The art of obituary writing
How does a journalist sum up in one story the impact of a lifetime?
“Working the Story” is a video feature of the Chicago Sun-Times that explores how our reporters do their jobs.
Chicago Sun-Times obituary writer Maureen O’Donnell has written about the lives of the deceased for the paper since 2009 and has won numerous awards for her writing, often bringing to light extraordinary things about seemingly ordinary people. Prior to becoming the Sun-Times obituary writer, she spent 20 years as a general assignment reporter.
Columnist Neil Steinberg – an award-winning obit writer himself – talks with Maureen about researching and reporting obituaries – from choosing subjects to feature of the many who’ve passed away to preparing obits in advance of the deaths of public figures. Plus, each recalls memorable obits they’ve written over their careers.
Transcript of conversation
[00:00:00] STEINBERG: Hi, I’m Neil Steinberg. I’m here today in the newsroom of the Chicago Sun-Times with Maureen O’Donnell, my colleague of a long time.
[00:00:06] O’DONNELL: Yes, and we have something in common.
[00:00:08] STEINBERG: We do have something in common; we’re both obituary writers.
[00:00:11] O’DONNELL: We are both members of the Society of Professional Obituary Writers. I happen to be the [past] president. Neil is an esteemed member.
[00:00:18] STEINBERG: I talked to the group last year, and I was so excited to be talking to people who were interested in writing obituaries that I immediately signed up, plus your graphics are really cool. Let’s talk about obituary writing. You’ve become quite well known for it. What’s the key?
What do you bring to an obituary that you don’t bring to a standard story about a gas main break?
[00:00:41] O’DONNELL: Well I think obituary writing connects the dots between the past and the present. We’re writing about people who are little known heroes from down the block or from Niles East High School, people that you may have grown up alongside, the friendly grandfather or grandmother that you would see at the store. And it turns out they have incredible stories connected to history. They may have changed the course of history. There’s a woman I wrote about named Viola Lennon who was the mom in Franklin Park I believe in the ’50s. And at the time breastfeeding was looked upon as primitive, unsanitary, frowned upon often by the medical establishment, and she and a group of other moms from that Franklin Park living room started the La Leche League. So now it has millions of followers around the globe.
[00:01:35] It advises many new moms. When Princess Grace of Monaco came to Chicago in 1971, she treated Viola Lennon and all the other La Leche League moms from the suburbs like rock stars. She said affairs of state in Monaco had to wait until she took care of her children and breastfeeding, so these women when they would go out and about and other moms saw them and recognized them. “Can I have a picture with you Miss Lennon?” So you’re connecting people from the past and the present.
[00:02:06] Alva Roberts was the first lady of a church in Chicago that hosted the funeral for Emmett Till, the 14-year-old who was lynched in Mississippi. And his mother Mamie Till [Mobley] said, “I want the world to see what was done to him.” So there was an open casket and 50,000 people came to Alva Roberts’ church; she comforted the people who were collapsing when they saw Emmett Till. Her husband was at the train station when Emmett Till’s body came back from Mississippi. So here’s a woman who walked among us that she’s connected to that incredible moment that was a pivotal impetus for the civil rights movement.
[00:02:49] STEINBERG: Now I assume these stories when they came to you they mentioned the La Leche League, they mentioned Emmett Till. Do you sometimes have to kind of dig into a person’s life and here you’re talking to people who are grieving who have just lost a loved one.
How do you go about trying to ferret out the interesting parts?
[00:03:05] O’DONNELL: In the case of Alva Roberts, I ferreted that out myself.
[00:03:09] STEINBERG: Oh, wow. They didn’t say “Hey, this is the big news.”
[00:03:13] O’DONNELL: Right. But actually a reader let me know about the death of the La Leche League founder, but you know there’s gold out there if you listen to people, if you read death notices, if you take calls from interested readers. You hear fascinating stories.
[00:03:29] I found out from a death notice about Jim Cole, a Highland Park High School graduate, who turned out to be the only known person in North America to have survived not one – but two – separate attacks by grizzly bears. Lost an eye in the process. He was a wildlife photographer who got too close to the grizzlies on two separate occasions, had to have his face rebuilt, survived, used to perform at Montana nightclubs as ‘Grizzly Jim’ where he sang songs about the grizzly bear. I called it an unrequited love affair. Yeah.
And Jim Cole passed away of natural causes in his own bed, and it was, you know, I just saw a line in a death notice that mentioned that he had, he had this special relationship as a wildlife photographer. And if you google him at the time of his death, there was another Jim Cole who was a photographer and if you went to the wrong Jim Cole’s website there was a line on there that said “I am not the Jim Cole who keeps getting attacked by grizzly bears.” (Laughs)
[00:04:33] STEINBERG: That’s very funny. Well, you have to make sure all your facts are right. I mean you make sure your facts right in every story, but in an obituary where there’s that extra level of importance, because it’s the final story that person’s gonna get.
[00:04:45] O’DONNELL: Yeah, because people carry them around in their wallets. They still cut them out and carry them around in their wallets in this digital age, or they check it on their phone, and they return to it and they reread it and they reread it. And I think it’s sort of, it’s a comfort to a lot of people and an inspiration.
[00:05:04] I remember cutting out an obituary that I read years ago. This man died when he was very young, but he, you know, had done marathons and, you know, climbed mountains, and I kept it in my purse for a long time for those days when I didn’t feel like maybe getting out of bed, or feeling down, you know. So they are inspirational.
[00:05:25] STEINBERG: I read a book by a pair of women who were inspired to write a book because of this obituary. It was one of the mushers to a famous run bringing anti-diptheria serum to Nome, Alaska in 1925. The Cruelest Miles. It was a great, good book.
[00:05:40] O’DONNELL: We had another man I wrote about recently, Aaron Elster. He survived the Holocaust. He was a hidden child during the Holocaust. But more recently he became one of only, I think, 15 people to have participated in a hologram push. There are 15 Holocaust survivors who sat in L.A., I think it was at the USC Shoah Foundation, state-of-the-art technology. They answered 2,000 questions while 50 cameras were trained on them, so that a hundred years from now schoolchildren and others will be able to talk to their holograms and find out about their story.
[00:06:20] STEINBERG: I loved your obit because I had met him and heard his presentation. I did a story about they were training rookie cops at the Holocaust museum; he happened to be one of the guys there telling his story. He was a very gripping speaker.
[00:06:34] O’DONNELL: There’s another guy I wrote about, Paul Kraus. Mr. Kraus was a liquor distributor, but there was a little line in his death notice that caught my attention. I started looking up information about him, talking to his family. Turned out he was an American G.I., born in Austria who had survived the war by leaving Austria to get educated. His entire family perished in the Holocaust, but he was fluent in Czech, English, German, and he is the man who apprehended Hitler’s favorite soldier, Otto Skorzeny. He recognized him in a prisoner of war camp by his dueling scars, and there’s even a German word for them it’s something like [German], I’m sure I’m butchering it but he saw the dueling scars, recognized Skorzeny and realized this is the man who helped Benito Mussolini the Italian dictator escape from a mountaintop prison. This is the man who supposedly had Nazis dressed in American uniforms to sow disinformation at the Battle of the Bulge. This is the man rumored to have been set to assassinate Dwight Eisenhower, our supreme commander in the war, and at the time Paul Kraus only had a knife and fork on him. Skorzeny had a sidearm because this prisoner of war camp allowed German brass to carry weapons.
[00:07:59] So he’s kind of, you know, very nonchalantly said, “You. Will you step in this office with me?” He got the gun away from him. Got his own gun from a drawer and said, “I believe you’re Otto Skorzeny. I believe you’re the man who Hitler sometimes said was his favorite soldier.” And Skorzeny said, “Yes, yes I am.”
[00:08:20] On top of that, Paul Kraus served in the military with Audie Murphy, who is credited with 200 kills in World War II. Very famous soldier, probably the most decorated soldier of World War II, who went on to a Western career in Western movies, and Paul Kraus was an alpine skier who was shushing down slopes into his 80s. But at the end of his life he told his family he wanted to be cremated but he said, “Don’t bring anything of me back to Austria. They didn’t want me.” What a life. What a life.
[00:08:55] STEINBERG: You’re obviously excited about all this. Do you ever find yourself where I mean when you have heroics and stories like that it’s easy. You ever find yourself at a dry well? Do you have to tell the families, sorry his life just wasn’t worthwhile?
What do you do if it’s not interesting enough to publish?
[00:09:13] O’DONNELL: Everyone has a story. Everyone has a story. And it doesn’t have to be a World War II hero. A couple of years ago I did a story about Mike Hawkins, and he was an instructor at the Harold Washington Library. He taught kids digital media. It was a creative place for poetry slams and breakdancing, and he was a mentor to somebody who we now know as Chance the Rapper. So everybody has a story, everybody has something that they did that made history or influenced other people or inspires other people.
[00:09:53] Yeah, there was an obit I did of awhile back for the DeMuros, a couple that died just within hours of each other after being married for something like 67 years. And they survived the Great Depression in part by going around Chicago and making what they called ‘meatballs’ out of eggs and these greens that they foraged from city lots. I mean, a little fact like that helps you understand how people survived the Depression.
[219:37:43] STEINBERG: The obituaries can be a look into a historical era that people have forgotten about our past.
[00:10:28] O’DONNELL: Yeah. There’s another one I did and then I will stop talking, and let you ask questions. A woman named Rose Shure. She heads up a company called Shure Electronics in Niles. OK. Doesn’t sound that interesting, but Shure microphones are all over the world. Martin Luther King did the “I Have A Dream” speech with a Shure microphone. The U.S. postage stamp with Elvis Presley leaning into a mic. That’s a Shure mic. Lou Reed picked Shure mics. Roger Daltrey, when he swung the mic around his head. That’s a Shure mic. Now modern musicians including Cage the Elephant, Twenty One Pilots, Maroon 5. They’re all loyal to Shure mics. How interesting is that?
[00:11:11] STEINBERG: I went through the Shure headquarters just because it was such an interesting building, and that microphone you’re talking, that model what I thought was so neat about it. It’s a piece of technology that’s 75 years old. I think they changed an aluminum diaphragm to silicon. But other than that, a great company. They just last week opened the downtown office. That’s the great thing about obituaries. You start in Point A. And it sort of brings you to other points, as well.
[00:11:36] O’DONNELL: And then this history is all around us, and it connects everyone, it connects us to the past. It connects us to survival, it connects us to creativity, inspiration.
[00:11:47] STEINBERG: Everyone wants to think their life is significant, and every life is significant in some way. One thing, you’ve done. Yeah, you might not be famous, but you have a story to tell. I agree with that.
[00:11:58] O’DONNELL: Can I tell you about one more? Margaret Vinci [Heldt]. She’s a local woman, died a few years ago. She is the creator of the beehive hairdo. It’s a hairdo that became famous with Brigitte Bardot in the Ronettes, and it’s still popular today. It’s a hardy perennial. Amy Winehouse, Adele, Beyonce, they’ve all sported the beehive hairdo, and it’s all provable. She won a contest that was started I think by Modern Salon magazine. And there was an exhibit about her at the Chicago History Museum and she’s the woman who invented the beehive hairdo.
Do you ever find a life and you sort of hold on to it, waiting for the person to die?
[00:12:43] O’DONNELL: Well, we do. As you know, both of us have done advance obituaries, you’ve done a lot more than I have, and I’d love to ask you a question about that. But I recently became aware that Della Reese was ailing, and she’s somebody who you know, currently people may know her as an angel from the show ‘Touched By an Angel’ or other TV shows that she appeared on including ‘Chico and the Man’ and some other modern TV shows. But back in the ’50s she was incredible torch singer, a chanteuse.
[00:13:22] There were lines out the door in Chicago’s nightclub heyday when she sang. Ramsey Lewis told me as soon as she sang a few notes you knew who it was, just like Dinah Washington or Sarah Vaughan. You knew that was Della. She was a stylist. And so I prepared her obituary knowing Della Reese was very ill, and it is an incredible story. Glamorous, beautiful photos, just a wasp-waisted beauty, lit by this incandescent light. And so it was really interesting to me, our readers really responded to that. They said, “I didn’t know that she had this whole life before she was on television.”
[00:14:04] STEINBERG: Some readers are uneasy with the idea of doing obituaries ahead of time, it seems ghoulish. But the truth is especially with historic figures who’ve had these complex lives, if you’re called to do it on deadline, you’re nowadays when things have to go up immediately. I remember I was at Rahm Emanuel’s first inauguration and Jane Byrne, the former mayor, came by and she was very frail and bent over and walked like this, and remember looked at her thinking. I’d better get on her, because I did it several years in advance…
[00:14:32] O’DONNELL: Because you want to do it thoroughly, comprehensively and insightful.
[00:14:37] STEINBERG: She wrote a great autobiography called “My Chicago” which, you know, on deadline, you’re not going to sit down and start to read it. But since there was no rush, I can read it and then I interviewed other people and I thought about it and because I had done all that, for example, I knew she was turning 80 years old.
[00:14:55] And so in my column, I could write a letter to [Jane Byrne] about her accomplishments, things I learned writing that, so it not only has the benefit I mean with it. When she died, the Tribune put their obituary up in pieces like it was a breaking news story. We had something that was complete and ready to go, thought out and I was very proud of that because all of us end at some point. And you want something. I’ve done lots of work where the questions come up, and I’ll call you or someone who was famous and they did a certain thing and then they went on and spent 20 years in this place. Usually in the obituary they’ll say and they went to this law firm for 20 years. Why not call the law firm up and talk about what the person did there? Give a little more richness.
[00:15:38] O’DONNELL: I’d love to hear the story about the obituary hunt that you worked on that turned up a connection to Sally Rand, the Peacock of the Century of Progress World’s Fair– the fan dancer–and Frida Kahlo.
Would you talk about Sally Rand and Frida Kahlo?
[00:15:55] STEINBERG: The first one was the obituary of Abraham Lincoln Marovitz, and kind of how I got into the obituary business. My brother came back from Japan with a woman he was going to marry. So I needed a judge to marry my brother in my living room and at the time Art Petacque, you remember, a [Sun-Times] mob reporter. And I said, “Artie, I need a judge.” And he goes, “I’ll get you a judge. I’ll get you the most famous judge in Chicago. Abraham Lincoln Marovitz.”
[00:23:04] Marovitz was a man who was born in 1905 and became a lawyer at a time when you didn’t have to go to college. So he was very young, and he became this mover and shaker in the ’20s. And when the Empire Room in the Palmer House opened in 1933, he took Sally Rand the stripper to the opening of the Empire Room. And here’s a man who I met. OK. Because he had been to my house, I started to research his life, and he had been a Marine and at the age 37 and could have run for governor. And so once I’d done all this research, then I wrote it up thinking and to show you the kind of collateral benefit, his secretary was a woman who he had an affair with for 65 years. Okay, going back to the 20s when she was a Catholic secretary, he was Jewish. It was an Abie’s Irish Rose thing. They couldn’t marry. So when she died, I knew that there was this wonderful love story as well. And I’ll never forget he, privacy was important to him and he didn’t want me to tell it, because he didn’t want people to know.
[00:17:20] O’DONNELL: But it’s a story that connects us to history, changing mores.
[00:17:24] STEINBERG: I said, “Your honor.” I didn’t want to disrespect him, I said “How about if I write it not as an obituary but as a column, and then I won’t use any names. And so if anyone doesn’t know, they’re not really told. If they know, they already know. So I began the column, ‘A man and a woman fell in love’ and he carried that column in his wallet for the rest of his life.
[00:17:41] And the other one. Frida Kahlo was actually, is almost even better. We had done a anniversary story for the 20th anniversary of the death of Richard J. Daley in 1996, and we had different photos with people talking and their ages. And I started to look at the older ones and think well you know one of them was Leon Despres. And I pull the hard clips.
[00:18:01] O’DONNELL: Independent Chicago alderman.
[00:18:01] STEINBERG: Right. From Hyde Park, 5th Ward. And he had such wonderful quotes, where he tried to defund the Chicago Public Schools in 1963, saying you’re raising children in damaging racial isolation, and he was so prescient, he spoke out against the projects when they were being built. OK. He founded the architectural heritage group in Chicago because they were going to tear down the Robie House and build a parking lot. Alright so I figure I’ve got to take this guy out to lunch. So I take him out to lunch, and we start talking, it turns out that he had gone on a date with Frida Kahlo, the feminist art icon in 1937 and the way he did was he was a communist sort of in the way you gave money to the communists at the time, is you went to Mexico and you had Diego Rivera, who was Frida Kahlo’s ‘husband,’ paint your picture while you know, and then gave them more money than the picture [was] worth. Anyway long story short, while Diego Rivera was painting Leon Despres’ wife’s photo, actually, he did a pastel, he took Frida Kahlo to the movies.
[00:19:11] O’DONNELL: And this is a man who sat in the City Council chambers for 20 years. Who knew?
[00:19:15] STEINBERG: You know, he was just, it was just an amazing story. One of my favorite ledes was the lede to his obituary, was, “Few things are sadder or more haunting than to imagine what Chicago might have been like had anyone listened to Leon Despres.” He called upon the city.
[00:19:33] O’DONNELL: Full circle. Yeah, yeah.
[00:19:34] STEINBERG: It’s such a privilege to meet these people and to think of the life and that’s the downside of writing obituaries for me is you look at your own life and you go well, you know.
[25504:22:34] O’DONNELL: There’s a New York Times obituary writer who was interviewed for the documentary “Obit,” and he said when I write obituaries frequently I fall in love a little with that person, you get so immersed in their life.
[00:19:56] STEINBERG: I think you have to, you feel protective of them. They’re your obit. You sort of, you want to make sure they’re handled properly.
[00:20:03] O’DONNELL: There was an obit I did recently. I found out about him from a colleague, a fellow accountant said you’ve got to write about this guy. Accountants come in for a lot of abuse and not having the most exciting jobs. Well, he said, “You’ve got to write about Rudy Horne.” Rudy Horne was the mathematics adviser on the movie, Hidden Figures. He’s the guy who not only made sure that all of the calculations Taraji Henson was writing on the chalkboard were correct. But according to Morehouse College, Rudy Horne, who grew up in Chicago, also came up with the key moment when they’re trying to figure out how to get John Glenn back safely from space. There’s a line of dialogue where Taraji Henson says, “Euler’s method!” And another character says, “But that’s ancient.”
[00:20:55] I think Kevin Costner, her boss says, “But it works.” Well, Rudy Horne apparently came up with that idea, and he not only came up with Euler’s method as a problem, as a solution. He told them how to pronounce it because it’s spelled E-U-L-E-R. It looks like YULERS, pronounced OILERS.
[00:21:13] So this accountant is the one who made sure that everything looked accurate, and he’s, you know, he’s a man who grew up here and went on to, when greatness came knocking on the door, he answered.
[00:21:27] STEINBERG: You remember Shirlee DeSanti?
[00:21:30] O’DONNELL: Yes
[00:21:30] STEINBERG: We had a secretary named Shirlee DeSanti. Sweet woman, grandmotherly, plates of cookies out, and she had a very interesting life at the paper. She had worked for Herman Kogan, Rick Kogan’s father, and so he had sent her to a comedy club here to get Woody Allen to write his first article and that sort of thing. And so I would go and on my way into the paper, I would sit and I would chat with her and have a cookie and then I would go and update her obit and ask questions and things and some people again felt that’s a little creepy, but I remember saying “Well, I can’t ask her when she’s dead.” I’m just trying to get her life right. And it turned out to a good story. I think it’s something obit writing, it takes a certain …
[00:22:15] O’DONNELL: Listening.
[00:22:16] STEINBERG: Yeah. And looking out for the wonder, depending on the kind of reporting. We’re looking for interesting, wonderful stuff.
[00:22:23] O’DONNELL: My parents were immigrants, and my dad was a great storyteller. He was from Ireland, and I think that listening quality started when I was little. And I love, if there’s any kind of a gathering, I’m the one who tends to go to the senior citizen and start asking questions about where they grew up and who lived down the next block. And you know, when I was a little kid growing up in Chicago I talked to an old-timer on the block who would tell me, “Maureen, in the 1920s there was a horse farm right down there and you could find, you could find horseshoes everywhere.” This was in the ’60s, and I was fascinated. so maybe it started then.
[00:23:02] STEINBERG: You don’t always recognize what the story is. I was with Magda Krance, who is the publicist for the Lyric Opera, and I was writing something about “Oklahoma.” So I went to rehearsal and she’s showing things off in this and that and I see this tiny little old woman working with the dancers and I said, “Who’s that?” And she said, “Oh that’s the choreographer, that’s Gemze de Lappa.” She danced in the original 1942 production. Exactly like ..
[00:23:27] O’DONNELL: Groundbreaking, historic musical.
[00:23:29] STEINBERG: And she’s still here 75 years later.
[00:23:32] O’DONNELL: Amazing. There is a gentleman I wrote about, Bernard Slaughter, and it was kind of a quiet news day. I wasn’t writing about a Medal of Honor winner or a war hero, but he’d been a funeral director for a long time. And I thought, you know, a funeral director is a witness to history. So I started making phone calls to write about him, and my instincts proved right. He had prepared the body of Sam Cooke, one of the finest popular music singers ever. Somebody who to this day influences people like John Legend.
[00:24:09] So he prepared Sam Cooke’s body for burial, and I think 10,000 people came to see him. And he also took care of the funeral for Ben Wilson, who was gunned down in Chicago in 1984. He was the number one high school student basketball pick in the country. And again, 10,000 people showed up for this funeral. And Ben Wilson’s name to this day is sort of a metaphor for unrealized dreams. You know, someone who had incredible potential, and it was stopped. And so again, you know it was somebody, I called the funeral home and found out that he had handled these two incredible funerals of people who were in the history books.
[00:24:58] STEINBERG: Often what I do sometimes is if people think they’re familiar with someone, you have to find kind of a way into their life that may not be as familiar. And they called me on a Saturday when John F. Kennedy Jr.’s plane had disappeared. Because I had met him in Chicago. And so I started to go through the clips, and what I realized was he was the only child ever born to a President-elect.
Kennedy after he was, you know, Kennedy was elected in November of 1960. He was born in January of ’61 or whatever. And so my opening sentence of this obituary was “He came into the world already famous” And I thought that one sentence, I tried to do that, sometimes especially with well-known people, to encapsulate their life into that first sentence.
[00:25:40] O’DONNELL: It’s a way to get you–draw you in, summarize, yes.
[00:25:46] STEINBERG: I was very proud of that because otherwise you start to say “the son of the President blah blah blah” and that’s like the standard AP obit. And I think one of our tasks is to not do that is try to give it sort of a crest of art.
[00:27:00] O’DONNELL: Margalit Fox, the great New York Times obituary writer, I think she said she’s recently just retired to write books. She wrote her incredible obituary a couple of years ago that got a lot of reader response. You know you’re paging through the paper, or you’re online, and you’re reading about Syria and you’re reading about Northern Ireland and you’re reading about Washington and you’re reading about political stalemates, and she wrote this story about a guy, a world adventurer, you know, circumnavigated the globe I think in a one-man boat, and at a young age attempted to commit “suicide by jaguar.” I’ll never forget that phrase. And people wrote to her and said “This is the most badass obit ever.” And so I think people, you know, it’s reading an obituary, it’s maybe it’s a little oasis among stressful news.
[00:26:54] STEINBERG: Before we end, there’s another New York Times obituary writer named like Thomas McG., ’52 McG’s’ is his book.
[1301:27:08] O’DONNELL: Fabulous.
[1626:18:24] STEINBERG: He had a line. It was on the most beautiful woman in Paris in the ’50s, and the sentence was “It was said that the only men not falling in love with her were falling in love with each other.” And I thought it’s such a nice way to say.
[00:27:14] O’DONNELL: Beautifully written.
[00:27:15] STEINBERG: So you know, I think that that’s what we’re lucky enough to be able to do. I mean it’s neither of us. Now it’s your official role. For me I just do it because it’s fun.
[00:27:28] O’DONNELL: And you do many of the advance obituaries.
[00:27:30] STEINBERG: You don’t want to be caught with your pants down. There’s certain people, if they fall over, we want to be ready. And when they call me and they say, “Where is it?” I feel good because it’s like they’re counting on me to do it.
[00:27:43] O’DONNELL: And obituaries tend to be a little longer than a typical news story. So when you get to spin a tale, you get to tell a story about suicide by jaguar. (Laughs)
[00:27:51] STEINBERG: And pass judgment sometimes on someone and say, “This is what they amounted to.”
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