In her conversation with Tyler Cowen, Fox reveals not only the process for writing an obituary, but her thoughts on life, death, storytelling, puzzle-solving, her favorite cellist, and how it came to be that an economist sang opera 86 times at the Met.
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TYLER COWEN: Today I am with Margalit Fox at Chelsea Market. One of my readers wrote to me about Margalit, “She is by far the best writer amongst all those employed by the New York Times.” She is arguably the most humorous writer, has the best sense of irony, and the most inventive writer.
She is, in fact, one of the main writers of obituaries for the New York Times. She also has written two very well-reviewed books, has a third book coming out about historical true crime in Edwardian England, and I’m here to talk with Margalit Fox. Welcome.
MARGALIT FOX: Thank you very much, Tyler.
COWEN: The fact that you write obituaries makes you especially interesting. And my first question has to do with human lives. How well do you feel family and friends actually know a person? You get to know them fairly well when you write their obit. How well do others know them, those closest to them?
FOX: Of course, those closest to them are the ones by definition who know them best. And so, for various reasons, including just one of basic reporting smarts, we are obliged to spend time on the phone with families and close friends where there are such people to be had.
COWEN: But how often is the family or the close friends surprised by what’s in the obituary? Divorces they didn’t know about; children they didn’t know about; they may have been an alcoholic when they were in their 20s; something they did in their career.
FOX: Remember that we the reporter are starting almost always from an agnostic state. Of course, there are essentially two categories of obituaries that the Times does.
One are the marquee names, the presidents, the kings, the queens, the captains of industry, old-time Hollywood film stars, and so on — people who are in the history books, people whom everyone has heard of. Their lives are well documented, and so there are rarely any surprises, either for the family or for the reporter working on the story.
On the other hand, there is this whole other category of people whom I call history’s backstage players, these unsung men and women who are not household names but who, because they invented something, had an idea, wrote something, you know, way back perhaps in the 1940s — they put a wrinkle in the social fabric and changed the world.
I’ve done, for instance, the inventor of the Frisbee, the inventor of Etch A Sketch, the inventor of the plastic lawn flamingo, of Stove Top Stuffing. Now, about those people, although clearly they did something that changed the culture — was transformative in some way — we reporters are almost always going in cold. We’ve very often never heard the name, much less anything about what this person did.
And so, for that, of course, we’re obliged to rely to an extent, with appropriate double-checking and backstopping, on family knowledge because their knowledge is better and of far, far longer duration than ours.
COWEN: What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned about an ordinary life writing one of these obituaries? Not a famous person but — .
FOX: Well, here’s one. I brought one with me. There was a very good photographer who worked for the Village Voice for many years, a man named Fred McDarrah. He died in 2007. Now, his work as a photographer for the Voice alone would have been more than enough to get him a news obit in our pages, which it did.
He took, for instance, a very famous photo of Bob Dylan, a young Bob Dylan all in black, in Sheridan Square Park in New York, facing the camera and saluting. That photo has been everywhere. That was taken by our guy, Fred McDarrah. And because of when he worked in the fifties and sixties, he was famous for documenting photographically the beat generation.
To my surprise and delight, when I started pulling old clippings and researching the obit, we found that not only did he document the beat generation, but he enterprisingly started a business called Rent-a-Beatnik for these society matrons who wanted to be au courant, wanted to have a beatnik play the bongos or read poetry at their fancy parties in Scarsdale, but didn’t quite know how to go about it.
COWEN: With rental markets and everything, I would say.
FOX: Exactly. So the lede of our obit — we say, “Fred W. McDarrah, a self-described square who was a longtime photographer for the Village Voice documented the unwashed exploits of the Beat generation, and as an enterprising freelance talent agent rented out members of that generation (washed or unwashed) to wide-eyed suburban society gatherings, died,” etc., etc. So that was great fun.
On the structure of obits
COWEN: One thing I find interesting when I read obituaries is how much subtle humor is in them and how much of an attempt is made to make the first sentence be especially interesting. And often the last sentence contains a kind of nugget or surprise or twist on the story. Now, the other parts of the newspaper typically aren’t like this, be it the New York Times or elsewhere.
So why do obituaries have this special status where there’s room in them for this kind of humor and invention? Or alternatively, why don’t more parts of the newspaper actually copy this if it works, which I think it typically does?
FOX: As to what more parts of the newspaper do or don’t do, I can’t speak, but of course, as you know, there are very ironclad conventions for the structure of news articles. Historically, obits were no exception to that. These conventions actually have been in place during the Civil War. And it’s worth digressing about them quickly because they’re quite fascinating.
Anyone who’s ever taken Journalism 101 has heard about the inverted pyramid, which is this upside-down triangle that’s supposed to be the model for the lede paragraph of any news story and in fact for the structure of the news story as it flows along: broad-based information first and then finer- and finer- and finer-grained detail, down to stuff at the end that you could possibly dispense with if you’re short on space.
And that model is an information-processing model. It has endured for over a hundred years because it’s cognitively perfect. It came about during Civil War battle coverage, when they had the medium of telegraphy for the first time available to reporters.
Like much new technology, it was bulky. Lines went down. And reporters learned in a do-or-die sort of way, “Get the broadest information through first, so if the lines go down, at least your readers back in Boston or Baltimore will have something. Your editor will have something to put in the paper.” That model has endured because it’s how we process information. It’s cognitively perfect.
Obits, too, were beholden to that model, plus weighed down further by all of this boilerplate that has to be there — so-and-so died, when, where, of what illness, at what age. And that is why historically obits were considered one of the most boring sections of any daily paper.
Happily, in the last 20 or 30 years, particularly we at the Times have realized that underlying all of that potentially very leaden boilerplate is a pure narrative arc. Because what does an obit do? It’s charged with taking subjects from the cradle — John Doe was born on January 1st, 1900 — to the grave — John Doe died yesterday. That gives you a built-in narrative arc.
And indeed, obits turn out to be the most purely narrative genre in any daily paper. The reason we have these great ledes and we hope great kickers, as we call them, at the end is that we are exploiting very happily this inherent narrative potential that is a news obit.