Who was it who said, when John Lennon was shot, “It’s always the John Lennons, never the Paul McCartneys.” Can’t recall. But it was only yesterday I read a piece about the Associated Press explaining its practice of keeping prewritten obituaries on file, particularly for “troubled” young celebrities like Britney Spears.
And yet, it’s always the Heath Ledgers, never the Britney Spearses, isn’t it? [Rages; shakes fist at the sky.]
Truth to tell, the fact Ledger left the stage so early isn’t as interesting as the headline on the AP piece: Debate rages over prewritten obituaries for young, living stars. I know from the work I do at night that wire stories on newspaper websites are usually imported from the wire datastream whole, with little editing and, needless to say, no rewriting of the headline. (A little Googling demonstrates the trick for you civilians.) And yet, reading the story, I can find no debate and certainly no raging — who gives a shit whether the AP prewrites obits? Raging debates are one of those things you only find in blog comment sections and in the fantasies of AP copy editors.
Canned obits, as the lead of the story points out, are nothing new and nothing more than a smart use of resources. I took a tour of the New York Times in the way-early ’80s, and that was a big hit with the folks in my group — learning that Princess Grace’s life had already been summed up in 1,500 words and half a dozen pictures before she missed that switchback on the mountain road. How macabre, was the general feeling. How unremarkable was mine.
We had a big obit-updating project in Columbus while I was there, the pet project of some assistant city editor who took it very seriously. Every reporter on the desk was given half a dozen to work on in their spare time, and we were encouraged to pull out the stops, to interview the still-living subjects for fresh quotes. But — and this struck me as fairly stupid — we were told not to reveal what we were working on unless it was absolutely necessary. The memo offered a suggested code phrase: “I’d like to interview you for a general biographical piece to run on an undetermined date in the future.” This fan dance was necessary for fear that some subjects may not have accepted the idea that one day they’d go the way of all flesh, and might refuse out of fear or superstition. Oh, please. Most people figured it out immediately, and I don’t think one got cold chills over it. I don’t even remember who my subjects were, but my friend Ted drew Gen. Curtis LeMay, the Air Force officer who never met a landscape he’d mind bombing back to the Stone Age (as he famously said of North Vietnam). Ted asked him about that quote; as I recall, he suggested it had been taken out of context.
I subsequently learned that the character of Buck Turgidson in “Dr. Strangelove” was based on LeMay. I wonder if that made the obit.
Ledger is a loss, no doubt; I thought his performance in “Brokeback Mountain” was a thing of beauty, particularly how he inhabited the character physically. With his long legs and lean frame, he looked born to spend his life in a saddle. He carried the tension of his forbidden feelings in his shoulders, and you could see every striation on the knotted muscles there.
However, as someone said to me yesterday, someone who was having their 30th birthday yesterday, in fact: “I knew I was 30 when I was more concerned about the Federal Reserve than Heath Ledger.” Amen.
…(F)rom the start, Thompson seemed to be stuck in a state of repose. His announcement in Iowa, held before an imposing set of columns and faux stone that looked like the facade of a small bank, stirred little more excitement than if he’d been offering free checking. More lounge-worthy moments followed. At Florida’s state GOP convention, where candidates had to pay for time before the crowd of 4,000, Thompson’s rivals gave passionate speeches. Thompson spoke for a lean and uninspiring five minutes. The press copies of his daily schedule always looked like they’d been handed out with a couple of the pages missing.
On trial for killing your 7-year-old daughter? Go ahead, introduce that “World’s Greatest Dad” coffee mug into evidence. I’m sure the jury will be swayed.
Off to the shower. Someone stop by and scrub my back.