by director Vanessa Gould
Have you ever heard of Steam Train Maury? Or Zelma Henderson? Candy Barr or Poppa Neutrino? I hadn’t. But look a little closer at daily editorial obits, and you’ll find some of the most eccentric and determined characters of 20th century history. For every captain of industry or head of state, there are ten women and men who flew below the radar, altering history’s course.
Obits are anything but predictable—that’s part of the lure—and the page makes for the strangest bedfellows. A nuclear physicist alongside the creator of the zoot suit, and a phone phreak next to that '70s TV star whose name you forgot. Strangers cosmically bound in time, leaping off this mortal coil on the same day.
Look closer still, and you’ll find the people who write them to be equally compelling. Attentive to history’s long arc, the cycles of time, how we got from there to here, these writers and editors transport their readers from their cubicles and coffee tables every day. The pressure is hard to imagine: At 11am a writer is given the name—one they rarely know—and by day’s end, with journalistic steeliness and quiet flair, they’ve composed a factual and authoritative account of that person’s life for the world to read. Most of the time their subjects did visionary things; sometimes, like Hitler’s bodyguard, the deeds were atrocious. Nevertheless, it’s the first account of a life that begins with the end, all written in the past tense.
I was never an avid obit reader. Instead, I found them through personal experience when Eric Joisel, one of the subjects of my prior documentary—Between the Folds—passed away. He was a young artist on the cusp of recognition. As soon as he died, everything about him felt written in disappearing ink—the facts, the nuances, the work he did that no one else could do.
On a lark, I contacted a dozen newspapers and only The New York Times responded. Written by senior writer Margalit Fox, Eric Joisel's obituary did what I did not think possible: it made readers feel like they knew him, while simultaneously asserting his significance. But why would an international daily newspaper be interested in the life of an obscure French artist?
Between every printing of the daily paper, I’m told, approximately 155,000 people die, and The New York Times obits page will report on four of them, give or take. After Eric’s obituary ran, I began to understand that, when considered as a whole, The New York Times obits page is a kind of cultural anthropology, a catalog of singular lives, an ongoing compilation of history as it's happening. Famously, a woman who carved cows out of butter was given an obit over an accomplished doctor. In the contemplation of history, the facts of her life and work might indeed offer subtler insights into American life. What do these life stories tell us about ourselves, our struggles, our aspirations, our imaginations?
Russell Baker once described the page as consisting of, “Stimulants to sweet memories of better times, to philosophical reflection, to discovery of life’s astonishing richness, variety, comedy, sadness, of the diverse infinitude of human imagination it takes to make this world. What a lovely part of the paper to linger in.”
Now, I read the obits almost every day. I certainly don’t remember them all, but these true stories have a way of illuminating and filling in the past, while offering a daily reminder of how quickly history’s details slip away.