The story behind a great Jerry Lewis obit in The New York Times

August 22, 2017

Dave Kehr is old-school. He still feels the excitement of seeing his byline in a newspaper, as he did Monday — four years after he’d left The New York Times.

There it was on a typically superior Times online and front-page obituary of comedian Jerry Lewis. It was all basically as he’d written the so-called file obit before leaving the paper to be a curator in the film department at the Museum of Modern Art.

“I got a call from the obit desk asking me for a family contact to confirm the death, and the piece appeared almost instantly online once they’d confirmed. They’d done a little bit of updating, but it ran pretty much as I wrote it.”

It’s not the first time a byline appeared on a story or obituary by a reporter no longer with a paper. File obits used to be commonplace and a source of pride for papers, even some broadcast outlets. With declining newsrooms, it’s a luxury many can’t afford.

But with the few papers remaining who still do serious file obits, there’s the potential of a creator not being around once the subject actually dies. That can happen precisely as a function of long-range planning; you simply assign and complete the effort long before it’s needed.

I remember being assigned the obituary of Arthur Wirtz, a reportedly ailing, prominent and fascinating Chicago businessman, while at the Chicago Sun-Times in the late 1970s. I worked my butt off on it, doing original interviews and poking into a complicated life that included picking up Depression-era real estate for relative peanuts and his ownership interest in both major sports arenas and in the attractions they booked.

But he improved and didn’t die. For years I tinkered with and updated the piece. When he did pass away five years later, we had a knockout obituary. I was proud of the tinkering and updating in an opus far better than the competition. And I was still at the paper (though not for long).

Kehr was an A-list critic for the alternative weekly Chicago Reader during its heyday, leaving for the Chicago Tribune in 1986 to supplant the fabled Gene Siskel as the paper’s primary critic (an arguably difficult, even thankless task since Siskel remained at the paper and a national figure, indeed still its movie critic in the minds of many outside the paper).

He left for the New York Daily News and, later, became a weekly film columnist for The Times. When the MoMA opportunity came up, it was an instant lure for an analyst of cerebral and refined historical bents.

“Since serious film journalism has pretty much vanished as a genre, it was a tremendous break for me when this opportunity came through,” Kehr said. “I’ve been able to indulge my real passion for film history in this position, both in organizing retrospective programs for MoMA and in working on preservation and restoration projects from the holdings in the museum’s amazing film archive.”

Before the Lewis effort, he’d written other obits on major film figures. He was always interested in Lewis’s work, both as a performer and, especially, he says, as a filmmaker.

Back in the 1970s, he encountered some of the favorable French critiques of Lewis’ work. Years later, he organized a Lewis retrospective for MoMA. He met him for the first and only time when he came for the premiere of what turned out to be his last film, “Max Rose.” “I hosted a post-screening discussion with him, which was a wild ride. That event is now immortalized on MoMA’s YouTube channel.”

Some of the most interesting passages in the obituary involve the enormous fame of Lewis and singer Dean Martin as a duo. They were big in a way that might be very hard, even inconceivable, to imagine these days.

“Martin and Lewis were the first major act to break after World War II, and I think their anarchic, nonsense comedy must have answered a national need for escape from the grim intensity of four years of conflict.”

They were, he noted to me, “among the first acts — if not the first — to break simultaneously in movies, television, radio and live performance, creating the template for the media superstars of the 50s (it was no coincidence that the Hollywood producer who signed Dean and Jerry, Hal Wallis, went on to sign Elvis Presley).”

Their impact on the nation “must have been as strong or stronger than any web-fueled celebrity today — they were ubiquitous at a time when the audience was more unified and the outlets were fewer. Of course, Jerry paid the price for that phenomenal popularity later, when the 60s generation turned against him — he was too strongly associated with their (our?) parents and childhood, and he was rejected as an embarrassment.”

To whom might one compare their fame today? It’s hard to come up with any apples-to-apples comparisons. Beyonce and Jay-Z? Nope. Not really close (and they’re not a combo act, anyway). The now-split Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt? Same deal. Penn and Teller? Closer but, still, the magicians are not even in the same universe of national renown as Martin and Lewis were. They truly were household names in a smaller country without such media fragmentation.

And it was a world in which the print publication Kehr himself grew up loving and laboring for — be they an alternative weekly, mainstream broadsheet dailies or a New York tabloid — were very much kings of the media hill. No more. And, too, there are changes in the craft that he exemplified.

Yes, there is the thrill of the byline, even now. “But I don’t feel any regrets about leaving journalism behind,” he said. “The field has changed so much since our time together at the old Tribune that I hardly recognize it anymore, and I feel much more fulfilled and secure in my new life at MoMA.”