Thursday, August 31, 2006

Psycho scriptwriter, songwriter

Adam Bernstein's Aug. 30, 2006, obit for
Joseph Stefano gives the dead writer's scriptography, enhanced by details of what influenced Stefano's decisions in crafting his stories.

Stefano wrote the script for Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" based on the novel of the same name. The first shock of the film is the killing off of the leading lady, played by then mega-movie-star Janet Leigh, in the first 20 minutes. Adam explains how the script craftsman's introduction of Leigh's character brilliantly differed from the novel.

Adam also pointed out early in the obit that Stefano, who also wrote for the science fiction TV series "The Outer Limits," had begun his entertainment career as a minor Greenwich Village showman and penned songs for Las Vegas showman Donn Arden.

Just before the obit's closing credits, a.k.a. list of surviving relatives, Adam throws in this gem:

Mr. Stefano had an enormous sheet-music collection and once spent five hours challenging pianist Michael Feinstein about who could name increasingly obscure Tin Pan Alley songs.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Death of Australia's best-known obituary writer

It's our business to tell our readers when a fellow human being has died. It's even harder when the dearly departed is someone you know and feel is one of your own.

Philip Jones, the obit writer of Oz, who spoke to gatherings of grimsters at a couple of Great Obituary Writers Conferences, has died.

His fellow Aussie Nigel Starck, internationally known obits scholar, said he had just recommended Philip to a Melbourne company for a series of corporate obituaries, when he read about his death at, an Australian electronic newsletter site.

Here is the obit written by Crikey arts correspondent Stephen Feneley, who also counted Philip as one of his own:

Vale Philip Jones
By arts correspondent Stephen Feneley

Australia's best-known obituary writer is dead, so it will be left to lesser known and less capable obituarists to pen tributes to what was an extraordinarily varied and interesting life.

Philip Jones died on Friday, aged 74, of a suspected heart attack. I counted him as a friend but, regrettably, our friendship was only forged in relatively recent times. He was an odd mix -- self-effacing and melancholic, funny and mischievous, single-minded and fearless. He managed to upset many prominent figures, including Barry Humphries and the widow of artist Sid Nolan.

Jones and his long-time partner Barrie Reid lived for 25 years with the renowned art patrons John and Sunday Reed at Heide, the farm on the outskirts of Melbourne that had earlier been the gathering point for an extraordinary group of artists, including Sid Nolan, Albert Tucker and Joy Hester.

After the deaths of John and Sunday in 1981, the relationship between Jones and Barrie Reid fell apart, with Jones agreeing to leave old Heide farm house. Under the terms of the Reeds' will, the house was to go to whoever lived the longest out of Reid and Jones, but after Reid died in 1995, Jones was blocked from regaining possession of the house, something that remained a cause of bitterness and sadness until he died.

Nevertheless Reid's death proved to be the catalyst for Jones to make a career change in his autumn years. He wrote a controversial warts-and-all obituary of his ex-lover, and the notoriety he gained from it launched him into a whole new career chronicling the lives of the recently departed. He had previously worked as an actor and bookseller.

As well as obits, Jones also wrote occasional features and op-ed pieces, his most recent appearing in The Age only the weekend before last. It was an angry tirade on the state of contemporary culture, with Jones declaring that art -- instead of being a revolutionary activity -- had become "an aspect of lifestyle". He said too much art was being made today and he dismissed most of it as "clapped-out copies of the modern movement that expired a quarter of century ago".

Coming from someone who'd spent the best part of his life celebrating Australian culture, it was a very angry polemic, with Jones clearly believing that less is more. "A plethora of activity denigrates any human activity, be it food, s-x, art or even sport. In short, the quality of any human activity is mitigated by satiety."

I spoke to him the day after the op-ed piece was published to congratulate him on being so forthright. In his inimitably self-deprecating yet chuffed-with-himself way, he said he might have gone a bit too far but was bored with everyone being in thunderous agreement about everything and wanted to stir things up a bit. That was our last conversation.

Jones had been battling debilitating depression for many months. He suffered a major setback late last year when a publishing deal to write the definitive biography on Sidney Nolan fell through after Nolan's widow refused to cooperate. Penguin had given him a substantial advance, most of which he spent on two research trips to the UK before Lady (Mary) Nolan denied him access to her late husband's papers. Penguin didn't ask for the money back but that didn't assuage Jones's guilt at failing to deliver. He'd been severely critical of Nolan, whom he described as a psychopath, and other expatriates, including Barry Humphries, in his memoir Art & Life, published two years ago.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Writing about the dead, a topic at the Society of Professional Journalists National Conference

Larken Bradley of the Point Reyes Light, Adam Bernstein of The Washington Post and I (Alana Baranick of The Plain Dealer, Cleveland, Ohio) are the panelists for a session on obituary writing at the Society of Professional Journalists National Conference at the Hyatt Regency in Chicago this week.

Our session is scheduled for Friday, Aug. 25, from 10:45-11:45 a.m.

If you attend the conference, please stop by and say, "Hi." If you're there on Friday, but won't be at our session, you may find at least one of us in the booksellers area.

I'll be at the Marion Street Press table, signing copies of "Life on the Death Beat: A Handbook for Obituary Writers," which I wrote with Jim Sheeler, now a Pulitzer-Prize-winning feature writer for the Rocky Mountain News, and Stephen Miller, obits editor for the New York Sun and writer of the Wall Street Journal's new obits column, "Remembrances." (Sorry. Those two accomplished guys won't be there.)

For more information about the Society of Professional Journalists and the conference, go to:

Friday, August 18, 2006

Obit Laureate -- Fantastic!

The Morning News (online magazine) has recent obituaries — a gong striker, a burger matriarch, a bagpipe virtuoso— transformed into light verse. See this link

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Wall Street Journal finally has obits!!!

On Saturday, Aug. 5, 2006, The Wall Street Journal debuted "Remembrances," which it calls "a weekly column that notes the passing of people who have left an imprint on the world of business."

Tracking the "imprints" is Stephen Miller, creator and editor of The New York Sun's obituary section, co-author of "Life on the Death Beat: A Handbook for Obituary Writers," and regular contributor to his blog.

Way to go, Steve!

Steve's first WSJ column notes the death of Govindappa Venkataswamy, an ophthamologist who patterned the system his eye-care clinics use to provide cataract surgery to millions in India after the way McDonald's restaurants serve Big Macs to countless fast-food junkies around the world.

The headline: "McSurgery: A Man Who Saved 2.4 Million Eyes."

The big story is followed by a few obit briefs for other recently deceased folks who made their mark on the business world.

Sorry. I can't give you a link to the full Venkataswamy obit. You have to subscribe to WSJ or find someone who has a copy to read it. If you don't want to subscribe, you might consider buying the Weekend WSJ to read "Remembrances" in the future.

Saturday, August 05, 2006, Moving Tributes

Editor & Publisher Online wanted to know what obituary writers think of and its multimedia Moving Tributes.

Sarah Weber, an E&P Onliner, sought answers from:

Dick Peery, my partner-in-grim, my mentor and the senior obit writer at The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio;

Carolyn Gilbert, founder of the International Association of Obituarists, its annual Great Obituary Writers Conferences and;

and Steve Miller, obits editor at The New York Sun and co-author of "Life on the Death Beat: A Handbook for Obituary Writers."

In Weber's online article, "Multimedia Online Memorials Draw Mixed Reviews From Obit Editors," Dick (whose byline is Richard M. Peery) says he doesn’t feel threatened by the Moving Tributes section and points out that these family-composed items should not be confused with obituaries written by journalists.

“If people have a real story to tell about their loved one, I don’t see them passing us up to get on As long as papers don’t pick these things up and run these as stories, I’m okay with it."

From her perspective as probably the most knowledgeable readers of obituaries and dedicated friend of obituary writers from publications around the world, Carolyn sees value in and its Moving Tributes, but says that value may be limited to folks, who are Web savvy and, the article implies, have the means to pay for the service.

“It serves a segment of the community for sure,” Gilbert said, “but maybe the more sophisticated clientele.”

Steve Miller (whose byline is Stephen Miller) told Weber what he really thinks.

“From my point of view, they’re a pain in the butt,” said Miller.

His chief complaint is that takes away the ability to browse through paid obits, making it difficult to find interesting obit subjects.

"I don’t like the whole interface; if you don’t know the person’s name that you’re looking for, you have to click through the whole page. I want to see a whole string of stuff to scan real quickly to find the important information, and they don’t make that possible.”

I have found helpful when I'm trying to verify the deaths of potential obit subjects who have died outside of the Cleveland area.

As for Moving Tributes, I haven't used it for this yet, but I see that these could be helpful in getting an idea of the deceased's life, occupation, interests, etc.

What do you think?