by David A. Andelman
For 16 years, Bill McDonald has served as a gatekeeper for the powerful, the famous, the quirky or the just plain interesting as they exit the world where they plied their trade or exercised their talents. He is the obituary editor of The New York Times. And for our first in-person lunch at the National Arts Club in nearly two years, he regaled our membership with yarns of life and immortality beyond the grave.
Take the fellow who was the (hardly competent) lookout for the Watergate burglars. “We would always write about Watergate people,” McDonald said. “They’re just catnip for our readers.” Even if, as was the case for this one, he’d been dead for two years. There have been a few other notable cases among the long-dead. Like Donald W. Duncan, green beret turned anti-war leader and editor of Ramparts, a leftist magazine of the Vietnam war era, who Jeff Roth, Silurian and custodian of The Times morgue, uncovered. When fellow Silurian, Robert McFadden, the paper’s leading obituary writer, began to research this obit, he discovered that Duncan, too, had been long dead. “We did the obit,” McDonald observed. “It was a great story and no one else had done it. So, we got a lot of good reaction.”
A Silurian board member David Margolick, himself the author of a not inconsiderable number of obits for McDonald, observed that “Bill’s pages are the primest real estate for journalists in the world. There are few assignments that are better than writing for him and telling peoples’ stories. He keeps coming up with Hasidic rabbis who were 103 years old and there seems to be an endless supply of them.” (Joe Berger, who cohosted the questioning with Margolick, seems to have made a specialty of these rabbis.)
McDonald pointed out that there are some 1,900 advance obits in the bank, though occasionally the desk is caught off guard—more often than not by rock stars who “die too young.” Like Michael Jackson, whose premature death mobilized every resource of the paper within hours. “It was one of those cases where The Times showed up and really did what it can do best,” said McDonald.
But then, Margolick touched a nerve when he asked, “How do journalists get in there—not only Times people—and what are you looking for in order to separate those of us who are Worthy from those of us, who aren’t?”
“It’s the toughest call to make because there is an emotional element to this, to colleagues who are grieving in effect for someone they knew and really want that person to be remembered,” McDonald observed. “We try to apply the same standard to those people, to our own colleagues, as we would to anyone else. So, if you did something in journalism, maybe you won a couple of Pulitzer prizes. Maybe you broke some amazing story. Maybe you ran a newspaper. . . You have to have, I won’t say made news, but contributed to the field in such a way that it sits above and beyond what most people do.”
But beyond journalists, McDonald was quite eloquent in describing just what makes it into the narrow space each day for obituaries—who does and who does not make the cut. “You recognize a good story when you see one,” he continued. “If it’s a combination of a good narrative, tale, yarn, certainly fame is a criterion, and we do those automatically. We have raised the bar above people who maybe had worthy lives. We don’t judge their worthiness as human beings, but their newsworthiness.”
There was, for instance, a woman who played music on drinking glasses in the Woody Allen film, “Broadway Danny Rose.” Another who made plaster casts of the genitals of male rock stars. “Both of those women made an impression on our world, so to speak,” McDonald continued, as laughter swept the room. Of course, there’s also the inventor of kitty litter or the designer of pink flamingos, whose passing was chronicled on Page One by “Margalit Fox, one of our great obit writers.” As for the writer of obits, “you have to have a good storytelling style, a good narrative skill—being able to spin the story and decide, what’s the narrative thread,” while at the same time, “bringing to life the era they lived in—the context and sense of history.”
In response to a question from The Times’ former publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. dealing with the globalization of the paper, McDonald observed that he’d like to see obits become even more of a global, even online, product: “I think I’ve always thought The Times could capitalize on this franchise, a little more than it does, but I don’t make those calls unfortunately.”
Still, in the end, there is rarely a slow day in obituaries. “The supply is unending,” McDonald concluded. “As a former deputy used to say, ‘The Lord will provide.’ And that’s true.”
But it was left to Joe Berger, our incoming Silurian president, to add his appreciation to Bill McDonald: “I’m just glad that we have you as obituary editor because you’re a calm, steady cool presence dealing with this massive subject, and a wise one.”