Newspapers Get a Jump on Death With Pre-Written Obits

By: Joe Strupp

When Rosa Parks died on Oct. 24, 2005, The New York Times dutifully ran her obituary on Page One. It also prominently revealed the writer of the obit, E.R. Shipp. To those familiar with Shipp, a well-known columnist and staffer at several major papers throughout her career, this seemed slightly odd, mainly because she had not worked at the Times for 12 years. In addition, Parks’ obituary was originally written back in 1990.

“I got some e-mails and a few calls,” Shipp, now a Hofstra University professor and a weekly columnist for New York’s Daily News, recalls about the confusion caused by her 15-year-old byline. “One friend said he was asked about the obit and went out to get the Daily News to read it, thinking it was in there.”

Such is life in the advanced-planning world of newspaper obituaries, where any chance to get ahead of the story is welcomed. While pre-written obits of the rich and famous are standard, one that survives more than a decade is noticeable. The fact that Parks had lived to 92 partly explains the reason her obit had sat unused for as long as it did. As Yvonne Shinhoster Lamb, obituary editor at The Washington Post reveals, “The ongoing joke is if you want someone to keep living, do their advance obituary.”

But major papers continue to stockpile advance obits more than ever, while also devoting more writers to the dedications. Growing interest by readers in biographical pieces, along with an increased effort to present them more as stories than public notices, also adds to the renewed effort to stay one step ahead of death.

“It has become more popular in the paper,” says Jon Thurber, who for seven years has been executive editor/obituaries for the Los Angeles Times. Even Hollywood has taken note, casting Jennifer Aniston as an obituary writer in Rumor Has It, a new film in which she laments a career “that is going absolutely nowhere.”

Thurber has nearly doubled his supply of advance obits to some 400 during his time at the helm, while also increasing his staff to five writers from two. Much the same is true at the New York Times, where Obituaries Editor Charles Strum boasts 1,200 pre-written stories (about 150 more than when he began five years ago) and a staff of five writers.

For The Washington Post, where Lamb has been on the job for two years, recent efforts have boosted production and planning. The paper added one obit writer in the past year, while also slowly adding to the backlog. “We are trying to get the number up,” she says, noting that fewer than 100 have been written. “We do have some dating back 20 years.”

Staying ahead of the grim reaper

Editors say the key question when planning pre-death obituaries is deciding which ones to write. For most, the criteria is basic but the judgments are broad. “The rule of thumb is the impact they’ve had, age, health situation, and if you hear rumors about somebody’s health,” explains Thurber. “You would not want to write Hugh Hefner’s obituary on deadline.”

At the Post, Lamb admits, “It is a struggle to know who to get ready. Some of it is determined on age, maybe if they’re past 80, or you hear that people are ill.” When legendary basketball coach Arnold “Red” Auerbach was sick in early 2005, the paper updated his obit, but he made a remarkable recovery.

Shipp says her Parks obit actually began in 1988 when the civil rights icon visited New York City and she was assigned by the Times to “follow her around a lot. I got her to tell me stories, and when I had an opportunity to do an obit I thought I should do her. It is still the one I took the most pride in.”

Shipp, who worked at the New York Times from 1980 to 1993, says the Times contacted her when Parks fell ill in 2003 to ask if the obit and Shipp’s byline could be used. “I hadn’t really thought about it until people started calling me asking if I had returned to the Times,” she said shortly after the obit ran.

While most obits in the Gray Lady’s files do not date back 15 years, Editor Strum says the collection of ready-to-go profiles is extensive, and changes often. He declines to say whose stories have been written. “Many are in good shape, many are outdated and some ought to be redone,” Strum reveals. “Some have simple things that need to be addressed or altered, specific facts.”

A 26-year Times veteran, Strum does not rely solely on his staff, noting that a handful of other current and former Times writers contribute now and then. “I use other staffers from all over to write advances,” he says, citing reporter Judith Miller, who wrote Yasser Arafat’s obituary several years before his 2004 death, as one example. “It is very hard to find time to write 2,000 words about someone,” he explains, “and these are people who take an interest in a certain obit, and former Times writers who want to stay active.” Among those past staffers who still write obits for the paper are former correspondent Michael T. Kaufman and retired political writer Adam Clymer.

Although he acknowledges that the obituaries of George W. Bush and the four living former presidents are nearly finished, Strum would not disclose any other obits because he’s afraid the subjects may seek to alter them: “There are people in this world with big enough egos that they would try to influence what is written about them after their death.”

Strum cites Irving R. Kaufman, the district court judge who oversaw the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in 1951 and ordered the pair to death, as an example. “Judge Kaufman spent the rest of his life, one might surmise, worrying about that,” Strum says. “He would often call the editor of the Times, whoever it might be at the time, and let him know about certain cases he was working on. It was a way to front-load the record of his career, which was stuck in the ’50s with the Rosenbergs.” The effort failed when, after the judge’s 1992 death, his obit led with his most famous case.

Thurber says his stack of advance obituaries includes the likes of Norman Mailer, Elizabeth Taylor, and Walter Cronkite, whose obit Thurber estimates is at least 15 years old. “That would need some updating,” Thurber says about Cronkite’s story. “That is the challenge, trying to stay ahead of it. It’s a gut feeling. I’ll wake up one day and think that we haven’t heard about ‘XYZ’ for a few years and check on how they’re doing.” He cites J.D. Salinger as an example, noting that his obit was recently refreshed.

The Associated Press, surprisingly, has no staffers dedicated solely to obit writing, according to Kristin Gazlay, deputy managing editor for national news, who is charged with keeping tabs on them. She says the news service has about 1,000 pre-written obituaries, but explains that they come from writers in different departments. Some 700 obits are the result of the national desk, but the remaining 300 span sports, business, and various foreign bureaus. Obits for the most prominent members of the British Royal Family and the two living Beatles, for example, were pre-written by London bureau writers.

Gazlay points out that the news cooperative is under pressure to produce an instant story when someone dies given its 24-hour status. “We can get the word at 3 a.m. and we are often the first word of the death,” she says. “If we send out an obituary, it is going to nearly 1,500 papers. Many do not have their own resources to do it.”

Such quick responses can provide occasional goofs, such as the 1998 incident in which Bob Hope’s AP obituary was mistakenly posted online, prompting some incorrect reports of his demise and even a brief tribute on the floor of Congress. Then there was the rumor several years ago that Shirley Temple Black had died, sparking such interest that AP sent someone from its San Francisco bureau to Black’s nearby home. “She confirmed she was not dead,” Gazlay recalls. “Then she asked, ‘How did I die?'”

In 2003, the New York Times had to correct a premature obit on dancer Katharine Sergava after the paper mistakenly reported her death, based in part on a report in London’s Daily Telegraph. When Sergava died in late 2005, the Times reminded readers of the earlier goof in her correct obit.

At USA Today, Deputy Managing Editor Ed Foster-Simeon is charged with updating the obit files. He declines to say how many the Gannett Co. Inc. daily has, or who is on the list, but says his paper also has no obituary writers: “It’s basically beat writers and those who cover certain people.”

Martinis and subterfuge

Few of his obit writers seek to contact the subjects of their pieces prior to their deaths, Strum says. He notes a few occasions in the past during which writers would interview a subject under the guise of a story or for background, only to later use it for an obituary. “We don’t use subterfuge anymore,” he says. “You don’t want people thinking you are breathing down their necks. It is much better to be straightforward.”

Strum mentions the story of Times writer Albin Krebs, who visited Bette Davis at her Connecticut home for an interview years ago, but did not disclose its obituary purpose. Not long after Davis brought out tea and snacks and began the interview, the Hollywood legend asked suddenly, “Are you interviewing me for my obituary?”

The reporter said, “Yes,” and she replied, “Why the hell didn’t you tell me?” Davis then went into the kitchen, made a pitcher of martinis, and they talked all night.

Thurber says his paper’s proximity to Hollywood means entertainment figures are among the most sought-after subjects, but he claims few are willing to be pre-interviewed. “They don’t like to talk about that,” he notes, declining to identify those who have snubbed such requests.

Invariably, there are the surprise deaths of those who die young, such as John F. Kennedy Jr. and Princess Diana. “There were no advance obits for either of them,” Strum says. “The ones I feel bad about are the ones I should have planned for. You get people in their 90s and it is a race to see who will get to the finish line first.”

Lamb of the Post says her paper was not ready when Ray Charles died in June 2004 at age 73. “Fortunately, I think it broke early in the day, which gave us time to get it together,” she says. The obituary of Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who died in 2005, also was a recent work, starting out as a news story by Post reporter Charles Lane.

“There are about 200 of them I wish we had,” says the AP’s Gazlay, declining to name them. “Muhammad Ali was one that was not well put-together for a long time.” She cites W. Mark Felt, the former FBI official whose identity as confidential source Deep Throat was revealed in 2005, as a perfect example of someone whose obituary became a necessity based on events: “When he was unmasked, we ordered one up.”

Shipp’s obit of Parks had been tweaked several times over the years as new incidents occurred. Actors win awards, politicians reach new heights — or depths — and criminals are reincarcerated or, on occasion, suddenly released, sparking a need for revised stories.

“Lou Cannon recently went back and interviewed Gerald Ford to update his,” Shinhoster Lamb says about the well-known former Post political reporter and Ronald Reagan biographer. “We have a number of them like that.” Other obits that have been in the newspaper’s files for many years include those of Fidel Castro, Muhammad Ali, and B.B. King. She contends that former Washington, D.C., Mayor Marion Barry’s obit is among the oldest on file.

Until recently, the Post did not have a Jimmy Carter obituary, says Shinhoster Lamb, who says it had fallen through the cracks: “We found out last year that we didn’t have him, and it is now in the works.”

Newsmen plan, God laughs

Then there’s the rare situation in which the obit writer dies before the subject of his or her obituary, requiring some byline sleight of hand.

One example is Bob Hope, who lived to be 100 before dying in 2003. His obit writer, the Times’ legendary Vincent Canby, had preceded him, having passed away in 2000. “Vincent Canby couldn’t accurately tell you that Bob Hope is dead, because he was dead,” Strum explains. “So we ran the obit without his byline on top.” The unusual layout had a lead that reported on the death, followed by Canby’s byline, and the rest of the obit he had written.

Among the most difficult to get right, Strum says, are obituaries of inventors. These items often prompt a call or letter from someone else claiming to have been the real creator. “We did one on the guy who invented the reclining dental chair, and it turned out there was another guy who actually had the patent five minutes earlier,” Strum remembers. “You’re just asking for trouble with those.”

A similar episode erupted over the death of the man who had allegedly invented the inflatable life vest, known as the “Mae West.” Strum says another man claimed his father had been the actual inventor and sent the newspaper documents proving his claim to the patent. “A Times attorney researched it and found it was true,” Strum says. “We ended up writing a story about it, and it even prompted some corrections in other papers, such as the L.A. Times.”

The editors agree there’s no doubt that the obituary section has assumed greater notice by many readers. Thurber, who says he did not even have a dedicated space for obits until 1998, claims they are seen more as vehicles for good writing and storytelling than ever before. “We take the view that they are news stories rather than encyclopedic reviews,” he says. “A recognition that people of historic note are interesting.”

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