In Sunday’s edition of the New York Times Magazine, Michael Paterniti penned an unforgettable appreciation of Lee Israel, a talented Manhattanite whose career had several distinct phases. First she established herself as a sought-after writer of profiles and biographies, with the likes of Katharine Hepburn and Estée Lauder serving as subjects. Then she hit a prolonged funk followed by a period of criminal creativity as she forged letters from great literary figures of yore. “When she found a cache of correspondence by Louise Brooks — the American actress and dancer who became the living incarnation of a flapper — she began by copying them at the library, then finding the appropriate stationery and typewriter to recopy them,” writes Paterniti. “Then she added new paragraphs and postscripts. (‘That terrible old fart, the Tyranny Addict Joe Kennedy, ruined Gloria Swanson,’ read one.) Soon there were more copied letters by more famous people, and eventually fully imagined epistles constructed from her research.”
The tribute to Israel comes packaged in a New York Times Magazine year-ending tradition: “The Lives They Lived.” The 2015 edition, however, contains a little quirk: Israel actually died in late December 2014. “I believe that from what I can gather,” says New York Times Magazine Editor in Chief Jake Silverstein,”this is the first time that that’s been done.”
Thus crumbles one of the great injustices in the entire death-publishing industry: Famous or eccentric or memorable or just plain interesting people who die in the waning days of December now stand a better shot of getting included in key tribute space. According to Silverstein, the magazine’s deadline generally falls five to ten days before the year comes to an end, putting its staff in a bind to include all the notables who succumb in the waning days of any given year. Postponing “The Lives They Lived” until January isn’t an option. “When you get to January, you’re already looking ahead,” says Silverstein.
For the 2015 issue, the deadline for “The Lives They Lived” was last Thursday evening (Christmas Eve). In the days since abstract artist Ellsworth Kelly and Harlem Globetrotters legend Meadowlark Lemon are among the notables who have passed away, not that either one would merit inclusion in an edition of “The Lives They Lived.” “We often leave it to writers — if a writer feels a a particular spark for a particular subject, that’ll carry the day…It’s at its best when it’s idiosyncratic and not representative of the most important people who died this year.”
Or, as in Israel’s case, the final days of last year. “The fact that we made an exception is probably a slippery slope to us admitting late December deaths, which I think is probably a good thing. This could be news flash: It’s safe to die at the end of December now.”