November 27, 2015

Mr. Bad News, “One of the best pieces I ever wrote in my life, which no one ever heard of,”

From the Esquire archives, a 1966 piece by Gay Talese, Mr. Bad News, a profile of New York Times obituary writer Alden Whitman about which Talese said, “One of the best pieces I ever wrote in my life, which no one ever heard of,”

This is part of an occupational astigmatism that afflicts many obituary writers. After they have written or read an advance obituary about someone, they come to think of that person as being dead in advance. Alden Whitman has discovered, since moving from his copyreader’s job to his present one, that in his brain have become embalmed several people who are alive, or were at last look, but whom he is constantly referring to in the past tense.
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Furthermore, he admits that, after having written a fine advance obituary, his pride of authorship is such that he can barely wait for that person to drop dead so that he may see his masterpiece in print. While this revelation may mark him as something less than romantic, it must be said in his defense that he thinks no differently than most obituary writers; they are, even by City Room standards, rather special.
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While death obsessed Hemingway and diminished John Donne, it provides Alden Whitman with a five-day-a-week job that he likes very much and he would possibly die sooner if they took the job away and put him back on the copydesk where he could no longer write about it.
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“Death never takes a wise man by surprise,” wrote La Fontaine, and Whitman agrees and keeps his “files up-to-date,” although he never permits any man to read his own obituary; as the late Elmer Davis said, “A man who has read his own obituary will never be quite the same again.”

 Gay Talese Vf-1 

Gay Talese photographed by Vanity Fair for its profile, What You Should Know About Gay Talese, in which he says,  "“You figure, what can they do to me now? At 82, you can do anything or say anything you want—you’re bulletproof. You run the world in your head.”

Posted by Jill Fallon at November 27, 2015 7:41 PM | Permalink