That Was Some Lady
As a rule, British obituaries are bolder with more intimate details than American obits. By English standards, American obituaries can seem positively starchy and proper.
In some respects, this is because the Brits seem to have a neverending stream of wealthy eccentrics and wastrels who make a lifetime of mischief and then die in some theatrical way, or else in striking poverty.
The British "style" can be devilishly amusing -- among my personal favorite is one from the Daily Telegraph of the Third Lord Moynihan from 1991, who "provided, through his character and career, ample ammunition for critics of the hereditary principle." His "chief occupations," the story continued, were "bongo-drummer, brothel-keeper, drug-smuggler and police informer, but `Tony' Moynihan also claimed other areas of expertise -- as 'professional negotiator,' 'international diplomatic courier,' 'currency manipulator' and 'authority on rock and roll.'
At times, I have attempted to channel this spirit. The closest I ever came was in an obituary earlier this year for Liz Renay. It began this way:
"Liz Renay, 80, who died Jan. 22 at a Las Vegas hospital from gastric bleeding, was a gangster's moll, ex-con, author, painter, stripper, Hollywood Boulevard streaker, actress and charm school instructor."
British obituaries can be infuriating, though. In the narrative style of some British papers, the writers begin in mid-anecdote and assume you should know or care about the subject. Many obits about entertainers, for example, make a reader wade down 10 paragraphs before you learn any of the subjects movies or hit records.
The reason British obits are on my mind is because of a recent London Daily Telegraph obituary for Lady Jeanne Campbell. In the great Telegraph tradition, it is filled with intriguingly intimate details that tell just enough to make the reader long to have known the subject, or at least bought her a drink.
But something bothered me.
The obit noted a claim that Campbell, an ex-wife of author Norman Mailer, had affairs with President John F. Kennedy, Russian head of state Nikita Khrushchev and Cuban leader Fidel Castro -- all within the span of a year. What struck me as questionable was the high placement and source for the details: the memoirs of Republican presidential ghostwriter James Humes, who has also been a trial lawyer and performed one-man shows imitating British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
The obit was scintillating, or perhaps skintillating is better. It's riddled with details of her parents' troubled marriage as well as Campbell's sexual conquests (Time publisher Henry Luce) and fumbled passes.
One quick example of the latter:
"In 1964 Jeanne met the Beatles at the British Embassy in Washington and put her arm round Paul McCartney. 'Which one are you?' she asked. 'Roger McClusky the Fifth,' he answered, extricating himself from her grip."
Obit writers live for subjects like Campbell, but the obit with all its details raises a question of how to source information. Not just in the comments of Humes, but in nearly all the anecdotes it is unclear where the material is coming from. The Beatles story was apparently taken from Al Aronowitz's Saturday Evening Post article about the Fab Four. I had to find the Aronowitz attribution myself via a Web search, as the obit never noted it.
Sometimes, the "stodgy" American emphasis on sourcing has its benefits.
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