Summing Up a Life in a Two-Column Headline

A friend of ours is a formidable theater and movie critic, and over the weekend he fulminated on Facebook that the Scripps National news service ran an obituary with the headline “Albert Finney, who played Daddy Warbucks in ‘Annie,’ has died at age 82.” We don’t quite share our friend’s affinity for Finney, but we well understand the annoyance.
Finney was indeed an outstanding actor, and he earned five Academy Award nominations over a five-decades-long career and starred in such memorable movies as “Tom Jones” and “Two for the Road” and “Miller’s Crossing,” and although “Annie” was a nice enough flick and featured a typically fine Finney performance we’re sure he’d have preferred some other headline. It’s as if Dwight Eisenhower were remembered as a “well known amateur golfer,” or Tom Hanks is sent off as the “star of TV’s ‘Bosom Buddies,'” or Harrison Ford’s eventual obit identifies him as “One of the Soldiers in ‘Force 10 from Navarone.'”
Alas, the headlines on obituaries rarely put their subjects in proper perspective. The late and great country crooner Charlie Rich cut such little-known classics as “Lonely Weekends” and “Who Will the Next Fool Be?” for the legendary Sun Records label, but when he died all the “lede” paragraphs mention the schlocky major label hits “When We Get Behind Closed Doors” and “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World.” The late and great musician Doug Sahm got short but respectful mentions in the country music press and the rock ‘n’ roll magazines and the jazz and blues publications as well as the pages devoted to Mexican-American music, but no one put them all together to explain his extraordinary and eclectic career. Most musicians and actors and writers and athletes and politicians and businesspeople, as it turns out, tend to be remembered for work they’d rather forget.
Poor Monica Lewinksy could discover a cure for cancer, but the obits will still someday remember her as the femme fatale¬†fellatrix of Bill Clinton’s infamous sex scandal, which will also surely be mentioned in the “ledes” and headlines when Trump passes on. Such notable statesmen as Sen. Hubert Humphrey and Sen. John McCain had historic careers that culminated in their parties presidential nominations, but the headline was that they lost the general election. Such athletes as Yogi Berra and the recently deceased Frank Robinson were noted for the record-setting achievements on the playing field, but you had to read several paragraphs into the obituaries to hear about their excellent character and lifelong devotion to family and friends. These days we expect a number of very creative people will be recalled for the time they made an unwelcome pass or told an ethnic joke that would have passed muster just a decade or so earlier. Writers’ obits, we shudder to notice, almost always omit their best stuff.
So it will probably be for the rest of us, too.
We started our journalistic career on the “dead beat,” as newspaper folk waggishly call the obituary desk, so we know all too well that it’s an impossible task. Even the most mundane lives can’t be encapsulated in column inches, even on the rare occasions when they jump to a later page, and the parents and spouses and children and longtime friends of the subjects never find them satisfying. The “last writes” — as newspaper folk waggishly call them — never fully convey the human faults nor the exceptional qualities of the dearly departed, and only God can weigh them in the balance. Still, we’d wish the “dethwriters” — are we’re known in newspaper lingo — will take more care.
One day on the “dead beat” at a Kansas City newspaper we had to write up the death of a Kansas City area man who’d been hit by a semi truck and dragged for several miles underneath on a highway outside Needles, California. After getting the accident report from the California Highway Patrol we were obliged to speak with the poor fellow’s widow, who told us that her husband was a talented welder who couldn’t find work in the recessionary Kansas City economy, which was why he was hitchhiking in central California and came to be hit by that truck. After conforming the spelling of all the survivors’ names and the details of the funeral service, we ended the interview according to journalistic best practice by asking if there was anything that people should know but we’d neglected to ask about. A pregnant pause followed, then she told us that “Well, he never was a lucky man.”
In some cases, we suppose, a life can be summed up in single sentence.
The great novelist Jospeh Conrad wrote such masterpieces as “The Heart of Darkness” and “Lord Jim” and “Nostromo” and “The Secret Agent,” but we have a particular fondness for a little known work of his called “Chance.” The novel defied the literary rule that everything in the plot should derive from the characters’ actions, as Conrad believed that pure random chance plays a bigger role in real life, and by chance we came across a second edition in a used book store. Conrad had an introduction to the second edition which responded to his editors and critics, who had complained that the story was overlong, which is a common complaint of both editors and critics, and we cherish his advice. Conrad rightly noted that with sufficiently rigorous editing the story of all humankind “can be written on a cigarette paper — he was born, he lived, he died.”

— Bud Norman