When legends die
I wrote Paul Newman’s obituary 20 years ago.
I was in journalism school, and had just learned to my surprise that obituaries for the famous are written in advance. I had never thought about that, except occasionally to wonder how someone died one day and I could read a thorough story the very next. Even as a teen I had appreciated the long Elvis obit that began, “The King is dead.”
It was a creepy notion, though, to think that if you were famous, newspapers across the land had written, and were periodically updating, your obituary.
We students were asked to draft an obit ” on anyone. My friend Mary Agnes picked Ellen Goodman, a columnist whom she admired. Two months later Goodman addressed our class at Columbia School of Journalism, and Mary Agnes was chosen to escort her around.
The first thing that popped out of Mary Agnes’s mouth upon meeting this role model was, “I wrote your obituary!” Goodman looked a little startled, as well she might, and Mary Agnes kicked herself for weeks.
Another classmate, Brooke, chose Truman Capote, which was only realistic. We students were always trying to get published, and the celebrated Capote (we read In Cold Blood for our Journalism as Literature class) was unwell. A year later he did die, and I wondered if Brooke’s story appeared.
I chose as my subject Paul Newman. He was always my favorite movie star, from the time as a kid I witnessed his cheeky charm as he held up a train in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, to last week, when on the recommendation of my friend Ann I watched him dignify Nobody’s Fool. I grew up with him, really. My parents got a sitter for us so they could see Cool Hand Luke, and came home and animatedly described the “I can eat 50 eggs” scene. I saw The Sting with a birthday party. When asked how the Newman character always won at cards, Robert Redford’s character said promptly, “He cheats.” Yet we rooted for this con man. No one did scams like Newman.
I’ve seen Newman in all his youthful glory; and at 57 unafraid to act his age ” even exaggerate it with a portrayal of shambling, alcoholic ill health ” in The Verdict.
Two summers ago, on our annual trip East, I made my sons watch Butch Cassidy on my mother’s very dark old TV, a not very successful venue. My sister and I, still rapt, commanded: “Hey, guys, this is a very famous ending!”
The day after Newman died, I sat sorrowfully in the driveway listening to a long tribute full of audioclips on NPR; I perused all that appeared in my Sunday paper. I wanted to hear and read the retrospectives and the respect.
Another thing I learned in journalism school was that the obituary is an underappreciated but important writing form. Such articles are a summation, a profile, a last chance to pay tribute. They are the record.
Paul Newman was legendary for his acting chops. But he grew, gained depth. He became politically active to the point of making Richard Nixon’s famous enemies list, a fact Newman called a great honor. He gave away every dime earned from Newman’s Own salad dressings (I just bought some the other day) and other products, to the tune of over $200 million. With typical self-deprecation, he said, “The embarrassing thing is that the salad dressing is outgrossing my films.”
The last thing I remember learning about obituaries was a notion about someone supposedly writing one on Mozart, and his editor reading it and demanding, “Where’s the twinkle?” You can’t write an obit of Mozart, the teacher-critic Judith Crist told us, without noting that he wrote “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”” at age 6 (a tale I have since seen disputed, but never mind). A true roundup does not exclude a famous, if small, fact. And so I can’t leave out the cobalt-blue eyes. For my obituary subject, I picked the handsomest man I ever saw.
Alison Osius lives in Carbondale and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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