Obituary Skimming

Obituaries of people I’ve never known or heard of sometimes move me with the odd, paradoxical, eccentric, and curious nature of the people they so briefly describe and inadequately try to capture in a few column-inches. I’m left wondering about what’s not reported: the details of their daily lives, their thoughts on a variety of subjects, how they appeared to the many people in their lives, what made them laugh. Sometimes it’s not so much the subject of the obituary as simply a random line that jumps out and surprises me with delight or despair.

Below are some recent examples:

Judith Coplon, Haunted by Espionage Case, Dies at 89 (d. 26  Feb 2011): Conlon, who “won a good-citizenship award in high school,” was “convicted of espionage more than 60 years ago after embracing a utopian vision of communism and falling in love with a Soviet agent.” While appeals were pending, she married one of her lawyers; their honeymoon was restricted by the court to within 100 miles of NYC. After the verdicts were overturned, the Justice Dept. kept her $40,000 bail money for 15 years and Coplon “lived in obscurity, raising four children, earning a master’s degree in education, publishing bilingual books, tutoring women in prison in creative writing, and, with her husband, running two Mexican restaurants in Manhattan.”

Eugene Fodor, Violin Virtuoso, Dies at 60 (d. 26 Feb 2011): Fodor was a handsome violin prodigy who was addicted to alcohol and drugs and died of cirrhosis. After he tied for second prize at the 1974 International Tchaikovsky Violin Competition in Moscow, he flew home to “a hero’s welcome” in Colorado, where “his horse, along with his parents, met him at the airport.” A horse is mentioned again later in the obituary (this must be a record for number of mentions of a horse in an obituary about a violinist): There was a “memorable publicity photo of the period” that ” showed him astride a horse, shirtless.” When he was arrested in 1989 for breaking into a motel on Martha’s Vineyard, the police wouldn’t accept his Guarnerius violin for bail guarantee.

Gary Winick, Director of Small and Studio Films, Dies at 49 (d. 27 Feb 2011). Winick produced and directed live action films and low-budget films using digital technology. Making an adaptation of Charlotte’s Web wasn’t easy:

“‘Horses and cows, they can sort of get along,’ he said in a 2006 interview after the filming was complete. ‘But the sheep and the geese? Forget it. The geese were just vicious.'”

His only brother died in December; both their parents survive them.

Dr. Richard F. Daines, Former State Health Chief, Dies at 60 (d. 26 Feb 2011): Daines was “found by the State Police in a barn on his property, where he had been taking down Christmas decorations,” apparently having suffered a stroke or a heart attack. The former Eagle Scout sometimes invited members of an Upper East Side boy scout troup to his farm:

“‘Even in the dead of winter we would go up there, and he would be the most gracious host. … He would have a fire blazing within minutes.”

James McClure, Powerful Western Senator, Dies at 86 (d. 26 Feb 2011): “He received perfect or near-perfect ratings for his voting record from conservative political groups. … He met regularly with leaders of oil-producing nations and drove an electric car.”

John Haines, a Poet of the Wild, Dies at 86 (d. 2 March 2011). Really, read the obituary yourself.

It begins like this:

“John Haines, whose experience hunting, trapping and surviving as a homesteader in the Alaskan wilderness fueled his outpouring of haunting poetry of endless cold nights, howling wolves and deep, primitive dreams, died on Wednesday in Fairbanks.”

Later on:

“In 1947, he and a friend drove to Alaska, where he bought a 160-acre homestead, 80 miles southeast of Fairbanks, intending to pursue an art career there. With advice from old miners, he salvaged wood from an unused bridge over Gasoline Creek to build a 12-by-16-foot cabin. When, by his account, his paint froze, he gave up his dream of painting and began to write.”

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