Last rite of friendship: A journalist lobbies for an obit
Mark Twain once called reports of his death exaggerated. But what can be done if the media doesn’t give a person’s actual passing the serious attention it deserves?
The question confronted me early this month as I sat shocked and saddened at my computer screen, riveted to the St. Louis Beacon online news site. “Martyl Schweig Langsdorf: Landscape painter; created ‘Doomsday Clock’” read the headline of a graceful obituary about the feisty 96-year-old artist – who in recent years had become a dear friend.
That personal connection led me to widen my Internet search, to find what else had appeared in the six days since she had died in the Chicago suburb of Schaumburg, Ill. (Last year I traveled from Boston for a visit at her home there. Among our topics: the “glory days” of the Post-Dispatch, which she admired as a strong liberal voice in our mutual native city, St. Louis.)
Surprisingly, I found no mention in either the Chicago Tribune or the Post-Dispatch -- let alone The New York Times, where I was certain an obit belonged.
Anger then supplanted my shock and sadness. Not only was my friend gone, but key media outlets appeared to be blowing the last chance to tell their audiences about this woman’s many contributions to history and to the art world.
There was much to write about, starting with the intriguing tale of Martyl Langsdorf’s Doomsday Clock. After beginning what would become a vibrant 75-plus-year painting career, she married scientist Alexander Langsdorf Jr. and moved with him in 1943 to Chicago, where he worked on the top-secret Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb.
Four years later, after both became involved in warning the government about nuclear power’s dangers, she created the clock for the cover of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Her design -- a distinctive quarter-face, with minute hand moving ominously toward midnight -- soon became, according to the Beacon obit, “the universal symbol for the world’s proximity to nuclear apocalypse and, recently, catastrophic climate change.”
While I couldn’t do anything about losing Martyl (as she signed her art), I resolved to send a few emails to see if those obit “wrongs” could be righted.
How persuasive could emailing a newspaper obit desk be? I still don’t know what impact my campaign had in any decisions to run stories, but it seems possible that it at least was a factor.
My first email was to the Post-Dispatch. Not wanting to emphasize the rival Beacon’s story, I pointed out the only daily-newspaper story on Martyl I’d been able to find, from the Chicago Sun-Times.
For Chicago’s second-largest paper, which had followed Martyl’s life over the decades, an obit was a natural. In the St. Louis Beacon’s case, a nephew of Martyl had brought news of her death to associate editor Robert Duffy -- a former Post-Dispatch staffer and himself her longtime friend – and freelancer Gloria Ross was assigned.
My April 3 note to the Post-Dispatch received a reply showing the paper’s interest, and three days later, a lovely story by veteran reporter Michael Sorkin ran.
A Chicago Tribune staff acquaintance, replying to my April 4 email, asked me to copy the paper’s obituary editor. On April 9, the Tribune, too, weighed in.
On April 4 I also emailed William McDonald, The New York Times' obituary editor, noting that Martyl's hometown Tribune hadn’t covered her death yet, but linking the Sun-Times article. His first reply, in what would become a most informative exchange: “I hadn’t heard about this. We’ll certainly take a look.”
Days earlier the Times had been embroiled in a gender-related debate about its obit for rocket scientist Yvonne Brill, whose “mean beef stroganoff” was referenced in the original lead. Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan had opined that the article’s “emphasis on her domesticity -- and, more important, the obituary’s overall framing as a story about gender -- had the effect of undervaluing” her scientific work.
I chose to avoid that much-discussed subject in my emails about Martyl.
As I waited on McDonald, though, I got a happy surprise: The Washington Post obit desk caught up with the Langsdorf story – on its own, without my intercession – running an elaborate April 6 Matt Schudel piece that was picked up by others, including The Boston Globe.
Schudel’s editor had noticed the Sun-Times obit “on the Doomsday Clock lady,” passing it along for a look. Schudel, who's been on the Post's obit desk for nine years, likes the work because he’s “writing about people, and how the person’s life affected others,” he told me in an interview.
Working on a Saturday, he began contacting sources, including one of Martyl's daughters. Schudel also looked into Martyl art hanging in the Smithsonian and elsewhere in Washington. (Among the tidbits also mentioned: the early painting she had sold to George Gershwin, and the time she finished second in a college play-writing contest -- with third place going to Tennessee Williams.)
One other element he found interesting. “The idea of nuclear annihilation is a big deal in Washington. It’s something we’re all concerned about,” Schudel noted. As he continued reporting, the planned length of his story grew, from around 22 inches, to 27. The obit desk didn’t seem to mind. “If the Times doesn’t have it, we’re more interested in doing it,” he added. “That played into the decision at least a little.”
I remained on the Times’ case, on April 7 sending McDonald links to the Post, Post-Dispatch and Tribune stories, along with a three-year-old article by a group of designers saying her Doomsday Clock “might be considered the most powerful piece of information design of the 20th century.”
The quote didn’t hurt, I’m sure, but when reporter William Yardley’s obit of Martyl Langsdorf appeared on The New York Times' website on April 10, the reference wasn’t there.
After several days of not seeing the Times obit appear in print, I wrote McDonald another note, concerned that no print version would appear. His reassuring reply: “99.9 percent of what we publish online also appears in print, though not always on the same day.”
Indeed, he explained, while major obits must appear in print immediately, those involving less-well-known individuals “get nudged aside when a heavyweight shows up. They will get in, but we have to wait for the space to accommodate them….” The day’s news hole for obits is determined largely by the number of paid death notices that also appear, he pointed out.
On April 18 William Yardley’s Times article finally appeared in print with this lead: “Martyl Langsdorf’s clock has yet to strike midnight.”
A month after her passing, I still miss my friend deeply. But I like thinking how Martyl would have laughed heartily to hear of my efforts. And that’s a reward greater than all the obituary column inches combined.
Roy Harris, who began his career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, was a long-time reporter for The Wall Street Journal. He is the author of "Pulitzer’s Gold: Behind the Prize for Public Service Journalism.”
Related training: "On the Beat: Writing Obituaries," a free News University course