NYT obituary smackdown: lauren bacall vs. lorin maazel edition

lauren-bacall-creative

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.

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NYT obituary smack-down: joan fontaine v. peter o’toole edition

Olivia de Havilland & Joan Fontaine

the thing about sexism is that it’s so often subversive, so woven into the culture that you can just be all like ‘oh no, that’s not sexism, it’s just a difference in talents/skills/blahblahblah/whatev, and that’s why that person is written about that way.’ 

so one way of looking at the vast difference between the obituaries of joan fontaine and peter o’toole, both of whom died this weekend, is to say that peter o’toole’s was the more important career. which, were i more familiar with the films of either, i would try to make a convincing case for at this point, because i’d prefer not to have to confront how deeply messed up are the ways that we write about women’s lives within american culture, but alas… NAW. so let’s take a look. Continue reading

teddy

(26 august 2009)


teddy and i don’t go back very far. well, we do by default simply because he’s eulogized pretty much all of my biographical crushes, but i don’t have a big Teddy Anecdote beyond what i’ve said before:

i’ve dated teddys.

i feel sorry for teddys.

i want nothing to do with teddys.

teddys are bad, bad news.

teddy will be remembered for many, many things, but i think it is quite possibly teddy’s greatest accomplishment that he was able to overcome being a teddy and get something done. it was probably also his greatest sacrifice.

there was this moment on the evening january 20, 1961 when, in the grandstands of the national guard armory at his brother’s inaugural ball, the stunning joan kennedy leaned over to her husband teddy and asked if he was serious about moving to california to start a life completely apart from his family and their politics.

he was. but he didn’t. i shudder to think what america would be if he had.

showtime

(26 june 2009)

in 1993, josh pateet was quite possibly the coolest kid in page middle school, if not the world. at the time, i wasn’t aware of having a crush on him. i was all consumed with unexpressed love for tony cromierr but looking back now, i think maybe i was a little in love with josh pateet as well. in that way that middle school girls can be in love with eleven boys at once.

because josh pateet was hot. an undeveloped yet dangerous, skinny sixth grade boy type of hot. he had a cowlick. he wore white button-downs and black pants. and he had a michael jackson impersonation.

a white button-down and pop music. this is all a girl needs.

josh pateet was semi-famous school-wide for this michael jackson impersonation. we’re talking winter of 1993, so michael jackson was everywhere. he’d not yet been accused of molesting little boys. he’d just married lisa marie. their joint barbara walters interview was so significant that josh pateet brought in a VHS that we watched in mr. adams’ history class as an example of “seeing history unfold.”

josh pateet. the page middle school talent show seemed to have been invented just for him.

we’re talking about a school that was literally situated between two cow farms. for a month out of every year, the whole place smelled like manure. it was a setting in which a michael jackson impersonation seemed the height of glamor and we reacted accordingly.

every year of those three years, when talent show time rolled around, josh pateet’s performance was held to the last, presumably so he wouldn’t shame the other acts. when the lights were dimmed and “beat it” came pounding over a sound-system so out-dated it seemed the music was thrashing inside to fight its way out, we cheered for josh pateet as though this were a once-in-a-lifetime sight rather than a spectacle we were treated to whenever a teacher finished early in class and had nothing else with which to fill the time.

i often wonder what happened to him. he seemed awfully big for a school so small. is he married? is he gay? has he gone on to do great things or did he peak at page middle?

but mostly i wonder if he remembers those days– those moments, innocent in their showiness, that have flickered through my mind every time i’ve seen anything to do with michael jackson ever since– when a boy with a cowlick moonwalked across the cougar painted on the polished floor, reveling in being someone he wasn’t as 250 preteens cheered for him in a darkened gym as if he were the real thing.

bird

(13 july 2007)

lady bird johnson died the other day. and i’m quite sure most of america’s response was: she was still alive??? and it’s hard to imagine that she really was. she and LBJ seem so long ago. so far away from when we were even born.

first ladies are important, people. i’ve had this argument time and again when some fool has gone off on a “what did jackie ever do?” tangent. i refuse to fold.

it has to be quite possibly the hardest thing in the world to be “the wife of…” of anyone- let alone a president. clearly, the entire status of a first lady derives from being “the wife of…” but there’s more to it than that. i’m pretty sure it’s a freakishly tough job.

let’s imagine being married to LBJ. a man most known for two things: 1) being incapable of cleaning up JFK’s mess in vietnam, and 2) showing his apendectomy scar to a roomful of reporters. privately, he was a bit of a douche. an aggressive politico, a brilliant legislator, an unfaithful husband, and an extremely insecure, proud man whose primary negotiating tactic was to bring someone into the bathroom and ask them incriminating questions while they were pissing. classy.

and let’s imagine being the followup act to jackie kennedy. fun times there.

so lady bird had a bit of a rough ride, as they probably all do. and yet, despite the rather demeaning nickname, she was tough stuff. she had her own money. she owned her own radio station. she was the main proponent of the highway beautification act and she won the congressional medal of honor. bravo.

yet, there she was the other day, passing into history with little more than a 15 second obit on CNN. which is both sobering and terribly inadequate.

i wrote lady bird johnson once. after jackie’s death, in that summer of 1994 when i was manically, unconsciously gathering information for the something i was going to do ten years down the road. liz carpenter, her press secretary of a bazillion years, wrote back. an ivory sheet of paper curiously scented of lilacs and that smell that paper gets when it sits out in the sun. it answered all my questions with only the occasional smudge of typewriter ink.

i like to think that the pair of them, little old ladies in their eighties by then, sat out in their lawn chairs amidst a field of wildflowers answering correspondence all day long under the texas sun. leaving the pages atop the buds waiting for the ink to dry.

michael landon’s loins

(14 may 2009)

michael landon’s son died yesterday. which is in and of itself  kind of unextraordinary given michael landon’s son’s only apparent claim to fame was being michael landon’s son.

judging from the fact that it was repeated in every single obituary, the most significant moment in the life of michael landon’s son was that he and michael landon were about to make a made-for-tv-movie together before michael landon’s death in 1991 at the age of 54.

this revelation should probably force us to dwell upon the unpleasant sadness of anyone’s most significant life accomplishment being that they almost co-starred in something they ultimately did not.

but hey, lookie here: if michael landon was 54 when he died in 1991, that would make him 72 if he were alive today, the day after his son died at the age of 60.

which leads us to what in the hell was michael landon doing having sex when he was 12?

remember, this is michael landon. bastion of family values. head of the little house. leader of life on the prairie. this is sarah gilbert ingles wilder’s tv dad.

this isn’t just anybody. it’s freaking michael landon.

in our discussion of Michael Landon, Pre-Teen Father, a friend suggested that perhaps this child was not, in fact, the fruit of michael landon’s loins. perhaps he was adopted, an idea admittedly a bit more plausible than a 12-year-old having sex in 1949, though still rendered somewhat absurd given the timeline with which we were working. what 12-year-old adopts an infant? what 30-year-old adopts a teenager?

fortunately, wikipedia (where one would inevitably wind up when trying to untangle the tawdry sex life of michael landon) yielded an answer.

michael landon did not breed at 12. he did not adopt a 30-year-old when he was 42. no. apparently michael landon’s son is not actually, if we’re being biological, michael landon’s son.

so this kid, the kid who died yesterday, whose sole accomplishment in his entire life was having nearly starred in a made-for-tv-motion-picture with his father michael landon was, in reality, not the son of michael landon but rather the son of some other man who happened to have sex with a woman before she married michael landon. which, should probably make us more sad still as this only renders michael landon’s son’s only claim to fame more tenuous, seeing as he is not even michael landon’s son.

but, in the end, all i feel is relief. tremendous relief that i do not live in a world where michael landon has let me down.