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Habitually 'Convivial'?

Joe Holley

Writing today's obituary for J. Michael Winston, I was reminded yet again of the difference between obits as news stories and obits as memorials. The distinction confuses a lot of newspaper readers. Writing an obit as news story, we have to report the facts of a person's life, which means that warts aren't miraculously smoothed over.

Mr. Winston, a retired banker and yachtsman, had no warts to speak of, but he was what I chose to call in the obit a "bon vivant." A handsome, personable fellow, he enjoyed good food and good times the world over. A bachelor until age 70, he seems to have had the proverbial girl in every port -- before meeting the woman who became his wife, that is -- although when I asked his friends to recount some of the details, they usually responded with a laugh and tantalizing hints.

I didn't push it, since American obits still have their limits, unlike their British counterparts. The New York Times obit a few weeks ago for Hugh Massingberd -- headlined "Laureate for the Departed" -- underscored the difference. The Times noted that one of the celebrated obits that Massingberd wrote for his newspaper, The Telegraph of London, described a British lord as a "bongo drummer, confidence trickster, brothel-keeper, drug-smuggler and police informer."

Regular Massingberd readers came to recognize what the Times described as his trademark "cataclysmic understatement and carefully coded euphemism." "Convivial," for example, meant the deceased was habitually drunk. "A powerful negotiator" was his description for a bully. "An uncompromisingly direct ladies' man" was Massingberd's euphemism for a flasher.

By Joe Holley  |  February 13, 2008; 2:08 PM ET
Categories:  Joe Holley  
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