Today's Reading


As a lover of obituaries, these are the kinds of questions that weigh on my mind: How did Founding Father Thomas Paine, the man who inspired the American Revolution with his pamphlet Common Sense, end up with just six people at his funeral and an obit summed up in the line "He had lived long, did some good and much harm"?

Did Sammy Davis Jr. and Jim Henson really have to die on the same day?

Didn't each of these brilliant talents deserve a news cycle all to himself?

Is it even possible to diagram a sentence as long as what will likely be the first line of Bill Cosby's obit? Seriously, that's going to be one heck of a dependent-clause-heavy sentence:

Bill Cosby, the Philadelphia-born stand-up comedian who broke barriers when he became the first black actor to star in an American television drama before going on to star in his own blockbuster eponymous sitcom, but whose legacy was eclipsed by a torrent of accusations of drug-facilitated sex crimes and whose 2018 conviction on aggravated indecent assault sent him to prison where he lived out his days in disgrace, died today.

My father loved the obits, too. It was his favorite section of the newspaper. I think he liked the sweeping drama of a life packed into a few inches of print. Indeed a great one can feel like a movie trailer for an Oscar-winning biopic, leaving the reader breathless.

Consider the story of Madame Chiang Kai-shek, who died in 2003. At 105(!), the widow of Chinese Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek had long outlived general interest in her. Even the people still around who knew her name had forgotten she was alive.

But Madame Chiang's life was consequential, hence the gripping 2,600-word saga penned by the New York Times's Seth Faison. Beautiful, brainy, and driven, she was one of three sisters from the Soong family, which "dominated Chinese politics and finance in the first half of the 20th century." Quoted in the obit is a famous Chinese ditty about the sisters: "One loved money, one loved power, one loved China." (Madame Chiang was the "power" one.) The Gabor sisters were slouches next to these three.

Madame Chiang barnstormed the United States during World War II, electrifying Congress, winning Americans to the side of the Nationalists over the Communists, charming the masses with her southern-accented English, which she learned growing up for a time in Georgia.

Underneath the charm was a ruthlessness, though, which Faison captures. This is my favorite paragraph:

Although Madame Chiang developed a stellar image with the American public, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and other leaders became disillusioned with her and her husband's despotic and corrupt practices. Eleanor Roosevelt was shocked at Madame Chiang's answer when asked at a dinner at the White House how the Chinese government would handle a strike by coal miners. Madame Chiang silently drew a sharp fingernail across her neck.

Can't you just hear Eleanor Roosevelt gasping as Madame Chiang pantomimes a beheading? Reading that paragraph I am there at that table!

She eventually fled to the posh Upper East Side of New York. At ninety she plotted a comeback but it failed and she lived out her days being waited on by guards in the Nationalist uniforms of old. (I knew one of her neighbors, and he was convinced she and those guards were running an off-the-books takeout service out of her apartment.)

Her obit is a twofer: an engrossing personal story and a riveting history lesson about China during World War II. And a fitting send-off for someone who was, like it or not, once a pivotal figure. But not everyone has gotten the send-off they were due—which is where this book comes in.

A Mobituary is an appreciation for someone who didn't get the love she or he deserved the first time around. This person could be a well-known name. Audrey Hepburn had the misfortune of dying not only way too young but also on the day Bill Clinton was inaugurated. Her own wartime experience—and how it shaped the woman we all fell in love with—is unknown to many. (You may have heard Audrey Hepburn's story on the first season of the Mobituaries podcast. But there's way more to discover in this book that wasn't covered in the podcast.)

There are Mobituaries for people who were once very famous but whose names are barely remembered today. Nineteenth-century composer Giacomo Meyerbeer practically invented grand opera. But he never recovered from an anonymous and virulently anti-Semitic hit piece written by his once-friend Richard Wagner.

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