Obituaries … and the New York Times

February 1, 2019

Obituaries … and the New York Times


Mark Rubin

Like many of us, I imagine, I have an early morning Internet drill. First up? Tucson obits. The functions suck (and don’t get me started on marginal newspapers and their lack of investment in tech infrastructure), but I need to know what’s up with my people.

Next? The New York Times. First, I glance at the headlines. Then, I read anything from Paul Krugman. (A few of my Wingnut friends have Econ degrees. I love listening to them spout off about why he did not deserve the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences.)

Before I leave the Times, I always read the obituaries. Not, here, checking for people I might know, although I was acquainted with Leonard Dinnerstein, a University of Arizona History professor who died a week or so ago. Confession: I had no notion that Professor Dinnerstein—I knew him as Leonard, a friend of a friend, and I knew him barely at all—played so significant a role in developing anti-Semitism studies in the United States. Sadly, I really learned about this man in my midst from his NYT obituary. My loss!

Instead, I read the obituaries to discovery fascinating lives. Like, from the last few months, Peter Magowan, the owner of my beloved San Francisco Giants. A seemingly really nice guy!

Or Norman Goodman, the New York County Clerk for 45 years, and the man whose name appeared on decades worth of jury summonses for tens of thousands of people, rich and regular. (A young man tells Mr. Goodman he can’t serve on a jury, for Jesus said, “Judge not, lest you be judged.” Jesus also said, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s,” rejoined Mr. Goodman, and added, “I’m Caesar.”)

Or Tommy Rowles, who made drinks at Bemelmans Bar at the Carlyle Hotel at 76th St. and Fifth Ave. in Manhattan for 53 years. (Fourth customer, ever: Harry Truman, former POTUS. “Harry, would you like a little drink?” Boss gets very upset, at which point Mr. Truman intervenes, dishonestly, stating “I told that young man to call me by my name.” “Harry,” to Harry Truman, “would you like a little drink?” Uh, duh!)

The Times obituaries offer a great mix of reporting on the regular and the “important” among us. They share much, in that everyone on whom the Times reports is dead. Some—or many—mourn their passing in a way we can’t. And all of them lived lives which merit notice. And notice them I do.

For reasons I can’t recall from several days ago—hey, I’m 61, I have a lot of stuff going on in my life, … and I enjoy a cocktail+ every evening—I mentioned the NYT obits to my 26-year-old daughter the other day. I shared with her the Harris Wofford obituary from the Times. Senator Wofford lived an exemplary life, and the obituary left my daughter in awe. Not so easy, with a busy Millennial, enmeshed in wedding planning. Thrilled I was to share!

If you want to dive deep, watch Obit. It’s fabulous, telling the story of the New York Times obituary page. You’ll leave your viewing uplifted, wondering why and how marking deaths can leave you feeling so, so, good! (You’ll also find out why every, every NYT obituary includes, in the second paragraph, information about the cause of death and who reported it.)

Lifer marches on, of course, and so does its endings. We can’t wish away death, but we can revel in the interesting lives of so many people among us!

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