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Jonathan Taylor writes:

I got a last-minute ticket to Monday's sold-out "Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries" event at the New York Public Library. It's fair to say that The Economist's obituaries editor, Ann Wroe, stole the show, or was smartly handed it by the NYPL's Paul Holdengräber, on a platter of quotes from Aristophanes and Rilke. Wroe and her predecessor, Keith Kolquhoun, have edited the new Economist Book of Obituaries.

The Economist publishes just one substantial, often heroically sympathetic, appreciation a week. Wroe frequently plucks a relatively obscure figure from among the deaths covered by other papers to illuminate his or her illuminatingness, as in the case of Martin Tytell, New York City's last typewriter "surgeon."

However, Wroe evidently does have the latitude to commit the occasional "double-header," in an instance such as the synchronous deaths of Brooke Astor and Leona Helmsley. This obit rather belabors the obvious contrasts between the two rich women before concluding with a leveling wave of the scythe: "Both ended sadly, left alone with their dogs and the ghosts of their husbands in dust-draped city apartments or empty summer homes. But in the memory of most New Yorkers one was a saint and the other a sinner. Richesse oblige."

Unlike newspapers like The New York Times and London's Daily Telegraph (which, Wroe noted, specializes in "colonels" and "decadent aristocrats"), The Economist doesn't have need for an extensive file of prewritten obits. Only seven, in fact, one of which is Saddam Hussein's, evidently never published for whatever reason; she let slip that others include the (now former) king of Nepal, bookish former British Labour Party leader Michael Foot, and Nelson Mandela. It was not clear whether the bigger package she promised for Margaret Thatcher's death was counted as one of these seven. Prince Philip, she said, was not among them, although she declared he wasn't "looking too well lately" (!).

The presence in the audience of Times obit writers Bruce Weber and William Grimes, along with former public editor Daniel Okrent, steered the event toward Times protocol fetishism. For a lot of people present, I don't think this was an idle concern, although in reality it is. Weber piped up at one point with an allusion that I think went mostly unheard, to the status conferred by the inclusion in an obit's headline of "the verb"—presumably "Dies." Something else to take account of in the morning scan.

The obit of the day to crop up in the conversation was that of southwestern mystery novelist Tony Hillerman, with Okrent emitting, virtually in a heartfelt cry, that "the world has changed." Before the event, I had been looking in The Complete New Yorker at the magazine's obituary practices over time (81 under the category "Obituary," another 85 under "Postscript," numerous others under "Comment"), and bethought myself to see whether it had taken note of Hillerman's novels.

The earliest citation was from 1970; author: Edmund Wilson. Here was a find! I thought—Wilson, famous for his blinkered dismissal of "detective fiction," on Tony Hillerman!? In fact, the interminable Wilson piece was the second part of a consideration of "Two Neglected American Novelists," Henry B. Fuller and Harold Frederic.

Hillerman's The Blessing Way was reviewed in the appended Briefly Noted section: "Highly recommended."


Sounds like a classic “Talk of the Town” event, Jonathan. And thanks for doing the legwork on Hillerman’s profile in TNY — I was curious myself.

Wow, that sounds like a great night! “Times protocol fetishism”—that makes me laugh. I suspect I’m a protocol fetishist.

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