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That Was Some Lady

Adam Bernstein

As a rule, British obituaries are bolder with more intimate details than American obits. By English standards, American obituaries can seem positively starchy and proper.

In some respects, this is because the Brits seem to have a neverending stream of wealthy eccentrics and wastrels who make a lifetime of mischief and then die in some theatrical way, or else in striking poverty.

The British "style" can be devilishly amusing -- among my personal favorite is one from the Daily Telegraph of the Third Lord Moynihan from 1991, who "provided, through his character and career, ample ammunition for critics of the hereditary principle." His "chief occupations," the story continued, were "bongo-drummer, brothel-keeper, drug-smuggler and police informer, but `Tony' Moynihan also claimed other areas of expertise -- as 'professional negotiator,' 'international diplomatic courier,' 'currency manipulator' and 'authority on rock and roll.'

At times, I have attempted to channel this spirit. The closest I ever came was in an obituary earlier this year for Liz Renay. It began this way:

"Liz Renay, 80, who died Jan. 22 at a Las Vegas hospital from gastric bleeding, was a gangster's moll, ex-con, author, painter, stripper, Hollywood Boulevard streaker, actress and charm school instructor."

British obituaries can be infuriating, though. In the narrative style of some British papers, the writers begin in mid-anecdote and assume you should know or care about the subject. Many obits about entertainers, for example, make a reader wade down 10 paragraphs before you learn any of the subjects movies or hit records.

The reason British obits are on my mind is because of a recent London Daily Telegraph obituary for Lady Jeanne Campbell. In the great Telegraph tradition, it is filled with intriguingly intimate details that tell just enough to make the reader long to have known the subject, or at least bought her a drink.

But something bothered me.

The obit noted a claim that Campbell, an ex-wife of author Norman Mailer, had affairs with President John F. Kennedy, Russian head of state Nikita Khrushchev and Cuban leader Fidel Castro -- all within the span of a year. What struck me as questionable was the high placement and source for the details: the memoirs of Republican presidential ghostwriter James Humes, who has also been a trial lawyer and performed one-man shows imitating British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

The obit was scintillating, or perhaps skintillating is better. It's riddled with details of her parents' troubled marriage as well as Campbell's sexual conquests (Time publisher Henry Luce) and fumbled passes.

One quick example of the latter:

"In 1964 Jeanne met the Beatles at the British Embassy in Washington and put her arm round Paul McCartney. 'Which one are you?' she asked. 'Roger McClusky the Fifth,' he answered, extricating himself from her grip."

Obit writers live for subjects like Campbell, but the obit with all its details raises a question of how to source information. Not just in the comments of Humes, but in nearly all the anecdotes it is unclear where the material is coming from. The Beatles story was apparently taken from Al Aronowitz's Saturday Evening Post article about the Fab Four. I had to find the Aronowitz attribution myself via a Web search, as the obit never noted it.

Sometimes, the "stodgy" American emphasis on sourcing has its benefits.

By Adam Bernstein |  September 27, 2007; 1:58 PM ET  | Category:  Adam Bernstein
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Thanks for the link to Lady Jeanne's obit. Someone should snap up the screenplay rights asap. I was delighted to see her connection (step-daughter, I think?) to one of my favorites, the Duchess of Argyll, known as the "dirty duchess" because of her numerous and flamboyant affairs, including the notorious photos of her wearing nothing but the Duke's heirloom pearls in an intimate situation with a man whose head was out of the frame. She later blamed her promiscuity on a head injury she received falling down an elevator shaft.

Posted by: Nell | September 28, 2007 1:10 PM

I think the problem is that American obituary writers are absolutely convinced that obituaries are hard news that requires the type of verification news articles do, but British obituary writers are similarly absolutely convinced that obituaries are features, and therefore details can safely be drawn from memoirs and other less rigidly verified sources.

By the way, many British think American obituaries are excruciatingly dull, fixated on the death and not the life, quasi-censored (as if every important detail of the subject's life were available in a notarized affidavit), and unpleasantly morbid for mentioning the cause of death.

I'm sort of halfway in between myself. I don't think we need to know the specific cause of death for every 84-year-old who dies in his sleep, but sometimes a cause of death can be part of the story. Likewise, I don't think an obituary should be a eulogy or a straight news story (as they so often are in the US).

Posted by: Charlene | September 28, 2007 2:38 PM

Drat! Hit enter too quickly!

As I was saying, I don't think an obituary should be a straight news story, but any details that can't be independently verified should be clearly attributed in the text of the obituary and not presented without comment as fact. (In Lady Jeanne's case, at least the Post didn't call her "Lady Campbell". Sometimes it seems the smaller American papers go out of their way to render British titles and styles inaccurately, as if flaunting reverse snobbery negated the need to be accurate.)

By the way, Lady Jeanne's sister-in-law's experience points out how necessary verification is. Lady Colin Campbell was born with a reproductive birth defect which nowadays can be cured easily either surgically or medically. Back in the 30s, though, it was considered incurable and shameful, and the young girl's parents were advised to raise her as a boy. The day she turned 21 she had the operation to correct the defect and lived her entire adult life as a woman. Unfortunately, an ignorant reporter at a newspaper that didn't fact-check wrote that she had undergone a sex change, and that was why she was childless. Lawsuits ensued, but to this day there are readers who are convinced beyond the shadow of a doubt that she was once a man.

Posted by: Charlene | September 28, 2007 2:57 PM

The obits on the last page of the Economist combine the best qualities of British and American tradition of last writes. They are quirky but rarely cruel, presume some knowledge on the readers' part but give enough hints so more clueless readers like myself can get in on the fun. They indicate when stories are legendary (which does not always make them wrong). And they are, like everything in the Economist, notable for their elegance of style.

Posted by: Kristie | October 2, 2007 10:14 AM

Many thanks for running this piece on Lady Jeanne, whom I remember well from the time we were both reporters at LIFE Magazine. I didn't know she had trained as an actress, but was impressed by her stage presence at all times.

Incidentally, Beaverbrook's advice to writers is as good now as it was then.

Posted by: maya pines | October 5, 2007 3:55 PM

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