Tough Times for Obits: Pope, Bellow, Cochran–Will Dad Make the Cut?

It wasn’t a great week to try and place a news obituary in The New York Times. First Terri Schiavo

It wasn’t a great week to try and place a news obituary in The New York Times. First Terri Schiavo died. Then there was the Pope, whose passing received the sort of coverage you’d assume would be reserved for an asteroid on a collision course with Earth, or the day we make contact with intelligent life in another galaxy.          The deaths of Saul Bellow, Johnny Cochran and Prince Rainier went almost unnoticed in the run-up to the Pope’s sanctification.

So when I called The Times to inform them that my father had passed away, I knew the odds were against me. Compared to hastening the downfall of communism, or writing the great American novel, or getting O.J. off, what is being Horatio Alger’s biographer-my dad’s tenuous claim to fame?

Most people probably don’t even know that Alger existed. They think he was a folk hero, like Paul Bunyan, or simply a figure of speech-“a Horatio Alger hero”-suggesting a rags-to-riches success story. In fact, Alger’s novels about bootblacks and newsboys who made good sold millions of copies during the 19th century and inspired generations of young Americans, my father among them.

He wrote the definitive Alger biography in 1964-Horatio Alger, or the American Hero Era. But he had other credits that made him potentially Times-worthy. During the 70’s and 80’s, he had an author-interview program on WVNJ and other local radio stations. (The free books he kept getting almost until his death may help explain the publishing industry’s perennially precarious financial health.) He wrote a syndicated column for seniors in his later years. And as a child, he played chess with Albert Einstein on several occasions. The physicist used to visit a federal judge who lived at the Fifth Avenue Hotel, where my father grew up. And my dad spoke German, so he was invited to keep the great man company.

Finally, from 1942 into the early 1950’s, my father worked for The New York Times. He started as Arthur Hays Sulzberger’s office boy and, as he tells the story, was made a correspondent with the infantry during World War II because, as a Times employee, the Army assumed he’d been a reporter. He returned to the newspaper after the war, working on the city desk and in the paper’s Paris and Frankfurt bureaus before leaving to start his own advertising agency. Polish Ham was one of his accounts, and on one memorable occasion, he persuaded the Secret Service to allow President Dwight D. Eisenhower to be photographed with a canned ham, an astonishing feat of product placement.

When I contacted the obituary department the day after my dad died of complications from diabetes at 81, I left a message on the paper’s voice mail with a brief description of his accomplishments, and the information that he’d told me (on more than one occasion) that The Times had a file on him in its morgue.

A reporter called back and asked me to fax him some more information. I did, but that was the last I heard from him. The only mention of my dad was a paid obituary that ran the day of his funeral. The news obituaries that day featured a fellow who’d studied fireflies and their glow, someone who’d arranged loans for Mexico and a former NBC executive. Not to sound bitter, but wouldn’t Times readers be more interested in Horatio Alger’s biographer and Albert Einstein’s chess partner than a guy who managed network budgets?

I’m 0 for 2 with The Times’ obit department lately. In October, when my grandmother died at 104, I tried unsuccessfully to persuade the newspaper of her significance. Not because of her longevity: She started the European-American Women’s Division of the United Jewish Appeal in the early 1940’s, raising millions of dollars for the organization over the years.

And if my grandmother didn’t invent it, surely she perfected the practice of having the ladies who attended her luncheons stand up and announce how much they planned to pledge, publicly shaming them into giving thousands more than if they’d been allowed to make their contributions quietly. (As testimony to The Times’ priorities-and certainly to real estate’s greater hold on the public imagination-the paper ran two pieces in the Sunday real-estate section on my grandmother’s San Remo apartment when it went on the market after her death, including one on the section’s front page with an arrow pointing to it.)

So I’m left to mourn my father with the feeling that perhaps I could have done something more to secure that small place in history that goes to the dead who win the New York Times obituary department’s seal of approval.

Would he care? Absolutely. Would he have been surprised at the oversight? Absolutely not. He didn’t have much faith in his fellow man. As a matter of fact, in his funeral instructions he said that if we insisted on having a funeral, he wanted to be buried in a pine box-less from personal modesty than to prevent Riverside Memorial Chapel from overcharging him. (In any case, we overruled him, buying a mid-range coffin.) And he wanted the rabbi to send his mourners on their way with an off-color comment.

So we decided to have a private burial-just the immediate family and my parents’ housekeeper, Wong, who bought sushi to put in my father’s grave, since he didn’t like cut flowers.

I managed to persuade Wong that my father would appreciate the gesture just as much if, instead of interring him with raw fish, we ate the California rolls in the car on the way home.

What I’ve discovered is that nothing changes very much after a parent dies, but everything changes a little. His daily phone calls, usually at inopportune moments, have ceased. There’s no one to pass along the Bauman Rare Book catalog after I finish reading it (he started me collecting first editions as a teenager). And when I came across the 1970 Muhammad Ali–Oscar Bonavena fight on ESPN a few nights ago, I had to stop myself from picking up the phone and giving him a heads-up. He loved boxing.

Spring seemed to start as we drove home from the cemetery, as if his death served as some cosmological or at least meteorological dividing line. Days of rain ended, the clouds broke and, by the time we got back to the city, a warm, gentle breeze was blowing.

Spring in Central Park seems more vivid and more precious this year than it has in the past. The sparrows are more boisterous as they compete for mates; the buds on the trees seem impatient to bloom. And the outdoor cafés on Second Avenue are more crowded than ever.

In the end, does it matter if The Times acknowledges your death? Apparently not. The world, as my father seemed to suggest in his rueful funeral instructions, gets along just fine without you. Eventually, even the Pope will fade from memory. I think that knowledge ultimately gave my father more peace of mind than the most respectable obituary in the newspaper of record ever could.

Tough Times for Obits: Pope, Bellow, Cochran–Will Dad Make the Cut?