Saturday, April 28, 2007

New York Times Obituaries: The Last Fifteen Minutes of Fame

When someone inevitably ask, “So, what’cha gonna do with a degree in English, teach?” I always feel compelled to tell them that yes, teaching is actually my plan B. With an English degree I intend to become a working, well-compensated, literary author and eccentric, traveling the world for the best vegetarian cuisine, collecting rare books and personalities, participating in Voodoo rituals in Haiti, an occasional fish fry back home in St. Louis with my sisters lying about the good old days, and who will inevitably, upon my death, having done something so wildly fascinating that I land a spot in the New York Times obituaries. Unlike your average, everyday, run of the mill obituaries, the NYT obit is like a biography/tribute in a nutshell. And while not just anybody lands a coveted NYT obituary, according to the obituaries editor, Bill McDonald, they do sometimes approach people before they die, “directly but also delicately” to compose a future obituary. (Which is why I’m working on mine now.)

I like how the NYT eulogizes not people who are simply famous. Some of the entries are about people we might not recognize, but who might have done something truly fascinating. Like Kelsie B. Harder,

"whose ruminations about why his parents gave him what sounded like a girl’s name
provoked such enthrallment with proper nouns that he became a leading
onomastician — a student of names and their origins — died on April 12 at his
home in Potsdam, N.Y. He was 84.”
(Me, I can't even pronounce onomastician.) Then there is Harold Max Mayer who died on April 20th. The
“former chairman of Oscar Mayer and Company, he invented the popular Smokie
Link, a spicy hot dog, and took an active role in acquiring and managing the
Claussen Pickle Company and the Louis Rich Company.”
(Who knew?) And, even though I claim to be a little jazz savvy, I didn’t know about Andrew Hill, who worked with the likes of
“Dinah Washington, Johnny Hartman and Dakota Staton. He got a chance to play
with Charlie Parker at the Greystone Ballroom in Detroit in 1954. A job with
Roland Kirk brought him to New York in the early 1960s.”
NYT also pays tribute to the famous and infamous, sometimes adding an extra tidbit about them that we might not know. Like the burly, provincial politician, Boris Yeltsin, who became a Soviet-era reformer. In his autobiography, Yeltsin recalled that as a child, he and his family lived in a hut for 10 years,
“winter was worst of all,” he wrote. “There was nowhere to hide from the cold.
Since we had no warm clothes, we would huddle up to the nanny goat to keep warm.
We children survived on her milk.”

Well, I’m a city girl, so I don’t know anything about huddling up to a nanny goat, but maybe something in my life and work will garner a final nod from the NYT obituaries. “Hey Bill, I’m working on that biography now!”

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At 8:05 AM , Blogger BLUE said...

I know death is not funny, but this blog post cracked me up. So much of your personality in it! light!

At 11:00 PM , Blogger persistence said...

Hey, what if death is funny...not to those of us left behind, but to the one who gets to leave and start all over again. Sometimes, I think the joke is on us "survivors". But, again, I may be revealing a little too much of my own "odd" personality.


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