An obit for an obit writer

If you’ve been reading this blog for a long time, you know I’m a fan of a good obituary. Last month, Washington Post obituary writer Adam Bernstein wrote an obituary for Jim Nicholson, the heralded obituary writer for the Philadelphia Daily News. Nicholson’s speciality was obituaries for the common citizen.

A sister-in-law of one Lou ­Koreck, a writ server, conjured a most unusual memory to convey his personality.

“I had unfortu­nately burned up my cat Smokey in the dryer,” she told Mr. Nicholson. “Lou gave me a book, ‘101 Uses for a Dead Cat.’ You loved him and, at the same time, you wanted to strangle him.”

One of Mr. Nicholson’s finest obits was a 1993 ode to a man named Christopher Kelly. “Society today,” he wrote, “does not assign extraordinary attributes to a 35-year-old heavy-equipment mechanic who is living with his parents and whose possessions do not appear to much exceed a Miller Light and a pack of Marlboros on the bar before him, a union card in his pocket and a friend on either side.”

Another, in 1988, was for a 64-year-old construction worker named Thomas Robinson but universally known as Moose Neck. His brother was quoted as saying, “He was interested in going around asking people, ‘Have you got a dollar?’ I’m not going to tell you a lie. Moose was a drinker. He’d go around and ask people for money, and they’d give him anything he wanted. Everybody fell in love with him.”

The obit to read if you have’t read it yet

As I wait — 12 hours and counting — for photos of a great weekend in Philadelphia to make the journey from iCloud to my desktop (after Doulci helped me to unlock it… again), it’s worth breaking a story out of Twitter and media blogging. This blog has long held fondness for well-written obituaries. Not as much as it used to, as print budget cuts have meant fewer well-written articles circulate, but every once in a while there is a great one. Several of you have emailed me the NYT John Fairfax obit. It is undoubtedly great. Somewhere the piece is inspiring someone to suggest the Times put a book together.

I’m not going to say much more. The links are already out there.

The obit: “John Fairfax, Who Rowed Across Oceans, Dies at 74.”

Gawker: “The Seven Best Lines From ‘Professional Adventurer’ John Fairfax’s Crazy Obit.” You’ll like some, plus others of your own choice.

Gawker: “John Fairfax Loved Hookers: Ten ‘Juicy’ Stories Omitted From His NYT Obit.” They’re good. But the Times didn’t cut too much.

Romenesko: “The story behind ‘the most bad-add obit ever.’ ”

The Post obit that inspired the Times obit, and I would love to know the Post reaction: ” ‘Professional adventurer’ John Fairfax dies at 74.”

Rube Goldberg is responsible for my favorite news video this week

As I just posted on Twitter, I want to befriend people who make Rube Goldberg machines. My quality of life would go up just knowing them.

Watch and enjoy. (Can’t say I’m a fan of this expansive, framed embed of The New York Times, but I’ll admit I did just click on the story link. It’s good as well, explaining how a young man gets into this line of work.)

Updated January 14:  Thinking about Rube Goldberg again today got me looking for his obituaries in scanned Google News archives. In my search (God bless participating papers), I found Milwaukee Journal editorial from Wednesday, December 9, 1970. Closing paragraphs:

In his 80s, Goldberg turned to sculpturing. Just two weeks ago, the Smithsonian Institution opened an exhibit of his work. And not long before his death Monday at 87, Goldberg described his invention for getting rid of long winded speakers.

A quarter (A) sings a sad song and a man nearby (B) breaks down and cries into a flower pot (C). Flower (D), wetted by his tears, grows and tickles the feet (E) of a man sitting on top of a children’s slide (F). He slides down and bumps into a Civil War bugler (G) at the bottom of the slide and wakes him up. Bugler blows reveille into the face of an innocent bystander (H) who catches cold and sneezes into the propeller (I) which starts a bell-like machine (J), raising an American flagging, popping off guns, emitting smoke and, finally, extending a broom (K) which sweeps the overlong speaker off the platform.

Rube Goldberg, we’ll miss you.

Also, I learned from 1915 to 1933 Goldberg wrote a comic strip called “Boob McNutt.” Characters included “Lala Palooza” and “Mike & Ike.”

Obituaries for a great obituary writer

Mourning the other day the continued existence of the L.A. wedding section, I went to look at its org opposite, my beloved LAT obituaries section, but couldn’t find any crafting I especially liked. Sadness.

Checking back today, I love this one.

Ice Capades star Donna Atwood had spent almost half her life on the road when she left professional figure-skating behind at 31 to raise her three young children in a custom-built Beverly Hills home complete with a piano that folded into the wall.

She was so famous that Times headlines from the era used only her first name. “Donna to Retire in 1956 for Home Life,” said one atop an article that portrayed her as longing to “trade it all in for ‘home, sweet home.’ “

Same with the man who built Knott’s Berry Farm attractions.

But what makes me think of obituaries today? Via The Morning News feed, the Economist obituary for its obituaries editor, Keith Colquhoun.

When he took over the Obituaries in 1995, just after their launch, he kept the Asian flag flying. He also set an extraordinary standard for clear, dry, witty writing. The openings of his Obituaries were a particular delight. “One of Walter Lini’s minor pleasures was to get the better of the French.” “The achievement of Karl Kehrle, a Benedictine monk, was to breed a very decent British bee.” Or this:

Hunting around for something not too brutal to say about Tiny Rowland now that he is dead, those who knew him have remarked on his charm. The English language is helpful with the evasive word.

Beautiful! I had no idea. May use my LivingSocial Amazon deal to buy his Economist Book of Obituaries. The Internet giveth and the Internet…

In the Guardian, Colquhoun’s wife writes a brief obituary, managing in four paragraphs to fit “He then became obituaries editor, where he used his talents to turn each life into an elegant short story, drawing on his knowledge of politics, history and current affairs, combined with a peerless ability to put the boot in, when needed” and in the previous graf, “He also had an unwanted place in a 1970s scandal, when his first wife, Maureen, then Labour MP for Northampton North, went off in a blaze of publicity with a woman.”

Industry obits are different, especially when the industry is porn

The industry obituary is always interesting to me. Going beyond the general interest in what kind of work the person did, the industry obit explores how the person worked, how the work differed from that of colleagues and how those colleagues built or grew from the legacy.

When this kind of obit is done right, the voices are more intriguing as well. The industry reporter is closer to the deceased and the sources. If the reporter is past the usual parachuting and can push beyond the platitudes, the personal becomes real and valuable. Despite formality, two friends are talking about a third friend, essentially. Color arrives.

So, the most engaging obit I’ve read this month comes from porn.

When your first college newspaper editor graduates, goes into adult production and works his way up in the field, your Facebook becomes more surprising. “People You May Know” pictures include people who look like porn stars. Upon clicking through or Google, they are indeed porn stars. Your news feed intersperses stories about 2010 political concerns with 2010 porn concerns. Your former editor gets married, and you can’t help but guess in his wedding photos who’s porn and who’s family. (This is unexpectedly difficult. Compared to regular life, everyone in anyone’s wedding photos looks slightly more like both.)

In my Facebook feed this month came the death of porn actor-turned-director John Leslie. Former NU editor Adam, now working at the same company as Leslie, didn’t post the Associated Press obit (“John Leslie, an award-winning adult film actor and director…”) or the nearby Marin Independent Journal coverage (“John Leslie Nuzzo, an award-winning pornographic film actor and director…”). Instead, Adam posted an obit from Xbiz, an adult industry digital pub. The story runs more than 40 paragraphs and 1,500 words. The link is not safe for work unless you work in a newsroom or university — nothing ridiculously graphic in the page but still. If you work in a newsroom or university, here you go.

I knew nothing of the people mentioned in the piece; and until reading this and other obits, I knew nothing of John Leslie. But a passage near the end struck me as a reminder of the unique charms of industry obits — imperfect as the people who inhabit the field, foreign to all outsiders (all insiders elsewhere), stumbling, but interpersonal in a way general obituaries rarely capture, whether the field is porn, plumbing or news.

Prince Yahshua, the 2010 Urban X Performer of the Year, was distraught Monday when he heard Leslie had passed, saying that Leslie was his idol.

“I just worked for him. He just invited me, right after [the Adult Entertainment Expo], he said ‘I want you to come out to my area in Northern California and spend a week with me at my house, you can get to know my wife.’ Everybody knows John Leslie was like my porn father. To say that I idolized this dude was a [expletive] understatement,” Yahshua said, fighting back tears.

“Oh my God. I don’t think nobody in porn loved this dude the way I did. It’s crazy because when I was 12 years old I went into my mother and father’s home — and that’s when they had the reel-to-reel movies — the first movie I had ever seen in my life was the guy that became my [expletive] mentor, which was [expletive] John Leslie.”

Yahshua continued, “I had the honor of meeting John exactly three years ago [at AEE]. He actually had seen some of my work, and he had the nerve… This man had the nerve to tell me that he was a fan of mine. Wow…

“This man that had me humbled like I was a five-year-old child, for him to say, ‘Hey I’m a fan of yours. I would love to use you in this movie.’ You know how when people say they’re scared to death they almost piss themselves? I almost pissed on myself. I’m actually in front of a living legend…”

Yahshua, who recently came back to performing after suffering a torn urethra in August, said when he shot for Leslie two weeks ago that after the scene that they sat talking on the set for “two to three hours longer catching up.”

“Because he was so happy to work with me again after my accident,” Yahshua remarked.

RIP Alex Anderson, to whom Bullwinkle appeared in a dream

A year or so before, Anderson had had a dream in which he attended a poker party with a large, goofy moose. “I brought along this stupid moose who was doing card tricks. I woke up feeling embarrassed — I thought, you’ve been working too hard.” Anderson told the San Francisco Chronicle, “There’s something majestic about a moose. They’re macho, but they have a comic aspect, with that schnozzola of theirs. There are few creatures so begging to be caricatured.” At the time in Berkeley there was a car dealer named Clarence Bullwinkel (Anderson recalls, “He ran a Ford agency on College and Claremont Avenues in Oakland”). Jay and Alex agreed that Bullwinkel was a funny name, and after respelling it the moose had his moniker.

–Keith Scott’s The Moose that Roared, on my proud bookshelf.

Both Rob and Kellen, also big fans of Moose and Squirrel, mailed me Anderson’s obits this week. Reading through the appreciations and rereading the book’s account of Anderson’s role in the creation, what you assemble is a picture of a storytelling innovator. He meshed the concepts of an active, fourth-wall-breaking narrator and of parodic characters, using meta humor to carry cartoons beyond a struggling industry’s art and tech struggles. The hooks first, then looking good.

Time appreciation. NYT obituary. Mr. Anderson, this fan thanks you.