“I have something really fun for you,” New York Times deputy obituaries editor Jack Kadden told Margalit Fox last Monday.
He handed the obit writer a copy of Adam Bernstein’s Washington Post piece on “professional adventurer” John Fairfax, who died Feb. 8.
Reading the obit, says Fox, “you could see immediately what a fantastic ripping good yarn this was” — one involving a man who left home at 13 to “live like Tarzan,” became a pirate’s apprentice and went on to become the first person in recorded history to row alone across the Atlantic Ocean.
“I had the luxury of being late” to the story, says Fox, who has been a fulltime Times obituary writer since 2004. She was able to spend some time on the phone with Fairfax’s widow and ex-girlfriend to load up on details about the adventurer’s life. Gawker pointed out seven of them, including:
*At 9, he settled a dispute with a pistol. At 13, he lit out for the Amazon jungle.
*At 20, despondent over a failed love affair, resolved to kill himself by letting a jaguar attack him.
* To please his mother, who did not take kindly to his being a pirate, he briefly managed a mink farm.
Fox started pulling clips and making calls shortly after being handed Bernstein’s obit.
“At that point I didn’t even know if [Fairfax's ex] Sylvia Cook was alive, so I rather tentatively asked the wife” about the woman’s whereabouts. The widow was more than happy to share contact information.
“With all of these exploits — when reading in the clips that someone’s a pirate — that’s something you want to check, and Sylvia was able to give me a lot of insight into that,” says Fox. “She was particularly useful for verifying some of the facts. She was a godsend in that respect.”
(Fox says a “very long, very juicy” piece on the Ocean Rowing Society website also was “the source of a lot of marvelous details about this roustabout” — including some that couldn’t be published in a “family newspaper.” Fairfax, says Fox, apparently enjoying adventuring in houses of ill repute, too.)
She turned in her obit last Tuesday.
“Great piece,” said obituaries editor Bill McDonald, “but you need to cut it.”
“They had said to keep it 1,000 words,” says Fox, adding that her editors knew she’d never keep it that short. “What I filed was probably about 1,450 words — and these days, that’s just too long, even for a weekend feature. What I got in [the paper] was 1,300.”
While the obits staff knew this was a “ripping good yarn,” the paper runs many of those, notes Fox, and the Fairfax story didn’t seem special — until it lit up Twitter and Facebook late Saturday night.
“The tweets are hilarious,” says Fox. The reaction to the piece “is very gratifying. …One can never predict these things.”
She adds that “a story like this pretty much writes itself. There was so much amazing stuff between the cradle and the grave.”
Emailers are praising the piece, too. “Readers seem delighted by the story and that makes me very, very happy.”
I asked Fox, who has written about 800 obits for the Times, if other pieces were received similarly.
“There was one that readers kind of went bananas over — this was before Twitter was as ubiquitous as it is now — about a man named Leslie Buck. It was an A1 story, which is rare in the world of obits.” Buck designed the blue and white Anthora coffee cup, “and for New Yorkers of my generation, it’s an icon of the city.”
Fox tells me she feels no pressure to top Sunday’s “ripping good yarn.”
“You sit back and fate delivers them right to your door.”