Gifts of an obituary artist
A friend of mine who has a penchant for sending along lovely, thoughtful gifts outdid himself a while back. The contents of the package quickly became one of my favorite gifts ever.
I called him up immediately. “Oh thank you! I can’t recall receiving ever a better gift,” I gushed softly but sincerely. “I dearly love it.”
“If I had known,” he replied quietly, “I would have heard this kind of voice from you, I would have sent it long ago.” For my voice was different, it was awed and low as a lullaby, similar to that of a child who has found the perfect gift under the tree but is afraid of scaring away Santa.
Now, you might wonder what special gift would bring me to this point, what magic might lie in the simple brown box mailed from an online book seller and what words would fill the pages of that book that would so enthrall me.
The answer, I feel certain, will surely startle you. Once you learn, you’ll probably shrug your shoulders or shake your head. You might even roll your eyes. But that matters not. For every word of this book has brought me so much joy and fills me with the kind of admiration that makes me want to drop to my knees and bow in the presence of he who wrote it.
It was called “52 McGs: The Best Obituaries from Legendary New York Times writer Robert McG. Thomas, Jr.” I started to flip through the pages, then quietly I sat down on the second step of the stair case and there I begin to read. The writing was excellent as McG expertly drew a colorful picture of extraordinary lives lived by ordinary people. I was mesmerized.
He wrote of Kay Halle, 93, a Cleveland, Ohio department store heiress who never married but had been proposed to by 64 men including a youthful Randolph Churchill and an aging Averell Harriman. Then there was private detective Hal Lipset, 78, a San Francisco private detective who was best known as the man who developed an electronic surveillance bug in a martini olive.
David Ludlum, 86, was the nation’s foremost authority on weather; Fred Feldman, 83, was New York’s first helicopter reporter; Sidney Guilaroff, 89, had been an MGM hair stylist and confidante to Marilyn Monroe.
The stories of each person’s life was so beautifully expressed that it was breathing, lilting poetry. “This,” I thought to myself, “is what every person deserves — his life well told in his obituary.”
For every life has a certain fascination, regardless of how simple it might seem to others.
A childhood friend is an editor at the New York Times. I visited her in the famed news room, shortly after reading the book. I gushed with accolades of admiration. “He developed obituary writing into an art form.”
She smiled sweetly, knowingly and nodded her head. “He was the best. A bit cantankerous at times but always a great reporter and writer.”
The book ends with a particularly notable death notice. McG’s. The headline reads: “Robert McG Thomas Jr, 60, Chronicler of UnSung Lives.” Before I read it, I thought how I pitied him who had to write that but pity quickly turned to admiration because Michael Kaufman certainly held his own.
“He developed a fresh approach to the genre, looking for telling details to illuminate lives that might otherwise have been overlooked or under-reported.”
“Of course, I go too far,” McG used to say. “But unless you go too far, how are you ever going to find out how far you can go?”
When telling the full story of someone’s life, when writing the final words, there is no such thing as “too far.”
It’s what everyone deserves.
[Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of “What Southern Women Know (That Every Woman Should).” Visit www.rondarich.com to sign up for her free weekly newsletter.]