Monday, April 10, 2006

obit by indirection

In today's LAT, there is a classic of what could be called an obit by indirection, when the obit of somebody fairly insignificant allows the writer to tell the story of a much more interesting person or phenomenon.

In this case, we have the story of Helen Barbara Cohn, aka Bobbie Nudie, whose husband, Nudie Cohn, invented the Nudie suit, favored by singing cowboys and Elvis. It's a great story. Only problem is, it was her husband who was the inventor/designer/promotor. Not that they weren't a business team, but about 75% of this obit could have been lifted directly from his obit, where it more properly belongs.

Nudie died in 1984, and was the subject of a shorter but funny LAT obit, in which the heavily bejeweled fashion mogul revealed inter alia that he had been a manufacturer of G-strings "until the bottom fell out of burlesque."

Still, there's nothing wrong with reminding a new generation of the provenance and glories of Nudie suits, and I would never want to say that LAT, of all papers, should refrain from publishing something amusing.

Marilyln, can you please come up with a witty sobriquet for this phenomenon?


steve miller said...

Amelia suggests




Alana Baranick said...

The shortened wire version of the obit-by-association that ran in The Plain Dealer today (Tues., April 11, 2006) had even less about the deceased. Click here to read it.

Nudie Girl #2 said...

I love the blogs about Bobbie's death, which I guess could be called "comment by indirection." As Nudie Girl #2, I have helped to carry on the Nudie legacy, and acted as Bobbie's publicist, managing the press campaign this week. I wrote a lengthy press release (probably too lengthy and detailed) highlighting her life, and sent it around on Saturday. I was wary that her obits would end up being "the woman behind the man," blah, blah, blah instead of stating if it wasn't for Bobbie, there wouldn't be any Nudie Suits. I've learned however, you can't control the press, writers are in love with THEIR words -- I protested the use of the word "gaudy" with the AP writer, who replied it was the perfect word, and used it in his headline. Someone very wise once said "Don't read your press, weigh it." So here I am, weighing in for Bobbie Nudie.

She was a great lady in her own right, and I thank everyone for keeping her in their thoughts.

steve miller said...

Very nice to have this perspective! This is the sort of thrill anthropologists must feel when their subjects talk (bite) back.

I was only using this obit as an example, and not trying to slam Bobbie per se, but when I looked at the old clips, it was Nudie himself who was the public face of the thing.

Virutally every creative endeavor entails some sort of collaboration, and it is a constant struggle for obituarists to know where to stop. I for instance will never run a "mother of congressman" (although I would have run Pres. Carter's mother, a public figure in her own right). Success has a hundred mothers, so it is all about judgment.

The Nudie story is so good, and the graphics so strong, that this obit was probably worth running anyhow.

Now, in what sense is a Nudie suit anything but gaudy?

Mary Lynn Cabrall said...

I'm honored Bobbie's obit and life could add to this forum. When her story hit the North Korea Times, I figured my work was done. As for "gaudy" it implies, if not downright shouts "cheap." There is certainly nothing cheap about a Nudie Suit, from the artistry, design, workmanship, to the price tag. I wear my Nudies frequently and most people are dazzled, awestruck, and generally floored by their beauty. There aren't many designers who can say their clothes can stop traffic in New York City, but our Nudies do. Bobbie and Nudie's work is generally considered haute couture, decorative art, and is prized in museums the world over. Everything on a Nudie Suit is the highest quality, and is there for a reason. From the Swarovski Crystal rhinestones, to the finest embroidery, to the piping, embroidered arrows, tailoring, and other extras such as fringe, silversmithing and leather tooling, every detail is created by highly specialized artisans. The premise for the individual suits usually begin simply enough with a theme that reflects the future owner's vocation or avocation. The execution is anything but simple, sometimes requiring the talents of numerous people to complete. Nudie and Bobbie's true testament is their eye for design and color. As complicated as the suits are they are never overwrought -- over the top perhaps, outrageous, showy, spectacular, like I said before, so many fabulous adjectives apply -- but they work -- so beautifully. Like a friend of mine said, "gaudy is in the eye of the beholder," so I won't belabor the point. I will invite any Nudie fans out there to Bobbie's service however, where you can judge her work for yourself.

We like to say Nudie's made the stars shine. And remember, it is always better to be looked over, than to be overlooked.

I've got to get back to my embroidery.

Mary Lynn Cabrall said...

Okay, now I have a stupid question. After discussing Bobbie's obits with a bunch of media savvy folks, the general concensus is that obit writers are the lowest rung on the totem pole. I've heard comments like -- that's all they do -- they really don't know what they're writing about, but it's the easiest way for the editors to get the story, instead of contacting their entertainment reporters, or their style reporters or whatever. Jeez, if I had known what I was dealing with, I suppose I would have been a little more prepared . . . oh well, live and learn. Is this really the deal? Or is the profession of obit writing an art in itself? I'm inclined to go with the former after my experience of last week, and the comment in this forum that Bobbie Nudie was "fairly insignificant," but I will consider the latter as I am now an interested party.

Alana Baranick said...

Greetings, Mary. It's been lovely having your guest comments about your friend Bobbie, her obituary, Nudie suits and obit writers on our blog space.

Your media savvy associates' "general concensus" is indeed the way we obituary writers are often perceived by our fellow journalists and the public - as the "lowest rung on the totem pole."

It's a perception that we have learned to accept but don't share.

It's like the way you disagree with the general concensus of many journalists and the public that Nudie suits are "gaudy."

(Let me make it clear. I'm not saying the "whole" public or even trying to say how much of the public would say "gaudy." We should never assume, as many politicians do, that "most Americans" believe what we personally believe about anything.)

Whether Nudie suits are gaudy or ornate, cheap-looking or haute couture is, as you said, "in the eye of the beholder." And apparently, many people, especially in the entertainment industry, share your opinion, evidenced by their willingness to pay big bodacious bucks for outfits that are labor-intensive works of art.

Hey! There's a good adjective for Nudie suits! Bodacious! Definition: Outstanding in a showy way. Hallelujah!

Whether obit writers are incapable of handling other newspaper assignments or are more capable than other reporters at researching, interviewing and writing with a keen eye for detail and language depends on the obit writer and the newspaper that hired him or her.

Assigning an obit to an obit specialist, who has never heard of the deceased, rather than handing the task to an entertainment or other appropriate beat reporter, who interviewed, reviewed or otherwise covered the dearly departed celebrity in life, is not the "easiest way for the editors to get the story."

Nor are press campaigns a means of ensuring that an obit will be printed the way you want it.

Sending your press release that announced that Bobbie had died was a good way to alert news media of her death. But experienced reporters would look at your press release and question the facts as you presented them. They also would wonder about your motives.

We obit writers agree with you that Bobbie's obit should have been about Bobbie's life. Not her husband's life. Not the future of the business they started or the people who are carrying on in their stead.

I think Steve Miller's comment that he will never run a "mother of congressman" obit further supports that idea.

Sometimes we're asked to write obits about people whose lone claim to fame is their relationship with the rich, famous or powerful. When I have to do that, I like to write about the dead person's life, not the celebrity. If we can say no more than, "This was the congressman's mom," I write those obits as short-and-sweet announcements - "Services for Congressman Joe Schmo's mom will be . . ." - in case someone wants to pay their respects.

I don't think the obits I read - most of which would have come from the Los Angeles Times or Associated Press - even gave her credit for being the "woman behind the man." They pretty much used her death as an excuse for telling her husband's story. They gave the impression that Bobbie was "fairly insignificant." And that's a shame.

I should mention here that obit writers depend on the history we find in old newspapers, magazines and books to help formulate our stories about the deceased.

The couple of obit writers, who penned Bobbie's end-of-life stories which were picked up by wire services, wouldn't put "If it wasn't for Bobbie, there wouldn't be any Nudie Suits," in her obit, if they couldn't verify it with past Nudie-suit coverage.

Of course, they could have quoted you on it. But they would have preferred to get someone else to attest to that. Someone who doesn't appear to have a vested interest.

Nudie himself should have made it clear that Bobbie's role in their enterprise was much more than significant while he was alive. He certainly had a lot of chances.

Of course, you and I don't really know whether Nudie failed to mention Bobbie or whether those fabulous entertainment and style reporters, for whom you have so much respect, disregarded what he said about her.

The real deal? In the hands of the right people, the profession of obit writing can be an art in itself. In the wrong hands, it can ruin a person's attitude toward obit writers and the press, in general.

I'm sorry that you had a bad experience.

Anonymous said...

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