 words.