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The Art of the Obituary: An Interview with Margalit Fox

September 23, 2014 | by

Margalit Fox credit Ivan Farkas

Photo: Ivan Farkas

In nearly twenty years and twelve hundred obituaries, Margalit Fox, a senior writer at the New York Times, has chronicled the lives of such personages as the president of Estonia, an underwater cartographer, and the inventor of Stove Top Stuffing. An instrumental figure in pushing the obituary past Victorian-era formal constraints, Fox produces features-style write-ups of her subjects whether they’re ubiquitous public figures, comparatively unknown men and women whose inventions have changed the world, or suicidal poets. (More on those below.)

I caught up with Fox in the Upper West Side café where she’s written two books, Talking Hands: What Sign Language Reveals About the Mind and The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code, the latter of which was published in paperback earlier this year. She was remarkably jovial and eager to clarify what it’s like to write about the dead every day. We spoke about the history of the obituary, her love of English eccentrics, and how it feels to call a living person in preparation for his or her eventual death.

Does the work you do change the way you think about death?

This work does skew your worldview a bit. We all watch old movies with an eye toward who’s getting on in age. I watch the Oscars memorial presentation and sit there going, Did him, did her, didn’t do that one. For obit writers, the whole world is necessarily divided into the dead and the pre-dead. That’s all there is.

How did you end up in the obituaries department?

I’d never planned for a career in obits. The child has not yet been born that comes home from school clutching a composition that says, When I grow up, I want to be an obituary writer. I started as an editor at the Times Book Review. It was wonderful to be around books and people that love books, but the job itself was copyediting. I was afraid that all they’d be able to put on my tombstone was “She Changed Fifty-Thousand Commas into Semicolons.” I started contributing freelance to the obituary section and ended up getting pulled in as a full-time writer.

How is your section different from other news sections at the paper?

Ninety-five percent of our job is writing daily obits on deadline. It’s impossible to have an advance written for all the pre-dead who we hope to cover, so we usually have to phone someone up to ask about a person or a subject we don’t know much about. Recently, one of my colleagues was heard running around the office going, Does anyone know anything about exotic chickens?! It’s that sort of thing. Read More »

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The Well on Spring Street

September 15, 2014 | by

America’s first great murder trial, and the mark it left on New York.

Collect_Pond-Bayard_Mount-NYC

Archibald Robertson, Collect Pond–Bayard Mount, NYC, 1798.

Detested pit, may other times agree
With swelling mounds of earth to cover thee,
And hide the place, in whose obscure retreat
Some miscreant made his base design complete.

Thus, with oblivion’s wings to cover o’er
The spot which memory should preserve no more.

—Philip Freneau, A Collection of Poems, on American Affairs and a Variety of Other Subjects, 1815

On an unreasonably lovely August afternoon in SoHo—on Spring Street, to be precise, near where it meets Greene—I peered into the windows of a closed store, trying to see a way into what once might’ve been an alley. I was looking for a well that once captured the attention of the entire city: it was the scene of a murder most foul, a murder that pulled eighteenth-century New Yorkers into the bright, modern, terrifying future.

Gulielma Sands and Levi Weeks were planning to elope on the night of December 22, 1799. They lived in separate rooms at 208 Greenwich Street, a boarding house. Elma was going to sneak out and meet Levi somewhere private—this, at least, is what she told another resident at the house before she disappeared.

On January 2, two days into the new century, Elma’s body was found at the bottom of the Manhattan Well. The well took water from beneath Lispenard Meadow, the same water that filled the Collect Pond—a source of concern to New Yorkers, who associated standing water with disease. The meadow was a suburban respite from the crowded streets’ hustle and bustle of what we now call Tribeca: of the city but not really part of it. It was perfect for late-night sleigh rides, and sure enough, people living nearly half a mile away claimed to have seen Elma in a sleigh, between two men, on the night of the twenty-second. A week later, others noticed what looked like a lady’s muff floating near the top of the water. Read More »

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Fit to Print

August 14, 2014 | by

Silly-Putty_2

A 1965 ad for Silly Putty, plainly advertising its ability to pick up newsprint.

On Monday, the Times’s David Carr had a gloomy prognosis for the fate of print newspapers. He wrote,

It’s a measure of the basic problem that many people haven’t cared or noticed as their hometown newspapers have reduced staffing, days of circulation, delivery and coverage. Will they notice or care when those newspapers go away altogether? I’m not optimistic about that.

Carr and many others are alive to the societal, artistic, and human implications of this loss. All this aside, it means lost jobs. You don’t need me to say that, or to belabor the passing of an era. These things are too huge to contemplate.

So you start thinking about the stupid things. The oblong bags newspapers come in. What will people use to clean up after their dogs? Where will they get rubber bands? Will “train-style” folding become a lost art? And what about Silly Putty?

Silly Putty can’t really be called a major casualty in this overhaul, but it is something that will be decisively rendered extinct. It’s a retro toy now—if you can even call something which was so obviously the byproduct of industrial experimentation a “toy”—but with the death of the newspaper, one of its primary functions (if you can call it a function) will be nullified.

Silly Putty should be placed in a time capsule immediately on grounds of sheer weirdness. Try explaining it to an alien: “It’s putty, but it’s … silly. It’s sort of flesh-colored. It has a really distinctive chemical smell. It stretches, and snaps, and turns into a puddle. If you roll it up, it bounces like a ball. Oh, and it picks up newsprint. Then it gets really grubby and you keep it in a plastic egg, forever.” If Silly Putty’s origins are clear enough—it was a World War II–era attempt to address rubber shortages—its ability to transfer newsprint is more mysterious. How did someone figure this out? And how did anyone decide it was a selling point? Read More »

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But There Is a Quiet Car, David

July 21, 2014 | by

PASSENGERS_ON_ONE_OF_THE_AMTRAK_METROLINER_TRAINS_WHICH_RUN_BETWEEN_WASHINGTON,_DISTRICT_OF_COLUMBIA,_AND_NEW_YORK..._-_NARA_-_556656

A commuter train in 1974. (Note the absence of consumer electronics.)

There was some trouble in paradise on the Ethan Allen Express. More than a few people around me were cursing the indifferent Wi-Fi as they desperately tried to remain tethered to the grid. Behind me, a passenger made serial phone calls in a mind-erasing loud voice. “I’m on the train!” he would always begin … We are all on that train, the one that left print behind, the one where we are constantly in real time, where we know a little about everything and nothing about anything, really. And there is no quiet car.

David Carr, The New York Times, July 21, 2014

If you’re the Times’s senior media reporter, you need to stay connected 24/7, even when you’re on a leisurely train ride up the Hudson Valley.

But if you’re Joe Smartphone, always shouting “I’m on the train!” into your Samsung Galaxy S5, locking gazes with its oracular high-res screen straight from Grand Central to Poughkeepsie, here’s a tip. Power down and join the quiet car of the mind—the one that print didn’t leave behind—with a joint subscription to The Paris Review and The London Review of Books.

The Paris Review brings you the best new fiction, poetry, and interviews; The London Review of Books publishes the best cultural essays and long-form journalism. Now, for a limited time, you can get them both for one low price, anywhere in the world.

Subscribe today.

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What We’re Loving: Voyeurism, Privacy, the King of the Monkeys

July 18, 2014 | by

Illustration_of_Sugriva_challenging_Vali_from_the_Ramayana_(c._1628–1649)

An illustration from the Ramayana of Sugriva challenging Vali, ca. 1628–1649

God bless the anonymous German who published, in 1804, The Nightwatches of Bonaventura, a novel full of bizarre comic brio, pitched perfectly and awkwardly between Gothicism and Romanticism. Nightwatches is narrated by Kreuzgang, a poet manqué—and actor manqué, and even puppeteer manqué—who’s taken on a gig as a night watchman for a steady paycheck. He skulks about, muttering to the reader, warding off boredom by staring in people’s windows and riffing on the devil. All the while he seems to suffer from some kind of mood disorder; he’s acerbic where I expect him to be gentle, sententious where I expect him to be forgiving. As he observes, through curtains and windows, a succession of excommunications, thefts, murders, love affairs, and hauntings, Kreuzgang begins to charm with his lyrical cynicism. In his more aphoristic moments, he comments on our era as much as his own: “The character of the times is patched and pieced together like a fool’s coat,” he says, “and worst of all, the fool buttoned in it would like to appear serious…” There’s something perversely irresistible in Nightwatches’s voyeurism and its willful profanity. A new edition is coming in October; its publisher says it’s “one part Poe and one part Beckett,” which is apt, but I thought first of Tom Stoppard at his most playful. If he’d taken some bad LSD in the German countryside, he might’ve written this. —Dan Piepenbring

Some time ago, on their Tumblr, the Museum of Contemporary African Diaspora featured a conversation between James Baldwin and the incomparable Audre Lorde. Originally published in Essence in 1984, the conversation, in this iteration, opens with Baldwin’s comment “Du Bois believed in the American dream. So did Martin. So did Malcolm. So do I. So do you. That’s why we’re sitting here”—to which Lorde responds, “I don’t, honey. I’m sorry, I just can’t let that go past. Deep, deep, deep down I know that dream was never mine. And I wept and I cried and I fought and I stormed, but I just knew it.” It’s only the beginning of a vigorous exchange about Baldwin’s experience of being black in America, and Lorde’s of being black and a woman. During the women’s liberation movement in the seventies, black women fought on two fronts for equal rights, and Lorde is gloriously unrelenting on that fact. “Even worse than the nightmare is the blank,” she tells Baldwin. “And Black women are the blank.” —Nicole Rudick

For the first time in almost two hundred years, the Mewar Ramayana can be read and viewed as a complete work, thanks to the British Library’s digital reunification of the beautifully illustrated manuscript. The Mewar version of the great Hindu epic is distinguished by its richly saturated colors and its nonlinear depictions of the Prince Rama story; it was commissioned by Jagat Singh I of the Mewar dynasty in the seventeenth century. Today, the physical pages of the manuscript are divided between the British Library and several different collections in India, but the online project allows the work to be read in full, with a few lovely supplementary materials to boot. It’s that rare digital edition that succeeds by mostly staying out of the way: the focus is on the incredible hi-res images of the paintings and the original Sanskrit script, but there are also unobtrusive English descriptions (text and audio) and commentary from art historians to accompany each page. In one of my favorite illustrations, Rama helps Sugriva overthrow Bali to become king of the monkeys. Sugriva stands outside his brother’s pink confectionary palace, roaring “so that the very birds fall out of the sky in fright.” Rama puts an arrow through Bali, killing him. In the next panel, Rama sits jilted as the enthroned Sugriva, distracted by all the sex and wine that comes with being the monkey king, has forgotten about his greatest ally. So it goes. —Chantal McStay Read More »

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Hey, That’s My Snare Drum!

May 15, 2014 | by

snare

This drum is mine.

Last week, the Times recognized a new trend in vigilantism: do-it-yourself iPhone recovery. When someone finds his phone stolen, he uses the phone’s GPS to locate the thief; the resulting confrontations usually end peacefully, with the phone restored to its rightful owner and the thief shuffling off into the night, cowed and shamed. In one especially rousing case, a man rustled up the thief using OkCupid:

He lured the thief to his Brooklyn apartment building by posing as a woman and flirting with him on the dating service.

When the thief arrived with a bottle of wine, expecting to meet “Jennifer,” Mr. Nirenberg went up behind him, hammer at his side. He slapped a $20 bill on the thief, to mollify him and compensate him for his time and wine, and demanded the phone. The thief handed it over and slunk away.

Instead of giving that man the key to the city, the fuzz have advised against this kind of justice. Of course they have: no one likes to feel redundant. In the supercilious words of an LAPD spokesman, “It’s just a phone … Let police officers take care of it. We have backup, guns, radio, jackets—all that stuff civilians don’t have.” As if LA’s finest would, in their eminent wisdom, break out the flak jackets and heavy artillery to liberate your telephone.

I’m here to tell you: you can be your own authority. Read More »

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