It’s a trade secret as to when exactly obituary writers start writing obituaries. At a certain age, a certain stage of sickness, a certain train-wrecked-ness, the preparations begin. They weren’t ready for Michael Jackson, who died suddenly at the age of 50 and left news organizations scrambling for tributes. They were prepared for Elizabeth Taylor. So prepared, in fact, that at the New York Times, the obituary writer died six years ago.
Under Mel Gussow’s lead story on the Web site comes this addendum: “Mel Gussow, the principal writer of this article, died in 2005. William McDonald and the Associated Press contributed updated reporting.”
The news ripped through the Internet. Don Van Natta Jr., a New York Times reporter, tweeted, “Living well is outliving your obituary writer.”
I spoke to one of The Post’s obituary writers, Matt Schudel, who calls obituaries “one of the most interesting and rewarding jobs in journalism.” He said Gussow’s byline was “not that alarming.” Newspapers need to be prepared for when tragedy strikes celebrities and politicians, and those stories can take weeks to produce. They update the stories after news of the death breaks, but for the most part many are wholly written ahead of time.
“These stories do not miraculously appear out of nowhere,” Schudel said. “There is often a great deal of incomplete or contradictory information, even about someone as well known as Elizabeth Taylor, and our job is to sort through all the misinformation and find out what is actually true.”
He said The Post has had a few obituaries recently appear in print written by J.Y. Smith, who died in 2006.
“An obituary is the only kind of news story a dead person can write,” Schudel said. “You’re taking the measure of someone’s life ahead of time.”
As for Gussow, whose life is now remembered alongside Taylor’s death, in his 2005 New York Times obituary he is described as “a quiet man with a shy smile. ... He was often mistaken for being aloof, but he had a sly sense of humor that came through in his writing.” He was a Times Broadway critic who wrote eight books and was survived by a wife and a son.
Rest in peace, Mel Gussow and Elizabeth Taylor.
(Thank you, Katie!)