I was waiting in line at a CVS on Monday, which is how I ended up leafing through a sleazy gossip tabloid (the Globe), which is how I learned that PAUL ANKA BEDDED A TEEN ANNETTE FUNICELLO RIGHT UNDER HER MOM’S NOSE.
This tantalizing if fossilized disclosure was excerpted from a new autobiography by Anka, the 1950s teenage-heartthrob-turned-21st-century-Vegas-lounge lizard. Minutes later, when I got home, I learned that Funicello, the perky 1950s Mousketeer, had just died after a decades-long battle with multiple sclerosis.
Whatever you may think of the morality of selling celebrity sex gossip, Anka and the Globe were blameless for an additional sin: They had fallen victim to dreadful timing. We who write for a living live in fear of this sort of thing.
For us, death is already tricky to negotiate. It often requires relaxing the ordinary rules of engagement, such as the one that says we should tell the truth at all times, robustly, completely, without fear or favor. When celebrities die, however, journalists often hold back on (or soft-serve) the negatives, however deserved, until a decent interval passes. Knowing just how long that interval is can be a matter more of intuition than science.
But that waiting period is definitely not “one day,” which begins to explain my recent quandary after the death of Roger Ebert, the deservedly renowned film critic, shrewd social philosopher, and indomitable victim of a cancer that had maimed him and stole his voice. I had an Ebert story to tell, and it was a juicy one. But I daren’t write it. He was a giant, and my story would make him look small.
Death presents journalists with another dangerous temptation — the egomaniacal urge to link your life to the deceased’s, however tenuous the connection might be. It’s a way of siphoning off some of the ambient good will, but it was not true in my case. In my “Roger and me” story, I don’t come off looking so hot, either.
But still I did not write. I sulked. I felt sorry for myself, sitting on this story. Ebert has been dead only about a week — still too soon — but now I find myself able to tell it, for reasons you will understand.
In the 1980s, I edited Tropic, the Miami Herald’s Sunday magazine. It was a swaggering, unapologetically subversive magazine, staffed by an eccentric group of people, including me, Tom Shroder, Dave Barry and Joel Achenbach, all of whom are familiar to Washington Post readers. (We once did a story on the cruel truth about animal shelters. It was headlined “See Spot Die.”)
On May 28, 1989, Tropic ran an article on its cover by Bill Cosford, the Herald’s talented film critic. In “Confessions of a Movie Critic — a Life in the Dark,” Cosford mercilessly pilloried his craft (he awarded his story just 31 / 2 stars, right on the cover). Among the others he took to task were Ebert and Gene Siskel, who had patented the too-cute-by-half “thumbs-up, thumbs-down” reviewing conceit.
Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert are film critics so famous that they frequently appear on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and they are the principal reason why people pay attention to movie critics these days. So that’s OK.
They are also the principal reason that people think movie critics are buffoons, which is not so good. . . . The truth is that they’re the best movie reviewers on TV. But they dress badly and allow themselves to be cast as celebrity goofballs. . . . Their show has long since stopped being about what makes movies work and what makes them fail in favor of being about their occasional choreographed disputes. For years, the quote blurb, “Two thumbs up!” hung like a gas cloud over movie promotion. As the night follows the day, “Two thumbs up!” was followed, eventually, by “Two big thumbs up!” And recently there appeared the escalation, “Two thumbs WAY up!”, which is either a new frontier in praise or an anatomical possibility best left unexplored.
In either case, would YOU shake hands with these guys?
So, it was amusing and touched on an uncomfortable truth — albeit uncharitably.
Not long afterward, as I have giddily recalled many times to friends and colleagues over the past quarter-century, Tropic received a long letter from Ebert, trashing Cosford and defending his and Siskel’s oeuvre. It was unbearably pompous. Ebert even bragged about his Pulitzer Prize, which is something no writer should ever do, and I say that as a two-time Pulitzer winner.
(See how bad that sounded? It’s always a mistake.)
The Tropic staff debated what to do with this letter — whether to publish it, at what length and whether to respond to it in print.
Then Achenbach came up with an idea. He wasn’t serious. During those years at Tropic, intra-office jokes often wound up in print. As the magazine’s top editor, I was also its least mature employee, which is not an ideal corporate situation.
And so, as I recalled, we ran the letter to the editor at considerable length, so readers could grasp how conceited Ebert was.
And then we appended a response from Cosford. (It was actually a response Achenbach had come up with. But Cosford graciously — gleefully — let us print it.) So after Ebert’s long, self-congratulatory letter, this single line appeared:
Mr. Cosford responds:
Are you the bald one or the fat one?
So there it is. As I said, I had decided I could not tell this so soon after Ebert’s death. The only reason you are reading this now is that, for the first time in 24 years, I went back into the archives to find that letter. And there it was. Which is when I discovered that I have been casually slandering Ebert for decades.
The letter was every bit as bloated and self-righteous as I remembered it (“Over the years we have been at the forefront of criticism”; Cosford “probably resents our success and influence” and so forth). But Ebert hadn’t written it — Siskel had. It was Siskel who referred to Ebert’s Pulitzer, stating that he, Siskel, was envious of it, and theorizing that Cosford was, too.
So, as it happens, The God of Journalism came through big time for, you know, “Roger and me.” Unlike Ebert, Siskel is long dead, meaning I can rat him out here without penalty. Plus, I am able to tell a funny story AND atone for a sin AND apologize to a dead man I deeply admire AND give well-deserved props to Cosford, a generously talented, elegant writer who died unexpectedly, and way too young, at 47, in 1994.
Is death great, or what?