The Death of Greatness

In the final weeks of 2001, news of a Very Important Death arrived on these shores. The hugely talented and internationally revered Megan Boyd had died in Scotland at age 86.

Sheepishly, I found myself among the unwashed, uncultivated mob that had never heard of this illustrious giant. So I was grateful when The New York Times rushed in to set me straight with one of those knowing, urbane, deeply authoritative obituaries that are our culture's ultimate form of certification.

"Megan Boyd, Eccentric Master of Fish Flies, Dies at 86," announced a headline that ran across most of the top of page A25 in the paper's December 11 editions. Below was a 709-word obituary by Douglas Martin, and an arresting photo of a person who appeared to be the long-lost identical twin of Julio Iglesias, the Spanish crooner. In a dark sports jacket, white dress shirt and tartan-plaid necktie, Boyd seemed the very paragon of suave manliness.

The Times runs a lot of unforgettable obits of great people, dozens every year. But this one was truly special, an obit so packed with all the things our most influential paper looks for in a life, that it was really the ne plus ultra of the genre. The opening sentences are worth quoting at length:

"Megan Boyd, whose fabled expertise at tying enchantingly delicate fishing flies put her work in museums and the hands of collectors around the world and prompted Queen Elizabeth II to award her the British Empire medal, died November 15 in Golspie, Scotland. She was 86. She did not receive her award from the queen, to whom she explained that she had no one to care for her dog that day. The queen said she quite understood, and Prince Charles, an avid user of her flies, later made the presentation at his nearby Scottish fishing lodge in 1971. The episode reflected Miss Boyd's unpremeditated eccentricity, also suggested by her usual dress: a man's shirt and tie, sweater, wool skirt, tweed sports jacket and heavy army-style boots. But the flies she dressed at a small table in front of a window and under a gas lamp—she had no electricity until 1985—were regarded by connoisseurs as 'the Tiffanies of the 20th century,' according to The American Fly Fisher magazine."

This passage nicely lays out the criteria for membership in the Times-ian Valhalla. First, Boyd had enormous talent. Second, her talent was recognized by the marketplace that matters most to The Times and its readers: the world of museums and connoisseurs that is the holy of holies of secular culture. Third, she was associated with and admired by the powerful. Finally, she was a wild cross-dressing eccentric, one of those sacred geniuses who, by caring not at all for the grubby game of prizes and titles—or at least appearing not to care—fascinate those not-so-wild, insecure souls (journalists) who are slaves to the game. She snubbed the queen for her dog! Brilliant!

Why does this matter? Because the Megan Boyd obit appeared at the end of a year in which something unexpected and subversive happened to The Times' obits, which encapsulate our civilization and its values. When thousands of New Yorkers were murdered in the attack on the World Trade Center, the paper began running daily obits of the victims, the "Portraits of Grief" that are unquestionably the most important journalistic product of this war. The enormous impact of these short (usually 200-odd words), plainspoken bios has already been widely noted. This week, after 1,800 portraits, The Times ended the daily ritual, having covered all the victims whose survivors agreed to interviews. The portraits will be collected in a book to be published later this year.

What hasn't been fully explained is why these unpretentious obits have proven so powerful to so many. In a recent article on Poynter.org, a journalism Web site, writer Bill Mitchell offered an explanation, noting that the attacks seem to have changed society's focus. Suddenly, we are all looking inward, caring more about each other and appreciating the value of ordinary life—family, friends, simple emotion. The Portraits of Grief, he suggested, reflect this shift.

This is certainly true, as far it goes. But I think there's another, more crucial factor at play. The Portraits of Grief have grabbed the culture not so much because ordinary people are suddenly appreciating ordinary life, but because The New York Times is suddenly appreciating ordinary life and those who live it. The Times is a magnificent paper, and it does a superb job of covering power, politics, culture, ideas, and the people who dominate those realms. But it also a somewhat cold paper, a lofty institution crippled by its loftiness. The Times loves stories that take place on the distant, rarefied, brainy plane where brilliant people do brilliant things, and where the Megan Boyds of this world dwell. But it's never been terribly comfortable with real people, or the emotional content of everyday human lives. When I have put the paper down in recent years after a bracing morning read, I've often mused: If it only had a heart.

And now it does. Driven by extraordinary events on its own turf, The Times embraced, temporarily at least, a whole new philosophy of what matters in death, and therefore in life. You could almost feel the paper awakening from its icy trance, realizing that a great obit doesn't require a "great" life. It requires a belief that all lives are great. It's a simple idea that inspires many journalists at the start of their careers, but is often forgotten along the way. It took an atrocity to remind us.