PARIS – I just had the most extraordinary obituary reading experience of my life. And I must have read obituaries on an average of at the very least once per week for the last 40 or so years. It felt at times as if I was reading satire, or high comedy, or was it low comedy? It felt often like reading something out of “Scoop,” the satirical novel of the newspaper business by Evelyn Waugh. Although I only saw it today, this obituary ran in The New York Times three days ago under the headline: “Keith Botsford, Man of Letters and Saul Bellow Associate, Dies at 90.” And the wild experience plants itself – as all good journalism should – right in the first paragraph (or lead, or lede): “Keith Botsford, a globe-trotting, multilingual and multifaceted man of letters who became a longtime collaborator with Saul Bellow, died last year, on Aug. 19, in London — a death that drew little public notice at the time. He was 90.”
My first thought was that it was great that The Times decided to run his obituary despite him having died a year earlier. But then in the second paragraph I learn that his death did not really go so unnoticed as all that: “His death was noted two days later by The New England Review of Books on its website and, 16 days later, in a 25-word paid death notice in The Boston Globe, but it was otherwise not reported widely. The Times of London published an obituary two months later, and the Boston University alumni magazine, Bostonia, noted his death in its recent winter-spring issue.”
This reminded me that I had read last year the obituary by The Times of London, or was pretty sure I had. They are among the best obits in the world, and they are quite widely read and authoritative. So it seemed to me that the media that really missed Mr. Botsford’s death was more The New York Times, not really the wider world as such, as the first paragraph indicated. This was, in short, no scoop! But it led directly and immediately to the next extraordinary moment in this reading experience in the third paragraph: “The New York Times learned of his death on Thursday while updating an obituary about him that had been prepared in advance in 2014. Reached on Saturday, his son Gianni confirmed the death.”
Wait a minute!!!! Hold it!!!! Ever since the horrendous Jayson Blair incident at the NYT, when an up-and-coming reporter was found to have fabricated a large number of his articles – i.e., made up the stories, the quotes, and even the travel expenses (as he sometimes claimed expenses for trips not taken, the stories having been written at home) – the NYT devised a number of new rules about reporting that I find absurd, and which it has in many cases stuck to ever since. One of these is to say exactly where a person was interviewed from: ie, “said Mr. So-and-So in an email” or “said Mr. So-and-So in a telephone call” or “said Mr. So-and-So in a text message” etc., which personally I have always found interferes with the reader’s experience of trying to learn about what was said and not how it was conveyed to the reporter.
And one of the often most infuriating – to me – such rules, which I remember as coming from that same Blair period, was the one about having to have confirmation from a family member or some official of the death of the subject of an obituary. So here we are with the venerable New York Times giving us an obituary in which we are told that the subject died almost a year earlier, that it was reported in several major publications and that there was even a – perhaps obligatory – death notice bought in the formerly NYT-owned Boston Globe…and we have to have the NYT call up the son of the subject of the obit and ask him to confirm the death to put the suspicious reader’s doubts at ease!?!?! Despite abundant proof that the subject died a year earlier?
This is also the point when the satire of the form of the article begins to create an even wilder mix with the subject of the obituary. The next paragraph, right below that stylistic convention in the NYT – here absurd – begins with this sentence about the subject of the obituary: “Mr. Botsford was a fluid, prolific writer unfettered by the boundaries of form or genre.” I said to myself, “So what the hell then would Mr. Botsford be thinking now about this boundary of form of the genre, I wonder?” That the NYT had to ask for confirmation from his son despite ample proof he was dead and gone…or if not ample proof, then at least nearly a year has passed, which would be plenty of time for Mr. Botsford to write letters to the editors of the venerable publications that announced his death, complaining, as another famous writer had, that reports of his death were greatly exaggerated.
We now learn that Mr. Botsford was “a novelist, essayist, journalist, biographer, memoirist, teacher, translator and founder, with Bellow, of three literary magazines, most recently News From the Republic of Letters. … A Renaissance man, he also composed chamber works, a ballet and choral music, and was fluent in seven languages and able to read a dozen.”
Here we begin rising even higher in this crescendo of the extraordinary nature of this obituary and its subject: Botsford’s life was a tale that might stand beautifully alongside that of Woody Allen’s Zelig, for being a man all over the map, except here Botsford’s talents are clearly exceptional, and not just some chance thing. (In addition to his literary exploits, the article tells us that, “By his account he served as a spy in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.”)
But then the obituary’s extraordinary nature pokes its head out again a couple of paragraphs later with our first “live” quote from the subject of the obit when describing his first meeting with Saul Bellow in the early 1950s at a party, which would lead to the two writers becoming lifelong friends and colleagues:
“It was Saul Bellow, and he was pinned against the wall by a dreadful man from Winnipeg,” Mr. Botsford recalled in an interview for this obituary in 2014. “I had just read ‘The Adventures of Augie March,’ so I walked up and started talking to him.”
Hold the presses again!!!! Our first quote from the deceased comes from an interview that was done by the author of this very same obituary and for the purpose of this very same obituary that we are reading. What?!?!? I may have been very inattentive in my reading of obituaries, but I feel this is the first time I have been informed that the subject of the obituary was interviewed by the writer of the obituary for use in the obituary itself. Is this morbid? Well, thank goodness they informed us in the beginning of the story that the son of this man confirmed to the NYT that this man was indeed dead. Otherwise, reading that he had been quoted here from an interview he did FOR this obituary, I might have thought him still alive and taking part in some kind of a practical joke about his own death notice….
Wild! But it also makes me feel as if someone at the NYT must have said, “Gee, we went to so much trouble to write this obit, including interviewing the guy, and we then missed his death and never used it?! Come on. Let’s not waste this. Get it in print.”
The obituary then spends several paragraphs talking about the relationship between these two men – is it more about Bellow than about Botsford? No, no. – until I get to a part where I learn that Mr. Botsford and I have something else in common aside from both being fans of Bellow: “In his journalism, Mr. Botsford was equally at ease writing about movie stars, concert pianists, bullfighters, novelists and race drivers. Formula One racing and the Boston Red Sox were two of his passions, along with literature, music and food.”
Formula One racing! Which, yes, I wrote about for a couple of decades for the NYT and its International Herald Tribune edition (although I have no longer been employed by either paper since 2016, and I still love reading the NYT, as this rant makes clear). But that’s just a personal thing that lit a fire for me, and probably has no place in this rant!
We find he also published some two dozen novels, and had the university education and degrees of about three or four people all rolled into one. We learn that he was born in Europe, and his family background was as fantastic as his own life, particularly the larger than life tale of his mother and her family. Her name was “Carolina Elena Rangoni-Machiavelli-Publicola-Santacroce,” and, continues the article, “He said that his mother was a descendant of Niccolo Machiavelli and that his father’s ancestors had helped found Milford, Conn., on Long Island Sound, in 1639. Mr. Botsford recalled his maternal grandmother employing 120 servants at her house near Recanati, Italy, on the Adriatic Sea.”
Wow! Love it!
He ended up moving to Costa Rica and living in a fabulous home overlooking the sea, a house designed by his son, an architect – and the very man who confirmed his father’s death to the NYT a year after it happened – and then one of the most extraordinary moments of all, the kicker, for me, of the tale of Keith Botsford’s extraordinary life: We learn that he was married three times, and that his last wife was 52 years younger than him! That stands as a record for me of age difference in spouses, far outdoing even Charlie Chaplin and Oona O’Neill’s 36-year difference, or Picasso and Jacqueline’s 45-year difference!
So here, the subject of the obituary finally takes over in wonderment from the form of the story completely – form follows function at this point – and we are left with a feeling that this was absolutely a unique, extraordinary person, and thank goodness the NYT chose to publish this story, even one year too late.
Having said that, the subject of the obit and the tale of the obit itself, its writing form, come together again in the kicker that the NYT writer left us with. The following concept may be true of Bellow and Botsford, but it is also clearly true of the way this obit was written – whether intended or not:
“Whether writing fiction, journalism or biography, Mr. Botsford always kept the reader in mind. For this he thanked Bellow:”
“As my dear friend Saul Bellow put it to me, ‘Take the reader by the hand, Keith, and he will follow you anywhere.’ Or as I tell my students, ‘You are not writing for me, but for the world. Or at least for your Aunt Nellie in Boise, Idaho.’ ”
Something tells me that Keith Botsford would have been amused.