Posthumous Portraits

The art and joys of the obituary

“Canada has been the death of him,” wrote John Stuart Mill on the passing of John Lambton, Lord Durham, in 1840, at the age of 48, the year after the Englishman completed his famous Report on the Affairs of British North America.

I was reminded of Mill’s terse comment when I opened the review copy of Working the Dead Beat: 50 Lives that Changed Canada, written by Sandra Martin of The Globe and Mail. I wondered if its author might make the same claim about any of the men and women whose lives—and deaths—she describes so vividly and readably in her new book. But after reading her 50 short biographies, I came to the conclusion that Canada has “done in” nobody who is discussed in these pages.

In his foreword, William Thorsell, former publisher of The Globe and Mail, praises the author for writing “portraits” rather than obituary notices, noting that she is “speaking truth to grief, exposing intimacies at the precise moment when intimacies can be most wounding.” In the introduction, in her witty, informed and teeth-clenched style, Martin writes about the misconceptions of her trade so well that this section should be required reading at journalism schools. She identifies what she calls the “Five Myths about the Dead Beat” and here is what she has to say:

1. “The dead beat is a dead end.” (To the contrary, she sees her undertaking as the beating heart of the news story; she feels that she writes from the still centre of the newsroom.)

2. “Obituaries are depressing.” (Not one of her obituaries is depressing or deflating—far from it. Instead of a “memorial service,” each one is the “celebration” of the life of a person of interest.)

3. “Obituaries are prewritten and left to moulder in a drawer.” (It is true that newspapers keep in their so-called “morgues” standing copy on people who are in the news. But Martin notes that these paragraphs cannot be pressed into use when nature calls; they have to be revamped for the occasion and updated.)

4. “The dying don’t want to talk about their lives.” (Everyone is dying, although death is not foremost in people’s minds. When she approaches her subjects, Martin says: “Talk to me about your life and I promise it won’t appear during your lifetime.”)

5. “Obituaries don’t tell the real truth.” (What account does convey “the real truth”? Martin explains, “We stand apart from the family and friends of the deceased because we are journalists, not eulogists.”)

So much for Martin’s intro. The biographies or portraits of influential Canadians that comprise the bulk of the book are organized under five headings, ten entries apiece, each headed with relevant observations.

1. Among the “Icons” are Galbraith, Jacobs, Berton, Forrester and Richler. (The fact that I can dispense with the first names shows how mainstream the selection is.)

2. Those who are “Builders” range from Frank Calder (first Nisga’a elected) through historian’s historian (J.M.S. Careless) to James Houston (artist).

3. “Rogues, Rascals, and Romantics” is a catch-all section that embraces poet Irving Layton, spy Gordon Lunan and novelist Scott Symons.

4. Another salmagundi section is “Private Lives, Public Impact” (Doris Anderson, Simon Reisman, Ed Mirvish).

5. The last section, called “Service,” has the fewest household names. Three of the ten biographees are Helen Allen (journalist, children’s advocate), Kay Gimpel (secret service agent and art dealer) and Rudolf Vrba (Auschwitz survivor and biochemist). I found this section to be the most interesting, for here I was learning about women and men who had led exciting lives of accomplishment. With this section Martin proves her point: there is no such thing as an uninteresting life, only badly researched and written accounts.

I am going to resist second-guessing the author with respect to the contents. Let other reviewers play the game of “who’s in and who’s out,” if only because all selections are necessarily arbitrary and because everyone represented here seems to belong. Also, let other reviewers who are politically correct count on their fingers the representation given in terms of sex, region, class, occupation, culture, disability, etc. In these pages presentation is more important than representation.

Nothing here is solemn and there are some delicious moments. For instance, the reader learns that Edwin (Honest Ed) Mirvish, merchandiser and philanthropist, purchased the Old Vic Theatre in London in 1982, never having been inside it—indeed, never having been to England at all.

Then there is the tizzy in the Globe’s editorial office on November 30, 2004, the day Pierre Berton died. The paper had already reserved much of its front page for the first state visit by U.S. president George W. Bush. “I saw seven or eight men standing in a circle in earnest conversation, weighing the merits of George W. Bush versus Pierre Berton and the next day’s front page,” recounts Martin. The front-page editor decided the issue: “This is bigger than Bush.” The editor-in-chief agreed and so did the rest of the editors.

I wish I could describe in detail how Martin constructs her 3,500-word profiles. Yet her account of the life of Pierre Berton (1920–2004), “Mr. Canada,” might be taken as a model. She commences by reminding readers of what they may be expected to know about the biographee. (His birth in the Yukon, his student years in Vancouver, etc.) She continues with a chronological account of the person’s life, rich in information derived from published sources and anecdotes based on interviews with friends and colleagues. (“He produced a book every autumn as regularly as the leaves fell from the trees.”) She concludes with a paragraph about the illnesses that brought that life to an end. (Heart disease, diabetes.) The last line is usually the person’s age at death. (Eighty-four for “Mr. Canada.”) Her prose is lively and her model works time and again.

Martin is not alone in writing responsibly about the lives and deaths of Canadians. Her own paper also commissions the column “Lives Lived,” which offers short takes on lesser-known people rather than long profiles on familiar ones. Then there is the last page of each issue of Maclean’s, which is devoted to the passing of a non-celebrity, often a person whose life was cut tragically short, like the twelve-year-old boy who loved to cook but was suddenly felled by necrotizing fasciitis. (In time he might have become a great chef.) That editorial feature is called “The End,” and the pieces are well researched and well written … and poignant, unlike Martin’s.

I suppose the precursors of Working the Dead Beat are Plutarch’s Lives, Aubrey’s Brief Lives and Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the Poets. But Martin’s book has more in common with The Obituary Book based on obits that appeared in The New York Times compiled by its chief obituary writer, Alden Whitman, who was born in Halifax. Whitman was the pioneer of the “pre-need” obit. Indeed, he once wryly observed, “Death, the cliché assures us, is the great leveller; but it obviously levels some a great deal more than others.”

Everything that I have written above leads me to believe that if ever there is a phone call that begins, “Hello, Mr. Colombo? I am Sandra Martin. I write for The Globe and Mail. I wonder if you would be willing to talk to me about your life. I promise it won’t appear during your lifetime,” I will know in advance what to expect: a lively, readable and appreciative account of the life and work of a Canadian.