Life

The Quiet Genius of Margalit Fox’s Obituaries

For years, she’s injected subtle, deft works of cultural history into the New York Times.

A black-and-white photo of Frances Gabe with a model of her self-cleaning house system.
Margalit Fox’s 2017 profile of Frances Gabe is an example of the way her obits highlighted women on the edges of social movements. Above, Gabe is pictured in 1979 in Newberg, Oregon, with a model of her self-cleaning house system.
Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

The New York Times’ Margalit Fox announced this week that, as of June, she will no longer be filing obits for the paper. After 14 years on the desk, she’s leaving to write books full time. Twitter was full of kudos for Fox this week, but she’s long been beloved by those who appreciate good storytelling and good writing. Steven Pinker invoked her in his 2014 book The Sense of Style, describing her obituaries as showcases for her “deadpan wit, affection for eccentricity, and deft use of the English lexicon.”

That’s all true. But I would like to sing her praises as a writer who has, day in and day out, done yeoman’s work to inject subtle, deft works of cultural history into the paper of record. Through Fox’s writing, you get to find out about the kinds of stories that once made up the fabric of public life but that won’t otherwise appear in today’s Times—because, short of the death of someone involved, or maybe an anniversary, there’s no news peg to justify a revival.

Without Fox’s obits, I don’t think I would have known about Shana Alexander (2005; age 79), a journalist whose “famously heated” and “exquisitely literate” political arguments with James J. Kilpatrick on 60 Minutes inspired regular parodies on SNL’s “Weekend Update” in the mid-’70s. (Alexander was also a true-crime writer, years before the current boom; Fox observed that her “central figures were women whose lives of privilege had caused them little but sorrow.”) Or Bel Kaufman (2014; age 103), the teacher who wrote Up the Down Staircase, a 1965 novel about life in a New York City school that spent a year on the Times best-seller list. “So fully has the novel entered the collective consciousness that its title is still used as a catchphrase to describe absurd or impossible situations,” Fox wrote. Collective consciousness, indeed; I have used the phrase but never knew its origin.

Other great Fox pieces are about what she called, in a 2016 interview on Tyler Cowen’s Conversations With Tyler podcast, “history’s backstage players”—people who were never household names, or even friends with household names, but whose inventions were everywhere. Fox has written about the inventors of the plastic lawn flamingo, the Etch A Sketch, and the Frisbee. Those pieces could have turned out too kitschy by half, but Fox was great at skirting that danger. Leslie Buck (2010; age 87) was a survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald who invented the classic blue Greek-themed coffee cup that was a staple of New York bodegas and coffee carts for years. Fox’s description of that cup is infinitely respectful and loving:

Mr. Buck’s cup was blue, with a white meander ringing the top and bottom; down each side was a drawing of the Greek vase known as an amphora. (“Anthora” comes from “amphora,” as filtered through Mr. Buck’s Eastern European accent, his son said.) Some later imitators depict fluted white columns; others show a discus thrower.

On front and back, Mr. Buck emblazoned the Anthora with three steaming golden coffee cups. Above them, in lettering that suggests a Classical inscription, was the Anthora’s very soul—the motto. It has appeared in many variant texts since then; Mr. Buck’s original, with its welcome intimations of tenderness, succor and humility, was simply this:

We Are Happy

To Serve You.  

Fox obits are a great place to read 20th-century women’s history. On Cowen’s podcast, Fox said that an obituary page, charged with memorializing “movers and shakers” of the past, was somewhat constrained in any effort to introduce diversity. But, she added, even in the space of her tenure on the page, as the “window” in which the pool of potential subjects who were building careers and working in the public eye “slid up into the civil rights era and even the women’s movement,” coverage started to diversify. Fox wrote some great obits of feminist activists (see her piece on Betty Friedan, which ran on Page 1 in 2006), but I like the pieces about women who skirted the edges of those social movements even better.

Fox’s 2017 profile of Frances Gabe, the eccentric creator of a self-cleaning home who died at 101, was a deft portrait of a woman who channeled her resistance to traditional gender roles into a quixotic and bizarre building project. Lorna Jorgenson Wendt (2016; age 72), who supported her husband through a very successful business career, battled for an equal share of his money when they were divorced. (Fox notes that Wendt had been awarded a “Ph.T.” when her husband graduated from Harvard Business School: “An actual certificate, presented by a Harvard dean to students’ wives in those years for, in its words, Putting Hubby Through.”) Ruth Clement Bond (2005; age 101) lived in rural Alabama in a segregated village of black workers while her husband directed a program for the TVA during the New Deal. Bond designed beautiful pictorial quilts that, Fox writes, “helped transform the American quilt from a utilitarian bedcovering into a work of avant-garde social commentary.” One Bond design, Fox writes, “shows a black fist seeming to rise straight from the earth. The fist clutches a jagged red lightning bolt, symbolizing the TVA’s promise of rural electrification.” The women who sewed Bond’s designs, Fox concluded in a classic understated kicker, “called the quilt ‘Black Power.’ ”

There’s not very much pronouncement or analysis in a Fox obit. Paragraphs of cultural context like the ones she inserted into a 2011 piece on 92-year-old Keith Tantlinger, who created the first commercially viable design for a cargo container, are rare. “Like many innovations, containerization has had its detractors,” Fox writes. “Longshoremen’s unions worldwide vehemently opposed it at first, staging a series of bitter strikes. … There is also a direct link between containerization and the decline of American manufacturing.” More commonly, you get an economical summary like the one in the obituary of Ruth M. Siems (2005; age 74), the inventor of Stove Top stuffing: “As a mark of just how deeply inscribed on the American palate Ms. Siems’ stuffing has become, there are several recipes, available on the Internet, that promise to reproduce the taste of Stove Top from scratch, using fresh ingredients.” There’s something much more involved to be said about American home cooks’ decadeslong 360-degree turn from fresh to packaged to back again, but Fox won’t be the one to say it. She didn’t even tell us whether Ruth Clement Bond’s “Black Power” quilt was the source of the name for the late-’60s social movement. We’re left to guess—or Google. (Angelik Vizcarrondo-Laboy of the Museum of Arts and Design says maybe.)

This minimalist approach to analysis and context can be occasionally frustrating if you are, say, someone who writes about history for a living, but Fox’s measured dollops of it generally leave me tantalized. Edith Fellows, who died at 88 in 2011, was a child actress who was the subject of a famous custody battle in 1936. Edith’s mother, Fox wrote, “claimed that the girl had been abducted by her grandmother, a charge that the authorities of the period took seriously in the wake of the Lindbergh kidnapping four years before.” When I read a passage like this, I see little eyeball emojis popping up over the text. What were authorities’ responses to those claims before Lindbergh? Did more people report kidnappings after the Lindbergh story, and how many of those reports were false? How would you investigate a kidnapping in 1936? That’s for me to wonder, and me to find out.

If I wrote these obituaries, I’d try to lard them up with context and meaning. Fox’s writing shows me that sometimes, the bones are more telling than all that flesh. I read, and reread, a good number of Fox’s pieces in drafting this obituary for her obituaries, and the one I can’t stop thinking about is her remembrance of Izola Ware Curry (2015; age 98). Curry, who stabbed 29-year-old Martin Luther King at a book signing in Harlem in 1958, was, like Alexander or Kaufman, a onetime household name. “What surprised many observers at the time was that Ms. Curry herself was black, the daughter of sharecroppers from the rural South,” Fox wrote.

Curry, who suffered from an undiagnosed mental illness, believed that the NAACP was a communist front and was “persecuting her—following her and making it impossible for her to find steady work.”

Her mental state made it increasingly hard for her to hold a job. … She bounced among New York; Cleveland; St. Louis; Charleston, W.Va.; Savannah, Ga.; Miami, West Palm Beach and Daytona Beach, Fla.; Lexington, Ky.; and Columbia, S.C. By 1958 she was back in New York, living in a rented room in Harlem, at 121 West 122nd Street.

Hovering over everything, thanks to every obituary’s ironclad death-first structure, is our knowledge that Curry lived to be 98, and died in a nursing home, with no survivors. In Fox’s precise hands, Curry’s story is heartbreaking, confusing, and forever opaque. Perhaps that’s how it should be.