People ask how I came to Texas. As I recall, it was in a 1948 Chevrolet. I’ve enjoyed it here. My first job was as a copy boy for the Morning News, then as a reporter on the business news desk. I well remember my first story. This will be my last.
The late Mr. Alexander is a tough act to follow, but after Buchmeyer wraps up his talk on emerging trends, it’s up to me to keep the spirit of Bob Hope alive and entertain the troops. I am, it seems, this year’s honored guest. It says so on the program and splashed across the big blowup photo beside my right ear.
Why me? It so happens that my first novel, just published by Mariner/Houghton Mifflin, is titled “The Obituary Writer.”
“You must have thought we were a bunch of crazies when we invited you out here,” Gilbert had said to me the evening before at a party at her mother’s well-appointed house in North Dallas.
“No, not at all,” I had lied. In fact I’d had no idea what to expect, though I had played out a number of scenarios, which ranged from offbeat entertainment to cult initiation. But I wasn’t into my second glass of wine — the pink stuff, a local favorite — before I realized that not only were these obituary aficionados perfectly harmless, they made excellent company. By the end of the evening we’d all gathered around the piano to hear Carolyn sing a soulful rendition of Rodgers and Hart’s “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.”
The final day of the conference is largely devoted to the best obits of the past year. But along the way there’s a good deal of discussion over questions of policy. What do people think about outdated photos? Are nicknames appropriate in an obituary? Should cause of death be a mandatory inclusion? To what extent does the cost of classified ads privilege the wealthy while excluding vast numbers of the population? Which newspapers require the use of maiden names and which follow the old-fashioned practice of printing only the husband’s surname?
This last question prompts Gilbert to mention a study by sociologist Robin Moremen of Northern Illinois University in Chicago, who found that the ratio on the obituary page of men to women ranged from 8-to-1 in the New York Times to 6-to-1 in Time and Newsweek to 2-to-1 in the Chicago Tribune. “When women receive equal salaries, equal access to all occupations, equal access to the top levels of management and equal treatment in the home,” Moremen writes, “then perhaps they will receive equal recognition after death.”
If indeed obituaries are meant to represent the public memory, as Janice Hume suggests in her recently published scholarly work, “Obituaries in American Culture,” what can be done to make the obituary page a truer reflection of a culture and time?
Summing up, the conferees restate a major point from last year’s conference: that too many young and inexperienced reporters are assigned to write obituaries. “It should be the best reporter on staff,” Ashlee Gilbert says. “You have to have all the tools of research and all the life experience. It should be an honor to do that.”
As San Antonio Express-News reporter Carmina Danini told the Dallas Morning News after last year’s conference: “This isn’t a case of the old woman becoming an obituary writer. Any chance I get I enjoy [writing obituaries]. It’s sort of like finding treasures in a person’s life.”
Those treasures, those telling details make up the final and most spirited hours of the conference, as we go around the room sharing our own favorite obituaries of the year.
Shirley Patterson reads the New York Times obituary of Gertrude Sanford Legendre, a former debutante who left high society to become a big-game hunter and who during World War II worked for the Office of Strategic Services, essentially as a spy. The first American woman captured in France, she was a prisoner of war for six months before escaping right under the noses of German guards. Legendre, who died at 97, recently said of herself, “I look ahead. I always have. I don’t contemplate life. I live it.”
The small-town doctor chooses a more behind-the-scenes figure: Kenneth C. Brugger, who achieved as much in his hobby as he did in his vocation. A textile engineer for Jockey International, he is widely credited with perfecting, if not inventing, the unshrinkable undershirt. At the same time, however, he remains a legendary figure among lepidopterists for discovering in the mountains of central Mexico the remote place where hundreds of millions of North American monarch butterflies spend the winter.
Buchmeyer is smitten by Hedy Lamarr. He well remembers his first year at the University of Texas standing in a long line at a downtown movie theater in Austin, waiting to see “Ecstasy.” It wasn’t long after the war, and Austin was among the few places in the United States to release the long-banned 1933 Czech film in which Lamarr appears nude in both a swimming and a lovemaking scene. Buchmeyer reads from her New York Times obituary, written by Richard Severo:
Hedy Lamarr, the raven-haired Viennese beauty who became one of the reigning temptresses in Hollywood films in the 1930s and 40′s … was found dead in her home in Orlando, Fla., yesterday. She was 86.
In (one) of her best-known roles, she gave Victor Mature the ultimate haircut in “Samson and Delilah,” Cecil B. DeMille’s 1949 epic. DeMille, who never overlooked the box-office potential of sexy women in the Bible and the actresses who played them, had a clinging gown made for her out of feathers from prize peacocks he kept.
When my turn comes, I do the predictable thing and talk for a while about a writer — Paul Bowles, who died in November at 88 in Tangier, Morocco. Most of the obituaries on Bowles begin by describing him as the “quintessential outsider,” and I talk about how all writers are to some extent outsiders, if not in the way they live at least in memory, and that readers, too, reading in isolation, connect with the writer through that same outsider feeling. I go on a bit too long with this train of thought and begin to feel I’m boring my fellow conferees, so I quickly switch gears to certain other aspects of Bowles’ life — the open marriage, the countless affairs, the pleasure-seeking experimentation.
As we continue around the room, I find, slipping off the pile of Carolyn Gilbert’s materials at the place next to me, the obituary of Hazel Bishop, 92, a research chemist who in 1950 invented the first kiss-proof lipstick. “Never again need you be embarrassed by smearing friends, children, relatives, husband, sweetheart,” read the early advertising for her product. Later this was simplified to “it stays on YOU … not on HIM!”
What draws me to this particular life story are the hidden details and bits of irony that characterize all great obituaries. Bishop’s only survivors are Randa Bishop (her name nearly a perfect contradiction of licentiousness and purity) and two nephews: Arthur Lipper and Michael Lipper (the lippers — of course). And best of all are the final paragraphs, written by Mary Tannen:
Described over the years as demure and trim, with hazel eyes and a weakness for hats, the woman who invented kissable lipstick never married. She said she felt the obligation, in her courting years, to keep her widowed mother company at home.
After she left the business, she still mixed up lipstick for herself, a red shade with a blue cast, and once offered the following beauty advice: “Women should use makeup to accentuate their most attractive feature. After the age of 25 or thereabouts, personality becomes an increasingly attractive feature.”
At the end of the conference we leave the cold, dark confines of the Ruth Lester Memorial and Playhouse and step outside into another cloudless 90-degree day. Carolyn Gilbert collects people’s cameras and arranges us all along the steps leading up to the playhouse for a group picture. We’re just about set when an unnaturally loud knock comes from the other side of the playhouse door — as if someone were pounding on it with the end of a broom. Slowly the door opens, and there before us all is Death.
Yes, the Grim Reaper himself, as played by the tallest guy in the town of Jefferson. He’s a good 6-foot-5 with big black boots beneath his long cloak. He’s got the scythe and everything. There’s a long pause, then laughter.
“Can I get in this shot?” he drawls.
“We’ve been waiting for you,” someone says, and a floodgate of bad puns is opened.
When we’re all back in order for the group photograph, the doctor from central Texas asks again, “Any word on Bob Hope?”
Death, all business, plays this one straight. “They’ve upgraded him to stable. He’s gonna be fine.”