Sometime before 1:45 p.m. yesterday, the New York Times reported that Prince had died, via a bare-bones, two-paragraph squib citing the Associated Press. By 4:30 p.m., music writer Jon Pareles had written the beginnings of an obituary confirming the death with Prince’s publicist and a Minnesota sheriff, and expanding on the legacy of the musician who was “admired well-night universally.”
Within another hour and a half, a quote from President Obama calling Prince “one of the most gifted and prolific musicians of our time” had been added, and a sentence that called the artist “one of pop’s ultimate’s flirts” was revised to clarify that he was “devoted to romance and pleasure, not power or machismo.” A new concluding paragraph called Prince’s music as “a cornucopia of ideas: triumphantly, brilliantly kaleidoscopic.”
Another revision, archived by NewsDiffs shortly before 10 p.m., added 13 paragraphs of biography and career summary. By 2 a.m. the headline had evolved from describing Prince as “an artist who defied genre” to a “singular, meticulous master of pop,” to a “mesmerizing master of pop,” to the version that appeared in the paper: “a singular, meticulous master of pop music and stagecraft.”
In Obit, a documentary about the Times obituaries section that premiered at Tribeca Film Festival last week, it’s revealed that the paper of record has something like 1,700 “advances” – or pre-written obits about people who are still living. Among those are obituaries for composer Stephen Sondheim, who turned 86 last month; comedian Mort Sahl, who turns 89 next month, and actress Valerie Harper, 76.
But then there are the public figures who are by all accounts productive and healthy – like Prince, who was 57, and still touring and making music – when they unexpectedly “pass away” (a euphemism that is verboten in a Times obit). In those cases, writers are left scrambling, often forced by the competition to post preliminary versions of an obit online as they feverishly flesh out the longer ones that will appear in the print edition.
“It’s a kind of triage,” obituaries editor William McDonald says matter-of-factly in Brooklyn filmmaker Vanessa Gould’s elucidating documentary. “You do the ones you really need to do [in advance] and you hope some of these other people who are sort of in the middle of their careers hang on.”
Michael Jackson is one of those entertainers who sadly didn’t hang on. The obit section learned of his death around 3 p.m. on June 25, 2009 and had to get the story to press within about six hours. As with Prince, Jon Pareles was called on.
Much of the “action” in Obit occurs in late 2004, in the cubicles of the Times newsroom as deadlines loom; Paul Vitello struggles to perfectly capture the influence of a Mad Men-era advertising executive while Weber tries to do justice to John F. Kennedy’s television aide. You get the sense that they’re trying to gauge the importance of their relatively unsung subjects as they research them. It’s often hard to confirm whether someone truly was the very first or very last to have done a certain thing, or whether they really did serve in the military or captain the football team, since the perceptions of the relatives and acquaintances who serve as sources are often clouded by “family myth” and “selective memory.”
In the case of someone like Michael Jackson, however, the subject’s legacy is more clearcut, as Pareles points out. The King of Pop is such a major figure that “he’s always running through a critic’s mind, because people are always trying to be him, people are always trying to learn from him… So when you have to write the sudden, three-hour Michael Jackson appraisal you can just sort of open the floodgates and there it is.”
That said, Pareles admits that he finished writing the piece with “a lot less hair” than he had when he started it.
The stress of writing an obituary comes partly from being “terrified,” as Weber puts it, of getting something wrong and hearing from a subject’s peeved family members the next day. The extended obituary of Jackson, written by Brooks Barnes with a team of reporters, was tarnished by multiple corrections, one of which noted that the song “Black or White” had been mistitled “Black and White.”
Margalit Fox, another obit writer, describes a long-ago incident where the Times reported an eminent Russian dancer dead based on stories in European newspapers. After the obit ran, Fox says, “The switchboards lit up from hysterical calls from this woman’s family. Not only was she not dead—she was in a nursing home in Manhattan.”
For that reason, Fox says, every Times obit must now include, in the second paragraph, a cause of death and/or confirmation from a family member.
Weber tells how he confirmed rumors that David Foster Wallace’s death was a suicide, by calling every Wallace in the Champaign-Urbana phone book. Eventually, he got the novelist’s father to tell the “horrifying, horrifying story” of his son’s severe depression and fruitless electro-convulsive therapy.
As you listen to stories like this, you might wonder how someone can have the callousness to cold call someone whose son has just hanged himself outside of his garage. And it’s clear that obit writers, for many years the pariahs of the newsroom, have a hard shell. Weber admits that he can be “a little bit of a pest” when he tries to convince reluctant family members to give a cause of death.
As the movie ends, however, we discover from McDonald that the job does force one to grapple with issues of mortality. “Reading about these various people and seeing what they did in their lives and seeing the full circle, the full arc,” he says, “It gives you some pause to think about your own life: Am I accomplishing anything? Am I going to have any impact? Am I leaving anything?”
“Obit” screens Friday, April 22 at 8:30pm at Bow Tie Cinemas in Chelsea and Sunday, 6:15pm at Regal Cinemas Battery Park; rush tickets are available at the box office.
Correction: The original version of this post was revised to correctly attribute the “triage” quote to William McDonald.