The Art of the Obituary

One way to measure the fame of a celebrity might be the length of his obituary. Another might be how far in advance it is prepared. So says veteran newsman Walter Cronkite, who has covered the lives, and deaths, of many famous Americans. Cronkite talks about the art of marking someone's passing, including some of the stories he presented as anchor of the CBS Evening News.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel. It's often the first thing a young journalist learns how to do and it's one of the most difficult to do well. The obituary requires careful research, an eye for detail and writing with a certain amount of sensitivity.

Former CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite has written, edited and presented his share of obituaries and he has this look back at some of the more memorable.

WALTER CRONKITE reporting:

In journalism, we recognize a kind of hierarchy of fame among the famous. We measure it in two ways: by the length of an obituary and by how far in advance it is prepared. Presidents, former presidents and certain heads of state are at the top of the chain. They not only get the longest obits, but their importance requires a special timeliness, so their obituaries are written during their lifetime, so they can be available at an instant's notice.

Probably next on the list would be that group of familiar celebrities whose names have been part of our lives for many years. The news services and some newspapers and TV networks often have standing libraries of some obituaries. The subjects are usually older and often ailing.

Nevertheless, many obits spend years gathering dust until the moment they're needed. Sometimes a famous subject may even outlive his own obituary writer. When bandleader Artie Shaw died in 2004, the byline on a story in the New York Times was John S. Wilson, who had died in 2002.

Beyond being timely, an obituary has a more subjective duty, to assess its subject's impact. Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy were presidents who died in office. They were works in progress, but when a person lives long enough, history gains a sort of cooling off that brings perspective. It merely awaits the proper hour.

On my watch on the Evening News, we reported the obituaries of Dwight Eisenhower, Helen Keller and John Wayne. More recent obituaries remembered Bob Hope and Ronald Reagan. They all celebrated the end of long and productive lives. Such deaths are surprising in the moment only because they are suddenly so specific and final, but they're not unexpected and some are collectively anticipated.

(Soundbite of CBS Evening News)

CRONKITE: Direct from our newsroom in Washington, this is the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite.

(End Soundbite)

CRONKITE: Probably the most famous countdown during my years as news editor was the nine-day watch that hung on the passing of Sir Winston Churchill. It was January, 1965 and there was even some speculation of postponing the inauguration of Lyndon Johnson.

(Soundbite of CBS Evening News)

CRONKITE: Good evening. Even as transatlantic television was carrying the day's oath-taking to Europe, the international cables were burning with another bulletin from Winston Churchill's bedside. His doctor was again hastefully summoned. And this afternoon, it was reported that Mr. Churchill's circulation was weakening and there was fear the end could not be much further away. Incidentally --

(End Soundbite)

CRONKITE: It was not. The death of Churchill at 90 was one of those watershed moments in which the obituary rises to a special calling beyond the sharing of remembered times. It gave an older generation a rare opportunity to explain something of itself to its children. It's an instinct as natural as it is frustrating, as Chet Huntley, my counterpart at NBC, noted.

(Soundbite of NBC Nightly News)

Mr. CHET HUNTLEY (NBC Nightly News reporter): It may be that those under 35 don't know what the rest of us are talking about. Everyone knows what Churchill did, but 1940 and '41 and '42 must be part of your personal memory or you cannot know how it was. That is what all the words and the pictures have been trying to recapture and will keep trying for another week, but it's not certain that they can.

Good night, David.

Mr. DAVID BRINKLEY (NBC Nightly News anchor): Good night, Chet.

(End Soundbite)

CRONKITE: It's even less certain that they can when the process is reversed. When the very famous die very young, the obituaries may offer the children a chance to explain themselves to their parents, but they usually don't. The death of Kurt Cobain in 1994 was felt more deeply by his generation than by mine. This is because every generation takes its formative heroes very personally. What they represent to one generation may mystify or antagonize another. More importantly, charismatic stars in their prime are not expected to die young. When they do, they often don't stay buried. The shock is deflected in a kind of denial.

Fifty years ago, the brilliant young actor James Dean was killed in a car accident, but it didn't end his career. His stardom persisted on magazine covers and grew into myth for another 30 years. He was dead, but what he represented could not yet be interred.

The CBS Evening News reported at least two obituaries during my time that would follow a similar pattern. On Sunday, August 5th, 1962, Marilyn Monroe died. At 36, she was too young to assess. So, caught by surprise, the obituaries could only ask why. The first instinct was to assume someone or something was to blame. Even the Russians sat in judgment --

(Soundbite of CBS Evening News)

CRONKITE: -- in judgment, calling her a victim of Hollywood. In Hollywood, a team of doctors and psychiatrists are still trying to determine exactly what she was a victim of, her own hand, or an accident? But the coroner's inquest can only tell us how Marilyn Monroe died, not why. Why, with everything to live for, with fame and fortune in their grasps, are so many of our movie queens desperately unhappy? By closed circuit television, I asked that question of Miss Kim Novak in Hollywood this afternoon.

Ms. KIM NOVAK (Actress): It's all such a sort of temporary kind of thing. It's, it really doesn't seem to have much substance. You just are uncertain, it's a very uncertain position.

CRONKITE: It's because you feel people are treating you as a movie star, a thing, rather than a person.

Ms. NOVAK: You are. I remember once the head of publicity said to me, just remember, never forget that all you are is a piece of meat. You know, it's like in a butcher shop, you know. And it's a pretty awful thing to think about, to think that that's what you are, that you have to look at yourself that way, and the worst part is that you're treated that way.

(End Soundbite)

(Soundbite of unidentified news program)

Unidentified Announcer: Eyewitness, the big news of this week.

CRONKITE: No obituary could have summed up Marilyn Monroe that week because her impact was not over.

Unidentified Announcer: Tonight's Witness, Marilyn Monroe. Why?

(End Soundbite)

CRONKITE: It was a question that would occupy biographers, novelists and the public to the end of the century and beyond. It would spawn theories of conspiracies and cover-ups that would range from Hollywood to Washington. Her imagery would survive to be reinvented and recycled in ways none of us could have imagined in 1962.

After 15 years, we might have learned something about that process when the news of Elvis Presley arrived in August, 1977. I was on vacation that month. Roger Mudd reported.

(Soundbite of CBS Evening News)

Mr. ROGER MUDD (CBS Evening News Reporter): Thousands of Elvis Presley fans streamed into Memphis today, hoping for a glimpse of the body of the former rock and roll king who died yesterday. Ed Rabel has a report.

(End Soundbite)

CRONKITE: If the death of Marilyn Monroe seemed sensational, it was sedate compared to Presley's passing, which became a story of crowd control.

(Soundbite of CBS Evening News)

Mr. ED RABEL: When they caught sight of the police escorted motorcade, hundreds of Presley's waiting fans ran to try to catch a glimpse of the coffin as it was returned to the mansion through a back entrance. Some had maintained the vigil for hours. Others had driven hundreds of miles to get here and were caught in a traffic jam on Elvis Presley Boulevard in front of the mansion.

The crowd grew and people began fainting. Angered by what they termed ill treatment by the authorities, the crowd became unruly and officials threatened to cancel the public viewing. Meanwhile, relatives -

(End Soundbite)

CRONKITE: It was a financial bonanza for anyone with a Presley poster or T-shirt to sell. Some hit the streets before the late edition obituaries in the papers.

(Soundbite of CBS News Special Report)

Unidentified Announcer: This is a CBS News special report. Elvis. Here is CBS news correspondent Charles Kuralt.

Mr. CHARLES KURALT (CBS News Correspondent): Elvis had the moment. He hit like a pan-American flash and the reverberations still linger from the shock of his arrival. He was, somebody else said, supremely a man of the time. The time, by the way, was not now, and not like now, only 20 years ago, but so far away now that it seems impossible we lived through it.

(End Soundbite)

CRONKITE: A good obituary invokes nostalgia in some, curiosity in others. No one could manage both better than my colleague Charles Kuralt, but he couldn't peer into the future and see all the Presley imitators or know the peculiar ways in which Presley mania would persist. Almost two months later to the day, the top story on the Evening News was the death of Bing Crosby.

(Soundbite of CBS Evening News)

CRONKITE: Good evening. The Bingle, The Groaner, The Old Dad, Bing. Harry Lillis Crosby is dead. It happened in Madrid, Spain. He was playing golf with three Spanish champions at a club outside town when at the 17th pole, he was stricken. Apparently a heart attack. By the time they got him to the hospital, Bing Crosby was dead. CBS will present a special broadcast on Bing Crosby's career after the late --

(End Soundbite)

CRONKITE: There was plenty of nostalgia and talk of another passing era, but there were no riots in the streets and there was no special rush to imprint his picture on T-shirts. His audience didn't expect that. Crosby was 74. Presley was 42. There may be another difference too. Charles Collingwood suggested it in his CBS obituary on Marilyn Monroe.

(Soundbite of CBS Evening News)

Mr. CHARLES COLLINGWOOD (CBS Evening News reporter): The story of Marilyn Monroe is an authentic tragedy. It began in tragedy and ended in tragedy. In some deep sense, the public demands unhappiness of its idols. It's part of the price the public extracts for the fame and riches that showers upon them.

(End Soundbite)

CRONKITE: Crosby, Sinatra, Reagan, Churchill and others whose obituaries have been written all lived long enough to see their debts to fame settled. Monroe and Presley did not. They were given the riches, but they were cut off before their time. I don't know if they were unhappy, but for their public, it was easy to imagine their youth and self-destruction as a kind of romantic, self-inflicted martyrdom.

To many, that aura is at least as fascinating as the person or the work, but it only materializes after the obituaries have been filed, as life goes on, even in death.

For NPR News, this is Walter Cronkite.

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