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The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and The Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries


The New York Times comes each morning and never fails to deliver news of the important dead. Every day is new; every day is fraught with significance. I arrange my cup of tea, prop up my slippers. Obituaries are history as it is happening. Whose time am I living in? Was he a success or a failure, lucky or doomed, older than I am or younger? Did she know how to live? I shake out the pages. Tell me the secret of a good life!

"If Marilyn Johnson had been meaner, I could have said she puts the bitch in obituary. Instead, she's written a warm, funny, appreciative book that, ironically enough, should live forever. But get it now."

--Roy Blount Jr., author of Feet On The Street: Rambles Around New Orleans

"What a wonderful surprise--a charming, lyrical book about the men and women who write obituaries. The Dead Beat is sly, droll, and completely winning."
--David Halberstam, author of The Education of a Coach

"A joyful book about obituaries? Absolutely! Marilyn Johnson pulls it off with death-defying grace, insight, charm, and wit. In the end, what a celebration of life."
--Lee Eisenberg, author of The Number: A Completely New Way to Think about the Rest of Your Life

"A beautifully written, funny and fascinating tour through the unexpectedly lively world of obituaries. Vital reading for anyone who knows a dead person or is likely to become one."
--Lisa Grunwald, editor of Women’s Letters: America from the Revolutionary War to the Present

Dorothea Benton Frank & MJ (photo by Margaret Fox)

From The Dead Beat

Is there any better entertainment in New York than a celebrity’s memorial service? It’s no secret; the public is welcome. A notice appears on the obits page of The New York Times telling you when the doors will open, and who has promised to speak or perform, to lift the curtain on a public life and stage a personal tribute: people you’ve heard of, telling stories you’ve never heard. Like obituaries, memorial services are a garden of emotion, with laughs cropping up behind the tears. It is the ultimate theatrical experience, united with your fellows in appreciation of someone unforgettable.

And that’s not to mention the production values. The sound quality is excellent, the pianist performs professionally in the theater. The photographs projected on the giant screen are first-rate. The short montage of film clips rivals those shown on the Academy Awards. Every so often, someone like Estelle Parsons takes the stage to give a dramatic reading. The seats? Well, they’re on Broadway, plush velvet, banked for quality sightlines. And-- awesome detail—the whole experience is free.

It is a gorgeous day in May. In the long line for public mourners, people are sunning their faces, grazing through newspapers, chatting each other up, but the line of invited guests enters first; by the time we climb the opulent staircase inside and find seats, the orchestra is half-filled with Arthur Miller’s friends, relatives, and colleagues. Like the other voyeurs, we settle in the back, on the aisle, and get up half a dozen times for others as the theater fills – aging men in suits or jeans, women with tousled grey hair in sweat pants and sneakers. We have a few minutes to study the program, studded with famous names. “Bill Coffin?” the obit writer Steve Miller (no relation to Arthur) says with a laugh. “William Sloane Coffin? He’s almost dead himself.” When the lights go down, everything but the stage becomes very dark. Only the emergency exit lights on the aisle floors are lit. Steve Miller has forgotten his flashlight, and we begin the comedy of trying to identify the parade of speakers and performers who appear under the huge black-and-white projected image of the deeply etched face of Arthur Miller, “a giant of the theater” and “one of the great American playwrights,” as Marilyn Berger called him in The New York Times obit...

We both recognize Daniel Day-Lewis, Miller’s son-in-law, who reads a funny story Miller wrote about delivering bagels and onion rolls by bicycle, hazardous work in winter. But who is the intense man who takes the stage and speaks rapidly about watching his mother playing Linda Loman in a community production of Death of a Salesman? Even though he was only six at the time, the man says Miller’s words made “my heart break and burst into flame.” Soon we realize he’s Tony Kushner, another great political playwright, who won a Tony and a Pulitzer for his pair of plays, Angels in America. Kushner tells us he sat behind Miller during one Tony Award ceremony, and spent the entire evening gazing in wonder at the domed head in front of him, the source of all that great American drama. “I wanted to touch the head, but thought the owner might object.” The theater ripples with laughter.

There’s a professional gloss on the contents of the service, what you’d expect for a public figure, affectionate glimpses of Miller on walks or laughing and arguing at the dinner table, but no danger of falling into anything really personal or mawkish. Miller’s son doesn’t remember (with a catch in his throat) a Little League coach who taught him to ride a bike; instead he reads his father’s defiant letter to the House Committee on Un-American Activities in a steady voice. And Miller’s occasionally messy personal life has been edited: his third wife, Inge Morath, who died in 2002, is invoked frequently, but his first wife, mother of two of his children, is barely mentioned, and no one breathes a word about Marilyn Monroe, to whom he was married for almost five years, or Agnes Barley, the abstract painter 55 years his junior who lived with him at the end.

I realize spending a beautiful afternoon listening to this orchestrated fugue of sorrow and laughter for a departed literary figure is not everyone’s idea of entertainment. But on May 9, there’s no better place to read the complex layers of our culture than this memorial service on Broadway. Between odes to Miller the brilliant dramatist and Miller the stalwart leftist, speaker after speaker invokes the great line from Death of a Salesman, “Attention must be paid.” Nobody was more of a champion of the common man than Miller, who grew up in Brooklyn the son of a successful man ruined by the Depression. In fact, Miller’s account of the death of Willy Loman can be read as an elevated obit of a common man. George McGovern, who credits Miller with helping him win the Democratic nomination in the 1972 presidential election, saw a production when he was still in school; he recalls an audience of grown men with heaving shoulders trying to stifle their sobs. The American “everyman” haunts us all. What a tragedy to slip into death without fanfare or tribute! Miller himself was quoted in an article published in The New York Times a few weeks after the play’s Broadway debut: "I believe that the common man is as apt a subject for tragedy in its highest sense as kings were." He described Willy Loman as a man who “was trying to write his name in ice on a summer day.”

The lights go up. We walk past the posters and paraphernalia for The Phantom of the Opera, and into the sunshine, find a Ranch 1 on 8th Avenue and continue a conversation we started almost a year ago...[about] the common man obits, which have become increasingly popular around the country since 9/11. Willie Loman crops up now in Portland, San Jose, Denver, Cleveland, Phoenix, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C...

©2006, Marilyn Johnson