Dying to Be Read—What Obits Tell Us

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 cliches. 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 first.

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 death.

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.

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."

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.