TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. Our guest today – a veteran journalist who spent years writing evocative profiles of people they typically never met. Margalit Fox and Bruce Weber have each written more than a thousand obituaries for The New York Times. Their subjects have ranged from celebrities and politicians to, as you’ll soon hear, the inventor of Stove Top stuffing. Fox and Weber are among those featured in a new documentary about The Times obituary department called “Obit.” It’s directed by Vanessa Gould.
Margalit Fox joined the obituary desk in 2004 after working as an editor at The Times Book Review. She’s trained as a cellist and a linguist. She still writes for The Times, writing advance obituaries of notable people for future use. Bruce Weber has worked as a Metro reporter and theater critic, among other roles, at The Times and is the author of several books. He’s left the paper and is working on a biography of E.L. Doctorow, one of his obituary subjects at The Times. Bruce Weber and Margalit Fox spoke with FRESH AIR’s Dave Davies.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
Well, Margalit Fox, Bruce Weber, welcome to FRESH AIR. This is an interesting job that you both had for so many years, and some people might think it might be sad or morbid to write about people dying every day. Is it?
MARGALIT FOX: Not in the least. It may be a little bit contrary to popular belief, but in point of fact, in a news obituary of 800 or a thousand words, there might be one or two sentences about the death and the other 98 percent of this remarkable narrative is every inch about the life.
BRUCE WEBER: Well, I mean, there are – there are melancholy aspects to it, I would say that. I mean, you know, you do often have to call families of the deceased at moment – you know, at a moment of their grieving. And that – you know, that can sometimes be a little poignant. But I think Margo’s right that, you know, it is – it’s a piece of journalism. And we don’t feel as though we’re recording deaths so much as we are celebrating achievements or moments in history, that kind of thing.
DAVIES: When you tell strangers that you meet at a party or whatever, I write obituaries, how do they react?
WEBER: (Laughter) In various – in various ways. Some people are sort of alarmed. There is a contingent out there that loves obituaries, that turns to the obituary page first. And when you run into one of those people, there’s a kind of – I don’t want to say hero worship – but a kind of, you know, admiration. And they want to know everything.
FOX: What’s so striking is we obit writers run into those people quite a lot. And I can’t count the number of times that I or one of my colleagues has been to a party, the what-do-you-do question comes up, and when we say I am an obituary writer for The New York Times, the next words out of their mouth are invariably, obits, that’s the first thing I turn to in the morning. Now, that to me is fascinating. And I think there is one very primal reason for it is people reflexively turn to the Obit page first thing in the morning to make sure they’re not on it.
FOX: And once they’ve established that, then with this kind of leisurely schadenfreude, they can read these wonderful stories about the people who are on it that day.
WEBER: There’s a – there’s a great Roz Chast cartoon from The New Yorker in which you’re looking over the shoulder of a man reading the newspaper. And you can tell he’s elderly because he’s bald and, you know, wearing glasses and is a little hunched over. And he’s looking at the obits page, but all you can see are the headlines, and the headlines are “Exactly Your Age,” “Your Sister’s Age,” “Two Years Younger Than You.” And I think that that, you know, that’s certainly a part of the appeal of the obituaries.
DAVIES: Yeah, I think of them as often older people who are at the age where they have friends and relatives who are passing away and, yeah – but no, not always.
FOX: And I think the other great attraction is we are the most purely narrative genre in any daily paper. If you think about how an obit is structured, we are taxed with taking our subjects from cradle to grave, and that gives obits a built-in narrative arc, the arc of how someone lived his or her life. And who doesn’t want to start the day reading a really good story?
DAVIES: Well, let’s talk about the process of writing an obituary. Take a typical day. Do you get an assignment when you come in in the morning? What’s the day like?
WEBER: Yeah. Well, you know, usually after I say hello to my colleagues, it would be OK, so who’s dead, in some form. And one of the editors, who get in before the writers and have been scouring the wire service reports and the emails that have come in alerting us to various deaths and the Social Security rolls for possible subjects, they will already have met and decided who is going to be writing about which subject on that particular day. So I might come in and say, so what fresh hell do you have for me today? And there will be a folder with my fresh hell for the day (laughter) at which point you start doing your research. And then by the middle of the afternoon, or earlier than that, you hope you’re writing because, you know, the deadline right about, you know, Margo always says 6 o’clock. We can stretch it a little beyond that but not too much beyond that.
FOX: Now, all this said, death, of course, is never solicitous of a deadline, and many is the time that each one of us has had one arm in the coat sleeve ready to go home at 6 or 7 o’clock, and an editor sees something come across the wire service or somebody comes over to alert us to a death. And the editor comes over with the sheets of clippings and says, sit back down, and then you have maybe an hour to do all of this.
WEBER: Yeah, those are bad days.
DAVIES: I bet.
DAVIES: Most of the time, you’re doing this in one day, right?
WEBER: That’s right.
DAVIES: So you’re calling relatives, who will often be the heart of the story in terms of quotes, dealing with them at a time when they’re grieving, maybe sleep deprived, busy planning details of family visiting and memorials. But you’re in a hurry because you’ve got to extract some good information. So there’s this interesting kind of tension, and I’m wondering what techniques you’ve developed over the years to put people at ease and get what you need.
WEBER: Well, I think you would be surprised at how eager people are to talk to us. For good or ill, an obit in The New York Times is essentially considered by many people an honor, an acknowledgement of a life of significance or of consequence. And the people in the family are often proud that, you know, that we’ve called to begin the process of that acknowledgement. So, you know, that being said, you know, kindness is is the watchword.
FOX: I’ll tell you something in my own experience that helped me tremendously. When I was at The Times but before I was on the Obit’s job, my own father died, and he was a reasonably well-known scientist. He was the subject of a news obituary in The New York Times. And the reporter, who’s someone I don’t know, long since gone from the paper, called me. And so this time, I was the bereaved family. He asked me a question to which I didn’t know the answer. And I said, hang on just a minute. My sister is here. She’s 18 years older than I. She will have been around during the period you’re asking about. The reporter’s voice got very tight and he said, oh, oh, but it’s deadline. It’s deadline.
FOX: I know deadline well, but as a bereaved family member, I thought you so-and-so, I’ve just had a sudden death in the family, and you’re whining to me about deadline? That taught me a great deal about how to reconcile the competing imperatives of our deadline and the family’s needs. And I said this in my job interview for the Obits job. I said what that taught me is you take, as the obit writer, a deep, silent breath, then you say, yes, I’d be delighted to talk to your sister for five minutes. You set limits gently but firmly, and you treat people as well as you can within acceptable journalistic limits.
DAVIES: You know, we hear – in the documentary, we hear Bruce speaking to the relative of someone who’s died. And often in a lengthy conversation, a bond of some sort develops. And I wonder if you feel protective of their feelings. I mean, you’ve got to tell the truth here, warts and all.
WEBER: Well, the answer is yes and no, I suppose. You can’t always protect them from, you know, the unsavory details of a life that has been lived. I mean, I’m sure that when Bill Clinton passes on, his family would be happy not to have Monica Lewinsky written about in the obituary, but unfortunately that was something that happened.
FOX: I’ll tell you the best line I’ve ever heard on this subject was from our now retired colleague Dennis Hevesi. We all hear each other’s reporting. We’re two feet from one another in every direction, and it’s very instructive. Dennis was on the phone with the family of his subject, and the subject was a disgraced politician of some sort.
And Dennis who is the nicest person in the world, but a good newsman with 40 years experience under his belt said to the family gently, but firmly, you know, I will have to have a paragraph in there about the four months your dad spent in jail. And I’m sure they weren’t pleased by that, but he prepared them.
DAVIES: Right. The few times I wrote obituaries when I was in newspapers, I remember waking up in the middle of night thinking did I get that name right? Did I get some fact right? Because this isn’t just another story. This is the story that people are going to want to cut and frame.
DAVIES: Do you feel a weight about that?
WEBER: Yeah, Dave. Thanks for bringing this up.
WEBER: I think obituaries – factually speaking, obituaries are the toughest beat on the paper. And in the film, I say that every newspaper reporter loved seeing his name in the paper, and I – and waking up the next day and looking forward to seeing your story. But when I joined the obits desk, I very shortly stopped feeling that way because, you know, just as you describe, you’re absolutely concerned that there’s going to be a phone call by 11 a.m. or noon.
Well, thanks a lot, but you got this wrong. And anything can be wrong. I mean, I remember one error in which I referred to Hofstra University – a person that graduated from Hofstra University, but Hofstra didn’t become a university until the year after the person graduated. So it was actually Hofstra College at the time. And we had to print a correction for that, so that sort of thing drives you absolutely nuts. And it does keep you awake at night.
FOX: Right. And obits by definition are minefields for corrections because they are so larded of necessity with names and dates, the two most common and most easy things to get wrong, so we have to be more careful than it is humanly possible to be.
DAVIES: Margalit Fox and Bruce Weber spent many years writing obituaries for The New York Times. They’re among the writers featured in a new documentary about The Times obituary department by Vanessa Gould. It’s called “Obit.” We’ll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and if you’re just joining us. We’re speaking with Bruce Weber and Margalit Fox. They both spent many years writing obituaries for The New York Times. They’re among the writers featured in a new documentary about The Times obituary department called “Obit.” It has opened in New York and will soon be opening in cities across the country.
You know, your – you spent a lot of time interviewing people, but I suppose you begin by reading clips on the person that you’re learning about and not all of that is on the internet. And there’s literally a morgue of old newspaper clippings that newspapers – I mean, I – that they maintain. And there’s a wonder – a couple of wonderful moments in the documentary which we meet Jeff Roth who maintains the clips morgue at The New York Times. Let’s listen to a bit of this.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, “OBIT”)
JEFF ROTH: So this is The Times morgue. At the height of it, it was manned by 30 people – now one person – three shifts a day, seven days a week, almost 24 hours till 3 a.m. We had the cutters, the indexers, the filers, the re-filers. We clipped from about 28 different publications along with The Times. Before we moved, there were approximately 10,000 drawers of clippings. If it went into the New Times building, all the floors would pancake. It couldn’t stand the weight.
So how much have I actually seen here? Virtually nothing. I mean, it’s not even a question. I mean, look. I mean, how could you read all that? It’s just one drawer. There’s thousands of those drawers, and it’s just – it’s impossible.
DAVIES: And that is Jeff Roth of The New York Times from the new documentary about The Times obituary department called “Obit.” We’re speaking with two veteran obituary writers Bruce Weber and Margalit Fox.
So I gather from what Jeff Roth who’s (laughter) a wonderful guy to listen to, you must enjoy working with him.
WEBER: Well, Jeff, is a genius eccentric. I mean, he’s – he couldn’t be more fun to be around. You – and he seems to know everything. I mean, from – every time I had to write a – an obituary of an obscure rock ‘n’ roll drummer from the late 1960s, Jeff would bring me from his personal collection all of the album covers that the guy played on, so it was – you know, and I can’t – I mean, this happened regularly. I mean, it was not a one-time event.
FOX: And the same is true irrespective of what field you’re writing in. If it’s, you know, an old comic book artist, a novelist – you name it, he’s a true post-modern renaissance man. And the only hazard in that for us, the writer, is he’s so wildly enthusiastic, load you up with stuff, you got to read this, you got to read that, you got to call these five people? And you say, Jeff, I have to file this story by 6 o’clock.
DAVIES: So someone – you make a request and someone brings over an old, brown envelope with clippings?
FOX: That’s right. As you see in the film, our stalwart news clerk Dan Slotnik goes to the morgue which is just a few doors down from us, a few doors east of us on 40th Street, so it’s just a two-minute walk. But he does have to do it in all weathers.
DAVIES: And talk about opening these folders and looking at those clips. How important are they?
WEBER: Well, it’s – Margo uses the word lovingly in the film to describe how we handle them. I mean, there really is, you know – I don’t know why this is, but reading old clips from The Times somehow is more informative than reading the digital version that you can find on the web, that somehow, you know, you’ve got the picture next to it, sometimes you’ve got an advertisement next to the story that places the time period in context.
You know, you open one of these folders with all of these clips in it and yellowed clippings from the 1950s or the 1960s, and suddenly you’re back there. In your own head, you’re back there, which doesn’t happen when you look up the stuff on the web.
FOX: That’s right. And when we did move to our new skyscraper in 2007, some bean counter at the paper who had probably never read a newspaper in his life said, oh, well, we’re going to disband the morgue. It’s too expensive to bring it over – the usual kind of economy. And we in Obits in particular put up a hue and cry and threatened to lie down in front of any truck that was going to take our morgue away because their argument that, oh, well, you can get everything electronically now absolutely doesn’t hold water for us. There are treasures in those morgue files – old press releases, old telegrams, old cast biographies from Playbill that a morgue attendant or some editor thought was worth filing. And there are things that will never be seen again electronically.
DAVIES: I thought we’d listen to a moment in the documentary when Jeff Roth, who manages the morgue of old clips and photos of The New York Times, talks about coming across a photo of the folk singer Pete Seeger at age 2. He’s sitting on his dad’s lap. His father’s playing an old keyboard, and his mom is playing fiddle at a Caravan concert tour in the South. So let’s listen to him talk about finding this shot.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, “OBITS”)
ROTH: It’s kind of the typical thing where, OK, you’re thumbing through the card catalog, and I might’ve been looking for some other Seeger, and I see Charles Seeger. And I know Charles Seeger. Oh, that’s Pete’s pop. So I was looking through it just purely for my own interest. And, wow, there’s, like, the Seeger family. It’s Professor Charles Louis Seeger with wife and children giving an open-air concert at camp at Washington in their tour like minstrels of olden time, June 4, 1921. So there’s Peter. That’s Pete Seeger. I always kept saying, hey, when he dies, you should use or you should look at that picture because no one’s going to have it. And no one did have it because we paid 10 bucks for it, Times Wide World 1921. You know, once it ran in the paper and on the website, the whole world sees it. And so it changes the story, and it changes your perspective. Here’s Pete, 2 years old, and his family is already going down South, trying to figure out old songs. And so that’s – literally his life is there from the very beginning.
DAVIES: And that’s Jeff Roth of The New York Times from the new documentary about The Times obituary department called “Obit.” You know, I checked, and indeed, when Pete Seeger died, I think in 2014, that photo was used.
WEBER: Yes, it was. It’s also one of my favorite moments in the film. It’s extremely touching because you’ve got that picture in front of you and a really lovely exegesis by Jeff there.
FOX: And it absolutely encapsulates in photographs what we runners try to do in words, which is for a day, anyway, to re-animate the past and re-animate a person. The best compliment one can ever hope to receive as an obit writer is when someone writes to us and says, I didn’t know so-and-so, but from your obit, I wish I had. Or better still, I didn’t know so-and-so, but from your obit, I felt I did.
GROSS: We’re listening to the interview FRESH AIR’s Dave Davies recorded with Margalit Fox and Bruce Weber about writing obituaries for The New York Times. They’re both featured in the new documentary “Obit” about The Times obituary department. After a break, they’ll talk about some of the most memorable obits they’ve written, including an obit for a fellow Times writer. And Ken Tucker will review Kendrick Lamar’s new album. I’m Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. Let’s get back to the interview FRESH AIR’s Dave Davies recorded with Bruce Weber and Margalit Fox, who have each written more than a thousand obituaries for The New York Times. They’re both featured in the new documentary “Obit” about The New York Times obituary department. Weber has left the paper, and Fox is writing advance obituaries of notable people for future use.
DAVIES: You write a lot about powerful and influential people. Do their relatives or associates or staff try and spin you?
FOX: Absolutely. And one of the fascinating things in doing this job is people who have been in the public eye all their life – politicians, Hollywood stars – have a publicist. And so they will get this one last act of spin control, even in death, which I find fascinating. You can take it with you. And we will get glossy press kits about the dear departed.
WEBER: Yeah. Sometimes the families are pretty activist. You know, I’ve had wives and brothers call me to make sure that I was including something and not including something else. You know, I wrote a lot about writers and performers.
And there were several occasions on which I included dreadful reviews. And – because the reviews themselves were famous. And that resulted in quite a bit of blowback from family and friends. Why did you have to bring that up in the obituary? That kind of thing.
FOX: We will very often come in the day an obit runs to the voicemail light on our phone and screaming invective from a family member calling us bad journalists, calling us every name in the book. And when you calm yourself down and steel yourself to listen to the voicemail again because if you’ve made a mistake, it has to be corrected, you realize that the family member is not identifying any objective corrective – correctible matter of fact that you’ve gotten wrong. It’s simply that they wanted a eulogy and what they got instead was a balanced news article.
DAVIES: Yeah. There are a lot of ways to tell a story. Do you spend time calling them back? I mean, you’ve got to get on to the next day’s project, right?
FOX: I’m not going to waste my time calling back someone who has called me a bad journalist and every name in the book that I can’t say on the radio because that’s a fruitless argument. They’ve already made up their mind. And they’ve made up their mind to be disappointed by a warts-and-all profile. They wanted a fawning encomium that said their departed family member was the best person in the world.
WEBER: I tended to call people back, allow them to vent into my ear if they wanted to. If it made them feel better, you know, it was OK with me. You know, I could get my dander up as well. When somebody calls you up and starts calling you names, you know, my pride kicks in and I sometimes call back to defend myself, so.
DAVIES: OK. Some famous people have obituaries that are pre-written. We learn in the documentary 1,700, I believe, have been done.
WEBER: I think it might be up to 1,800 now.
DAVIES: OK, so they’re still working on them. And Margalit, now, you’re – this is primarily what you do now I gather?
FOX: This is primarily what I do after 13 happy but frenetic years in the trenches writing the kind of daily obit that we see Bruce and Paul Vitello do in the documentary. And that’s what gives you gray hairs and high blood pressure. I very happily last summer made an arrangement with the paper to do only the kinds of obits that are written in advance.
So I still write every day but I’m not beholden to the ticking clock and the 6 o’clock deadline the way I was on daily for 13 years. So I have many fewer bylines but my blood pressure literally went down about 30 points.
DAVIES: (Laughter) Well, and I would also imagine it will allow you to actually get out of the office. I mean, when you’re doing daily obits, I just – the pressure means you’re probably almost always just on the phone.
FOX: That’s right. And one still is with advance obits simply because budgetary constraints preclude our traveling around to interview our subjects when they are still alive, although we do try to do that on the telephone wherever possible. And that, in itself, is as you can imagine a fascinating social situation.
There is no Emily Post for how you call someone up and say in effect, hello, I’m a stranger. You don’t know me but I’d like to ask you about some fairly revealing details of your life. And then when you die because I know you will sooner or later, I’m going to put them where a million people can see them.
WEBER: Clyde Haberman, a former columnist and longtime reporter at the paper had the odd assignment of writing the advance obituary of Punch Sulzberger, the former publisher at the Times who died a couple years ago. And Clyde tells a story of going up to Punch’s apartment and sitting down and saying, Punch, I got to tell you, I feel awfully uneasy about this. And Punch looked at him and said, you?
DAVIES: Yeah. I’m going to ask each of you if you can think of an obituary. And I know this is hard because you’ve both done – what? – a thousand of these or something some like that.
WEBER: Something like that.
FOX: At least.
DAVIES: One that is memorable in some way because you loved the lead or, I don’t know, something that was particularly noteworthy about it. Margalit, something come to mind?
FOX: Well, the kind of person that obit writers love best are not the presidents and kings and the people in the history books because while important, everybody knows what they did already. The kind of person we love best are these unsung backstage players, the men and women who are by no means household names but who nevertheless did something that changed the world.
And I think one of my favorite subjects was a Holocaust survivor who was a Hungarian named Los Lobuch (ph). He survived Auschwitz, came to this country, Americanized his name to Leslie Buck, worked for a paper cup company. Well, one day back at mid-century, he realized that his clients were Greek coffee shop owners in New York.
So what did he do? He designed a paper cup with a Grecian theme with the Greek urn going down the side and the three little golden coffee cups and the words we are happy to serve you. And that cup, which was known as the Anthora, became an emblem of New York City. It was copied. You could get the likeness of it on T-shirts.
It was in “Kojak” and “Law & Order” practically every week. And it was the cup that New Yorkers drank their takeout coffee from for generations. And it can be traced back to one man having an idea in 1950-something. And the Times liked the story so much, they put it on the front page.
WEBER: I’m going to – I’m going to contradict something Margo (ph) just said because my favorite obituary – not necessarily my most memorable one but my favorite was Yogi Berra. You know, I grew up with – as a Yankee fan with Yogi. And, of course, he was not only one of the great ballplayers of the, you know, in Yankee history and in baseball history but he was, you know, also one of the great characters.
And the paper let me run long with the obit. They ran it I think at close to 4,000 words. And it got a wonderful amount of attention. And the reader mail was hilarious. And it was very – it was very satisfying. And it was really a lot of fun to write. So there was that one. And then the other memorable ones were the celebrities who died unexpectedly, you know, the well-known people who died unexpectedly. I’m thinking of Philip Seymour Hoffman…
WEBER: …Who died on Super Bowl Sunday and – or was found dead on Super Bowl Sunday. David Foster Wallace, who took his own life. And maybe most alarmingly and most vividly for me, David Carr, who died in the Times newsroom at 9 o’clock at night. I had a completed obituary at 11:59. It was the most frenetic two hours in my 30 years at The New York Times.
DAVIES: We’re speaking with two veteran obituary writers, Bruce Weber and Margalit Fox. They’ve both spent many years writing obituaries for The New York Times. They’re featured in a new documentary about the Times obituary department called “Obit.” It has opened in New York and will be opening across the country. We’ll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we’re speaking with Bruce Weber and Margalit Fox, both veteran obituary writers for The New York Times. They are featured in a new documentary called “Obit” which is opening across the country.
Is there a competition among obituary writers. I mean, I worked at a paper. You know, you want the good ones. How does that work?
FOX: We’re very lucky. We like to say obits is the jolliest section in the paper. It’s a very amicable department. And there is never the worry about robbing from Peter to pay Paul in terms of one writer getting an assignment and the others not because there is always enough death to go around.
WEBER: We’ve also – the editor of the department, Bill McDonald, is extremely skilled at spreading around the good stuff. So the – pretty much everybody gets a chance to, you know, to hit it out of the park from time to time.
DAVIES: I wonder if you compete for finding the fascinating but obscure deaths, I mean, the woman who invented stovetop stuffing or the beehive hairdo. Those are both ones that I think one or both of you did.
WEBER: I did the beehive.
FOX: And I did the stuffing.
WEBER: I will say this, that Margo is the queen of the oddball obituary. I mean, she’s just marvelous at it. And I think she ends up doing more of them than most of us at the time. She’s extremely skilled at creating, you know, that wrinkle in the fabric of society that we talk about in making the case for, say, the woman who invented stovetop stuffing or the guy who invented the television remote.
There’s – but, you know, I don’t know that we look for them, do we? I mean, they sort of arrive. They arrive on your desk and then you think, oh, I can do something with that.
FOX: They are presented to us by the gods. And obit writing is really about responding to something that is truly in the lap of the gods. And we do wonder, as Bruce says in the film, whom they’re going to deliver each day.
Now, the gods were particularly kind to us with the inventor of stovetop stuffing who was a home economist in the Midwest named Ruth Siems – S-I-E-M-S. And God bless her, she had the good grace to die right before Thanksgiving. And so we were able to put her obit in the paper Wednesday of Thanksgiving week.
DAVIES: So what do you tell us about her besides the singular fact of her invention?
FOX: Well, we contextualize it. You do the bit of reporting. I called up the company that made stovetop stuffing and I said, so tell me how many boxes of the stuff are sold at Thanksgiving season. Would anyone care to hazard a guess? It’s something like 30 million that week alone.
FOX: And so there is someone who for good or ill, depending on your gastronomic taste, did something that changed the way the culture celebrates a national holiday.
DAVIES: You know, I can remember the days before the Internet when you had a full day to complete a story and wrap it up. I mean, now, you know, online presence has changed all of that. How does – that must affect your work a lot. I mean, you’ve got to get something up online long before your newspaper deadline.
WEBER: Yeah, particularly when when there’s an unexpected celebrity death. The – if we don’t have anything, I mean, if there is no advance it’s a problem because people expect to see news of the event and an appreciation of the person that the culture has just lost almost instantaneously.
So what often happens is that the – on the obits desk, we are pressured to write in bits. Give us a lead. Give us the next graph. Give us – you know, so you will often see during during the day that the – an obituary going up on the Times website in increments. It’s my least favorite way to work but…
FOX: That’s right. And when you dear readers see that italic line at the end of a brief obit saying a fuller obit will follow, that line is actually pronounced some poor so-and-so like Bruce or me is sitting, sweating, rapidly becoming more alcoholic by the minute, tearing his or her graying hair out trying to get that full obit online in a matter of minutes.
DAVIES: Wow. And in the industry generally, there are fewer obituaries and obituary writers, right?
WEBER: Yeah, that’s true. The Los Angeles Times recently abolished their obits department. The Washington Post, I think, has – is beginning to beef up their department under Jeff Bezos. But aside from the Times and the Post, I don’t know – I don’t know how many other papers in the United States keep full-time obit obituarists (ph) and obituaries editors on staff.
FOX: There are very few, as Bruce said. The default position on a paper is general assignment reporters are expected to write obits. And as is still the case in our pages, beat writers on whatever beat are de facto expected to write obits. So if a major choreographer dies, our section head Bill McDonald may approach one of the dance critics. And if he doesn’t have time to write the obit, then it will devolve on one of us. But indeed, the really poignant subtext to Vanessa Gould’s marvelous documentary is that it’s kind of a meta obituary for the art of obituary writing itself.
DAVIES: A dying art, so to speak. You’ve both done a lot of things besides write obituaries, including writing books. You know, Margalit, you’re trained as a linguist, and you’ve written books and, Bruce, you wrote this book about umpires and about riding a bike across the country and other things. I’m wondering how writing so many obituaries has affected you. Do you think more about your own mortality?
FOX: Well, it’s interesting. Most people say, yes, I am adamant in the other direction. We invariably get that question in any interviews we do. And I would smack my hand on the table if I could get away with it just now and say this is the worst kind of determinism and must be stopped. It would never occur to anyone to ask a dance writer, do you pirouette down the hall on your way to work every day or to ask a Wall Street reporter do you shake out your piggy bank and count the coins each night? Likewise, no one should even think of asking a obit writer, do you think about death all the time, because as I hope we and the film have made clear, it’s almost never about death. It’s about the life.
WEBER: Margo’s answer is far more sophisticated and thoughtful than mine would be, which is, you know, exactly the opposite. I think about mortality all the time.
FOX: You’re older than I am.
DAVIES: And more since you wrote all these obituaries?
WEBER: Yeah, I would think so. I think it’s a good thing that – I mean, the obits department at The Times is far and away the oldest in the paper. I mean, the oldest in terms of average age of the people who are in it. And I think that’s appropriate because we’re, you know, we’ve lived through a lot of the history that the people we’re writing about have made.
So we have that perspective. But I also think that one of the things that happens in – when you’re writing obituaries is that you get to – you know, it’s the daily assessment of a life that kind of lands on you, the idea that you are making a judgment on what deserves to be remembered. And I don’t think you can help turning that light back on yourself and wonder about your own life and what about it deserves to be remembered. So I’m OK with the question, Dave, even if Margo is not.
FOX: Oh, I like the question, but it just makes me cranky.
DAVIES: Well, Bruce Weber, Margalit Fox, thanks so much for speaking with us.
FOX: Thank you.
WEBER: Our pleasure, man.
GROSS: Bruce Weber and Margalit Fox are featured in the new documentary “Obit” about The New York Times obituary desk. They spoke with FRESH AIR’s Dave Davies, who is also WHYY’s senior reporter. After a break, Ken Tucker will review Kendrick Lamar’s new album. This is FRESH AIR.
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