The Man Who Perfected Obituary Writing
When you got an interview with Alden Whitman, you knew it was for your obituary
It blew my mind when I learned that a lot of obituary writers wrote obituaries for famous people well before they actually died.
Huh? Isn’t that a little, well, messed up? I thought.
But it made sense. My college professor, Hank Klibanoff, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, who used to be a managing editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, reminisced to my class about how much he and his newspaper had to scramble in 2006 when Coretta Scott King died, and the newspaper didn’t have an advance obituary written for Coretta Scott King.
Christopher Beam of Slate explores the question of how far in advance newspapers prepare obituaries. After Sen. Edward Kennedy died in August, 2009, newspapers around the country had full-length obituaries ready for publication within hours.
To be clear, most obituaries for, well, ordinary people like you and me aren’t written in advance, but advance obituaries are done when the subject is “so famous that the paper would be embarrassed not to have an immediate package in the event of an untimely death.” Beam also notes that obituaries are written in advance when a subject is old or sick or “at-risk”.
Beam separates advanced obituaries into three categories: when a subject is very famous, when they’re old or sick, or when they’re at risk. A President, like Trump or Obama, would qualify in the first category. In the second was Sen. Kennedy, as well as Pope John Paul II before his death. In the third category includes stars like Michael Jackson, who the Los Angeles Times had an obituary ready for because of his health record, and this next example surprised me:
That’s right — the Associated Press prepared Britney Spears’s obituary when she was 26 years old in 2008 given her history of having her antics featured in tabloids.
It’s a pretty messed up practice when you think about it, but, well, obituaries for people like a President, the Pope, Michael Jackson, and Britney Spears, are, well, very comprehensive given all their life accomplishments. It would be incredibly difficult for an obituary writer to pump out a 10,000 word obituary while responding to the person’s death.
Beam talks about how obituary writers are generalists who have a way of keeping tabs of who just died and who is close to dying. Sometimes, they set up Google News Alerts for phrases like dies at to know who’s dying, as well as keep in frequent touch with reporters at their own newspaper about who’s close to dying. The Washington Post constantly checked up about Edward Kennedy’s health with his family. Sometimes, a news organization will even pre-interview someone for an obituary before their deaths!
And big newspapers have an incredible amount of advanced obituaries prepped — the New York Times claims to have 1200 advanced obituaries as of 2006, the oldest written in 1982.
Clearly, obituary writing is a very tricky process given the speed at which the news cycle runs these days. Sometimes, obituary subjects outlive their obituary writers, or newspapers will misreport obituaries and deaths.
One man, however, seemed to master the art of obituary writing, and I wanted to go back today to take a look at how he was able to do it.
Klibanoff had us read about Alden Whitman, an old obituary writer of the New York Times who, according to a New York Times headline in 1990 (in Whitman’s obituary), “made an art of Times obituaries”.
Under the leadership of A. M. Rosenthal, the powerful metropolitan editor of the Times, Whitman had a personalized approach and style to obituary writing over the years that he honed — frequently, he would interview subjects before his death.
Between 1964 and 1976, Whitman wrote hundreds of advanced obituaries, traveling the world to speak with leaders in many professions and arenas. Whitman tried to make his obituaries go far beyond what was simply available to him by sources, and tried to get to know a person personally, whether the subject could be introspective and perspective.
Whitman never would include the word “obituary” when he contacted people for interviews, but subjects knew how to interpret his letters and knew what they were for. He was very successful in not only getting interviews but conduct his interviews in ways that encouraged unexpected revelations of the people he was interviewing.
He had been in contact, for example, with Harry Truman before his death. They would have several interviews, and in one, Truman told Whitman that “I know why you’re here and I want to help you all I can.” For Whitman, this was the following criteria for a good obituary, adapted from the introduction to his 1980 book, Come to Judgment:
‘’A lively expression of personalilty and character as well as a conscientious exposition of the main facts of a person’s life. A good obit has all the characteristics of a well-focused snapshot, the fuller the length the better. If the snapshot is clear, the viewer gets a quick fix on the subject, his attainments, his shortcomings and his times.’’
Some of the big names that Alden Whitman was able to write obituaries for were Helen Keller, Charles Lindbergh, Haile Selassie, Charlie Chaplin, Harry Truman, Earl Warren, Ho Chi Minh, Bertrand Russell, and many, many more. Whitman would work 13 years as an editor on the metropolitan and copy desk of the New York Times.
Gay Talese, a legendary feature writer for Esquire, would interview Whitman and his wife and write a feature about Whitman. His wife would ask if Winston Churchill gave him a heart attack, or whether T.S. Eliot did. But the point of Alden Whitman’s wife, Joan, was that writing obituaries under deadline pressure must have been very stressful. Whitman remembered this moment as one of the only times he lost control and snapped at his wife.
Whitman’s daily routine would include reading the news, his eyebrows raising slightly if a dictator was missing or ill. I can’t help but chuckle at Talese’s description of Whitman — “he is not a handsome man” who has a plain, always serious face and who had to douse his eyes with drops of pilocarpine every couple of hours for his glaucoma.
One popular death caught Whitman a bit unprepared: Adlai Stevenson. Whitman remembers that he would learn of it through his wife and rapidly went to the newsroom to finish it up. Whitman spent his whole days and weeks thinking about who was dying, who was going to die, who was sick or at risk, and just death in general.
Talese would describe him in the following words:
“He is a precise, unemotional man. 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.”
Jean de La Fontaine once wrote that “Death never takes a wise man by surprise,” and Alden Whitman lived by that motto. But for his motto towards death, Whitman didn’t worry about it. He would tell Talese that he thought the following:
“There is no God; I do not fear death because there is no God, there will be no Judgment Day.”