Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Deadly Derring-do, then Death

It might say something about a good idea that might be badly marketed when it takes my own interest in obituaries to read that the NYT has assembled a second year's worth of their obituaries.

The first such collection was labeled 'Annual 2012,' and looked a bit like an almanac. The 'year' was odd. It was 12 months' worth of obits, but they spanned August 2010 through July 2011. The calendar year is the one we're most familiar with, then the fiscal year, but this is a new one: the obituary year.

No matter, really. The intention is a good one, and welcome. The first edition had a nice foreward by Pete Hamill, that opens with the indisputable observation that life is the cause of death. All those mortality codes funnel into one. Life.

And what a nice point Mr. Hamill makes. It coincides somewhat with my own that being born is what we survive. In addition to Mr. Hamill, the first edition has an introduction by Mr. William McDonald, the editor, and NYT obituary page editor. Who better?

Forward to 2013 and I lost track that the Times has produced another edition, collecting the obituaries from, you guessed it, the next obituary year, August 2011 through July 2012. As long as they stay consistent, I can catch up to that.

I learn of this edition when I read the obituary of Peter Workman, a man who headed a successful publishing house, and who published 'The Socialite Who Killed A Nazi With Her Bare Hands.' We know 'sex sells,' but after that, and certainly in New York, an asphyxiated Nazi is good copy as well.

The title happen to be the title of the 2013 collection of NYT obituaries. The almanac look is dumped for front cover photos of some of the luminaries who can be read about inside. The carnival barker title has already announced there are tales of deathly derring-do inside, so come on in. The guess that the largest of the uncaptioned photos on the cover is the one of the socialite proves correct.

There is surviving blurb from the first edition. Stephen King gets a say on the front and the back cover, and Marilyn Johnson is appropriately brought back for another year's worth of plugging obits. Her seminal book, 'The Dead Beat' might be fairly responsible for the recognition that obituaries are now getting as news items, and as short stories. They've reached the front of the cerebral cortex.

Certainly the Times recognizes this, inasmuch as they've embarked on a conscious policy of starting more obituaries on their front page. Country singer George Jones, in any other era, would not get front page NYT coverage. But when you can put a great lede on the front page, George's death is too irresistible to put back in the pack.

Certainly not to wish either Mr. King or Ms. Johnson bad, but two year's running might be a limit. How about blurb from those most likely to wind up inside the following year? Perhaps something from Stephen Hawking about the cosmos and eternity would be great blurb, and absolutely serendipitous if he would up inside the next year. The odds are with the editors.

The second edition has a foreward by Tom Rachman, who may not start off with a Hamill nugget, but does have a nice essay. Mr. McDonald is again giving the introduction, and seems to have been caught up in the title's swashbuckling action by writing about a deceased Frenchman who lived like Matt Damon in the Jason Bourne movie series.

A detailed read of Robert de La Rochefoucauld, the saboteur who posed as a nun, can remind one of a Robbie O'Connell song about Sister Josephine, an IRA terrorist who hides as a nun in a convent, drinking, playing poker, shaving, and flirting with the 'younger nuns.'

Robbie is still with us, but when he does pass on, my hope is they mention his song about 'Sister Josephine.' That way, if there are others like me who download desired songs of the recently memorialized departed, we'll have the obit, and the song to remember them by.

And of course the NYT and its annual book.



  1. I have this book! I also have the brilliant compilation of The Daily Telegraph obits, "Thinker, Failure, Soldier, Jailer" which is full of rather hilarious and outrageous yarns about eccentric colonels, baronets, dames and other assorted Brits, Europeans and Americans. It's extremely entertaining!

    1. Great! I have that one as well. I'll assume you read Marilyn's 'The Dead Beat' and Stephen Miller's book on writing obits. I've met both of them. They are funny people.