Somehow I decided it was a good idea to try to edit my Delicious bookmarks — my big cluttered junk drawer of links — at the same time as starting a new blog. I keep getting distracted by the collection of obituaries I keep there. Here are some of my favorites, which might be helpful if have some task you’re trying to avoid. Many of them are from the NY Times, so we might as well read and re-read them now before they’re buried behind a pay wall:
- Lyle Stuart was a journalist and publisher who died in 2006. (He published The Anarchist Cookbook, among other things). A certain type of obituary makes you wish you were friends with someone you’d never heard of, and Stuart’s is one of them. He was a high school drop-out and a merchant marine before he got his start in journalism as a contributor to Walter Winchell’s column. Not long after that he got the money to start up his publishing house from a libel judgment against Winchell, following a series of “furious” exchanges between the two, which began when Winchell made a racist joke about Josephine Baker in his column, inspiring Stuart to write about Winchell’s affairs, poor tipping habits, etc. Stuart was a far more generous guy,
financially generous to friends, relatives and employees. He once flew his publishing staff, from executives to shipping clerks, to Europe for parties and the Frankfurt book fair. Celebrating a book sale, he once led a conga line of employees around Trafalgar Square in London.
He was also “a man of Rabelaisian appetites who gloried in ice cream sundaes of great size and complexity.”
- Elizabeth Tashjian was an expert on nuts / “nut culturist.” Some people have such an improbable sweetness about them that reading their obituary is like reading about an exotic new species. Ms. Tashjian died in 2007 and so did your chance to visit her Nut Museum in Old Lyme, CT. Admission was $3 + one nut.
- Stewart R. Mott, Offbeat Philanthropist. Some people sound too good to be true, and Mr. Mott sounds like a progressive Santa Claus. He lived on a Chinese junk in the Hudson for a time, and then in a NYC penthouse where he grew “460 plant species (including 17 types of radishes)” on the roof. He also “held folk music festivals to promote peace and love,” and made his way onto Nixon’s enemies list by giving “big money for radic-lib candidates.” He taught English and gardening, and supported Planned Parenthood, government reform, gay rights, gun control and lots of other causes. When the campaign finance laws changed he changed his methods with them so he could keep giving.
Elizabeth Tashjian showing you a Coco de Mer nut,
which the NYT helpfully noted “resembles buttocks”
Her museum (which actually closed a few years before her death) was inspired by Renaissance-era cabinets of curiosities. She served visitors cider and coffecake, and sang them a nut anthem she wrote. (Here she is singing it). There’s a documentary about her but I’m not sure where to find it.
- Dorothy Podber, Artist and Trickster. What do you have to do to get a trickster’s obituary? Shooting up a stack of Andy Warhol paintings is a fine start.
- Lee Hazlewood died in 2007 and I hope and trust you are familiar with him. His Guardian obit captures some interesting details about his life and music, particularly his work with Nancy Sinatra. She’d been recording for 4 years before Lee got involved and “told her to sing in a lower register and they immediately scored a minor US hit,” and when they were working on “These Boots Are Made For Walking” he instructed her “to sing it ‘like a 16-year old girl who fucks truck drivers.'” I’ve thought of that line every time I’ve heard that song since.
- Anton Rosenberg. One of my favorite obituaries of all time, one I remember clipping out of the newspaper and keeping on my refrigerator. Rosenberg was “a storied sometime artist and occasional musician who embodied the Greenwich Village hipster ideal of 1950’s cool to such a laid-back degree and with such determined detachment that he never amounted to much of anything . . . .” When I read those words for the first time in 1998 I’d lived in NYC for about a year, and it was the obit writer’s wit that stuck with me. (Robert McG. Thomas, not to be confused with the crappy Hollywood director who goes by the name McG). Rosenberg’s aesthetic — described in the obit as “[an aethetic] that shunned enthusiasm, scorned ambition and ridiculed achievement” — was on the decline, obviously, but it wasn’t confined to Rosenberg alone, and I took it for granted that I’d continue to read about people like him, if not meet some of them myself. Now, 12 years later, the people described as “hipsters” almost uniformly tend to be his polar opposite, people so careerist that they don’t even get dressed in the morning without taking a photo of what they’re wearing in case someone finds it marketable. Anton Rosenberg might be rolling in his grave, if rolling in one’s grave didn’t require quite so much energy and emotional investment.