At the Associated Press, we may write about your death before it happens.
Like a lot of big news organizations, the AP, where I work in the Los Angeles bureau, writes obituaries in advance for famous and prominent people that are old, sick, or otherwise near death. Yes, it's morbid, yes there's something unseemly about it, and yes we all understand this, but it's also necessary to do our jobs properly, and I assure you if you were to die you'd much prefer a thoughtful, well researched remembrance over something dashed off while your body is still cooling off.
This shouldn't come as too much of a surprise. I'm sure you've been amazed at how quickly the AP or the New York Times or the Los Angeles Times will go from announcing that someone is dead to putting out a 1,000-word obituary.
Most newspapers call their collection "the morgue." We go a little more formal and classy, using the awkward but apt term, "preparedness" for ours. So you would say "do we have preparedness for Frank Sinatra?" We did, of course.
Unlike other big news— earthquakes, wildfires, plane crashes; we know that famous people's deaths are going to happen. Everyone dies eventually. And we know, mostly, what we're going to write about them, whether it's Oscars won, books written, countries led, or atoms split.
So we write them while their subjects are alive, leaving empty space at the top where we'll fill in the date and the circumstances of their death, like a headstone that is etched with name, date of birth and the little dash that represents the lifetime, with only the death date left empty, but not for long.
We always make sure these stories, when they're saved, don't say the words "death," "die" or "obituary." There are several reasons for this, but the biggest one is so these stories don’t technically declare somebody dead, just in case one gets accidentally sent out to the world, which is such a frightening thought for a newsroom that I'm going to stop speaking immediately. A little sidenote: We should all hope that if we get an obituary it reads "died," and not "was found dead." Trust me on this.
I've had the strange experience of writing an obit for someone (this has happened with some big sports figures here in Los Angeles) then running into them out in public. This makes me feel oddly superior. I know something about them, something major, something they and their loved ones don't know. I know how they're going to be remembered. The first draft of it anyway.
Traditionally, you're not supposed to talk to outsiders about the preparedness. You don't say who's in it, who we have tapped for death (I won't name names here), or even that it exists.
This changed a few years ago when Britney Spears was in one of her crazy phases. We had to entertain the possibility that she might possibly die in the middle of some wild night, so we wrote up an obit. (They're rare for younger people, but it happens. We had one for Michael Jackson. It was written during his trial when we worried about possible suicide.)
Somehow the gossip website TMZ got wind of the fact that we had done the advance obit, and they made big news of it, as though the AP were digging Britney's grave.
We responded in a way that I liked, since I, like most people in the new business should, favor as few secrets as possible. We wrote a story admitting that we'd written the obit for Miss Spears, and explained that we do this all the time.
"The AP has approximately 1,000 prepared obituaries in its files on a wide variety of public figures," my colleague John Rogers wrote in the 2008 story. "Although most are on people over 70, Spears is not the only 20-something whose passing the news agency is ready for."
Rogers continued, talking about our main local competitor, The Los Angeles Times, which "has approximately 400 prepared obits as they are called, although they lean heavily toward much older newsmakers, said Jon Thurber, the paper's obituary editor. Britney Spears is not among them."
I've been at the Associated Press for 10 years now, and it first it wasn't the best fit. The job is mostly about getting police and fire captains and politicians to say things they don't want to say, or calling people who don't want to be called.
When I went into journalism I was looking to turn my modest writing talent into a little bit of money and I had no desire to do this other stuff.
But I found that I loved obituaries, almost from the start. First, they let you write about all kinds of subjects you'd never get to as a hard news reporter: physics, music, golf, aerospace, whatever it was that your now-dead subject was famous for.
The other part should be unpleasant for me, but isn't. Unless you're famous enough to have an official spokesman, we have to call a loved one or close friend to confirm that the dead have died, often just hours after they've expired.
At first I dreaded the crap out of this. It felt so horribly invasive, calling poor widows and newly fatherless children to poke them about the details of what may well be the most traumatic moment of their lives.
But I soon found that making those calls, with rare exceptions, was a lovely experience.
If you've ever lost someone important you know that in the immediate aftermath you're stunned and looking for useful things to do. You often find yourself vacuuming or doing dishes. And under these circumstances there's nothing most people would like to do than share cherished memories about their love one they know will be spread far and wide.
I've found that more often then not when I've pried into someone's life, they end up wanting to talk for longer than I do. I have to find a delicate way to get off the phone and get to work while they're still talking about their wedding day or their late husband's love of his grandchildren.
I won't be so crude as to say I'm happy when I'm on the job and a prominent person dies, but I do find it energizing, because I know just what to do, and I'm anxious to be part of it.
When word comes in that someone has died, usually because some media outlet is reporting it or someone has called us, the first thing we do is look if we have preparedness for them.
We thank the high heavens if we do, because even if we want to shape the story ourselves it's best to have some clay to mold.
My life was saved by our preparedness for Charlton Heston, who died when I was alone on the job one Saturday night.
When Gore Vidal died recently we had wonderful, thorough preparedness, 2,000 words worth, with contact info including his home number (which I called to verify his death with his nephew) at the top. I got to add my name to a tour-de-force of a story.
But sometimes somebody prominent dies and we're left to our own devices.
Such was the case with Henry Hill. We had no preparedness. But that was OK, because I'd been preparing for half my life, and the story we ended up with was a tribute to that preparation, and taught me that there is no such thing as useless knowledge.
If you haven't heard of Henry Hill, you're not alone. A bunch of our editors hadn't. He's someone who either rings a bell or he doesn't.
He's the gangster who started as essentially an intern for the mob at age 13, rose through its ranks then turned on his bosses and brothers, sending dozens of them to jail by becoming an FBI informant.
Still nothing? Oh, he was the character Ray Liotta played in Goodfellas.
So for that movie's many hardcore fans, and the even more hardcore fans of the Howard Stern show where he became a regular caller late in life once he was booted from the witness protection program. He's a household name.
Me and my bandmates in my 20s, who were also my best friends, were big fans of both the movie and the radio show, so I knew my Henry Hill upside and down.
I watched that movie constantly and quoted it even more constantly, as I do to this day.
Most people know that movie for Robert DeNiro ("You insulted him a little bit") or the scary, Napoleon-complex performance of Joe Pesci. ("You think I'm funny? What, you mean I'm a clown, I amuse you?")
But for us, that movie was all about Liotta, and his character Henry. He has so many golden lines, and can shift so quickly from scary to lovable. My drummer, Ricardo, the funniest man I've ever known, had a brilliant, wordless impression of him making cutlets while looking out the window for FBI helicopters.
I knew nearly every bit of his dialogue. And when I heard Hill had died, I knew exactly which ones I wanted to use. It was the perfect marriage of obit and reporter.
Once I got the tip (it came from TMZ, again) I had the one other reporter in the room try to verify that he had died, and I started typing like crazy. (I was told once that at the AP the deadline is "Now o'clock." It's actually a little bit earlier than that.)
Normally it would be weird to quote, at length, a fictionalized movie character of someone in their real-life obituary. But this case was different. I knew that the movie was based closely on the book, and had the same co-writer, and the book, Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi, came straight from Hill's mouth.
Plus the movie character was the biggest reason Hill was famous in the first place. So I felt perfectly comfortable.
I knew I wanted to use this great line from early in the movie where Henry introduces himself:
“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster. ...For us to live any other way was nuts."
And I absolutely wanted to use this line, the closing speech of the movie, at the end of the obit because it's such a perfect summation of the end of his life:
"I had paper bags filled with jewelry stashed in the kitchen. I had a sugar bowl full of coke next to the bed. Anything I wanted was a phone call away," Hill says. "Today, everything is different. There's no action. I have to wait around like everyone else. Can't even get decent food. Right after I got here I ordered some spaghetti with marinara sauce, and I got egg noodles and ketchup. I'm an average nobody. I get to live the rest of my life like a schnook."
I was worried "schnook" wouldn't be acceptable for the AP wire, which is very family-friendly, but it made it to the final version, though I still can't tell you what it means.
As well as I knew these lines, I'm also not dumb enough to trust my memory when it comes to sending stories out to thousands of readers. Fortunately knowing the gist of each line allowed me to Google it and check it. I was mostly spot on, but had to do some tweaking.
I also knew I had to quote from the book, since it was the beginning of the Henry Hill myth, and probably had a perfect summation of what his job was in the mob, which was hard to glean from the movie.
Trouble was I didn't have a copy of the book, and I was kicking myself because I knew there was one on my girlfriend's shelf. I'd been meaning to borrow it for months but hadn't grabbed it yet.
Getting access to the right parts of books is challenging online, but you can mine bits and pieces by Amazon's look-inside feature and Google books. It took only a little bit of this to find the kind of passage I needed:
"Henry Hill was a hood. He was a hustler. He had schemed and plotted and broken heads," Pileggi wrote in the book. "He knew how to bribe and he knew how to con. He was a full-time working racketeer, an articulate hoodlum from organized crime."
And knowing I had killer quotes and a solid grasp of the material allowed me to relax and let my writing style flow freely, resulted in some of my own lines I really loved, like this one:
"Born in Brooklyn to an Irish father and an Italian mother, Hill's life with the mob began at age 11 when he wandered into a cabstand across the street in 1955 looking for work. He soon knew the life of these silk-suited soldiers was for him." And I especially loved this bit of analysis, which was a thought I'd had as an aficionado of gangster movies for years, but had never put into words:
"Unlike older Mafia tales, which focused on family and honor, "Wiseguy" and "Goodfellas" mostly dwelled on how utterly awesome it was to be in the mob; on the gangster as rock star, at least until the life caught up with you."
Like "schnook," I worried that this casual use of "awesome" would get chopped. But it made it too.
At this point I was getting that good humming feeling that something good was happening.
But things weren't going so well on the verification front. We have strict guidelines on how we verify that someone has died at the AP, it needs to be someone whose name we can use who is either a family member, friend or a close associate of the dead, or a cop or coroner's investigator who will go on the record.
The trouble with Henry Hill was, he had spent much of his life in the witness protection program, and all of his life before that off the grid. As he says in the book and movie, when he got busted the only things that proved he existed were his birth certificate and his police record.
He'd been booted from witness protection years before, but his kids wife and kids had long since severed ties with him and were living under different names, and it's not like you could just call up his colleagues, who were either dead or gone to prison.
TMZ had talked to Hill's longtime girlfriend Lisa Caserta. We knew that was our best bet, and we used our public records resources to find her address pretty readily, but could not find a decent phone number, though we left messages at several.
I even left a Facebook message for her young son, but heard nothing.
So I was stuck with an obit I loved and adored, but it was useless. I had to leave it for the next day's crew, who would then renew our efforts to verify that he'd died.
This killed me, because for all I knew whatever editor got hold of it the next day would have no idea who Hill was, and even with my awesome explanation would have chopped my thousand-word masterpiece down to a boring straightforward 300 words with my name not on it. (Only longer stories get our names on them at AP.)
So I went to bed that night and struggled to sleep, worried at what would be left of my work the next day.
I didn't need to have worried, when I got into work the next day, I learned that after another round of failed phone calls we'd sent a reporter up to the girlfriend's house, where she was sitting on the porch smoking a cigarette and gladly talked to him, and gave him a nice quote or two.
I couldn’t help but grin reading my opening lines, which appeared in countless newspapers and on countless websites around the country, including the New York Times and the Washington Post:
"Henry Hill spent much of his life believing his last moment would come with a bullet to the back of his head. In the end he died at a hospital after a long illness, going out like all the average nobodies he once pitied."
I loved this start, because it got at what made Hill such a great subject for an obit. His death itself was news, not because a prominent person had passed away, but because it meant, in a sense, that he'd won. For most of his life he thought he'd get whacked by the mob, but he'd escaped them all by dying in a hospital bed.
I, for my part, also sat down that day to a round of email love from my editors both in my Los Angeles newsroom and from national headquarters in New York. It was the best thing I'd ever written, and it turned out it was a good thing we couldn't verify it that night, because it had many times the audience the next day.
It really made my name in the company, and it's a wave I'm still riding.
That doesn't mean a whole lot, of course, in the struggling world of journalism. I don't have paper bags full of jewelry, or a sugar bowl full of coke next to the bed, but that's OK. I'm fine with being a regular schnook.
is a reporter for the Associated Press in Los Angeles, sports writing and news reporting have appeared in most of the world's major papers and many of its minor ones. Dalton also edits In Lieu of Flowers, a tumblr dedicated to memorable obituaries, eulogies, and other remembrances of folks past.