Rick Kogan’s tribute to Mike Royko in the Sunday Tribune delivered the sad news that “there is no immortality for newspaper writers” and dusted off Ben Hecht’s immortal verse to that effect:
We know each other’s daydreams
And the hopes that come to grief
For we write each other’s obits
And they’re Godalmighty brief.
When Royko won a Pulitzer in 1972, Kogan noted, the judges called him an “old-time Chicago newspaperman in the Ben Hecht tradition.”
Hecht’s lines are oft-repeated; I’ve quoted them myself. But first, let’s acknowledge that Kogan might not have invoked them in the most persuasive of contexts. The Tribune‘s tribute to Royko—20 years after he died—consisted of three stories occupying two entire pages of the Perspective section. The main headline called Royko “legendary.”
Ephemerality rarely shows so much staying power.
And second, let’s acknowledge that Hecht’s evocative jingle isn’t true. We journalists do a wonderful job of burying our own. The chance to be sent off in style might be the last newsroom perk left standing. It’s true that the papers don’t get around to everybody, but the primary constraint isn’t the bleak, empty lives led by journalists. It’s what the Sun-Times‘s Maureen O’Donnell says she was once told by another obit writer: “She said if she wrote about every former staffer, the paper would never have obits about anyone else.”
Maybe, back in Hecht’s day, our obits did run just a line or two. Back then, obituaries favored politicians and captains of industry. They didn’t celebrate lives; they were published to let readers know which importance pieces had just been removed from the playing board.
Besides, legend has it that in those days our city rooms swarmed with poetic vagabonds who’d stumbled off freight trains looking for work. When one of those knockabouts keeled over it could be hard to say much about the life he’d lived, as his life had been a story that changed every time he told it.
Today, HR has all the details. And obits are tributes to the well-lived life, written by specialists like O’Donnell. (See Obit, an entertaining new documentary film about New York Times obit writers.) Colorful iconoclasts always make for good copy, and the most colorful iconoclasts many of us know are ourselves.
I asked O’Donnell Monday for a comment for this piece, and she couldn’t get back to me until Tuesday, because she was up to her ears in work. The Tuesday Sun-Times published that work, and it turned out to be a full-page reminiscence of Louise Hutchinson, a former Tribune staffer who died recently at the age of 90. The headline: “Reporter was 1st woman to overnight at the South Pole.”
She was also, back in 1967, the first reporter to ride the research submersible Alvin into the Atlantic Ocean’s depths. Hopes that came to grief did not figure in O’Donnell’s account.
In one of the best scenes in the last episode of HBO’s Big Little Lies, alpha males at a fund-raiser for their kids’ school come up to the mike to sing mournful songs about wayward loves. Liberated by the costumes they wear, they make a public show of feeling sorry for themselves—and life offers few pleasures greater than that. And so Yalies sing their “Whiffenpoof Song” and Chicago journalists recite Hecht’s threnody. Everybody lugs some griefs and empty daydreams to the grave, but the world’s ink-stained wretches are pretty adept at traveling light.