Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Exiting A Stage

She didn't pass away. She merely announced that after writing more than 1,400 obituaries for the New York Times, Margalit Fox is leaving the 'Paper of Record' and will now concentrate full-time on writing books. All kinds of books.

That Margalit came to write what might be a record number of Page 1 bylined obituaries for the paper is of no surprise to Marilyn Johnson, who in her book 'The Dead Beat,' recounts the story of having Margalit in her Columbia University obituary journalism class and recognizing she had talent for the craft.

In Friday's edition of the Times Margalit gets to write her own sendoff. She traces her beginnings at the paper, joining the staff on the Sunday Book Review in 1994 as a copy editor. From what I can tell, a copy editor is a nearly extinct job title. Staff reductions at all the papers and magazines have shifted the task of getting the nits right to the writer themselves.

While doing this pretty much thankless work, Ms. Fox feared her her own epitaph was going to read: "She changed 50,000 commas into semicolons." But if anyone knows anything about punctuation, the semicolon  is one of the trickiest to get right. So, if Margalit accomplished introducing 50,000 semicolons into Book Review text, she should be lauded just for that. Fifty thousand is a biblical number.

I've been reading NYT obituaries for decades. I distinctly remember arriving at work one morning and telling co-workers they had to read that day's obituary by Robert McG. Thomas Jr. on the Goat Man. They laughed at me. Who reads obituaries? "You will when you read this one."

And it was like that when a Margalit Fox obit hit the pages. There was an almost signature lede. In her own sendoff she tells us she hopes she didn't tick too many people off. I'm sure you can't write anything in the paper that doesn't raise someone's hackles. Her lede for the passing of the Cosmopolitan magazine publisher Helen Gurley Brown went:

Helen Gurley Brown...died on Monday in Manhattan. She was 90, though parts of her were considerably younger.

There were  people who were ticked off at that one. I just thought it was hilarious.

Margalit will let her subterranean sense of humor rise to the surface, often with the choice of a single word.

In the obituary for film director and producer Delbert Mann, Ms. Fox recounts the sequence of events that lead NBC to leave a 1968 telecast of a Jets-Raiders football in the final minutes, with the Jets leading 32-29, in order to achieve an ultrapunctual presentation of Delbert's production of 'Heidi' at 7:00 p.m.

If the score had remained the same, few would have complained and we would never have what came to be known as the Heidi Game. But The Raiders scored two touchdowns in those remaining minutes and went on to defeat the Jets 43-32. No one watching TV saw that, thanks to pre-empting the game for the network's telecast of Heidi.

Ms. Fox was featured, along with other NYT obituary writers, in Vanessa Gould's documentary on the editorial obituaries in the NYT, the sometimes lengthy obits that recount the life of the now deceased, but the nevertheless famous-for-a-reason, subject.

In several shots, Ms. Fox can be seen at work with a paper coffee cup in front of her. It is not a Starbucks cup, but one of the most ubiquitous cups of all time: the blue and white "We Are Happy To Serve You "Anphora design rimmed with a depiction of a Greek frieze. That coffee cup might be more New York than the Empire State building.

When the man credited with designing that cup, Leslie Buck passed away, Ms. Fox got the call to write his obituary  It appeared on Page 1, in the lower right hand corner. So its appearance in the film in front of Ms. Fox cannot be a coincidence. There are no coincidences in Ms. Fox's life.

So, is this the end of Margo? Hardly. Her final obituary to appear in the paper—while she was still employed at the paper—was for Dovey Johnson Roundtree, a black female civil rights lawyer.

Yet to appear in the paper will be the advance obituaries she has written for the famous-for-a-reason people that will appear when they pass away. Thus, we can still be treated to a Margalit Fox byline even after she's left the paper.

Writing and updating advance obits was Ms. Fox's last assignment at the obituary desk. There are probably 1,500 or so of these advances awaiting promotion to the page when the subject's breathing is confirmed to have stopped.

Ms. Fox makes mention of someone's advance obit that she has been updating several times a year, an unnamed American scholar who is still going strong in his 90s. When it is time to read about whomever we will probably be able to deduce whether they outlived their money or not. I don't know about you, but I always like to hear of those who don't outlive their money, and how they might have done it. I'm trying to enjoy a similar fate.

Ms. Fox, in her farewell piece gives us a taste of how she liked to be remembered. I've met her, and even from the math in her piece you can deduce she's not particularly old, and doesn't I'm sure qualify for a reduced fare MetroCard like the one I carry around in my wallet.

She does go on a bit, but basically says she wants to be known as someone who "didn't get too many thing wrong."

Funny, I've told one of my daughters I'd like my headstone to be inscribed: I Got Most Things Right.

(And that would include editing what I write; there is no separate copy editor here in the house.)


1 comment:

  1. I knew you were up to the job. But now who is going to write our obits. I am 88 so I get in front of you in the pecking order.