Let’s talk of graves, of worms and epitaphs,
Make dust our paper and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth
Let’s choose executors and talk of wills
—Shakespeare, Richard II
“Winston Churchill gave you your heart attack,” the wife of the obituary writer said, but the obituary writer, a short and rather shy man wearing horn-rimmed glasses and smoking a pipe, shook his head and replied, very softly, “No, it was not Winston Churchill.”
“Then T.S. Eliot gave you your heart attack,” she quickly added, lightly, for they were at a small dinner party in New York and the others seemed amused.
“No,” the obituary writer said, again softly, “it was not T.S. Eliot.”
If he was at all irritated by his wife’s line of questioning, her assertion that writing lengthy obituaries for the New York Times under deadline pressure might be speeding him to his own grave, he did not show it, did not raise his voice; but then he rarely does. Only once has Alden Whitman raised his voice at Joan, his present wife, a youthful brunette, and on that occasion he screamed. Alden Whitman does not recall precisely why he screamed. Vaguely he remembers accusing Joan of misplacing something around the house, but he suspects that in the end he was the guilty one. Though this incident occurred more than two years ago, lasting only a few seconds, the memory of it still haunts him—a rare occasion when he truly lost control; but since then he has remained a quiet man, a predictable man who early each morning, while Joan is asleep, slips out of bed and begins to make breakfast: a pot of coffee for her, one of tea for himself. Then he sits for an hour or so in his study smoking a pipe, sipping his tea, scanning the newspapers, his eyebrows raising slightly whenever he reads that a dictator is missing, a statesman is ill.
By midmorning he will dress in one of the two or three suits he owns and, looking briefly into a mirror, will tighten his bow tie. He is not a handsome man. He has a plain, somewhat round face that is almost always serious, if not dour, and it is topped by a full head of brown hair which, though he is fifty-two, is without a trace of gray. Behind his horn-rimmed glasses are small, very small, blue eyes that he douses with drops of pilocarpine every three hours for his case of controlled glaucoma, and he has a thick, reddish mustache beneath which protrudes, most of the day, a pipe held tightly between a full bridge of false teeth.
His real teeth, all thirty-two of them, were knocked out or loosened by three strong-arm men in an alley one night in 1936 in Alden Whitman’s hometown, Bridgeport, Connecticut. He was twenty-three years old then, a year out of Harvard and full of verve, and his assailants apparently opposed opinions supported by Whitman. He bears no ill will toward those who attacked him, conceding they had their point of view, nor is he at all sentimental about his missing teeth. They were full of cavities, he says, a blessing to be rid of them.
After he is finished dressing, Whitman says good-bye to his wife, but not for long. She too works for the Times, and it was there one spring day in 1958, that he spotted her walking through the large, noisy City Room on the third floor dressed in paisley and carrying an inky page proof down from the women’s department on the ninth floor, where she works. After learning her name, he proceeded to send anonymous notes in brown envelopes up to her through the house mail, the first of which read, “You look ravishing in paisley,” and was signed, “The American Paisley Association.” Later he identified himself, and they dined on the night of May 13 at the Teheran Restaurant, on West Forty-fourth Street, and talked until the maitre d’ asked them to leave.
Joan was fascinated by Whitman, especially by his marvelous, magpie mind cluttered with all sorts of useless information: He could recite the list of popes backward and forward; knew the names of every king’s mistress and his date of reign; knew that the Treaty of Westphalia was signed in 1648, that Niagara Falls is 167 feet high, that snakes do not blink; that cats attach themselves to places, not people, and dogs to people, not places; he was a regular subscriber to the New Statesmen, Le Nouvel Observateur, to nearly every journal in the Out-of-Town Newsstand in Times Square, he read two books a day, he had seen Bogart in Casablanca three-dozen times. Joan knew she had to see him again, even though she was sixteen years his junior and a minister’s daughter, and he was an atheist. They were married on November 13, 1960.
After Whitman leaves his apartment, which is on the twelfth floor of an old brick building on West 116th Street, he walks slowly uphill toward the subway kiosk on Broadway. At this time of the morning the sidewalk is rushing with youth—pretty Columbia co-eds in tight skirts clasping books to their breasts and walking quickly to class, young long-haired men distributing leaflets attacking American policies in Vietnam and Cuba—and yet this neighborhood near the Hudson River is also solemn with reminders of mortality: Grant’s Tomb, the grave of St. Claire Pollock, the memorial statues to Louis Kossuth and Governor Tilden and Joan of Arc; the churches, the hospitals, the Fireman’s Monument, the sign on the upper Broadway office building “The Wages of Sin is Death,” the old-ladies’ home, the two aging men who live near Whitman—a recently retired Times obituary writer who retired before him.
Death is on Whitman’s mind as he sits in the subway that now races downtown toward Times Square. In the morning paper he has read that Henry Wallace is not well, that Billy Graham has visited the Mayo Clinic. Whitman plans, when he arrives at the Times in ten minutes, to go directly to the newspaper’s morgue, the room where all news clippings and advance obituaries are filed, and examine the “conditions” of the of the advance obituaries on Reverend Graham and former vice president Wallace (Wallace died a few months later). There are 2,000 advance obituaries in the Times's morgue, Whitman knows, but many of them, such as the ones on J. Edgar Hoover and Charles Lindbergh and Walter Winchell, were written long ago and now require updating. Recently, when President Johnson was in the hospital for gallbladder surgery, his advance obituary was brought up-to-the-minute; so was Pope Paul’s before his trip to New York; so was Joseph P. Kennedy’s. For an obituary writer there is nothing worse than to have a world figure die before his obituary is up-to-date; it can be a harrowing experience, Whitman knows, requiring that the writer become an instant historian, assessing in a few hours the dead man’s life with lucidity, accuracy, and objectivity.
When Adlai Stevenson died suddenly in London in 1965, Whitman, who was just beginning his new assignment as the Times's mortician and was anxious to make good, learned of it through a telephone call from Joan. Whitman broke into a cool sweat, slipped out of the City Room, went to lunch. He took the elevator up to the cafeteria on the eleventh floor. But soon he felt a soft tap on his shoulder. It was one of the metropolitan editor’s assistants asking, “Will you be down soon, Alden?”
Whitman, his lunch finished, returned downstairs and was given a basket full of folders containing data on Adlai Stevenson. Then, carrying them to the back of the room, he opened them and spread them out on a table in the thirteenth row of the City Room, reading, digesting, making notes, his pipe tip tapping against his false teeth, cluck-cluck.
Finally, he turned, facing his typewriter. Soon paragraph by paragraph, the words began to flow: “Adlai Stevenson was a rarity in American public life, a cultivated, urbane, witty, articulate politician whose popularity was untarnished by defeat and whose stature grew in diplomacy. …” It ran 4,500 words and would have gone longer had there been time.
Difficult as it was, it was not nearly so demanding as the 3,000-word deadline assignment he was given on Martin Buber, the Jewish philosopher, about whom he knew virtually nothing. Fortunately, Whitman was able to reach by telephone a scholar who was very familiar with Buber’s teachings and life, and this, together with the clippings in the Times's morgue, enabled Whitman to complete the job. But he was far from pleased with it, and that night Joan was constantly aware of the sound of his pacing up and down the floor of their apartment, drink in hand, and the words uttered in contempt and self-derision, “fraud…superficial…fraud.” Whitman went to work the following day expecting to be criticized. But instead he was informed that there had been several congratulatory telephone messages from intellectuals around New York, and Whitman’s reaction, far from relief, was to immediately suspect all those who had praised him.
The obituaries that leave Whitman untroubled are those that he is able to complete before the individual dies, such as the rather controversial one he did on Albert Schweitzer, which both paid tribute to “Le Grand Docteur” for his humanitarianism yet damned him for his lofty paternalism; and the one on Winston Churchill, a 20,000-word piece in which Whitman and several other Times men were involved and which was finished almost two weeks before Sir Winston’s death. Whitman’s obituaries on Father Divine, Le Corbusier, and T. S. Eliot were produced under deadline pressure but caused him no panic because he was quite familiar with the work and lives of all three, particularly Eliot, who had been the poet-in-residence at Harvard during Whitman’s student days there. His obituary on Eliot began: “This is the way the world ends / This is the way the world ends / This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper,” and it went on to describe Eliot as a most unlikely poetic figure, lacking “flamboyance or oddity in dress or manner, and there was nothing of the romantic about him. He carried no auras, cast no arresting eye and wore his heart, as nearly as could be observed, in its proper anatomical place.”
It was while writing the Eliot obituary that a copyboy had dropped onto Whitman’s desk a number of statements praising the poet’s work, and one of these came from fellow poet, Louis Untermeyer. When Whitman read Untermeyer’s statement, he raised an eyebrow in disbelief. He had thought Louis Untermeyer was dead.
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. He thinks, for example, of John L. Lewis as being dead also E. M. Forster and Floyd Dell, Rudolf Hess and Rhode Island’s former Senator Green, Ruth Etting and Gertrud Ederle, among many others.
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.
A former obituary writer for the New York World-Telegram and Sun, Edward Ellis, who is also the author of a book about suicides, admits that he enjoys seeing, from time to time, his old advance obituaries fulfilling their destiny in the Telegram.
At the Associated Press, Mr. Dow Henry Fonda announces with satisfaction that he is all set with up-to-date obituaries on Teddy Kennedy, Mrs. John F. Kennedy, John O’Hara, Grayson Kirk, Lammot du Pont Copeland, Charles Munch, Walter Hallstein, Jean Monnet, Frank Costello, and Kelso. The United Press International, which has a dozen four-drawer filing cabinets of “preparation stories”—including one on five-year-old John F. Kennedy, Jr., and the children of Queen Elizabeth—does not have any full-time death specialist but passes the corpse copy around, some of the best of it going to a veteran reporter named Doc Quigg about whom it has been said, with pride, that he can “smooth ‘em out, make ‘em sing.”
An obituarian’s traditional eagerness about breaking into print is not exclusively based on an author’s pride, according to one antique in the trade, but it is also a holdover perhaps from the days when editors did not pay their obituary writers, whom they often hired on a freelance basis, until the subject of the obit died—or, as they sometimes phrased it in those days, “passed away,” "departed from this Earth,” “gone to his reward.” Occasionally, while waiting, those in the City Room would form a so-called ghoul pool in which everybody would put up $5 or $10 and try to select the name of the person who would go first. Karl Schriftgiesser, the Times's gravedigger about twenty-five years ago, recalls that some ghoul-pool winners in those days collected as much as $300.
There are no such pools in evidence around the Times today, but Whitman, for quite different reasons, does keep in his desk a kind of list of the living to whom he is giving priority. These individuals are included because he thinks their days are numbered, or because he believes their life’s work is finished and sees no reason to delay the inevitable writing task, or because he merely finds the individual “interesting” and wishes to write the obituary in advance for his own enjoyment.
Whitman also has what he calls a “deferred list,” which is composed of aging but durable world leaders, monster sacrés, who are still in power or still making news in other ways, and to attempt a “final” obituary on such individuals not only would be difficult but would require continuous alterations or insertions in the future; so even if these “deferred” people may have out-of-date obituaries in the Times morgue—people like de Gaulle, Franco—Whitman chooses to let them wait awhile for a final polishing. Whitman realizes of course that any or all of these “deferred” customers may suddenly tap out, but he also has candidates that he thinks will die sooner or remain out of the news longer, and so he continues to give priority to those not on his deferred list, and should he be wrong—well, he has been wrong before.
There are, naturally, some people that Whitman may think will soon die, and for whom he has already tucked away a final tribute in the Times's morgue, that may not die for years and years; they may diminish in importance or influence in the world, perhaps, but they keep right on living. If this be the case—if the name dies before the man, as A. B. Housman would put it—then Whitman reserves the right to cut the obituary down. Vivisection. 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.
And so each weekday morning, after riding the subway down to Times Square from his apartment on the upper Broadway, Whitman anticipates another day at the Times, another session with men who are dead, men who are dying, or men who, if Whitman’s guess is correct, will soon die. He arrives in the lobby of the Times Building usually at eleven, his soft rubber-soled shoes hardly making a sound against the glossy marble floor. In his mouth is his pipe, and in his left hand is a container of tea that he bought a moment ago across the street at a small lunch counter run by a large Greek whose face he has known for years, never his name. Whitman then elevates to the third floor, says good morning to the receptionist, swings into the City Room, says good morning to all the other reporters who sit behind their desks, rows and rows of desks, and they greet him in turn, they know him well, they are happy it is he, not they, who must write for the obituary page—a page that is read very carefully, they know, maybe too carefully by readers with a morbid curiosity, readers searching for clues to life, readers searching for vacant apartments.
Occasionally all reporters must do their share of the smaller obituaries, which are bad enough, but the long ones are hard work; they must be accurate and interesting, they must be infallible in their analysis, and will be later judged, as will the Times, by historians. And yet for the writer there is no glory, no byline, it being a policy of the newspaper to eliminate bylines from such stories, but Whitman does not care. Anonymity superbly suits him. He prefers being everyman, anyman, nobody—Times Employee No. 97853, Library Card No. 663 7662, the possessor of a Sam Goody Courtesy Card, the borrower of his mother-in-law’s 1963 Buick Compact on sunny weekends, an eminently unquotable man, a onetime manager for the Roger Ludlowe High School football, baseball, and basketball teams who is now keeping toll for the Times. All day long while his colleagues are running this way and that, pursuing the here and now, Whitman sits quietly at his desk near the back, sipping his tea, dwelling in his strange little world of the half-living, the half-dead in this enormous place called the City Room.
It is a room as large as a football field, maybe twice as large, and it is lined with rows and rows of gray metal desks, all the same shade, each with a telephone held by reporters who are talking to their news sources about the latest rumors, tips, reports, allegations, threats, robberies, rapes, accidents, crises, problems, problems—it is a Problem Room, and from all over the world via cable, telex, telegram, ticker, or telephone the news reports on world problems are rocketed into this one room, hour after hour: disaster in the Danube, turmoil in Tanzania, peril in Pakistan, touchy Trieste, rumors in Rio, the Saigon scene, coups d’etat, informed sources said, reliable sources said, African problems, Jewish problems, NATO, SEATO, Sukarno, Sihanouk—and Whitman sits, sipping tea, in the back of this room paying little attention to all this; he is concerned with the final fact.
He is thinking of the words he will use when these men, these problem makers, finally die. He is leaning forward behind his typewriter now, shoulders forward, thinking of the words that will, bit by bit, build the advance obituaries of Mao Tse-tung, of Harry S. Truman, of Picasso. He is also contemplating Garbo and Marlene Dietrich, Steichen and Haile Selassie. On one piece of paper, from a previous hour’s work, Whitman has typed: “… Mao Tse-tung, the son of an obscure rice farmer, died one of the world’s most powerful rulers. …” On another piece of paper: “… there was Picasso the painter, Picasso the faithful and faithless lover, Picasso the generous man, even Picasso the playwright. …” And, from an earlier day’s notes: “… As an actress, Mrs. Rudolph Sieber was nondescript, her legs were by no means as beautiful as Mistinguett’s, but Mrs. Sieber as Marlene Dietrich was for years an international symbol of sex and glamour. …”
Whitman is not satisfied with what he has written, but he goes over the words and phrases with care, and then he pauses and thinks aloud, Ah, what a wonderful collection of photographs will appear on the Times’s obituary page when the great Steichen dies. Then Whitman reminds himself that he must not forget to purchase the issue of the Saturday Review with its fine cover story on the white-haired British communications tycoon Baron Roy Thomson, now seventy years old. This story may soon come in handy. Another man of interest, Whitman says, is the noted humorist Frank Sullivan, who lives in Saratoga Springs, New York. A few days ago Whitman telephoned one of Mr. Sullivan’s close friends, the playwright Marc Connelly, and almost began with, “You knew Mr. Sullivan, didn’t you?” But he caught himself and said, instead, that the Times was “bringing its files up-to-date”—yes, that is the phrase—on Frank Sullivan and could a lunch be arranged with Mr. Connelly so that Mr. Whitman could learn something of Mr. Sullivan? A lunch was arranged. Next Whitman hopes to go up to Saratoga Springs and discuss the life of Marc Connelly over lunch with Mr. Sullivan.
When Whitman goes to concerts, as he so often does, he cannot resist looking around the hall and observing the distinguished members in the audience about whom he might be particularly curious someday soon. Recently, at Carnegie Hall, he noticed that one of the spectators seated up ahead was Arthur Rubinstein. Quickly, Whitman lifted his opera glasses and brought Mr. Rubinstein’s face into sharp focus, noticing the expression around the eyes, the mouth, the soft gray hair, and noticing, too, when Rubinstein stood up at intermission, how surprisingly short he was.
Whitman made notes on such details, knowing that someday they would help bring life to his work, knowing that masterful obituaries, like fine funerals, must be planned well in advance. Churchill himself had arranged his own funeral; and the relatives of Bernard Baruch, before he died, visited the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Chapel to arrange the details; and now Baruch’s son, though in apparent good health, has done the same thing—as has a little charwoman who recently purchased a mausoleum for more than $6,000 and had her name put on it, and now every month or so she travels up to the cemetery in Westchester County to get a look at it.
“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.”
Several years ago, after a Times editor recovered from a heart attack and returned to the office, the reporter who had done the editor’s obituary showed it to him so that any errors or omissions might be corrected. The editor read it. That evening he had another heart attack. Ernest Hemingway, on the other hand, thoroughly enjoyed reading the newspaper accounts of his death during a plane crash in Africa. He had the newspaper clipping pasted up in a thick scrapbook and claimed to begin each day with “a regular morning ritual of a glass of cold champagne and a couple of pages of obituaries.” Elmer Davis had twice been erroneously reported as having died in catastrophes, and while he conceded that “to turn up alive after you have been reported dead is an unwarrantable imposition on your friends,” he nonetheless denied the rumor and was “more generally believed than is usually the case when people have to contradict something that the papers have said about them.”
Some newspapermen, possibly not trusting their colleagues, have written their own advance obituaries and inconspicuously slipped them into the morgue to await the proper moment. One of these advance obituaries, written by a New York Daily News reporter named Lowell Limpus, appeared under his by-line in that newspaper in 1957 and began: “This is the last of the 87,000 or more stories I’ve written to appear in the News. It must be the final one because I died yesterday. … I wrote this, my own obituary, because I know more about the subject than anybody else and I’d rather have honest than flowery. …”
While the obituary page might have once been sodden with sentimentality, it is rarely so today except in that italicized column of death notices that usually appears on the right-hand side of the page above the flowered ads of the undertakers. The relatives of the deceased pay to have these notices published, and in them every dead man is invariably described as a “loving” father, a “beloved” husband, a “dear” brother, an “adored” grandfather, or a “revered” uncle. All the names of the dead are listed in alphabetical order and set in capital letters and bold type so that the casual reader may scan them quickly, like the baseball scores, and it is the rare reader that ponders over them. One such rarity is a seventy-three-year-old gentleman named Simon de Vaulchier.
Mr. de Vaulchier, a retired research librarian, was for a brief period a kind of professional reader of the obituary pages of New York’s metropolitan dailies. And he compiled for the Jesuit magazine America the research for a study in which it was observed, among other things, that most of the dead in the New York Post were Jewish, most of those in the New York World-Telegram and Sun were Protestant, most of those in the Journal-American were Catholic. A rabbi added a footnote, after reading the survey, to the effect that they all seemed to die for the Times.
If one is to believe only what one reads in the Times, however, then the individuals with the highest fatality rate are chairmen of the board, Mr. de Vaulchier noted. Admirals usually got longer obits than generals in the Times, he continued, architects did better than engineers, painters did better than other artists and always seemed to die in Woodstock, New York. Women and Negroes hardly ever seemed to die.
Obituary writers never die. At least Mr. de Vaulchier said he has never read such an obituary in a newspaper, although early last year on the occasion of Whitman’s heart attack he came quite close.
After Whitman had been taken to Knickerbocker Hospital in New York, a reporter in the City Room was assigned to “bring the files on him up-to-date.” Whitman, since recovering, has never seen the advance obituary, nor does he expect to, but he imagines that it ran seven or eight paragraphs in length and, when it is finally used, will begin something like this:
“Alden Whitman, a member of the New York Times staff who wrote obituary articles on many of the world’s notable personalities, died suddenly last night at his home, 600 West 116th Street, of a heart attack. He was fifty-two years old. …”
It will be very factual and verifiable, he is sure, and will record that he was born on October 27, 1918, in Nova Scotia and was brought to Bridgeport by his parents two years later; that he was twice married, had two children by his first wife, was active in the New York Newspaper Guild, and that in 1956 he, among other newsmen, was questioned by Senator James O. Eastland about his Leftist activities. The obituary will possibly list the schools he attended but will not mention that during his elementary years he skipped twice (to his mother’s delight; she was a schoolteacher, and this happy event did her reputation with the school board no harm); it will list his places of employment but will not report that in 1936 he got his teeth knocked out, nor that in 1937 he nearly drowned while swimming (an experience he found highly pleasant), nor that in 1940 he came within an inch of being crushed by a part of a falling parapet; nor that in 1949 he lost control of his automobile and skidded helplessly to the very edge of a mountain in Colorado; nor that in 1965, after surviving his coronary thrombosis, he repeated what he had been saying most of his life: There is no God; I do not fear death because there is no God; there will be no Judgment Day.
“But what will happen to you then, after you die, Mr. Whitman?”
“I have no soul that is going anywhere, “ he said. “It is simply a matter of bodily extinction.”
“If you had died during your heart attack, what, in your opinion, would have been the first thing your wife would have done?”
“She would first have seen to it that my body was disposed of in the way that I wanted,” he said. “To be cremated without fuss or fanfare.”
“And then what?”
“Then, after she’d gotten to that, she would have turned her attention to the children.”
“Then, I guess, she would have broken down and had a good cry.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, I would assume so,” he said finally, puffing on his pipe. “This is the formal outlet for grief under such circumstances.”
Gay Talese is a bestselling author who has written eleven books. He was a reporter for The New York Times from 1956 to 1965, and since then he has written for the Times, Esquire, The New Yorker, Harper's Magazine, and others. Listen to Talese discuss this story and more on the Longform Podcast.