Monthly Archives: April 2017

The Journalists Who Wring Life Out Of Death: ‘Obit’


Obit profiles the Obituaries desk of The New York Times, where journalists distill whole lifetimes into 800 words.

Kino Lorber


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Kino Lorber

Obit profiles the Obituaries desk of The New York Times, where journalists distill whole lifetimes into 800 words.

Kino Lorber

They say everyone dies twice: once when they take their last breath, and again when their name is spoken aloud for the last time. The heartfelt and unshakable new documentary Obit, a profile of the Obituaries section at the New York Times, considers the people who have devoted their professions to extending the period between those two deaths. A well-crafted obituary will enshrine its subject in the collective memory, but it’s a balance between sentimental eulogy and tough reportage. Says one of the interviewees, “We put word limits on human beings.”

Director Vanessa Gould was inspired to make her film after the Times ran an obituary on a friend of hers, the reclusive French sculptor Eric Joisel, whom she featured in her first documentary Between the Folds. And though Gould never reveals herself on camera, it is abundantly clear that Obit was made by someone who, to paraphrase featured obituarist Bruce Weber, has encountered death before and knows how to approach the subject with compassion. This caring eye is the movie’s secret strength, the thing that elevates it from a morbid exercise in nostalgia to a touching inquiry on the nature of public legacy amid the ceaseless march of time.

Gould follows a day in the lives of the Times Obits desk, a team of around a half-dozen writers, editors, and researchers who go to work every morning and ask, “Who died?” Then it’s a mad scramble to get a meaningful 800-word summary of the winner’s life into the paper before deadline. The day unfolds as a series of ordained tasks: first, consoling the grieving next-of-kin over the phone, while extracting from them the most basic, unpleasant facts of the moment (time and cause of death, past marriages, medical history). Then it’s off to the “morgue,” the name for the Times archival room housing decades’ worth of clippings on thousands of people, shelved among endless rows of filing cabinets. Formerly staffed by a team of researchers, the “morgue” today is run by just one person, Jeff Roth. Gould’s camera follows him in tie and rolled-up sleeves as he moves across the aisles and skims his fingers along yellowed pages, marveling at his kingdom of the past.

Obit is the third documentary to be granted permission to film inside the Times offices, the others being the generalist state-of-the-news report Page One and Bill Cunningham New York, a profile of the celebrated photographer (whose own obituary flashes briefly here). Both Cunningham and the subjects of Page One, David Carr and Brian Stelter, were charismatic onscreen presences. The Obit writers themselves — including Weber and Margalit Fox, a trained cellist who writes marvelously, but speaks in cliches like “robbing Peter to pay Paul” — are not. And so we learn very little of them outside the newsroom, which is perhaps for the best, even if it does create the impression that the folks doing this work are well-read Grim Reapers. (One former obit writer, Doug Martin, wryly complains he never gets to meet the subjects he covers.)

Instead, Gould and her editor Kristen Bye accentuate the prose in question with crisply edited video of the obituary subjects’ lives, both on their own terms and, in poetic bookending montages, weaved into the larger narrative of the past century of human history. Ironically, given that most of the film is set in a quiet office, it shows a preference for daredevils: prominent position is given to oarsman John Fairfax, who conquered both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and aviator Elinor Smith, who set numerous flying records as a 16-year-old pilot. In fact, Smith beat her own odds in the Times, which, way back in 1931, had prepped an “advance obituary” (a write-up of a person’s life while they’re still alive) in the event she had gone down with her plane during a particularly gnarly stunt. The film is lighter on faces of color, and Fox’s explanation of why so many of her subjects are white males seems to open a door that Gould is unwilling to enter.

When discussions turn to moments of obit history, like the time the team had only a couple hours to react to the death of Michael Jackson before going to press, the film cannot help but serve as its own advance obituary for the age of newsprint. Its descriptions of the thrills of beating a deadline or arguing over whether a person’s life deserves “the front page” or “above the fold” feel like another enshrinement of a dying era. Those things still matter, as do those steadfast word limits — for now. And the measure of a human feels more noteworthy when it’s eating up some limited quantity of space on a page, instead of a couple of kilobytes in the infinite void of the Internet, where everything is both immortal and easily forgotten.

But the printed quietude won’t last, as obituaries are beginning to suffer from the same breakneck pace as the rest of the modern news cycle, and are therefore expected to appear instantaneously with the first TMZ banner. When Philip Seymour Hoffman died on a Sunday morning in 2014 at the age of 46, readers were complaining that a piece hadn’t written itself immediately. Meanwhile, the paper that’s willing to run such attentive cradle-to-grave articles continues to face its own challenges. Weber himself has taken a buyout from the Times since Obit‘s premiere at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival—though many of his advance obituaries will continue to appear as his subjects take their leave from the world stage, including, just this week, his deeply reported and thoughtful remembrance of director Jonathan Demme. Watching Obit, and then reading that obit, makes clear another old truism: there is much life to be found when one looks at death.

A Behind-The-Scenes Couple Get Star Treatment In ‘Harold And Lillian’


Howard and Lillian: A True Hollywood Love Story chronicles the marriage of Lillian and Howard Michelson, who triumphed over challenges that have doomed many Hollywood couples.

Zeitgeist Films


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Zeitgeist Films

Howard and Lillian: A True Hollywood Love Story chronicles the marriage of Lillian and Howard Michelson, who triumphed over challenges that have doomed many Hollywood couples.

Zeitgeist Films

What it is like to be married in Hollywood? We have a good idea about what it’s like to be divorced in Hollywood, we’ve seen famous couples run aground by egos and scandal, and we’re well-versed in the ups-and-downs of a lifestyle where fortunes vary and relationship are jostled like luggage on a turbulent flight. The beautiful documentary Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story celebrates a marriage and creative partnership that lasted six decades in the business, one that survived stretches of poverty and joblessness, catastrophic injury and alcoholism, and the challenges of raising an autistic son at a time when “refrigerator mothers” were blamed for the condition. Bottom line: A Hollywood marriage can be sublime and inspiring, but it’s always an adventure.

Though well-known and beloved by their peers, Harold and Lillian Michelson had the sorts of jobs that are often so far below the line that they’re not credited at all. As a production designer and art director, Harold would eventually earn Academy Award nominations for Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Terms of Endearment, but for the bulk of his career, dating back to an apprenticeship at Columbia Pictures in the late ’40s, he worked the art department as a concept illustrator and storyboard artist. Despite a passion for books and a formidable intellect — she was a spelling bee champion in her youth — Lillian stayed home and raised their three children until the early ’60s, when Harold was brought onto the lot at Samuel Goldwyn. He helped land her a volunteer position in the research library across the street, and a second career was born.

Only the most hardcore cinephiles have heard of the Michelsons, but even casual viewers are familiar with their work. Harold’s talent for adjusting his storyboards for different camera lenses and telling stories shot-by-shot is readily apparent in sword-and-sandal epics like The Ten Commandments, Ben Hur, and Spartacus, and he worked side-by-side with Alfred Hitchcock on The Birds and Marnie, two of the master’s most strikingly composed films. One of the most famous shots in cinema history — Benjamin Braddock framed by Mrs. Robinson’s leg in The Graduate — appeared first on Harold’s sketchbook before it was immortalized on screen. He wouldn’t start collecting more prominent credits until later, when he worked in production design and/or art direction for filmmakers like Mel Brooks and Danny DeVito.

For her part, Lillian toiled in the research department, where she quietly unearthed the specific period details and bric-a-brac that would lend real-world authenticity to Hollywood fictions. In Harold and Lillian, she describes the extraordinary lengths she would go to get things right, like querying old Jewish women at a deli to find out what 1890s bloomers looked like for Fiddler on the Roof or pressing ex- (and current) drug lords and DEA agents for information relevant to Scarface. When asked the impossible, like getting photos from inside CIA headquarters, she could deliver. She talks about research as a “time machine” that allows her to access other worlds, much as she did as a five-year-old orphan in Miami Beach.

Lillian’s voice carries the documentary — Harold died in 2008, though he left a wealth of interview footage behind — and collaborators like DeVito (who also executive-produced), Brooks, and Francis Ford Coppola offer themselves as talking heads, along with other researchers, storyboard artists and technicians in the field. Harold’s extensive illustrations of their lives together — including a marvelous tradition of homemade birthday and anniversary cards, adorned by sweet poems and artwork — give Harold and Lillian all the visual panache it needs, much like a real-life version of the side-by-side comparisons between his storyboards and a finished sequence.

The stories Lillian tells are a treasure-trove of personal and professional anecdotes, doubling as a side history of Hollywood itself. But Harold and Lillian is most affecting as a tribute to their marriage, which was full of romance and hardship and uncertainty, but built from the beginning on mutual respect and enthusiasm. “You must have shared experiences for a marriage to have some kind of soil to grow on,” she says, offering a key insight into why so many Hollywood marriages struggle to last. In a business where individual success waxes and wanes, and each new production is a job that will eventually be lost, the Michelsons rode out its crazy vicissitudes with something approaching harmony and grace. Theirs is a model few will ever get to follow.

‘BANG! The Bert Berns Story': The Complicated Man Behind ‘Twist And Shout’


Bert Berns (left) and Jerry Wexler (right) wrote The Drifters’ “I Don’t Want to Go On Without You” in 1964. (But when the music business drove them apart, they did anyway.)

Abramorama


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Bert Berns (left) and Jerry Wexler (right) wrote The Drifters’ “I Don’t Want to Go On Without You” in 1964. (But when the music business drove them apart, they did anyway.)

Abramorama

There are many explanations for Bertrand Russell Berns’ relative obscurity. The subject of Bang! The Bert Berns Story flopped as a performer, and so turned to songwriting and producing. He sometimes composed under aliases such as Bert Russell and Russell Byrd. And several of his tunes became associated with their performers, who were widely assumed to have written them.

Also, Berns died young, succumbing to the long-term effects of childhood rheumatic fever at 38. It was 1967, and rock ‘n’ roll was just beginning to be chronicled by sympathetic observers.

So Berns is less remembered than his songs, which include “Piece of My Heart,” “Tell Him,” and “Here Comes the Night.” These were all written during an eight-year run whose first success was the Jarmels’ 1961 “A Little Bit of Soap.” The soap, the group sang, “will never wash away the tears” — a Berns motif. A child of Russian Jewish immigrants and the polyglot Bronx, Berns wrote almost as many weepies as Appalachia’s Hank Williams.

It’s a compelling story, told unobtrusively by directors Brett Berns — the musician’s son — and Bob Sarles. The documentary may not have widespread appeal, but should engross viewers who know the songs but not the man behind them.

Berns was one of many white (and mostly Jewish) New Yorkers who in the early 1960s wrote and produced for African American performers. These acts included the Drifters, Solomon Burke, Ben E. King, Garnett Mimms, the Exciters, and the Isley Brothers, who scored with “Twist and Shout,” a song to which co-writer Berns brought the Afro-Cuban beat he loved.

Among Berns’ peers and collaborators were Mike Stoller, Jeff Barry, Brooks Arthur, Richard Gottehrer, Jerry Ragavoy, and the late Ellie Greenwich, all of whom appear in Bang! Another associate was Atlantic Records’ Jerry Wexler, who became a nemesis after Berns’ BANG! Records proved a strong competitor. (Atlantic actually backed BANG!, whose name was derived from the initials of Berns and the label’s ruling troika: Ahmet Ertegun, Nesuhi Ertegun, and Gerald Wexler.)

After his songs began to be covered by British rock bands, Berns did three stints in London, working with Lulu and Them, whose singer was Van Morrison. That led to Berns’ production of Morrison’s first solo album. In Bang!, Morrison, Paul McCartney, and Keith Richards all extol Berns’ gifts and influence.

Although his preference was for R&B, Berns also launched the careers of Rick Derringer (then with The McCoys) and Neil Diamond. The latter is probably not a Berns fan. After Diamond asked to be released from his BANG! contract, one of his gigs was disrupted and his manager was assaulted.

A coincidence? Bang! is no exposé, but it doesn’t ignore Berns’ links to gangsters. One of them, Carmine DeNoia, even appears on camera to recount some of his milder misdeeds. As befits his nickname — Wassel, a child-like mispronunciation of “Rascal” — he doesn’t appear all that scary. But Berns’ pals and protectors also included Tommy Eboli, acting boss of the Genovese crime clan.

Perhaps that connection is what inspired the filmmakers to enlist Steve Van Zandt to narrate the movie in a Sopranos-worthy growl. The cliche-loaded lines he speaks were written by Joel Selvin, who penned a 2014 Berns biography.

Fortunately, Van Zandt says less than Berns’ friends and family, notably wife Ilene, who outlived him by 40 years. Thuggish business practices aside, Berns seems to have inspired much love and admiration, partly by being color-blind in an industry that treated great black singers as hired help.

Of course, one way Berns endeared himself to such on-screen reminiscers as Cissy Houston, Ronald Isley, and the Exciters’ Brenda Reid was simply by giving them great songs to sing.

An Israeli Couple Haltingly Navigate Grief Over ‘One Week And A Day’


Zooler (Tomer Kapon) bonds with his grieving neighbor Eyal (Shai Avivi) in One Week and a Day.

Oscilloscope


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Zooler (Tomer Kapon) bonds with his grieving neighbor Eyal (Shai Avivi) in One Week and a Day.

Oscilloscope

Anyone who’s experienced grief more as a wild boat ride on stormy seas than as the scheduled five stages from denial to acceptance, will feel intimately spoken to by One Week and a Day, a trenchant first feature from the young Israeli writer-director Asaph Polonsky. Equal parts bracing and beguiling, Polonsky’s modestly budgeted movie addresses head-on the ungovernable confusion and raw emotion that attend one of the worst losses anyone can suffer — the death of a child. Yet it’s a comedy, with the great French comedy director Jacques Tati grinning discreetly in the rear-view mirror.

The story unfolds in a quiet Israeli suburb over 24 hours after the shiva, seven days of Jewish ritual mourning, have ended. Everyone leaves, the casseroles stop coming, and everything goes quiet in the house of Eyal and Vicky Spivak (played deadpan by Israeli comedian Shai Avivi and Russian-Israeli actress Jenya Dodina) as they struggle to process the death of their grown son Ronnie, presumably from cancer.

Straining what is clearly an affectionate marriage, the two veer off on separate tracks of crazed non-coping. While Vicky doggedly cleaves to known routines, Eyal, his face frozen into a steely glare, runs amok. He invites some open-mouthed tots over for an aggressive round of ping-pong; fights a cab driver for a bag of cannabis lifted from the hospice where his son spent his last days; slugs his next-door neighbors for having loud sex repeatedly within earshot. Mostly he hangs out with the neighbors’ son, Zooler (Tomer Kapon), a former friend of Ronnie’s and a rumpled eternal child who knows how to roll a joint, play air guitar while jumping on the coffee table, and, apparently, not too much more. For the time being, Eyal too is a kid, minus the charm.

In the boilerplate grief narrative, the bereaved go a little nuts; navigate a way through; closure ensues. For a while One Week and a Day seems to operate within that well-worn rubric, but closure is a foreign country here, and the tone moves from elegiac and antic. The actors follow the first rule of Tati — play everything absolutely straight, but especially the comedy. Polonsky’s pacing is as willfully choppy and disjointed as Eyal’s inner life. Often the movie feels as if it’s making itself up as it goes along, which is about right for a man who has completely lost his bearings. Resolutely non-psychological and spare with its sharply funny dialogue, One Week and a Day apprehends its walking wounded through their mood swings, their half-assed lurches into elaborate plans we can tell they’ll never complete. The soundtrack, too, runs all over the musical map, giving voice to the couple’s internal disarray and their desperate gambits to recover the meaning that has drained from their lives.

What’s so funny, and so sad, about Eyal is that he has no idea how badly he’s flailing. He goes about each cockamamie goose chase with grim-faced zeal, as if his life depended on it. Blinded by sorrow and rage, Eyal tries to bind his son inside himself, until at last he wakes up to the fact that he has quite literally lost the plot. It would ruin things if I told you how, but there comes at last a softening of sorts, and some inspiration from unexpected sources. In One Week and a Day it’s the young who are instinctively wise about how to take sorrow on board and live within and around it. As for Eyal, a prolonged moment of grace at the grave of a total stranger shows him that collective mourning rituals may offer solace after all. To say nothing of a cleansing shower and a falafel shared with someone he loves.

This Time, ‘Dear White People’ Is Not So Much About Them


Actresses Logan Browning (left) and Ashley Blaine Featherson appear in a scene from the Netflix show Dear White People.

Adam Rose/Netflix


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Actresses Logan Browning (left) and Ashley Blaine Featherson appear in a scene from the Netflix show Dear White People.

Adam Rose/Netflix

Don’t be distracted by the title of Netflix’s latest, button-pushing TV series, Dear White People.

Because, one look at this insightful, irreverent examination of race and society at an Ivy League college reveals it really doesn’t focus much on white folks at all.

Indeed, the title Dear White People is a bit of a head fake. This slyly assembled series is really about how a wide range of black and brown students at the fictional, predominantly white Winchester University deal with race, sexual orientation and other identity stuff in the modern age.

The show begins with a focus on the curiously-named Samantha White, head of the Black Student Union at Winchester. She’s also host of a provocative, socially-conscious campus radio show called Dear White People, which often speaks out on how students of color feel marginalized at the school.

“Dear white people,” Samantha says in one broadcast, “here’s a little tip. When you ask someone who looks ethnically different, ‘What are you?,’ the answer is usually, ‘A person about to slap the s—t out of you.'”

If you think these young people have a better handle on racial issues because they live in a more multicultural world, think again. One example: Samantha’s struggle in a conversation with her best friend Joelle, who is black, when word spreads on social media that Samantha is seeing a white man.

As someone murmurs caustically about “Miss Black Power with those white boys,” Samantha tries a half-hearted explanation: “You know I’m biracial, so technically…”

“Don’t,” says Joelle, who isn’t hearing it. “You’re not Rashida Jones biracial, you’re Tracee Ellis Ross biracial. People think of you as black.”

The show, which debuts Friday, is based on the award-winning 2014 indie film of the same name. It’s one of those rare film-to-TV translations where the series might be better than the movie — which was awfully good to begin with.

The film’s director, Justin Simien, also crafted the TV show, and it is a triumph, with one storyline telling the events of a single, scandalous party from different points of view over several episodes. As wry narrator Giancarlo Esposito explains, it was a “racially insensitive party” – an event where white students dressed in blackface.

But Dear White People doesn’t just satirize white cluelessness. Shy student journalist Lionel, who is black and gay, encounters a succession of black people who use homophobic slurs around him, unaware of his sexual orientation.

Then his editor at the student newspaper, who is also gay, asks Lionel if he is attracted to men.

“Let me guess…you’re in the crush on your straight roommate phase?” the editor asks. “How can you hope to arrive at a truth when you can’t find your own? Trust me…find your label.”

But for students — especially students of color — college can be a perfect time to question those labels. It’s a moment to challenge all those things friends, parents or society dictate about what it means to be black. Or gay. Or anything else.

Dear White People is a pop culture-savvy, sometimes explicit, always entertaining look at that process. It’s the perfect series for young people negotiating a world where struggles over identity grow more complex every day.

For ‘New York Times’ Obit Writers, ‘Death Is Never Solicitous Of A Deadline’




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.

DAVIES: (Laughter).

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.

(LAUGHTER)

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.

DAVIES: (Laughter).

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.

WEBER: Right.

DAVIES: Do you feel a weight about that?

WEBER: Yeah, Dave. Thanks for bringing this up.

(LAUGHTER)

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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.

DAVIES: Wow.

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?

(LAUGHTER)

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…

DAVIES: Right.

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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.

DAVIES: OK.

(LAUGHTER)

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.

DAVIES: (Laughter).

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.

DAVIES: Bruce.

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.

WEBER: (Laughter).

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.

WEBER: (Laughter).

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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‘The Radium Girls’ Is Haunted By Glowing Ghosts


In 1888, the match girls of London went on strike.

Their reason was a particularly horrifying working condition: ingesting phosphorus. A girl with “phossy jaw” would literally glow in the dark as her jawbone slowly disintegrated. This strike was a fight for their lives. Against expectations, they won — a watershed for Victorian industrial workers. Later strikers invoked the match girls as inspiration; girls who’d come together so something so dangerous couldn’t happen again.

But no one told Mollie Maggia about the match girls before she went to the United States Radium Corporation in New Jersey, just after World War I. She painted glowing numbers on dials with their radium paint, licking her paintbrush for accuracy as she’d been taught, and it killed her.

Maggia was the first of the girls at USRC to die in agony from radium poisoning, but far from the last. And the horror at the heart of Kate Moore’s Radium Girls lies in the way doctors, the company, and the law failed these women as they sought justice for the lives they were losing.

The book, infuriating for necessary reasons, traces the women at two dial-making factories — the USRC in New Jersey, and Radiant Dial in Illinois. And Radium Girls spares us nothing of their suffering; though at times the foreshadowing reads more like a true-crime story, Moore is intent on making the reader viscerally understand the pain in which these young women were living, and through which they had to fight in order to get their problems recognized.

And honestly, the true-crime parallels might be warranted. The fact that the radium girls faced the same battles as their Victorian predecessors is less surprising when you consider how many of those battles are still happening: Adequate health care, adequate compensation, and — crucially — effective worker protections through a legal system designed to favor corporations. Radium killed these young women, but Moore leaves no room for misunderstanding: The companies murdered them.

The history of business is a history of violence. The worst descriptions of disease (and I’ll be surprised if you don’t run your tongue across your teeth at least once) can’t match the fatal callousness of the companies that knew the dangers of radium long before they ever admitted them. There’s a reason Moore repeatedly notes the girls’ phosphorescence as ghostly; the companies knew they were doomed. (Radiant Dial tested its girls and never gave them their results, even as internal correspondence was sorting them by radiation levels to see who’d be first to die.)

The outrages don’t stop there, of course; this book’s awash in crooked doctors, shameless lawyers, and company men. But though Moore’s carefully sketches the lives and friendships of the women affected, the companies emerge as the most vivid characters — villains that would seem cartoonishly evil, except for how familiar it all sounds. (A New Jersey dentist who treated several afflicted women went to USRC looking for a payout for his silence, since it was “customary for experts to testify for the people who pa[y] them.”)

At moments, Moore’s narrative style and passion for the radium girls’ story can tip over into an odd hard sell; she writes of one of the women, “She is still remembered now — you are still remembering her now,” as if afraid we won’t put this story in a wider context otherwise. But Radium Girls is frighteningly easily to set in a wider context. The story of real women at the mercy of businesses who see them only as a potential risk to the bottom line is haunting precisely because of how little has changed; the glowing ghosts of the radium girls haunt us still.

Genevieve Valentine’s latest novel is Icon.

In ‘Walkaway,’ A Blueprint For A New, Weird (But Better) World


Here’s the thing I love about Cory Doctorow: No one is weirder than he is.

And I don’t mean run-of-the-mill weird. I don’t mean personally weird (though he might be, I don’t know him), but as a writer? Super-weird in the best possible way. And he’s deep-weird, not gimmicky-weird. Weird in the sense that he has done the math, calculated the forking paths, and is presenting to you a world which isn’t just amusing and borderline plausible, but a dispatch from next Tuesday.

His novels read less like speculation than prediction — a hardcore nerd’s careful read on technology and biology and entropy, impeccably sourced and, in their own way, as real and present and hopeful as the augury of a Bizarro World Cassandra with carpal tunnel and grease under her nails.

Walkaway is his newest, and it is remarkable. It’s one of those books that I don’t want to describe at all, because doing so would ruin the new car smell of stepping into a fresh-off-the-lot universe. It would sour the joy of getting face-punched over and over again by the utopian/dystopian ideas, theories, arguments and philosophies that Doctorow lays down. It would, in short, wreck the fun.

But let’s do this, okay? I’m going to tell you the basics. Because going in, there are some things you should know. Walkaway is, as the title suggests, a story of abandonment. Of giving up an old thing for something new, risky and beautiful. In the near future, the world (more specifically, Canada) is a mess. Global ecological catastrophes, refugee crises, out of control wealth disparity — it’s all come true. Basically take the front page of any newspaper today, fast forward by a decade or so, and you’re at home in Walkaway.

Enter Hubert, Etc. (so-called because of his 19 middle names) and his buddy Seth. They’re both poor, slightly over-the-hill scenesters refusing to give up on the tatters of their fading youth. Borderline survivors of a post-scarcity world and a gig economy gone full-tilt dysto, they show up at a “Communist Party” being thrown by Natalie, renegade daughter of a super-rich family (zottarich in Doctorow-ese) who is an expert at taking over old industrial spaces, sweet-talking the mothballed machinery into operation, adding a DJ and some 3D printers and making a free-for-all rave of it.

The cops come. Drones descend. Bad things happen. Natalie, Etcetera and Seth flee and, in short order, decide that they’re sick of The Man and The Man’s rules and they’re just gonna, you know, walk away.

They’re not the first. Doctorow’s world is one where most people live in “Default” — as in the default reality of cities, bills, jobs, whatever. But in between these spirit-crushing bastions of old thought and old rules are a million miles of everything else. Fields. Wildflowers. Entire abandoned cities left to rot. And in Doctorow’s fantasy, it is into these spaces that all the world’s smart people and capable people and pissed-off people have gone.

“The point of Walkaway is the first days of a better nation,” says one of Doctorow’s characters. Says many of them, actually. That’s the recurring belief-system on which the book runs. It is the story of precisely this — what comes after the slow-burn apocalypse we all secretly fear is coming, how it will work, how it will all go wrong and how it will get made right again with drones, wet printers and elbow grease. It’s like the Genesis story of a world not yet here, but maybe dangerously close. After the flood, this is how we rebuilt …

And yes, it sometimes reads like a series of philosophical set-pieces stitched together with drone fights and lots of sex. Like a Michael Bay movie if all the explosions were emotional. But the philosophy is fascinating and, somehow, rarely dull — because it, like Walkaway culture, revolves around sharing, fierce debate and open-sourced best practices. It is world-as-lesson-as-world. An anti-Atlas Shrugged. An origami argument that unfolds into a novel.

By my own (admittedly poor) math, it presents roughly ten thousand new, mind-bending and ground-breaking ideas per page. There are words in here that only otherwise exist in insular pockets of the maker/hacker/open source/thingiverse sub-sub-culture. In terms of its geek heroism, epic, generational scope and high stakes (only the survival of the human race, after all, and possibly the cure for death), the only literary comparison I can make is to Neal Stephenson’s hard science disaster masterpiece, Seveneves, but Walkaway is more human. More squishy and close to home.

It’s the story of a utopia in progress, as messy as every new thing ever is, told in the form of people talking to each other, arguing with each other and working together to solve problems. It’s all about the deep, disturbing, recognizable weirdness of the future that must come from the present we have already made for ourselves, trying to figure out what went wrong and what comes next.

Jason Sheehan knows stuff about food, videogames, books and Starblazers. He is currently the restaurant critic at Philadelphia magazine, but when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book.