My Conversation with Margalit Fox

Here is the summary:

The stereotypical obituary is a formulaic recitation of facts — dry, boring, and without craft. But Margalit Fox has shown the genre can produce some of the most memorable and moving stories in journalism. Exploiting its “pure narrative arc,” Fox has penned over 1,200 obituaries, covering well-known and obscure subjects with equal aplomb.

In her conversation with Tyler Cowen, Fox reveals not only the process for writing an obituary, but her thoughts on life, death, storytelling, puzzle-solving, her favorite cellist, and how it came to be that an economist sang opera 86 times at the Met.

Here are the transcript, video, and podcast versions of the dialogue.  Here is one excerpt:

FOX: …Things happen. But in general, we try to have a certain level of preparedness with the major figures. We do indeed have the advance obits — all but the top, as it were — written, edited, on file. We have about 1,700.

That said, the vast majority of what my colleagues and I down in the trenches do, probably 90 percent of our working life, are daily obits that are found out about, reported, written, edited, copyedited, put in the paper all in the space of a single day, just like any other article in the paper.

And this:

COWEN: Are there obituaries of economists that stand out in your mind? Or maybe some you’ve written?

FOX: Well, interestingly, there is one. As I said, my original training was in classical music, so my editors almost jumped out of their skins with excitement when they discovered they could assign me the obituary of a Harvard economist named Richard T. Gill.

Now, why did they give that to me? Because as we say in the lede of the obit, “Richard T. Gill, in all statistical probability the only Harvard economist to sing 86 performances with the Metropolitan Opera, died,” etc., etc.

COWEN: Yes, I remember reading that one. That was before I knew that you were you.

FOX: I was me then. You just didn’t know it.

COWEN: Correct.

Do read the whole thing.  I asked her about privacy concerns, how well a famous person is really known by his or her family and friends, whether there should be affirmative action in the obituaries section, who is chosen for this exclusive club and why, what one learns reading obituaries (“death sucks”), what is underrated in life (“silence”), why British obituaries are different, and about her very good books on linguistic code cracking from antiquity and Bedouin sign language.  And more.

Here is the Conversations with Tyler series.  Here is basic information on Margalit Fox.  Here is Margalit Fox on Twitter.


I religiously read the obituaries in my hometown paper. I love to learn the extraordinary lives of ordinary people, especially the WW2 generation, who did so much so early in life.

Old, New York City people I knew (RIP) called obituaries "The Irish Sports Pages." They could get the (bad) news about people they'd known before they removed to the 'burbs.

We, blessed with extended families, only see relative at wakes and weddings; very few Christenings these days.

She writes about dead people's lives. Was Ms. Fox present when a person died, sudden death or otherwise?

Personally, I have always favored this obituary, in part because of its obvious sincerity, though in this day and age, we lack such towering figures of inspiration, particularly in places like the NYT.

'Richard Nixon is gone now, and I am poorer for it. He was the real thing -- a political monster straight out of Grendel and a very dangerous enemy. He could shake your hand and stab you in the back at the same time. He lied to his friends and betrayed the trust of his family. Not even Gerald Ford, the unhappy ex-president who pardoned Nixon and kept him out of prison, was immune to the evil fallout. Ford, who believes strongly in Heaven and Hell, has told more than one of his celebrity golf partners that "I know I will go to hell, because I pardoned Richard Nixon."

I have had my own bloody relationship with Nixon for many years, but I am not worried about it landing me in hell with him. I have already been there with that bastard, and I am a better person for it. Nixon had the unique ability to make his enemies seem honorable, and we developed a keen sense of fraternity. Some of my best friends have hated Nixon all their lives. My mother hates Nixon, my son hates Nixon, I hate Nixon, and this hatred has brought us together.

Nixon laughed when I told him this. "Don't worry," he said, "I, too, am a family man, and we feel the same way about you."

It was Richard Nixon who got me into politics, and now that he's gone, I feel lonely. He was a giant in his way. As long as Nixon was politically alive -- and he was, all the way to the end -- we could always be sure of finding the enemy on the Low Road. There was no need to look anywhere else for the evil bastard. He had the fighting instincts of a badger trapped by hounds. The badger will roll over on its back and emit a smell of death, which confuses the dogs and lures them in for the traditional ripping and tearing action. But it is usually the badger who does the ripping and tearing. It is a beast that fights best on its back: rolling under the throat of the enemy and seizing it by the head with all four claws.'

Or maybe because you're a raving prog loonie who cares about tribal affiliation above all else?

She is a crook and about to be elected president. Whatever evil Nixon committed, he opened up China and got us combat troops out of Vietnam. Nixon was an angel compared to Hillary.

Nixon also wanted to reform health care financing.

I'm pretty sure China opened itself up, not Nixon.

I'm curious which specific evils you'd refer to in order to consider Nixon as an angel compared to Clinton.

I don't read the New York Times anymore, but I noticed that its obituary coverage changed over the decades before 2010. Once upon a time, they ran brief obituaries for most UMC New Yorkers (bank SMDs, Amlaw 100 partners, etc.). They switched to running many fewer obituaries, with the selection determined in large part by reference to the Times archives, which meant obituaries for some fairly obscure entertainment and sports figures of yesteryear, but not for people like me. (Then again, the publisher of the Times did say he wanted fewer middle-aged white male readers, so maybe he got his wish, although I would think he would have wanted to replace them with different readers, not merely have fewer readers.)

Of course, few of us are famous enough to have her obituary written by Ms. Fox. Which raises the question for the 99.9%: should we write our own obituaries or leave it to family members after we have gone to our reward? I favor writing one's own obituary, poetic license encouraged - hey, it's not exactly a resume. Feeble efforts by (often grieving) family members, often written with the assistance of the obsequious funeral director, are no way for us to be remembered on our final day. Is there anything worse than the typical obituary, written as if a plea to God for entry of the poor soul into the promised land.

Good idea. When will you start your website for advance obits? And your campaign on gofundme?

Somewhere I saw a feature about the best answers people had ever heard in a job interview. One reported asking the interviewee his greatest ambition.

"To have my obituary in the Economist."

Yes, the Economist obituaries are very good. And limited only to 51 or so per year .

Ann Wroe is doing an outstanding job with the obituaries.

"[in] an American paper ... we have to have complete fealty to the truth. We have to have complete impartiality. We have to be disinterested in the pure sense of the term where we are detached observers."

How on earth did you keep a straight face, Mr Cowen?

Fun read, if a poor interviewee. That woman was very desperate not to step out of her lane. Not really sure why.

I thought the same thing, and kinda respect her for it. I had the impression that she takes her job very seriously, and probably doesn't want to cross the mind of any obituary reader (or family member of her subject) when they read her work.

My reaction to her very limited "ken" is that she's a gnome. Apparently so near-sighted that she denies any knowledge of events outside her cubicle. imho, this is an interview which doesn't merit viewing. Many of her denials stretch my credulity.

"list questions are overrated"

what a stick in the mud

margalit fox: overrated. next time interview "her editors"

Beacuse she's an employee of a major corporation, talking about what she does AT WORK.

Plus, it's classy to avoid the temptation to pontificate on every possible issue.

Fine but then don't agree to participate in a Conversations With Tyler.

No mention if Yo Yo Ma by Fox or TC. Why no love? I'm a classical music plebe so forgive me for my ignorance, but he is probably the best known modern cellist among the general public.

Another good pod episode, if only b/c I had never thought about obit writing at all before listening to this interview. The questions seemed much easier for the interviewee, which isn't to say that she always felt comfortable answering them. I'll definitely take away from this pod a reluctance to use the word "again" at the start of a sentence. Although I did like this pod, I'm ready for another numbers/ policy guest -- by which I mean someone who speaks TC's language more fluently and who is more comfortable with the idea that speculation can lead to interesting ideas and exchanges.

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