From the Boston Tea Party to rock 'n roll, Americans have always taken their fun seriously. A new books reveals the spirit of joyous rebellion going back to the Pilgrims.
It’s the part of the newspaper where an article about the genius behind the slapstick “Naked Gun” movie franchise is printed next to a story about a legendary presidential speechwriter. Memorable figures who left us in 2010 include a boozing-but-effective Congressman from Texas, the ex-wife of a presidential hopeful, and a recluse writer who penned an American classic – just to name a few. We explore the stories behind this year’s obituaries.
- Matt Schudel Reporter, The Washington Post
- Ann Wroe Obituaries Editor, The Economist
Ronnie James Dio
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Reading an obituary can be a somber exercise, a morbid reminder that in the end, death is waiting for all of us. No, not me, go away grim reaper. But the obituaries are also filled with stories that remind us about everything that is possible in life.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAnd this year was packed with so many of those colorful stories, from a boozing but brilliant congressman from Texas who shaped the penultimate chapters of the Cold War to a trailblazing star of stage and screen who always felt she fit awkwardly into America's complicated civil rights history, to an Englishman who famously fought the Germans on the beaches of Normandy with nothing but music from his bagpipes. Joining us to explore the stories behind these people that we lost in 2010 is Matt Schudel. Matt writes obituaries for The Washington Post. He joins us in studio. Matt, thank you for joining us.
MR. MATT SCHUDELThank you, Kojo. Glad to be here.
NNAMDIGood to have you. Joining us by telephone from London is Ann Wroe, the obituaries editor at The Economist. Ann Wroe, good to have you aboard again.
MS. ANN WROEVery nice to be here, Kojo.
NNAMDIMatt, let's start with you. We start our broadcast everyday with the phrase connecting your neighborhood with the world. You wrote an obituary this past summer about a gigantic man who played pro basketball right here in Washington, a man whose life began as a cattle herder in Sudan, who could speak multiple languages, a man who once reportedly killed a lion with a spear. When you look at the life of someone whose personal journey was as complicated as Manute Bol, where do you begin crafting your story?
SCHUDELWell, with Manute Bol, you start by looking at his professional career as a basketball player and then you try to go back from there to see how he reached that point, where he began as a man. Obviously, he was extremely tall. He was 7'7" tall. He was one of the two tallest players in the history of the NBA, but had not been exposed to basketball until he was in his late teens in the Sudan.
SCHUDELAnd by that time he had already been working herding cattle. He was a member of the Dinka in the Sudan and really was brought up in that culture and had a very interesting and fascinating life before and after he was ever a professional basketball player.
NNAMDIAnd then, you compared that to the life of the, well, average if you can call it that, professional basketball player, somebody who's been engulfed in basketball camp ever since the age of 7 or 8 years old. And you compared that with the widely diverse experience that somebody like Manute Bol has had. Is that what makes you want to write an obituary like that?
SCHUDELAbsolutely. He's such a fascinating character. Is it true that he killed a lion with a spear? It was not part of a tribal ritual. It was because he was trying to protect his herd of cattle. He saw the lion lurking in the distance, had his spear, threw it and killed the lion. Surely, the only NBA player in history to have done that. But he was also kind of a political leader. He was very strongly attached to his native Sudan.
SCHUDELHe led protests outside the Sudanese embassy here in Washington when he was playing for the old Washington Bullets, now the Wizards. He cared very much about his people, gave almost all of his salary away to causes in his native country. And ultimately had problems with people there politically, ended up more or less in exile from his homeland.
NNAMDITrivia question about Manute Bol that most people don't know, once owned a restaurant on U Street northwest.
SCHUDELI did not know that.
NNAMDIManute's Place. Ann Wroe, you write one profile a week for The Economist, an exercise that lets you hone in on what you think are the most interesting stories. You’ve written about tyrants, heroes, entertainers, even fish, but we talked about that last year. This week...
NNAMDI...this week you profiled the American diplomat, Richard Holbrooke. What about him did you find to be compelling?
WROEWell, I knew him very slightly and I -- now this is difficult to say, but he was a larger than life character. He was a most remarkable man to have dinner with because he was so full of himself and yet, at the same time, you felt he was determined to make the world a better place. You know, it was a combination of an immense ego and also an immense unselfishness.
WROEAnd so putting the two together turned out to be quite difficult and there was -- it was difficult also because almost everyone at The Economist had some personal experience of him. They'd either met him or they'd shared a drink with him or they knew a story about him or they'd be following him about. And I was deluged with tales of him and everybody was remarkably fond of him, in fact. It was a difficult one to write for that reason.
NNAMDIDo the apparently conflicting characteristics of an individual tend to make that individual more interesting? You write, for instance, that Holbrooke was, quoting here, "A bastard, a bully, a bulldozer and a charmer who was full of heart."
WROEYes, well, it is fascinating to have a larger than life character like that I think. It's not always necessary that people have contradictory virtues and vices. I mean, some of the people I picked up here, you know, seem to have only virtues, only vices. You know, there's a wonderful human tapestry here. But he was such an energetic character. I think that enormous energy when you came in contact with it really swept you up with it as well and you felt -- you really felt the world was a poorer place when Holbrooke went.
NNAMDIWe're talking about the year in obituaries with Matt Schudel of The Washington Post and Ann Wroe of The Economist. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. What stories from the obit pages this year did you find the most interesting? 800-433-8850 or go to our website, kojoshow.org, make a comment. Matt, what are the kinds of details of a person's life that you look for when you're putting together someone's stories, the kinds of details that may show aspects of that person that go beyond what we might have read or heard about them when they were alive?
SCHUDELWe're looking for the things that really make someone human. It's not just that we want to record the big events in a person's life, whether the person was a movie star, appeared in movies or on television or in case of a congressman, passed a bunch of laws. We're looking for the things that kind of set a person apart, that show both the extraordinary qualities and sometimes the foibles and the problematic character issues that you might say can sometimes lead to the downfall of a significant figure.
NNAMDIAnn Wroe, are you also looking for those, I guess, somewhat think of them as nuggets of a person's life that nobody had heard or read about before?
WROEYes, very definitely, all the time. And there's usually some tiny little nugget that will really make you want to write the obituary. I mean, it was interesting, for example, when Senator Robert Byrd died. Back then, we suddenly became aware that there was a bit of racism in his past that had, you know, covered up in all the greater achievements that he'd done and suddenly you became aware, too, that he had formed a Ku Klux Klan chapter in West Virginia.
WROEAnd you realized there was a side of him, alongside that very courtly and almost kind of Roman senatorial style, that he had a rather -- though more rustic side almost so something that went along with the fiddle playing and the down home side. There was this difficult side of him that we didn't, perhaps, want to see and that had to be mentioned as well. And somehow that made the whole rounded character, that he was not just a great figure like a great marble statute in the halls of the Senate, that he had these feet of clay as well.
NNAMDINot all virtues. Matt, it's not always the front-page stories that are loaded with these kinds of colorful details. You wrote a piece this summer about an eccentric Englishman, who found his niche as a sex columnist and chronicler of London's underworld. For those of us who were not as familiar with Sebastian Horsley, what did we miss out on?
SCHUDELWell, you missed out on one of the most exciting and eccentric and peculiar characters to cross our stage in a long time. Sebastian Horsley was an artist by trade and training, I suppose. But he was also a dandy and kind of a friend of the underworld in many ways. He died at the age of 47 in June of heroin overdose, which is surprising only in the sense that he lived that long really. He described himself as an artist and the depravity is part of the job description.
SCHUDELHe did come from a wealthy family in England and invested wisely. Said that he spent much of his fortune on prostitutes and drugs and in his words, squandered the rest. The most notorious thing he did beyond his involvement with prostitution and drugs was that in the year 2000 he went to the Philippines and had himself crucified to a cross with nails driven through his hands. He wanted to experience extremes of sensibilities, how he put it. And he nearly died during that event, but lived to tell about it and lived to write a very remarkable autobiography as well, which is called "Dandy In The Underworld."
NNAMDIAnd tried to come to the United States on one occasion and found himself barred. Here's what Sebastian Horsley had to say about that.
MR. SEBASTIAN HORSLEYI tried to go to America, but I was deported for moral turpitude. Well, it's just strange really 'cause I'm feeling quite well and I've never drank turpentine in my life. I was there in all my regalia. I looked like this, my one concession to their Ivy League sensibilities was to remove my nail polish. Thought that'd get me through. And I had a top hat, a long top hat, so I was kind of pointlessly tall. But they were wearing their uniforms, the Immigration Customs officials. I didn't object to theirs.
MR. SEBASTIAN HORSLEYThey took me aside and they integrated me for eight hours and they said, is there anything you want to tell us? Their first only question was, is there anything you want to tell us about conviction? And I racked my brains and I said, I don't have any convictions, lists or any of those type. And then they came out and said, we know everything about you. We know you're a crack addict. We know you're a heroin addict. We know you're a prostitute. We know that you like prostitutes. And you're very vocal about it in the UK.
MR. SEBASTIAN HORSLEYThey knew all about the book. So I phoned my editor. I was allowed one phone call and I phoned her up and said, well, there's good news and there's bad news. She says, what's the good news? And I said, the good news is they know about the book. And she said, what's the bad news? And I said, they know about the book.
NNAMDIThat was Sebastian Horsley of whom Matt Schudel wrote. He said, don't tell my mother I work as a journalist. She thinks I'm prostitute. Ann Wroe, were you familiar with Horsley's work as journalist? What kind of readership, what kind of audience did he have?
WROEYou know, when I saw that story, Kojo, I found it too sordid, actually. I didn't want to write his obituary. Maybe I've kind of met a few characters like that in my time. It's interesting. I didn't want to go near that one. I'm interested that Matt did and he sounds as if he did it well. But...
NNAMDIYeah, he sounds as if he enjoyed it a little too much actually.
WROEWell, I mean, while we're on that sort of subject, I think my absolute obit candidate of the year is Charlie Wilson.
NNAMDIYeah, you wrote in February about Charlie Wilson. You wrote about sex, drugs, cowboy boots. This man who became the...
WROEI mean, if I can return the favor with Matt, you know, writing about an eccentric Englishman, I think writing about this...
NNAMDII'd like you to read a few lines from your obit about Charlie Wilson.
WROEWell, I will, yes. Yes, perhaps I'll just read you a paragraph of it, a short paragraph.
NNAMDIFor our listeners who may be unfamiliar, and I wouldn't know why, he -- Charlie Wilson, of course, became the unlikely catalyst for the Soviet Union's downfall in Afghanistan. Here and now is Ann Wroe, reading from the obituary she wrote about Charlie Wilson.
WROERight. "He was Texas loud, 6'7" in his cowboy boots with bright suspenders, a rowdy laugh and a rugged western face. Other people in Washington might go around looking like constipated hound dogs, but he was having fun and sharing it. Partying and junketing first class all over the country on the federal dime. The apogee came in 1980 in a hot tub at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas with two strippers, naked but for their high heeled shoes, each equipped with 10 red finger nails filled with beautiful white powder which they wafted onto his nose.
WROEThe Feds later spent a million bucks investigating whether he had inhaled it. He wasn't telling. He reviewed, however, that he wore a robe, at first, because he was, after all, a congressman."
WROESo that's Charlie. And...
NNAMDII came to Washington, D.C. when we had congressmen like Wilbur Mills here.
WROEYes. Well, he was good, too, in the same vogue, but, you know, Charlie goes on supporting the mujahedeen in Afghanistan.
WROEAnd what I think is wonderful is that when they run into transport problems, he ships out mules for them from Tennessee. And when they're short of radios, he just goes to Radio Shack and buys up an enormous number of radios and ships them out there. And he was always completely unapologetic about supporting the mujahedeen and creating this strong Islamic force in Afghanistan, which, you know, surely must've opened the way to the Taliban, but he didn't think so. He thought that was just hindsight. He'd done a good deed, you know.
WROEHe supported the goodies against the baddies.
NNAMDIIt would seem in a way, Ann, that Charlie Wilson's obituary -- I mentioned Wilbur Mills, but it's really an obituary for a breed of American politicians that you just don't find anymore, right, Matt?
SCHUDELI agree. There are a lot of significant political figures who did die in the past year. You'd mentioned Senator Robert Byrd earlier. Also, John Murtha was a long time congressman from Pennsylvania died.
SCHUDELTed Stevens, senator from Alaska, was killed in a plane crash. Dan Rostenkowski, the ousted house leader from Illinois, died in the past year, as well as the liberal republican senator from Maryland, Charles Mac Mathias. All of these are major political figures, but there is something about Charlie Wilson that went beyond. He was colorful in this human sense. He posed holding a flint lock riffle in his hand. In his congressional office, he had a staff of buxom young ladies managing his congressional affairs. There just aren't that many people on Capital Hill like that these days.
NNAMDIWe've got to take a short break. If you're interested in joining the conversation, you can call us at 800-433-8850. Whose legacies do you think are worth reflection or a celebration this year? 800-433-8850 or send us a tweet at kojoshow. We're looking at the year in the obituaries. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWe're talking about obituaries written about people who left us in the year 2010. Our guest, Matt Schudel, writes obituaries for the Washington Post. Ann Wroe is the obituaries editor at The Economist. She joins us by telephone from London. Matt is in our Washington studio. Here on the telephone is Brendan in Washington, D.C. Brendan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BRENDANOh, thanks for this show, I really love it. My kids and I, of four and six, we actually read the obituaries as kind of bedtime reading. And I just really appreciate the kind of view that gives of how lives that go in a crooked way make sense in the end. And they just love the stories.
NNAMDIThat is fascinating because I suspect a lot of people are afraid to read obituaries to their children because they don't want to talk of death. How do your children respond to those stories?
BRENDANOh, I think they like it because it's just you can't control the variety of things that you read about on a daily basis. There's an architect, there's a politician, a sports -- and they encompass how people choose to fashion their lives, you know, education, where they live and all the different...
BRENDAN...just (unintelligible) all...
BRENDAN...encompassing than a specific story.
NNAMDIIn a lot of ways, obituaries are more about life than they are about death, Matt Schudel?
SCHUDELWell, that's right. I always tell people that after the first paragraph of the story, it's not about death. It's about life. And when other people in the news room are writing about congressional problems or the backbiting among politicians or the various failures of the Metro system, we on the obituary desk are immersed in the fascinating lives of people who were in World War II or entertainers who broke ground or just these kind of peculiar people who lead these eccentric lives that moved in unusual ways.
SCHUDELOne of my favorite pieces from earlier in the year was of a photographer named Felipe Quinto from Italy who ended up living here in the suburbs of Washington, but he was quite possibly the very first paparazzi photographer in Italy.
NNAMDIAnd ended up living here in Washington?
SCHUDELHe did, he ended up living in the suburbs of Washington.
SCHUDELHe was the character on whom -- or he was the real life figure, the character Paparazzo from the Fellini movie, "La Dolce Vita," was based.
NNAMDIYou live and you learn. Brendan, thank you for your call. Here is Jennifer in Washington, D.C. Jennifer, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JENNIFERHi, this is a wonderful program and I'm very happy to read to the obituaries. As the first caller mentioned, I think they're as interesting as the front page and the file section in the (word?) . My question is, do you generally like to write obituaries that run simultaneous to the person's death or do you also write them after a person has been passed on for a while? And I mention so because, for instance, at the time my mother passed, we were so busy organizing the funeral services, that it was very difficult to send information that maybe would warrant a longer piece that would be written, say, by Matt.
JENNIFERAnd I think my mother, having had many of her articles published in the (unintelligible) section of the Post, I really feel that I wanted her obit to be more written, say, by someone like Matt, once I give him all of the information about my mother, an accomplished Washington D.C. poet.
NNAMDIOh, okay, thank you. Ann Wroe, you write one profile a week for The Economist. Does that mean that on occasion you have to put off writing about someone for some period of time after they've passed?
WROEYes. I often have to and it's usually better for being -- for waiting a little while. Because you do get more information, as your caller said. And I find it's good anyway to meditate on a life in a way, to think about what it means. And sometimes, of course, you have to do an enormous amount of reading around a life. For example, I mean, J.D. Salinger died this year and he was an interesting case because people didn't know anything about him really. Just knew he was hold up somewhere in New Hampshire.
NNAMDIAnd that was by design, yes.
WROEAnd so I had to read his books for a start and then we had to wait for the information gradually to come out about him and the people who had actually known him, who were very few in number, to start to write in the newspapers and so on. So I was rather glad to wait, at that point. And even though I waited, I still wrote a piece that made him rather curmudgeonly and, you know, not wanting to appear before the press at all and a writer in hiding as he was.
WROEBut then I got an interesting letter from somebody up in New Hampshire living in the same village as J. D. Salinger who said, really he was a very nice man. You could knock on his door and he'd give you a glass of milk anytime. And I began to think that I hadn't waited long enough. You know, I really should've perhaps waited a couple of months in his case.
NNAMDIJ. D. Salinger, of course, the author of, "The Catcher of the Rye," died in January at the age of 91 years old. Do you put off yourself, Matt Schudel, writing about somebody who passed?
SCHUDELNo, we really try to get to them as quickly as possible. And to answer the callers question a moment ago, we do have a 30-day time limit at the Washington Post. We do consider obituaries to be newsworthy and really we need to get them to the paper on a timely basis. So we do encourage people to provide information to us as quickly as possible. But there are occasions where people delay or it's not possible to get the information to us for one reason or another.
NNAMDIJennifer, thank you for your call. On to Yolanda in Alexandria, Va. Yolanda, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
YOLANDAHi, Matt, this is Yolanda Wolf, I just wanted to mention that Matt has a special knack to writing his obituaries. He captures the essence of the life of the individual. He certainly did that in my husband's obituary, Maurice Wolf. And I just wanted to thank you, Matt.
SCHUDELOh, well, thank you, that's so kind. Your husband was a remarkable man. And he was one of the featured people in our local life feature which runs each Sunday in the Washington Post when we focus on the lives of people who lived in the D.C. area, but were not necessarily famous, but nevertheless, lead to a remarkable or exemplary lives in one way or another.
NNAMDIThank you very much for you call, Yolanda. You, too, can call us. We're talking about the year in the obituaries 2010. 800-433-8850. What do you find is the most difficult part of understanding a person's life in its totality once that person has left us? 800-433-8850. In other words, what do you look for when you read an obituary? You can also send us an e-mail to email@example.com or a tweet at kojoshow.
NNAMDIMatt, we were talking when we mentioned Charlie Wilson of People and things from a bygone era. You wrote a piece in May about Rosa Rio, the last of the original silent movie organist. She died a few weeks shy of her 108th birthday?
SCHUDELRosa Rio was really a remarkable woman. She died three weeks short of her 108th birthday and was still practicing the piano and organ at her home in Florida. It's so remarkable to think that here we are in the year 2010 and someone born in the year 1902 was still alive this year and still active. She began performing in silent movie theaters in the 1920s when these films were new, before talkies came in in '27. And sat at these huge Wurlitzer organs in upstate New York and New York City and just provided the soundtrack for the movies that otherwise had no speaking parts, no music and she really created this and improvised these remarkable scores on the organ.
SCHUDELThere's a theater in Tampa, Fl., I've actually been there, believe it or not, and it has a Wurlitzer organ that comes up from out of the basement onto the stage. Rosa Rio, late in life, in her 90s, got a job performing there. And it was quite a scene to see Rosa and her gold lame' gown sit into the organ as the organ rose up from the depths of the floor and she was playing right along. She said that she was going to play until she couldn't put her feet on the pedals anymore. And she certainly did.
NNAMDIWhile we're talking about music, let's take a listen to one of the voices we said good-bye to in the year 2010.
NNAMDIAnn, you wrote that Lena Horne had a show stopping smile, but that it masked a lifetime of ferocious resentment and regret. What did you mean?
WROEWell, I must say this is a very surprising obit to do. I didn't expect her life to be like this. But she had a most wonderful voice, as you've just heard. She was also a great beauty. But in the times when she sang, she could only be judged as to what her color was. And she was black, although, you know, you could have degrees of black and she was a very light black and so on. But her blackness was absolutely stuck to her like a label by everyone who employed her and therefore she found she couldn’t, say, get a part as a mulatto in the film, "Showboat." Ava Gardner had to play that part instead. She had to sing her songs in films, (word?) standing still against a pillow so that they could be cut out of the film when it showed in cinemas in the South.
WROEAnd she -- when she was on tour with a band later, she found she wouldn't be put up in motels, people wouldn't take her in. But to her mind, she wasn't black. She was sort of forced into being black and singing black songs when she didn't want to. And she was -- the saddest story of racial politics, I think, I've ever had to deal with.
NNAMDIYes, as you pointed out, she was such a great beauty that during World War II, black soldiers used to use her as a pin up of their choice. A lot of people didn't realize what Lena Horne was going through at that time. This year, we also said good-bye to someone some of our Washington listeners may recognize. If you happen to live outside of Washington, you may not recognize him, but this is what he sounded like.
NNAMDIMatt Schudel, Little Benny is one of the pioneers of go-go in Washington, but people outside of Washington may not know him, but thousands of people showed up for Little Benny's funeral here.
SCHUDELYeah, Little Benny was a real important figure here and this style of music that originated here Washington, go-go in the 1970s with the great Chuck Brown. Little Benny, whose real name was Anthony Harley, died at the age of 46. We still don't know exactly what led to his death. He had performed with Chuck Brown the night before he died. But as a teenager, he started playing the trumpet and developed an interest in this new form of music and became a part of the band, Rare Essence. Rare Essence is one of the big go-go bands in the 1980s.
SCHUDELAnd Little Benny, who could play two trumpets at one time and wrote some of the songs and did a lot of the singing, was really one of the stars of go-go as it immerged as a indigenous form of popular dance music here in D.C.
NNAMDIAnd this year, Matt, we also said good-bye to this man, a world famous singer, but also a sausage entrepreneur.
NNAMDIAnd generations later, there are 20-some year olds who can tell you all of those lines from Jimmy Dean.
SCHUDELYeah, that's right. Jimmy Dean, the great country music singer and sausage king, very interesting figure. He was one of many people this year who were famous in their time and kind of dropped off the entertainment radar. Mitch Miller, Eddie Fisher, Fess Parker, Art Linkletter was some of the others, but Jimmy Dean had a big connection to Washington as well. He was from Texas, but came here to Washington to serve in the Air Force and began performing in country music bands and had his first radio and TV shows here.
SCHUDELAnd ended up living in Virginia and developed the sausage interest or the sausage business on the side. He was at a diner in Texas, had a piece of sausage that had some gristle in it and said, man, there's got to be room for quality sausage in this country. And he found that room himself.
NNAMDIThe late Jimmy Dean. On to Lee in Rockville, Md. Lee, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LEEGood afternoon, Kojo, enjoying the show.
LEEI've been reading the obituaries for many, many years, and the most fascinating one I read was -- it wasn't this year, it was a year or two ago, and it was a Jewish chaplain in World War II who was in the China Burma India theater, which was a very, very remote corner of World War II. And he was with this protestant and catholic chaplain and for whatever reason, they both had malaria and some such thing, and he was the only one traveling with his unit of troops.
LEEAnd he said that the -- the gist of the obituary was that he had all these soldiers from Tennessee and Texas and places where these people had no idea about anything about Judaism or Rabbis or anything like that. But the Japanese were shooting at them every day, and they were in this place where they had all these tropical diseases like malaria and dysentery, and he counseled these...
NNAMDIYeah. He had a job to do.
LEEThere's no atheists (unintelligible) .
LEEAnd he told the troops -- basically said to them, Rabbi, I don't know anything about your religion, get me out of this hell hole. Get me out of this hell hole. I want to go back to my mother. I want to go back to my girlfriend or some such thing. It was a fascinating, fascinating...
NNAMDIThank you for...
NNAMDILee, thank you so much for sharing that with us. We're going to take a short break, but before we do, since we talked about Lena Horne and the troubles she had with herself and during the civil rights movement, we should point out that the Dorothy Height also passed in the year 2010. She was the leader of the National Council of Negro Women, and during the 1963 March on Washington, was the only women's female civil rights leader to be alongside what in terms of the leadership was a male dominated movement.
NNAMDIBut what we are discovering as a result of writings in later years, the leadership may have been male dominated, but among the foot soldiers of the movement, there were large numbers of extraordinary women, who, like Dorothy Height, made significant contributions to that movement. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation on the year in obituaries. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're looking at the year 2010 in obituaries with Matt Schudel who writes obituaries for the Washington Post. He joins us in our Washington studio. Ann Wroe joins us from London. She is the obituaries editor at The Economist. We also said goodbye this year to a man who transformed himself from a serious actor to a serious master of deadpan humor. And as we listen to this clip, if I don't come back after this clip, it's because it cracks me up so much that I can never recover from it. But let's stop for a minute to appreciate the work of Leslie Nielson.
NNAMDII'm sorry. Leslie Nielson started his career in the Royal Canadian Air Force. Then he landed dozens of serious parts on television and in movies before he finally found his stride in slapstick comedies. What do you make of that story? First you, Ann Wroe.
WROEWhat, the story of Leslie Nielson?
WROEBecause I didn't actually do his obituary. I'm afraid I can only talk about him as a fan. I think this -- the wonderful thing about him was that he was so serious and always intent on projecting his own authority in any situation, and somehow he looked to us, Europeans at any rate, the very quintessence of an American politician, you know, the perfect hair and the perfect tan, and the look in the eyes.
WROEAnd that someone like that who seemed such an archetypal presidential figure could come out with such blatant nonsense was always such a joy. (laugh) Just wonderful. And I could watch and watch him. And I was sorry I didn't do his obituary. I forget who got in the way, but he was great.
SCHUDELWell, I didn't do his either. It was one of my colleagues, Emma Brown, who wrote about Leslie Nielson. But he did have a career as a straight actor before he became this surprising comic genius, but he had this gift of being funny and being a comic without realizing it, or without giving the impression that he realized he was funny. And it was such a juxtaposition of strange realities that created this really indelible humor.
NNAMDII remembered him from a short-lived television series back in the '70s, I guess, or it might have been the late '60s named Bracken's World in which he played a Hollywood studio executive. He was handsome, he was polished. When I would see him later in Naked Gun and Airplane, I couldn't even believe it was the same guy, he was that good.
SCHUDELThat's right. He always maintained the same polished appearance with the silver hair and the nicely pressed suits. But the effect was entirely different.
NNAMDILet's go to Reggie in Washington, D.C. Reggie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
REGGIEHi. I've been fascinated by obituaries for years, too, and one of the most fascinating one was -- and I apologize, I don't know his name, a couple years ago the eminent obituary writer for the Post. And in there, he explained how he often has to write obituaries ahead of time. Earlier you were talking about writing them after the person has passed.
REGGIEBut it's fascinating to think that even obituary writers have vast amounts of homework to do to prepare for an eminent person's demise. And I wanted to ask your panelists to discuss their homework, and whose obituaries -- I mean, we know some people are going to pass, I don't know, like Mother Theresa. You knew she was going to pass, you know, could have written that years before she actually did. Things like that. So thank you. I'll take -- I'll listen off air.
NNAMDIThank you very much. Matt Schudel?
SCHUDELYeah. The obituary writer I think she was discussing or recalling was JY Smith.
NNAMDIThat's who I was thinking.
SCHUDELYeah. JY was the first obituaries editor of the Washington Post in the 1970s. He was a pretty interesting character in his own right, had been a foreign correspondent, had been a state reporter, had been an editorial page editor. But he got into the obituaries business and said it was by far the most interesting and gratifying work he had ever done.
SCHUDELAnd for the larger question of preparing obituaries in advance, for major figures we do try to do that, if possible. If there is someone significant who dies, we really want to have the information available and out to the public right away, and it does take a considerable amount of work, often weeks or months of preparation before we can get these completed.
NNAMDIAnn Wroe, would you like to address the same issue?
WROEYes. I'm afraid we do it very differently, because there's just a team of one and that's me. And I can call in sometimes people from here and there, but it's difficult. I mean, we have about six in the morgue, as we call it, that is people who we have ready in case they die. Like Castro has been in there some considerable time and we obviously -- we had one for Mrs. Thatcher and so on.
WROEBut as I say, we have only half a dozen. And it's extremely difficult to -- either for me to do them in advance because I simply don't have the time or to get anyone else to do so. And I find journalists like working right up to the minute. You know, as a journalist, you like to deal with a news story the minute you have it and somehow not prepare it in advance.
WROEAnd so, no, we don't. I mean, as soon as someone famous dies, I'm rushing out to the London library to try and get the relevant books out. It becomes a very fast job indeed. Well, it's always a fast job. It's usually a couple of days is all I have.
NNAMDIAnn, you wrote this year about Bill Millin who played...
WROEOh, he was wonderful. Yes. I had the biggest (word?) about him.
NNAMDIHe played the bagpipes while the allied troops stormed the beaches at Normandy. It's a story that was later immortalized in the film, "The Longest Day." Let's hear a clip.
NNAMDIAnn, you wrote that Millin was, quoting here, "far from unarmed in that his bagpipes were, in fact, instruments of war."
WROEWell, yes, they were, at least according to an English judge in the 18th century who was writing about the battles in the highlands then. And he said that the Scottish soldiers were using these pipes as instruments of war because they made such a horrible sound and they struck dread into the enemy.
WROEAnd in fact they were used in the first world war as well, and struck dread into the Germans. And the Germans who had Bill Millin play just thought he was a madman. And so while there they saw him strolling up and down at the edge of the sea, and he did it three times. You know, he didn't just do it briefly. He did it for a long time just walking up and down playing, because you half to walk while you play.
WROEAnd they thought he was so crazy that they didn't even trouble to fire at him. It was an extraordinary story. He just completely exposed -- he just led the men through into France, and he was one of the men who really made the D-day landings.
NNAMDIOn to Jim in Washington, D.C. Jim, your turn. Go ahead, please.
JIMHi. I'm calling to ask about things that are featured in obituaries that may not be written about in other places. For example, the way I came across this is I'm a researcher of whistling, and I did a study of newspapers, and found that outside of the sports section, whistling is most often mentioned in obituaries, and yet for most of these people, it's not mentioned in other parts of their lives.
JIMAnd I wondered if there's other things, like whistling, that people talk about in obituaries that aren't written about generally in other places.
NNAMDIInteresting. Matt Schudel?
SCHUDELWell, I'm not quite sure how to handle that. Whistling, I suppose it comes up...
NNAMDIWhere else would you write about it?
SCHUDELYeah. Because it's -- you can't really make a living as a whistler. I'd say it's one of these eccentric activities that we look for in a person's life, something that would make a person interesting and stand out. If you devote your life to an obscure art or craft, that's maybe one way to get a little longer obituary.
NNAMDIWhen I was a teenager, I made a new friend, and when I told my father who he was, he said, yes, I know his father. He's a great whistler. Why does whistling appear so much in obituaries, Ann Wroe?
WROEI don't know. I'm not sure that I have ever mentioned it in mine. I was just trying to think. But certainly, you know, it's little things, as you mentioned before, that really make you want to write about someone. And it's sometimes just the most extraordinary art or skill. Well, whistling, too, is an art or skill, but an art or a skill that has otherwise completely disappeared. And one of my obituaries this year was actually over a Micronesian navigator.
NNAMDIWho was one of the last masters of the art of navigating the sea by the stars.
WROEThat is right. Yes. Yes.
NNAMDITell us about him.
WROENot just by the stars. I mean, this is what fascinated me. And it wasn't just by the stars, but it was by the look of the sky also, and the look of the sea. So if the sea had a certain swell, you could tell whether you were near the shore or not. You watched the birds because they fly at a certain time, and they'll fly towards the land. And generally you get your direction all these ways. And he was the last man who could do it. And so he crossed the Pacific this way.
WROEI mean, not just a small stretch of water, but across the Pacific and then went on trying to teach all he knew to other people. And the first thing he would say to his students was put the pencils and paper away. They had to hold all these hundreds of star charts in their heads because that was the only way he knew they were going to really learn what he had to tell them.
NNAMDIHow do you pronounce his name?
WROEWell, I can try and say it. I think it's (word?) but somebody is bound to write in and say that was not it at all.
NNAMDI(word?) Matt, talk about how important it is to find somebody like that, somebody who is the last of a group of people who had a -- who had mastered a specific skill of some type.
SCHUDELWell, it is really interesting when you can. And it's something we try to search for in obituaries. We really want to commemorate people who did something remarkable. People who sometimes kind of, how shall we say, went against the grain, who persisted in doing something. For instance the -- some of the speakers of American Indian languages, many of them are dying off these days. We always try to keep an eye out for them.
SCHUDELIt's just a special talent, a special ability, something that drove these people to achieve something that no one else was willing to do or able to do anymore.
NNAMDIYou don't find too many of those, do you, Ann Wroe?
WROENo, you don't. But there are, you know, also a number of very impressive people in the world. And I must say, when Matt was talking, he was talking about a woman who, at advanced old age, had still been working playing the piano, and I think it would be a shame to finish the program without mentioning Doris Haddock who walked across America at the grand old age of 88, to campaign for election reform.
WROEAnd she hadn't done anything else particular in her life, but she suddenly became enthused with this idea. And so she walked, you know, with her battered old sunhat and carrying a big banner that said, reform now, all across America. Can you imagine at that age? She found the trucks were very annoying.
NNAMDIAt that age, that is really remarkable. Here is Joy in Rockville, Md. Hi, Joy.
NNAMDIYou're on the air, Joy. Go ahead, please.
JOYOh, good afternoon, Kojo. Just want to say I love this show. My father was also a great lover of your show. And a funny story, he just died. His name is Professor (word?) of Nigeria. He was the first black man to get his Ph.D. in Cambridge University in London, and (unintelligible) during his wake a man came and said his name was Kojo, and I didn't know him. And I thought are you Kojo Nnamdi? And he said, no, I had the wrong one.
JOYAnd I just wanted to ask if it's possible to have an obituary written twice, because when we had his obituary in the Washington Post, it was very rushed and we didn't have -- have never really had to do an obituary before.
NNAMDIWas there an obituary or death notice?
JOYIt was a death notice.
NNAMDIOh, yeah. Does an obituary often follow a death notice?
SCHUDELYeah, that's true. They are distinct. A death notice is a paid classified advertisement that will announce the funeral services. Please provide information to us at The Washington Post about his life and we'd be happy to speak with you and consider a longer obituary.
NNAMDIAnd I may not have been there in person, Joy, but I was probably at your father's funeral in spirit, because one of the names that I took -- the name Nnamdi was taken because I was such an admirer of Nnamdi Azikiwe who, as you know, was the father of Nigerian independence. So thank you very much for your call. And Ann Wroe, thank you for joining us.
WROEThank you very much, Kojo. It's been fun. And thank you to Matt also.
NNAMDIAnn Wroe is the obituaries editor at The Economist. Matt Schudel, it has indeed been fun. Thank you for joining us.
SCHUDELOh, thanks a lot, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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