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D.C. Dispatch | February 22, 2001
Dying to Be Read—What Obits Tell Us
Obits can reflect a paper's values. Consider the send-offs for Dale Evans and Anne Morrow Lindbergh
by William Powers
When Dale Evans and Anne Morrow Lindbergh died on the same day
last week, obituary junkies everywhere felt that old shiver. Obits
come in countless varieties, and each has its thrills. But the most
coveted specimens, the ones that give the best highs, require a
particular kind of life.
One of the cardinal rules of obit connoisseurship is that, in
terms of celebrity, bigger is not necessarily better. Popes,
Presidents, and other super-eminences are the worst obit subjects.
Their lives are so familiar, so scoured, that their obits are just
digests of old stories, reworked and slathered with
his-place-in-history clichés. Ditto for the colossi of pop
culture—the Sinatra-Diana class—who have been in our lives so
constantly for so long that we don't learn a thing from their obits.
They're the reheated meatloaf of the genre.
The best obit subjects are people who were huge once—30 years
ago, minimum—then lived long enough to be widely forgotten. When
novelist and composer Paul Bowles died two years ago at age 88, the
Daily Telegraph of London ran the kind of headline that gets an
obituphile's pulse going: "Author of The Sheltering Sky, who
drew the Beat Generation to his home in Tangier." You could
almost smell the old bohos lounging around in caftans, picking at
their couscous. When Hollywood legend Claudette Colbert expired a few
years earlier, at 92, The New York Times noted that in one movie, she
had famously taken a bath in a tub of "what was described by the
studio as asses' milk." Through such details, a left-behind life
comes roaring back.
Dale Evans and Anne Morrow Lindbergh met all the requirements
for obit nirvana. Each had been a cultural deity, and each lived to
such an advanced age—Evans was 88, Lindbergh 94—that younger readers
had but a faint (if any) awareness of them. Evans was "the Queen
of the West," as most of the obits noted. And Lindbergh was, in
a way, the Queen of the East—the embodiment of an ideal to which a
certain kind of elite East Coast woman aspired during the 20th
century. Her 1929 marriage to Charles Lindbergh was the lead story on
the front page of The New York Times. Later, she wrote a presciently
feminist book, Gift from the Sea, which spent 47 weeks at the top of
The Times' nonfiction best-seller list. (The Times naturally noted
both Times-centric achievements in its obit, which took up an entire
page of the A section.)
Both women's stories had built-in dramatic tension. They owed
their success partly to their marriages, yet both were so talented on
their own that the marriages seemed to rob them of full credit. The
Lindberghs were global celebrities who hated fame; the kidnapping and
murder of their eldest child was the original media shark feast.
Known as a singer and a cowgirl actress, Dale Evans wound up wishing
she'd found her second career—Christian evangelism—before the
Obits are, in a sense, arguments. They make the case for why we
should care about a particular life. The more space devoted to the
obit, the better the argument has to be. A paper's obit decisions
show what it deems truly important. If you want to know what a news
organization cares about in life, just look at what it cares about in
The Times did a respectable 1,301-word send-off on Dale Evans,
but then she was a bit down market for that paper. It took the Los
Angeles Times, which really cares about show business, to do the
definitive job. Its 2,132-word obit by Jon Thurber was packed with
industry detail. The lead captured something essential about its
subject: "Dale Evans, the Texas stenographer with the melodic
voice who became the buckskin-fringed 'Queen of the West' and wife of
'King of the Cowboys' Roy Rogers, died Wednesday."
The Times cared about Lindbergh because, by its lights, she led
a great, interesting life. Thus it ran a terrific obit, a 4,152-word
keeper written by Eric Pace, full of memorable details and plot
twists. It quoted Alfred Kazin's observation that the Lindberghs were
"intensely private persons with an austere, restrained,
glowingly creative sense of life"—capturing in a dozen words all
the essential qualities of the Lindberghs' joint persona. Yet Pace
didn't buy into the conventional take on his subject—the temptation
of all obituarists—digging, instead, into her complexities,
particularly her flawed marriage and her blithe acceptance of Nazism.
The piece had a chewy texture and felt, as all obits should feel—like
life itself, somewhat puzzling.
For its part, The Washington Post ran a small Dale Evans photo
in the "key" at the bottom of the front page, another photo
inside, and an unremarkable 573-word obit bylined "From News
Services." Lindbergh earned a single, smaller photo inside The
Post and a 605-word wire story from the Associated Press. Both
stories had all the major facts, but facts don't make an obit sing.
Lacking a Kazinesque phrase on Lindbergh, the back-lot realism on
Evans, The Post's obits read like hole-pluggers.
The Post did run an original, staff-written obit that day,
however. At 863 words, it was longer than either the Evans or the
Lindbergh pieces. It reported the death of "William D. Krimer,
86, a Russian language interpreter for the State Department who
participated in negotiations between Presidents Johnson, Nixon,
Carter, and Reagan and leaders of the Soviet Union."
The mind of a paper laid bare.
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William Powers is media columnist for National Journal. He recently spent three months in Japan as a Japan Society Fellow, studying the role of reading in Japanese life. This column appears every week in National Journal, a weekly magazine covering politics and government published in Washington, D.C.
For information on National Journal Group publications, see NationalJournal.com.
Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.