if celebrities play out our societal anxieties, hopes, dreams, blah blah blah on a conveniently more manageable, individualized scale then obituaries do the same for biography.
it’s all here, gang. i’ve said this before and i’ll say it again: we write women’s lives differently than we write the lives of men. EVERYWHERE. even obits. (btw, this inequality isn’t gender limited, obvi. it extends to race, class, region, etc. but i write about life writing and gender so this is about life writing and gender.)
exhibit A: bacall.
but first… do you remember this?
likely no, because- be real- had you ever heard of this person?
which isn’t to say that he isn’t a huge big deal in the community of new york conductors and maybe you’re way more educated re: famous conductors than i am and you’re like dude, yeah he was hot stuff and i’m betraying my idiocy in admitting i’d not heard of him.
BUT. regardless of my ignorance, this was striking.
because HOLY ADJECTIVES BATMAN, that is a lot ‘o descriptors. a veritable pile-on of laudatory words.
though i knew nothing about this conductor, i screen-capped this breaking news banner because my very first thought upon seeing it was no woman would be eulogized like that.
(another thing that wouldn’t happen in a woman’s obit?
over 2,728 words, discussion of her personal life being limited to 66.)
because we have historically handled the lives of women differently- at both the levels of organization and life writing.
this becomes incredibly obvious in a practical sense when one is a researcher trying to determine whether or not a woman one would like to arrange an interview with is alive.
god be with you, humble researcher, because it is a raw deal.
especially if, like me, you’re writing in a world where seemingly every lady had a nickname like “bunny” or “puffin” and married more than once. who knows what last name the record of her death will be filed away under. or, once you’ve determined her death, if she has archives, under what name they will be held.
there is no standardization for how to handle this and, barring the passage of congressional legislation mandating the standardization of women’s names across all archives or the creation of a centralized database that accounts for these deviations (both of which would likely be deemed unconstitutional), ain’t nobody gonna fix it.
we have historically written about women differently, a problem that bleeds into the accessibility of their stories to later generations in things so seemingly simple as locating a letter in an archive or determining that someone has died.
historically, we’ve kind of sucked. and, y’know, we’re not doing nearly a good enough job of getting better at it now.
which brings us to bacall…
in its tweeting, the new york times was ever so slightly more charitable, noting:
before establishing how we should think of her:
sultry and a sex kitten.
not surprisingly, the 12 year marriage to bogart dominates the recap of her life, as she begrudgingly assumed it would.
in the section of the obit entitled “Forever Tied to Bogart”, she is quoted as fearing she would be forever tied to bogart:
“I think I’ve damn well earned the right to be judged on my own,” she said in a 1970 interview with The New York Times. “It’s time I was allowed a life of my own, to be judged and thought of as a person, as me.”
that was 1970. by 2011, she seems to have been resigned:
“My obit is going to be full of Bogart, I’m sure,” she told Vanity Fair magazine in a profile of her in March 2011, adding: “I’ll never know if that’s true. If that’s the way, that’s the way it is.”
the times then proceeds to forever tie her to bogart.
in what i realize is a horribly disingenuous move now i’ve dragged you through all this, i’ve actually very little to say about the circumstance that bacall’s obituary is mostly about bogart, about the annoyance that these are the subheadings that appear: An Impulsive Kiss, ‘And We Made a Noise’, Rat Pack Den Mother, Romance With Sinatra, Watching ‘Casablanca’.
nothing to say beyond the fact that it is in no way surprising. because this is how we write most women: based upon their relationships with men.
the onus of this falls on the people who write these things, the people who edit them and the people who publish them. the responsibility of bringing about some sort of parity in the way we memorialize people.
but, just as reviews of biographies aren’t so much reviews of a literary work as a recap of the life, so obituaries- in the case of well known people, particularly entertainers- often aren’t an exercise in writing the life as they are an exercise in writing the life as it was portrayed in the press.
so the new york times here acknowledges bacall’s wish that her life be written differently then does the exact opposite, looking at it through the same lens the new york times has been using to look at bacall’s life since 1944.
it obscures a story that is, i suspect, far more interesting. the story of a woman whose marriages (and, yes, she remarried after bogart- jason robards jr. is mentioned twice, once in connection with the fact that bacall was annoyed that her marriage to him was so often overlooked) were a part of her life, not what defined it.
true story: i wrote all that and then remembered the anecdote of elizabeth taylor outliving the writer of her new york times obituary and thought i’d better double-check…
enid nemy is alive. she is 90. and appears to have retired from the new york times around 2004.
while emma g. fitzsimmons reportedly contributed to this piece and while nemy is reportedly still occasionally writing obits for illustrious new yorkers, it’s important to note that the bulk of the obituary likely dates from 10-20 years ago, if not longer.
admittedly there’s a chance i’ve got it all wrong and nemy wrote this yesterday, though that’s highly unlikely and, even then, the bulk of it would probably have been written years in advance because this is standard practice in the industry.
but it’s increasingly problematic to assume that something written about a life in, say, 1994 could simply be updated with a quote from 2009 and another from 2011 and be dated 13 august 2014. obituaries provide snapshots of the times in which we live and so we read this and think it reflects not only bacall’s life but our assessment of her now, not in 1994. would that change at all if someone working at the times today were to sit down this morning and ponder bacall’s legacy and write something from scratch? maybe not. but, in that chain of events, there’s more room for the possibility that it would. and there’s the possibility that, in looking at her story again, something new might be seen.
contemporary reports are the first layer of myth-making in a life. then memoirs then an obituary. to give credit where credit’s due, in its first paragraph (the money-shot of any obit, as my professor called it in grad school) the times allows bacall to be her own person:
alas, in extravagantly starry terms that still seem to be hiding something far more interesting. namely, this woman:
with the smudged-off lipstick and the cigarette and the side-eye. i want to read about her.