LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Hollywood lost many famous faces this year. Robin Williams, Joan Rivers, Lauren Bacall and Philip Seymour Hoffman, to name a few. Civil rights icons Maya Angelou and Ruby Dee also died. In fashion, Oscar de la Renta. In literature, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and there were many others with notable lives. I'm joined now by Margalit Fox who wrote about some of these people. She's a longtime obit writer for The New York Times who, through print, tells the story not just of a person's death, but how they lived. Margalit, thank you so much for joining me.
MARGALIT FOX: My pleasure.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You know, I suppose when we talk about deaths, every year is a difficult year. But of the notable people who died in 2014, who do you think had the most lasting impact on our culture?
FOX: Well, I can say, as a profession, Hollywood this year was astonishingly hard-hit. And it's very clear that this whole cohort that represents the last of the golden era of the Hollywood studio film is now aging and dying - many of the ones you mentioned. I would add Sid Caesar, Shirley Temple...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Of course.
FOX: Eli Wallach and then, as you mentioned, the two younger ones who just ripped our hearts out because they left us so soon, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Robin Williams.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Speaking of Robin Williams and Philip Seymour Hoffman, difficult deaths, surprising deaths. Is it harder to write about those kinds of deaths when you're speaking of possible suicide or overdoses?
FOX: Well, I should say that as an obit writer, I'm very often asked, oh, don't you find the work depressing? And after 10 years in this job, I am happy and relieved to say the answer is almost never because with rare exceptions, while there may be a sentence or two about the death in the obit, that is just the news peg, as we call it. And the other 98 percent of this long, rich, we hope well-written story is every inch about the life.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: As a reporter, one of the hardest things for me when I'm asked to do this is to interview a living person for the obit - the obit interview it's called in the parlance of journalism. And they always tend to know what I was sort of doing when I would inevitably ask, how would you like to be remembered? How do you handle that? How do you handle interviewing people who are alive who are notable people for the inevitable obit?
FOX: It is extremely delicate, and heaven knows there is nothing in Emily Post to cover the truly bizarre social contingency of calling someone up and in effect saying, hello, you don't know me, but we're aware that you might die someday. The great mid-century Timesman Alden Whitman, who was more famous than any other obit writer for sitting down and doing long interviews with the subjects of his advanced obits, had several very canny euphemisms that he would use. He would call someone up and say, we're updating your biographical file, or this is for possible future use. And I have used both of those on more than one occasion with a fair margin of success.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You have written obviously about all the people that we've mentioned - people who are very well-known. But you also tell the stories of people who aren't so well-known. Tell us about the most interesting person you wrote about this year, in your view.
FOX: His name is Chester Nez - N E Z - and he signed up for the military in World War II, and he happened to be the last living member of the cohort of original 29 Navajo Code Talkers. These were the men who not only used this marvelous unbreakable code that they fashioned from the Navajo language - he was in this first group of 29 men who actually made the code from nothing.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Margalit Fox is from The New York Times. Thank you so much for joining us.
FOX: You're very welcome. Thank you, and happy New Year.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: She's been writing obituaries for almost 20 years.
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