I’m certainly not alone in having had my share of complaints about the New York Times. For those of us whose political leanings edge to the right, the paper has consistently been an easy and even enjoyable target.
But when they get it right, their work is high art. And one area where you have to give them their due is obituaries.
Their storytelling of exotic, eccentric, intriguing and downright unbelievable – but not always well-known – lives lived is simply unparalleled.
This past weekend gave us the obit of one Patrick Leigh Fermor, “Travel Writer,” who passed at the nifty age of 96. His life is right out of a Graham Greene novel (that profile a bit of a recurring theme in these things, it turns out). As a matter of fact, Mr. Leigh Fermor, we learn, was indeed tagged by the BBC as “a cross between Indiana Jones, James Bond and Graham Greene,” a man “as renowned for his feats of derring-do as for his opulent prose.” During WWII, Leigh Fermor’s fluency in Greek led to his work with a secret operations unit created by Winston Churchill where “for 18 months he lived disguised as a shepherd in Crete, emerging from the mountains with a team that in 1944 kidnapped Gen. Heinrich Kreipe, the island’s German commander.” Undercover as a shepherd in Crete!
The son of geologist in India, Leigh Fermor was raised by “a farmer’s family in Northamptonshire,” while his British parents enjoyed colonial life on the subcontinent. “Scarcely eighteen,” he set off for a travel across Europe with only the proverbial clothes on this back, “a copy of Horace’s “Odes,” (of course) an automatic pistol and some letters of introduction.” The adventures he famously chronicled included encounters with “orthodox Jewish woodcutters in Transylvania, Hungarian Gypsies, White Russian exiles, German barons, French-speaking monks and Romanian shepherds along the Danube.”
Leigh Fermor was knighted by the Queen in 2004, after (naturally) turning down the honor in 1991.
Biographic pieces like these entrance me, with their tales of money, power, despair, misfortune and happenstance. It is pure joy to know such characters really existed. What’s more, these sketches draw an incredibly vivid portrait of the remarkable century past, with all its calamity, romance, terror and transformation. So several years ago I began an inconsistent habit of putting aside some of the more memorable and surprising entries in this Times catalogue of death.
In them I learned that Glenn Hughes, the biker guy from the Village People (March 2001), was a Bronx-born toll collector at the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel before fame came calling. That MIT professor Kenneth Hale (October 2001) was “a master of more than 50 languages and the keeper of aboriginal tongues in danger of vanishing.” And Gordon Matthews (February 2002) was the fellow who invented corporate voicemail.
Thomas J. Corbally (April 2004), a “businessman at center of international intrigue,” was said to have “taught King Hussein of Jordan to water-ski, had Mother Teresa’s private phone number, and was licensed to carry a gun in London.” Mr. Corbally “mixed with movie stars and tycoons, cruised café society when there was a café society, was greeted effusively at the grand hotels of London, Paris and New York, and always seemed to be involved in something important, however vaguely defined.” Where do you get a job like that today?
Peter Smithers (June 2006, same day as TV legend Aaron Spelling, btw), “a lawyer, politician, diplomat, scholar, photographer and spy,” had a garden in Switzerland so magnificent it was named by the Financial Times one of the 500 greatest since the Roman Empire. Smithers worked for Ian Fleming during WWII and “may” have been a model for Fleming’s fictional James Bond.
One of my personal favorites (March 4, 2000), announced the passing of “Baron Enrico di Portanova, 66, Flamboyant Member of Jet Set.”
“Ricky,” as he was known “to his thousands of friends in the world’s capitals and playgrounds,” was the son of a Texas oil heiress and an Italian nobleman. Among other points of interest, the baron’s first marriage was to “a Yugoslavian basketball star” and he was “a generous host who always reached for restaurant checks and entertained lavishly,” once offering $13 million for a share in NY’s famed “21” Club as a birthday present for his wife.
Among his many strong suits, the baron had a great gift for clarity. As we learn in the first line of his notice, “he once listed the best things in life as “sun, sex, and spaghetti.”