Deadly prose

At the Second Great Obituary Writers' Conference, members of the dismal trade talk shop, network and listen to presentations such as "How many ways can one say 'died'?"

Published June 21, 2000 6:35PM (EDT)

Outside, it's a glorious June day in East Texas. Hot but bearable, the wisteria in full bloom, the Victorian homes of historic Jefferson -- population 2,200 -- awash in sunshine. Kids and old folks out on the green. It's like a Country Time Lemonade commercial.

Inside, it's dark and freezing; sarcophagus-like. Not because Jefferson was among the first places to manufacture ice (though it was) -- nor even because Texans can't get enough of their air conditioning (though they can't). We're in the Ruth Lester Memorial and Playhouse, the coldest, darkest venue in this frozen-in-time town, because where else would one appropriately convene the Second Great Obituary Writers' Conference?

"At this very moment Bob Hope is teetering on the brink," announces conference organizer Carolyn Gilbert to the crowd of 40 or so writers, journalists, historians, librarians, lawyers, funeral directors and obituary enthusiasts.

"What's the latest?" asks one of the conferees, a doctor from central Texas.

"Critical but stable," chimes in one of the journalists.

"Somebody must be writing about him as we speak," says Gilbert.

And so -- with Bob Hope, whose very name makes a pun about cheating death -- a two-day celebration of the obituary as literary art form begins.

Just over a year after convening her first conference on the subject, held in tiny Archer City, Texas (home of Larry McMurtry and the setting of "The Last Picture Show"), Gilbert has done it again. "Some people collect coins; some people collect antiques," says Gilbert, 59. "We actually collect obituaries."

The conferees introduce themselves. Besides the central Texas doctor and his wife, there's a research librarian "bitten by the bug" who's driven all the way from South Carolina; an ad man-singer-songwriter who read about last year's conference in the Dallas Morning News and couldn't resist; and a recently married couple, both of whom work for the largest funeral home in Fort Worth, Texas, who say they've come here to talk shop, make new friends and prove that people in the dismal trade still have a sense of humor.

There's Ashlee Gilbert, Carolyn's sunny daughter, who helped design her mother's Web site, a forum and resource for obituary fans everywhere; and Shirley Patterson of Henrietta, Texas, a sometime contributor to the Wichita Falls Times Record who has come to represent the small-town perspective.

Chief Judge Jerry Buchmeyer of the U.S. District Court in Dallas, last year's keynote speaker, has returned, this time to kick things off with a presentation titled "How many ways can one say 'died'?" A few highlights from his list, most of it culled from newspapers along the Bible Belt, include:

was royally escorted into her heavenly home on Thursday

passed into Texas history on June 4, in Houston

joined the bass section of the Choir of the Heavenly Hosts on Saturday

beloved rascal and ne'er-do-well, departed this life unconventional and exasperating as ever

Susie (a one-time model in New York City) stepped off the glittering runway of life on March 6

After concluding his list and confessing that he, not Gilbert, was "the one who came out first," admitting his love of obituaries, Buchmeyer moves the discussion toward some of the emerging trends in the field.

Of particular interest to the judge is the increasing frequency in newspapers of the self-authored obituary. More and more people, it seems, are writing their own last words, leaving nothing to chance. Buchmeyer cites the opening paragraph written by and concerning the life of Robert Fiddes Alexander, a Dallas journalist and advertising executive:

Well, it appears that the pipe finally nailed me. But I enjoyed every aromatic puff of it for over 50 years. My only regret is leaving my wife Shirley and our family some 20 years earlier than planned.

And later,

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."

By Porter Shreve

Porter Shreve is the author of the recently released novel "The Obituary Writer."

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