a favorite story from obit, vanessa gould's glorious documentary on the new york times's obituary team (which premiered at tribeca on sunday the 17th): like many news organizations, the times maintains an archive of advance obituaries for noteworthy men and women. as margalit fox, a member of the team, put it a few years ago, "As a general rule, when lives are long enough, accomplished enough and complex enough that we would just as soon not get caught short writing them on deadline, advances are assigned."). it's an offshoot of 'the morgue,' the times's almost unfathomably large collection of biographical data related to prospective obit subjects (it's composed almost entirely of yellowing clippings from, as i recall, 28 daily sources; to digitize the morgue [which lives in a flood-prone basement in midtown; even moving it to the times's new building is prohibitively expensive] would cost an army of flesh-and-blood scanners years of their lives). "If an advance has gone according to plan," fox says, "it has been researched, written, fact-checked, filed, edited and copy-edited, laid out on a page and sometimes even supplied with accompanying videos for online viewing, all well ahead of the game."
elinor smith, the 'flying flapper of freeport'—in 1928, she became the youngest licensed pilot in the world (at age 16; orville wright signed her license)—died at a nursing home in palo alto in march of 2010. a times staffer in the morgue shuffled through the card catalog that would tell him where to find the folder of her life's news clippings and discovered a red stamp indicating that an advance obituary had been filed for her—in the early '30s, when she was still a teenager, as what she did was considered so dangerous that she was expected to meet an exceedingly untimely end. (when elinor was 17, someone dared her to fly under all four bridges on the east river; according to the cradle of aviation museum on long island, she's still the only person ever to have done it.) elinor smith outlived her obituary by seven decades! (as you would imagine, she outlived her obituarist as well; as one of the times staffers mentioned in obit, one of the most contemporary news sources in the world regularly publishes articles about dead people written by other dead people.) she quit flying in her late twenties to focus on her family but took back to the air after her husband's death in 1959; in 2000, when she was 88, she became the oldest pilot to complete a simulated space shuttle landing (with an all-female crew). elinor motherfucking smith, ladies and gentlemen. may we all outlive our obituarists.