2018-06-29 17:06:46 UTC
She Knows How to Make an Exit. You’re Reading It.
A New York Times obituary writer for 14 years, Margalit Fox takes a crack at her own epitaph.
By Margalit Fox
June 28, 2018
For this obituary writer, the end has come.
I don’t mean, thankfully, the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns — the “end” I’ve written about in more than 1,400 obituaries for The New York Times. I mean the end of my career at this newspaper.
My new book, “Conan Doyle for the Defense: The True Story of a Sensational British Murder, a Quest for Justice, and the World’s Most Famous Detective Writer,” was published this week, and in what may be the most foolhardy decision of a foolhardy life, I have decided to pursue a long-held dream of writing books exclusively. After 24 years at The Times, I will officially pass through the doors of 620 Eighth Avenue for the last time on Friday, June 29.
I never set out to write obits. No one does. The child has not been born who comes home from grade school clutching a theme that says, “When I grow up, I want to be … an obituary writer.”
In newsrooms across America, the obituary department was long a convenient Siberia. Obits was where they sent you if they wanted to punish you but didn’t quite have enough on you to fire you. It was where they sent you if you were deemed only a heartbeat away from needing an obit yourself.
But the fact that it was a job nobody wanted also meant that it was a job — a full-time writing gig on a big-city newspaper — that I could finesse my way into. It took me nearly 10 years.
In the summer of 1994, I joined The Times as a copy editor on the Sunday Book Review. It was a marvelous section, awash in smart, lively colleagues and enticing, tottering stacks of books. But I pined for a writing job, and as my years on the copy desk wore on, I feared my own epitaph would say little more than “She changed 50,000 commas into semicolons.”
So I began writing advance obits, assigned by Marvin Siegel, then The Times’s obituary news editor. It is the Sisyphean task of obit editors to stockpile “advances” for as many of the newsworthy undead as possible, and when Marv took the job he commissioned a blizzard of them from colleagues throughout the newsroom. In the coming years, writing in my spare time, I would produce dozens.
Today, the subject of the first advance I ever wrote, in 1995 — a major American scholar — is still going strong at 90-something. He remains, blast him, almost obscenely productive, forcing me to update his obituary several times a year.
In 2004, when a staff job opened in obits, I raced to apply. To his everlasting credit, Marv’s successor, Chuck Strum, took a flyer on this unknown copy editor and let her become, well into her 40s, a cub reporter.
Writing daily obits only reinforced what I had long suspected: It is the best beat in journalism. The reason is simple: In following their subjects from cradle to grave, obits are the most narrative genre in any daily paper. For a writer, there is little better than being paid to tell stories.
Obit writers chronicle the lives of the world’s movers and shakers, of course — the presidents, kings and queens, and captains of industry. These obits are required reading, but they rarely produce those exquisite frissons of pleasure that come from reading (or writing) about something wondrous and strange.
And so it is the frisson-makers — history’s backstage players — whom we writers love best of all. Those unsung heroes and heroines are rarely household names. Yet in ways large and small, they have changed history: They are people who, for good or ill, have put a wrinkle in the social fabric.
In my 14 years in the job, I have had the immense, moving privilege of sending off men and women who bore witness to the worst the 20th century had to offer. There was Zelma Henderson, a black Kansas beautician who was the sole surviving plaintiff in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the landmark school desegregation case of 1954. There was Florence Green, who at her death in 2012 was, remarkably, the last living veteran of World War I. There was Rabbi Herschel Schacter, who as a young United States Army chaplain in 1945 was able to cry to the Jews of Buchenwald, “Ihr zint frei!” (“You are free!”)
I have also had — it is much-needed leavening — the delicious, often downright campy pleasure of telling the stories of people who cast the form of midcentury material culture. Among my favorites is the wonderfully named Massachusetts sculptor Don Featherstone, who, be he saint or sinner, shaped the postwar suburban landscape by inventing the lawn flamingo.
As I wrote: “Mr. Featherstone had not contemplated creating an enduring emblem of kitsch in 1957, when his first flamingo sailed off the assembly line, or the next year, when the bird was brought to market. A recent art-school graduate, he was simply heeding career advice that would become a sardonic watchword for young people: ‘Plastics.’”
Also in this deeply pleasurable vein were obits for the inventors of the Frisbee, the Pet Rock, Etch A Sketch (which was given the most wonderful headline design ever to grace a news obituary), Stove Top stuffing and the crash-test dummy. One of my favorite assignments ever was the obit of Leslie Buck, who invented the Anthora, the blue-and-white Greek-themed cardboard cup from which generations of Gothamites drank their coffee — and without which a bevy of New York cop shows would not look remotely the same.
The single greatest reward of writing obits, I have learned, is the chance to touch history. This was brought forcibly home to me in 2013, when I reported the obituary of a man named Tom Christian. Mr. Christian was the longtime chief radio operator on Pitcairn Island, responsible for keeping that speck of rock in the Pacific in contact with the world. As might be expected for someone from that place with that name, he was a direct descendant — the great-great-great-grandson — of the Bounty mutineer Fletcher Christian.
In reporting news obits, it is our policy to speak, whenever possible, with our subjects’ families. On The Times’s nickel, I dialed Pitcairn, nearly 6,000 miles from New York. I got a connection clear as crystal, and reached Mr. Christian’s daughter, who gave me (in a lilting accent that to my uneducated ears sounded pure New Zealand) the biographical details I sought.
It was not until I hung up that I realized the significance of that nominally routine call. And so it was that I ran around the newsroom in high excitement, too close to deadline for my colleagues’ comfort, shrieking to anyone I knew: “I just got off the phone with the great-great-great-great-granddaughter of Fletcher Christian — and you know what? It’s not just a movie! It’s real!”
In the end, then — when that far-off day truly does come for me — I hope my epitaph will read thus:
“She was a decent stylist. She didn’t get too many things wrong. She didn’t tick too many people off. At times she wrote obits with tears in her eyes, but far more often she wrote them from joy. It was the joy that sprang from the extraordinary privilege of tracing the arc — in sweet-smelling newsprint, damp with ink — of lives well lived.
“And she changed 50,000 commas into semicolons.”
Margalit Fox is a senior writer on the Obituaries desk. She was previously an editor at the Book Review. She has written the send-offs of some of the best-known cultural figures of our era, including Betty Friedan, Maya Angelou and Seamus Heaney.
A version of this article appears in print on June 29, 2018, on Page A2 of the New York edition with the headline: An Obituary Writer Signs Off.
© 2018 The New York Times Company