I have an unmorbid interest in obituaries. How to summarize a life. God, they were my age! People who served as volunteers seem most content. One of the pleasures [and dangers] of living in the web age in the US–or the ‘irresistibly lurid carnival of American life today,’ that Tom Wolfe often speaks of–is that like minded people have a way to connect with one another. So you will not be surprised that I am not alone in my obit interest. So much so, that the NY Times obituary writer recently answered a series of questions about their work; A sample:
Q. How do you discern which facts and milestones are key for inclusion and/or exclusion? Do you write from the perspective of communicating facts or telling a compelling story?
A. … From all that I try to craft a story that a generally curious reader would want to read, but the ideal situation is always mitigated by the daily journalism factor. Sometimes I have the time to find a lot more than I can use; sometimes I don’t have the time to get a genuine sense of who I’m writing about. Again, like any other journalist, on deadline I write what I know.
I saw these two obituaries on the same page this Tuesday.
- Self-described crooked cop who fled Chicago
- Started a new life on the Sunset Strip by opening the Whisky [sic] a Go Go
- Whisky a Go Go became a musical legend in the 1960’s
- People who performed there: The Byrds, the Kinks, the Who, the Mamas and Papas, Sonny and Cher and the Doors
- People who came by: Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles
- Graduated from the Naval Academy in Annapolis in 1941
- Witnessed the Japanese attack of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941
- Flew combat missions in the last year of World War II
- Instructor for secret nuclear-weapons projects in Albuquerque NM
- Earned a Bronze Star for combat in the Korean War
- Commanded American naval forces which engaged three North Vietnamese torpedo boats in Aug. of 1964 – resulting in the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution
- In 1972 became commander in chief of naval forces in the Marianas, which included some of the same islands he had bombed as a pilot during World War II, and where he organized relief efforts for nearly 100,000 Vietnamese refugees sent to Guam in 1975
Impressive record, no? As I was reading about Morrison’s amazing career, I did a double-take to ensure I hadn’t stumbled onto a review of Walter Mitty or Zelig. But I hadn’t stumbled on the thing which most interested me and connected him to Mr. Valentine.
It turns out that Mr Morrison is survived two of his three children. You probably have heard of his deceased son, Jim Morrison, lead singer of the Doors.
I tend to regard people like Jim Morrison with a degree of contempt. In the case of Morrison–and who knows how many others–he had a father who earned enough respect to cover a seemingly prodigal son, and then some.
All articles referenced are copied in full at end of post.
September 22, 2008
Talk to the Newsroom: Bruce Weber
Bruce Weber, an obituary writer, is answering questions from readers Sept. 22-26, 2008. Questions may be sent to email@example.com. To move directly to the most recent answer, click here.
Mr. Weber joined The New York Times as a staff editor for the Sunday magazine section in 1986, where he also wrote cover articles on courtship in the age of AIDS, the Mets and the novelist Robert Stone, as well as a back page column that accompanied a photographic feature, Works in Progress. In the daily newsroom since 1991, he has been a general assignment reporter on the Metro desk (twice), a night rewrite man, a theater columnist, the national cultural correspondent (based in Chicago), a theater critic and a few other things besides.
He covered the Garry Kasparov-Deep Blue chess matches. He rode a bicycle solo across the United States and with others from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City and chronicled both journeys. He wrote a nine-part series about the creation of a contemporary opera, William Bolcom and Arnold Weinstein’s adaptation of the Arthur Miller play, “A View From the Bridge.” He has written profiles of the Harvard admissions department, the New York Public Library and Cher.
Since returning in April from working on a book, he has been writing obituaries. The book, “As They See ’Em: Travels in the Land of Umpires,” will be published in March by Scribner. He is also the author, with the dancer Savion Glover, of “Savion! My Life in Tap.”
Other Times staff members have answered questions in this column, including Executive Editor Bill Keller, Managing Editor Jill Abramson, Managing Editor John Geddes, Assistant Managing Editor Glenn Kramon, Associate Managing Editor Charles Strum, Obituaries Editor Bill McDonald, Director of Copy Desks Merrill Perlman, Metropolitan Editor Joe Sexton, Living Editor Trish Hall, Investigations Editor Matthew Purdy, National Editor Suzanne Daley, Digital News Editor Jim Roberts and Culture Editor Sam Sifton. Their responses and those of other Times staff members are available on the Talk to the Newsroom page.
These discussions will continue in coming weeks with other Times editors and reporters.
The Perfect Subject
Q. If you were asked to rewrite an obituary for any person, whose would you choose to rewrite?
A. I’m assuming you mean which figures from history had lives that intrigue me as a reporter, and not the ones whose deaths I so relished that I would delight in reporting them. That said, there’s an endless list of lives that would be fascinating to summarize and try to illuminate, but I tend to be most interested in renegades, oddballs, eccentrics, people who achieved great things — or not-so-great things — by virtue of being boldly out of the mainstream. I wrote Bobby Fischer’s obit, for example, and was really enthralled by his arcane genius and his complicated, contentious persona. A few others I would like to have written about: Lenny Bruce, Bill Veeck, Mae West, Truman Capote.
A Place For Humor
Q. Occasionally an obit is really funny, reflecting, I suppose, the life that’s been lived. How much leeway do you have in reporting some of the wackier aspects of a person’s life?
— Judith Estrine
A. The general outlook of the obituary department is that our articles are about lives that have been lived, not deaths that have occurred. The idea is to appreciate the character of the subject to the degree that that’s possible, usually based on what we know that person has accomplished and on what we can glean from interviews with family members and others. You never want to make fun of anyone, but you do want to appreciate eccentricities, record unusual events and relay humorous incidents or comments. In that way, a good obituary can be like a good eulogy.
‘A Long Illness’
Q. Does “long illness” as in “died after a long illness” usually mean cancer? And why isn’t the nature of the illness given?
— Roger Lodger
A. Mr. Lodger, “long illness” does sometimes mean cancer, but it’s not a mere euphemism. For one thing, cancer can be a short illness. Often the phrase is shorthand for a combination of ailments that undermined someone’s health over a period of months or years. Sometimes the family isn’t sure how to characterize the cause of death and falls back on this description. Sometimes there is simply no more specific information available to us.
Close to Home
Q. I recall reading, with real interest, occasional obits on New York Times staffers (active or retired) until about six months ago. Now, no more. Is it just my imagination, or have Times staffers stopped dying?
— Bob McCabe
A. Alas, Mr. McCabe, Times staffers remain as mortal as they’ve ever been. I had the sad duty of writing about the death of a colleague, Martin Gradel, in August.
Who Gets an Obit?
Q. How do you choose? And how much impact does asking you to write an obit have — can a reader send an e-mail extolling someone?
A. As in any other section of the paper, what is printed on the obituaries pages is a matter of the editors’ news judgment. This pertains to whom we decide to write about and how much we decide to write.
We’re aware, by the way, that readers (some of them) try to figure out what we have judged to be the relative importance of obituary subjects by the length of the obituary and its placement on the page, but to reach conclusions based on those two elements is to operate on incomplete information. Other factors: How much space is available on the page that day? How much new information about the subject is revealed in the obituary? How interesting is it to read?
Sometimes the details of a person’s life may not add up to “important,” but they add up to interesting. Case in point: The typewriter man, Martin Tytell, whose vocation was so eccentric and he was so good at it that the details of his craft and life were reader candy.
As for whether extolling e-mails help us decide to write about someone, the answer is usually not. The exceptions are subjects who may have made important contributions to important events or to arcane fields of knowledge but who stayed below the general radar; in those cases we might well take note of extolling e-mails from experts in a field. An example: the death of Dick Netzer, an economist who worked with distinction at N.Y.U. and would probably have gone unremarked by the paper if we hadn’t heard from board members of the Municipal Assistance Corporation, which pulled New York City out of bankruptcy in the 1970s, that Mr. Netzer’s contributions to the original board were invaluable in solving the city’s fiscal crisis.
Before the Fact
Q. Do obituary writers for The Times generally interview their subject prior to their demise?
— Dick Hermans
A. Generally no, but that’s because most of our subjects are dead before we begin writing about them. For the subjects of advance obituaries, we often make inquiries about whether they would like to be interviewed. The reactions, as you might suspect, are mixed. Some are amused. Some are appalled. Some are eager to get in the last word, as it were. Some couldn’t think of anything more macabre and distasteful.
What’s the Attraction?
Q. What attracts you to being an obituary writer? Do you consider writing obituaries more as writing a short essay style biography of the deceased? It seems like an interesting way to get in and out of someone’s life quickly.
— Raghu Krishnaswamy
A. I think you’ve expressed the attraction accurately. Obituaries are, by nature, more essayistic than most other news stories. They provide the writer a little freedom from the pyramid form and other rigors of newswriting style, and often it’s a chance to learn about someone you’re glad to know about and achievements and bits of history you’d otherwise have missed.
Why So Many Men in the Obits?
Q. I have been reading The Times daily since I was about 10 years old. I love the autobiographical obituaries. It is interesting to me that 14 out of 15 are about men who have died, and the 15th is about a woman of note. It is amazing that so few women who die are interesting enough to write about. Tell me about this.
— Bernita Hassall Fadden, Palm Coast, Fla.
A. It’s hard to deny that a disproportionate percentage of our obituaries are about men, though I think 14 out of 15 is an exaggeration. (I counted my own recent obituaries, and 8 of the last 50 have been women, including Helen Galland, Mila Schön and Barbara Warren.) I certainly hope this isn’t about gender bias, and I don’t think it is. For one thing, our departmental discussions about who is and who isn’t deserving never touch on a subject’s gender, unless it’s to note that for a woman (or a man) to have accomplished such-and-such was unusual, as was the case with Mary Garber, whose obituary was written by Richard Goldstein. For another thing, the editor who does most of the daily assigning, Claiborne Ray, is a woman. Prompted by your letter I asked her about the disparity, and she confirmed my instinctive response, which is that the majority of people who are dying these days — that is, older people — grew up at a time when achievement and fame were far more accessible to men than to women. Writing obituaries often makes you feel as though you’re reporting on a world that doesn’t exist any more, and I can only assume that as time goes on, the number of women who appear on the obituaries pages will grow significantly.
Choosing the Facts to Include
Q. My mother and I own a genealogy business that stemmed from a hobby and has now grown to a full-fledged global business. Among basic documents such as birth and death certificates, marriage licenses, ship manifestos, etc., we often look to attainable obituaries for clues to the story and arc of a person’s life. As an obituary writer, how do you discern which facts and milestones are key for inclusion and/or exclusion? Do you write from the perspective of communicating facts or telling a compelling story?
— Jamie Davidson
A. Like any journalist, I’m beholden to facts and I spend most of my time gathering as many as I can. Aside from the personally defining information — dates of birth and death, surviving family members, etc. — I look for the facts that pertain to the reason I’m writing the obit in the first place. Usually that means professional achievements, though occasionally there are other reasons — intimate connections to the famous or interesting family lineage, for example. Finally, through interviews and research I try to get a sense of the subject in his or her written works, quotations in published pieces or recollections from people who knew the subject. From all that I try to craft a story that a generally curious reader would want to read, but the ideal situation is always mitigated by the daily journalism factor. Sometimes I have the time to find a lot more than I can use; sometimes I don’t have the time to get a genuine sense of who I’m writing about. Again, like any other journalist, on deadline I write what I know.
The Hard Parts of the Job
Q. Can you talk about some of the more difficult (for whatever reason) obituaries you’ve been assigned? Do you ever discover vital details that should have made one of your pieces after it’s gone to print? Most important, did you specifically want this job or did you fall into it? As a journalist myself, I’m not sure how to get into the field of obituary writing.
— Christian Smith
A. For me, the most difficult obits are the ones whose subjects were important in fields that I’m not especially well versed in, economics and physics to pick two. So the cases of Henry B. R. Brown, who invented, with a partner, the money market mutual fund, and Alvin Marks, a prolific inventor of energy-related devices, were sticky. For the former, I asked a colleague in the business section, Floyd Norris, for help in crafting the language that described Mr. Brown’s work. For the latter, I asked a partner of Mr. Marks to do the same.
It’s happened a couple of times that I’ve discovered a fact that I should have included in an obituary. In the obituary of John Jay Iselin, the television executive who led Channel 13 from 1973 to 1987, I spent all my time researching his impact on public broadcasting and missed the fact that he was among those prominent New Yorkers who were duped by the young con man pretending to be Sidney Poitier’s son, a circumstance that became the basis for John Guare’s play “Six Degrees of Separation.” More than one reader pointed out to me that I missed the boat on that, that it was a significant news event in which my subject played a part and should have been included in the obit. I’d have to agree.
As for whether I wanted the job or fell into it, both are sort of true. In the spring when I returned to the paper from writing a book, it was one of a handful of jobs that were open. I chose it over several others.
Q. O.K., answer me this. Why is it obituary writers still write, “Died peacefully in his/her sleep,” when in truth the following statement would be correct most of the time, “Died in his/her sleep because they had the money and connections to obtain lethal drugs?” I am sure you can extrapolate what I am hitting at.
A. You’re a cynical man, David. I don’t know why obituary writers elsewhere write that. In our newspaper, it is often used in the paid death notices, but I don’t believe you’ll ever find the phrase “died peacefully in his sleep” (or “her sleep”) in an obituary in The New York Times.
Can an Obit Be Purchased?
Q. Are New York Times obits purchased? Can a New York Times obit be purchased? If so, how?
— Bruce Bailey
A. In a word? No.
Which Bruce Weber Are You?
Q. Are you the Bruce Weber who authored the “All-Pro Baseball Stars” books I bought off Scholastic reading lists in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when I was in second, third and fourth grades in Staten Island? If so, why didn’t you pick more Yankees to your All-Pro teams? Just joking. I enjoyed those books as a kid, and every time I see your byline I wonder…
— Jeff Diamant
A. Nope. Not me. I’m not the photographer Bruce Weber, either. Or the downtown poet. Or the University of Illinois basketball coach, for that matter.
Handling Controversies in Obits
Q. How can you prevent an obituary from becoming a forum for the agenda of the deceased’s associates, as occurred in the recent case of John Y. Simon? Aren’t there safeguards to subject controversial charges to the same scrutiny as a hard news story? In that case, I was appalled to see the public exposure of an ongoing investigation that had been carefully kept quiet on campus to protect the privacy of all involved. I noted that other outlets that reposted the obituary, such as The Chicago Tribune, edited out the two paragraphs that discussed the investigation.
A. Obviously, whether to report on the controversy that occurred during the last months of Professor Simon’s life was a difficult matter to decide, and I discussed it at length with my editors. Having learned about it, we felt we couldn’t simply ignore it, especially since it had a bearing on the professional life that made Mr. Simon worthy of writing about to begin with. In writing about it, I tried to present only the facts and not “the agenda of the deceased’s associates.” If your opinion is that I failed to do so, we disagree.
The Joys of Reading British Obits
Q. One of joys of reading obits in the British papers is the subtext information provided by each paper’s stylist. “He enjoyed life to the fullest”, i.e. he was a drunken sot; “He was a confirmed batchlor,” i.e. he was gay; cautious = tightwad; etc., etc. The Times doesn’t go in for this??? — or am I not sussed into the key words?
— Karl Johnson, Arlington, Va.
A. I agree. That is one of the pleasures of reading obits in the British papers. I’m afraid you’ll have to take other pleasures from ours.
Your Own Obituary
Q. Mr. Weber, have you written your own obituary — yet?
— Shan Ellentuck
A. Should I be worried? Do you know something I don’t know?
Writing About the Painful Moments
Q. Do you ever find that writing an honest account of someone’s life might be awkward or painful for someone still living? How much is the effect on others on your mind as you write?
— Gretchen Stein
A. Sometimes it is awkward, yes. I’m always aware that writing about an unhappy time in the life of a subject is likely to make family members revisit it, but the reporter in me realizes I’m not writing for the benefit of the family but for the benefit of readers. In a situation like that you try to write straightforwardly and not exploitatively, and in my experience, limited as it is, most times family members end up appreciating honest appraisals of a loved one’s life. First and foremost I think they want to feel they recognize the person they read about.
The Toughest Question
Q. Just curious: has The Times maintained Alden Whitman’s (the Iceman) tradition of past years to meet with potential obituary subjects during the living years so as to prepare much of the obit in advance? Also, if so, what is the toughest question to ask?
— Grady Holloway, Bar Harbor, Me.
A. For advance obits, we often inquire whether the subject would like to participate. I’ve only written a handful of advances and no one has yet agreed to talk, so for me, I’d have to say the toughest question has been: Would you like to be interviewed for your obituary?
Getting Prepared for Death
Q. I’ve always marveled at the depth and quality of the obits in The New York Times . . . to the point where I now make a point of picking up the paper when someone notable dies. I’ve always assumed that much of them are written in advance, with recent details added when the person actually dies. If this is the case, I wonder how you decide when it’s time to get to work on an obit. Have you ever started working on one for a younger person who seems on a collision course with early death? Morbid, I know. But I guess that’s your bag, huh? I think your department does great work. Keep it up.
— Michael Kargas
A. There isn’t any hard and fast rule about when an advance obit should be written. If we hear of a well-known person’s illness, that might be a reason. Advanced age in and of itself can be a reason. (In addition to the advances we have on file, we have a long list of people, in many categories of public life, we’d like to do.) Every now and then the name of a pop star with self-destructive tendencies comes up as a possibility. We try to figure out who we need to be prepared for. I suppose we’re like actuaries in that way.
Talking to Family Members
Q. Part of the obituary reporting process involves talking to family members and others who were close to the deceased. How do these people react when you call them? Do they hang up on you and tell you to leave them alone, or are they usually willing to talk? What have you learned about handling what must be a sensitive and sometimes uncomfortable situation?
— Ira Kaplan
A. In my experience, family members are almost always willing to talk and, in fact, are eager to talk. For one thing, I think they perceive a New York Times obituary as something of an acknowledgment of a noteworthy life. For another, after a loved one dies, the impulse to speak lovingly and appreciatively of him or her to anyone and everyone is a rather natural one, I think. As far as “handling” the situation, I think common respect and courtesy are obviously called for. Less specifically, I think you can communicate empathy simply by the way you talk to someone. I’ve become better at that because I think having this job has made me more empathetic — I walk around more cognizant and consciously aware that this kind of loss is a universal experience.
Elmer Valentine, Owner of Rock Clubs, Dies at 85
By DOUGLAS MARTIN
Elmer A. Valentine, a self-described crooked cop who fled Chicago to start a new life on the Sunset Strip by opening the Whisky a Go Go, one of the most celebrated clubs in the history of rock music, died Dec. 3 in the Studio City section of Los Angeles. He was 85.
The cause was heart failure after four years of numerous ailments, said Lou Adler, Mr. Valentine’s business partner.
Whisky a Go Go was a nondescript former bank building at the northwest corner of Sunset Boulevard and Clark Street in West Hollywood that became musical legend in the 1960s. The Byrds, the Doors, the Kinks, the Who, the Mamas and Papas and Sonny and Cher, among many other stars, performed there.
Bob Dylan dropped by to play pool, Jimi Hendrix to jam. When the Beatles arrived in Los Angeles in 1964 on their first American tour, the Whisky was the place they wanted to see. At the urging of his daughters, President Lyndon B. Johnson made a reservation — but never showed up.
On the night the Whisky opened, Jan. 15, 1964, Mr. Valentine pretty much by accident introduced what for years to come was a pop-culture staple: the go-go girl suspended in a cage.
“It was just so popular, right from the very first night,” Mr. Valentine said in an interview with Vanity Fair in 2000. “I tell you, I was just lucky. It was easy. You know what? It was easy.”
The Doors, with Jim Morrison, were the house band, at least until the night they sang “The End,” which Mr. Valentine considered obscene; one night the club had performances by them, Buffalo Springfield, Love, Van Morrison and Frank Zappa.
Though the club never again reached the level of fame it reached in the 1960s, it became a focus for the punk and new-wave movements in the 1970s, hard rock and metal bands in the 1980s and grunge in the 1990s, when Mr. Valentine sold his interest.
Elmer Aaron Valentine was born on June 16, 1923, in Chicago. He told Vanity Fair that an elementary school teacher told him he would be sent to the electric chair someday. At 14, he bolted home and rode trains and hitchhiked to California. He served in the Army Air Forces in England in World War II.
He became a policeman in Chicago, rising to the rank of detective. After his marriage ended, he said, he ran into what he termed “a little career trouble.” He was indicted on charges of extortion involving collecting bribes on behalf of a captain but was never convicted.
“I used to moonlight running nightclubs for the outfit,” he said to David Kamp, the Vanity Fair writer. “For gangsters.”
He moved to California and joined with partners from Chicago to open a nightclub, P.J.’s, named after the Manhattan bar P. J. Clarke’s. In 1963, visiting Europe with the idea of becoming an expatriate, he happened to visit a discothèque in Paris called Whisky à Go Go and was enthralled by the enthusiastic young dancers.
Mr. Valentine returned to Los Angeles and invested $20,000 of his profits from his share in P.J.’s in what became the Whisky. He gave a one-year contract to Johnny Rivers, then a 21-year-old rocker and bluesman, who turned out to be wildly popular.
The Whisky briefly had satellite franchises in San Francisco and Atlanta. Later, with partners, Mr. Valentine started the Rainbow Bar & Grill and the Roxy Theater, also in West Hollywood, retaining an interest in them until his death.
Mr. Valentine is survived by his daughter, Kimberly Valentine, and a grandson.
In between Mr. Rivers’s three sets, Mr. Valentine wanted to play records as they did at the Whisky in Paris, suspending a D.J. in a glass-walled cage to save space. The mother of the girl who won a contest to be the D.J. would not let her take the job. The cigarette girl, Patty Brockhurst, wearing a slit skirt, was drafted; she spontaneously started dancing. “Thus out of calamity and serendipity was born the go-go girl,” Mr. Kamp wrote.
Mr. Valentine soon installed two more cages and hired two more dancers. One, Joanie Labine, designed what became the official go-go-girl costume, fringed dress and white boots.
December 9, 2008
George S. Morrison, Admiral and Singer’s Father, Dies at 89
By WILLIAM GRIMES
George S. Morrison, who commanded the fleet during the Gulf of Tonkin incident that led to an escalation of the Vietnam War and whose son Jim was the lead singer of the Doors, died Nov. 17 in Coronado, Calif. He was 89 and lived in Coronado.
He died after a fall in the hospital, his daughter, Anne Chewning, told The Associated Press.
Aboard the flagship carrier Bon Homme Richard, Mr. Morrison commanded American naval forces in the gulf when the destroyer Maddox engaged three North Vietnamese torpedo boats on Aug. 2, 1964. A skirmish and confused reports of a second engagement two days later led President Lyndon B. Johnson to order airstrikes against North Vietnam and to request from Congress what became known as the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, allowing him to carry out further military operations without declaring war.
Mr. Morrison’s relationship with his famous son was difficult. Rebellion met blank incomprehension. In “The Doors by the Doors” (Hyperion, 2006), he is quoted as saying: “I had the feeling that he felt we’d just as soon not be associated with his career. He knew I didn’t think rock music was the best goal for him. Maybe he was trying to protect us.”
George Stephen Morrison, known as Steve, was born in Rome, Ga. His father was a railroad worker. After graduating from the Naval Academy in Annapolis in 1941, he was assigned, as an ensign, to the mine layer Pruitt in Pearl Harbor, where he witnessed the Japanese attack of Dec. 7, 1941.
While at Pearl Harbor, he married Clara Clarke, who died in 2005. Besides his daughter, Anne, of Thousand Oaks, Calif., he is survived by his son Andrew, of Pahoa, Hawaii. Jim Morrison died in Paris in 1971.
After taking part in operations in the Aleutians and the central Pacific, Mr. Morrison took flight training in Pensacola, Fla., and flew combat missions over Wake Island and Honshu, Japan, in the last year of World War II. After the war, he was an instructor for secret nuclear-weapons projects in Albuquerque. During the Korean War, he was assigned to the joint operations center in Seoul, earning a Bronze Star for his part in combat operations against North Korean and Chinese forces.
Mr. Morrison took command of the Bon Homme Richard in 1963 and in 1967 was promoted to the rank of rear admiral. In 1972 he became commander in chief of naval forces in the Marianas, which included some of the same islands he had bombed as a pilot during World War II, and where he organized relief efforts for nearly 100,000 Vietnamese refugees sent to Guam in 1975. It was an assignment he called the most satisfying of his career.
Mr. Morrison, who was portrayed briefly in the 1991 movie “The Doors,” donated several items belonging to his son Jim to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland for a Doors exhibit that opened last year. These included his school report cards and college diploma and a Cub Scout uniform. ———————————————————————