10 August 2008

Dead Famous People

New Zealand had its own Marilyn Monroe, though I’m yet to read about her in our newspapers. More on that in a moment. Thinking about yesterday’s post it occurred to me that journalism is, in fact, in good heart. New Zealand is one place without a plagiarism problem; the occasional case of it is quickly spotted in this small pond. And there’s never been a time when so much good journalism has been so easily available. My main concern is that the content providers aren’t reaping the rewards; if there is a way to fill a newspaper cheaply, the proprietors will do it. But, inspired by Jules Starr’s posts on her Evolving Newsroom site – a place to keep up with how technology affects media – and the sunny brilliance of Johnny Mercer, it’s time to accentuate the positive.

I am addicted to obituaries. It’s a growth area in journalism, thanks to the genre’s revival by the British Independent and Telegraph. In the late 1980s their obituaries moved on from the respectful Who’s Who style of brief CV entry, that told “just the facts, ma’am.” Instead they became witty, stylish features about colourful characters whose fascinating lives never made the news pages. They can often be the best-written profile a person ever receives (I’m thinking of the Independent’s obit of the taciturn Irving Berlin; 101 when he died, his obituarist had plenty of time to polish a piece that was like a primer in how to write the popular song). It helps that England is so richly populated by eccentrics and rogues, but a surprising number of them have New Zealand links. Like the engrossing Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, the inclusiveness beyond the worthy citizens who sit on boards and get QSOs is a big part of the attraction.

Recently there was international convocation of obituarists in Little Las Vegas (New Mexico) and the Independent summed up their views in “Working the Dead Beat,” with plenty of excerpts of favourite examples:

The third Lord Moynihan “provided through his character and career ample ammunition for critics of the hereditary principle. His chief occupations were bongo drummer, confidence trickster, brothel-keeper, drug-smuggler and police informer …” (Telegraph)

Spin-doctor to the evil, Edward Von Kloberg embraced the slogan “Shame is for sissies”, as well as an unabashedly Edwardian style of living. He arrived at balls and galas wearing black capes, and he travelled with steamer trunks … Washington is a city of advocates and image enhancers, but only a few have staked their reputations as representatives of despots, dictators and human-rights violators. For Von Kloberg, the job was a social exercise as well as an all-consuming effort.” (Washington Post)

Selma Koch, a Manhattan brassiere maven “who earned a national reputation by helping women find the right bra size, mostly through a discerning glance and never with a tape measure, died Thursday … She was 95 and a 34B.” (NY Times)

In New Zealand the master of the obituary is Peter Kitchin of the Dominion-Post, who goes to great trouble to research well-written obits of colourful, but often unknown, local characters. Recently they have offered insights into men who were controversial in their day – police chief Bob Walton, soccer manager Charlie Dempsey – but also others below the radar: teachers who have devoted their lives to inspiring students, immigrants who threw themselves at life with gusto, a market gardener, a bootmaker and hit songwriter, and a Maori kuia.

These are easily accessible on the Dom-Post website, and really add something substantial to the newspaper itself. The New Zealand Herald seems embarrassed by death, or celebrating life. You’ve got to really hunt for their obits: who would think of looking for a feature on Alexander Solzhenitsyn on the inside-back-page of the sports section? New Zealanders are rarely covered; the paper has syndication rights to the Independent’s obits, and while that paper’s offerings are prominently used elsewhere in the Herald – too prominently, some of the in-house writers probably feel – the obits are hidden. Understandably the syndicated obits aren’t on the Herald’s website, but why are their occasional New Zealand obits virtually impossible to find, on line or in print?

Now, New Zealand’s Marilyn Monroe. It’s a tenuous connection, but I’d never heard of the 1950s bombshell Jill Adams (pictured above), who spent her childhood here and died recently aged 78. She sounds like a classier version of Diana Dors – her face was used on a recruiting poster for the Wrens – but she couldn’t break out of B-movies such as Carry On Constable.

But for triumph over prosperity, take Joan Campbell, recently dead at 96, “the gruff cookery writer who put Australian food on the map.”

Her giddy life as a Brisbane débutante was marred, when she was 20, by the death of her first sweetheart in an accident involving the crank handle of a tractor.

Campbell went on to marry the heir of a squattocracy dynasty, who wouldn’t allow her to do anything useful. “She spent her days, wrote her friend, the distinguished Australian food writer Cherry Ripe – did Ian Fleming invent that name? – in a “social round of polo picnics, race meetings and beach houses.”

Joan was not allowed in the kitchen by diktat of her mother-in-law, so had a sub-kitchen built behind the house, in which she confined herself to making jams and chutney. When her in-laws learned that she had ordered an Aga cooker without seeking their permission, they supposedly docked Henry's legacy by 3,640 hectares.

Of course, it couldn’t last, and Campbell said hooray to Henry and took up with a penniless, one-armed journalist. At first, she “used a little family money to buy two uninsured crop-dusting aeroplanes. They crashed.” In her 60s, she successfully reinvented herself as a food writer, stylist and editor for glossy magazines. The Campbells loved entertaining. “Though of course he was useless with only one arm,” she said. “All he could do was raise a glass.”

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