Something that always bothered me when placing obituaries in the newspaper was how small they were; some varied from a dozen paragraphs to as little as two sentences, but no matter the length, it felt inadequate. We’re talking about an entire life summed up in a few words on a page. And when you are talking about the movers and shakers of the world, that hardly seems to be an adequate way to tell their story in such a limited space. Enter Mo Rocca, a CBS Sunday Morning correspondent, with his 2019 book (with credit also given to Jonathan Greenberg), Mobituaries: Great Lives Worth Reliving to expand upon those stories with the aptly named “mobituary.” I listened to his book on audiobook, which felt fitting not just because Mo himself read it, but because Mobituaries feels like an outgrowth of Mo’s podcast of the same name. And if you didn’t know that, as I didn’t, you’d know that by the end of the audiobook: If you took a drink every time Mo mentioned the podcast, well, I’d be pulled over for a D.U.I. for one. I jest, I jest. I’m seriously going to listen to the podcast now, so it worked! (And to be fair, I think the podcast was created to generate interest in the book’s release in November 2019, but they obviously compliment each other.)
Mo’s project isn’t just about trying to do these stories justice in terms of space, but also in terms of context. Obituaries are written by those in the present, and often, those who died are judged by what is presently thought of them. As such, maybe a whole portion of their life is, rightly or wrongly, footnoted in the obituary, if at all. Mo wants to expand upon that “footnote” or fill in the gaps. He is also interested in telling “mobituaries” about categories you wouldn’t suspect would be deserving of an obituary, but makes perfect sense to “mourn” in a sense, like dragons and unicorns (yes), disco, the American station wagon, trees intentionally killed at Auburn University, and medical practices that have gone by the wayside, and so on. I also liked how he would end each chapter with, “And other …” examples of whatever he was doing an mobituary on, like the practice of bloodletting as a “fix” for more ailments up until late in the 19th century.
As I learned listening to Mo, his particular passions are the entertainment industry, as he talks at length about Audrey Hepburn (not Katharine Hepburn), Elizabeth Taylor, Barbra Streisand; sitcoms, with an extended section on the death of rural shows in the early 1970s; and presidential history, talked about throughout the book, such as the worst presidents, presidents with better pre-presidential legacies (and conversely, those with better post-presidential legacies), and Herbert Hoover. I’m all about it: I’m passionate about those things, too! That is why I enjoyed listening to this book, not only because I enjoy digging into Herbert Hoover and Elizabeth Taylor as much as Mo, but I learned a lot about each, and other related topics.
For example, because of Mo, I now want to spend my 2023 going down the rabbit hole of the Reconstruction Era, and in particular, the black Congressman of Reconstruction. Mo penned a “mobituary” to Reconstruction, an era which lasted about as long as disco did in the 1970s a century thereafter. Mo tells a story about Frederick Douglass writing back to one of the first black United States Senators regarding his portrait, saying (to paraphrase), “Whatever their prejudice, they will have to recognize you as a man.” That made me instantly think about how 100 years later, black men still had to march with signs that read, “I Am a Man.” Or, because of Mo, I want to learn more about Thomas Paine, which me not knowing much about Thomas Paine is sort of the point of Mo doing a mobituary on him. Because, why was Paine, who was arguably the intellectual giant behind the American Revolution, so seemingly hated and scorned to where only six or so people showed up for his funeral? Well, Mo explains, Paine was uncompromisingly radical and progressive, certainly in a way that was ahead of his time. He even argued against capital punishment! A line Mo quoted from Paine stuck with me: “My mind is my own church.”
Perhaps the most fascinating mobituary, and there are many in Mo’s book, was about Chang and Eng Bunker, Siamese-American conjoined twins, which gave us the term Siamese twins in the 1800s. The brothers started out as circus “freaks” exhibited throughout the United States until they decided they didn’t want to be slaves to a contract controlled by others. At that point in the story, as Mo points out, we’re sympathetic to them! You could argue they were being exploited. It even turned out well for them at first when you learn they married, and between the two of them, fathered 21 children. Mo explains how the sex worked, so you’ll have to get the audiobook for that explanation. But then the mobituary takes a dark turn: To fit in and pass as white in the South, the Bunker twins owned more than dozen men, women, and children as slaves. When the Confederacy started, they moronically put much of their money into the Confederacy’s currency. When they both died within hours of each other, given they shared a liver, a public autopsy was conducted on them, which is gross and returns them to exploitation.
More things I didn’t know (see what I did there?):
- John Quincy Adams didn’t attend Andrew Jackson’s inauguration in 1829 (and his father, John Adams, also a president, didn’t go to Thomas Jefferson’s). Andrew Johnson also didn’t attend his successor’s inauguration. So, we had 152 years of a respectful, peaceful transfer of power norm disrupted by … Donald Trump in 2021. Good times.
- Lois Weber, a “forgotten forerunner” in Hollywood; another forgotten forerunner was Moses Fleetwood Walker, who was actually the first African American Major League Baseball player ahead of Jackie Robinson, and who used to catch before they used mitts.
- Just how much of a humanitarian Herbert Hoover was, to where he is credited with saving 10 million lives during World War 1 by sending food to Europe. That was before he was president, mind you, and he was just a regular citizen. Unfortunately, that led people, including Hoover himself, to overestimate his technocratic wizardry as translate to governance.
- The sad, sad fate of Vaughn Meader, who became famous across the country, and who outsold Elvis at the young age of 27, for his impersonation and skits about John F. Kennedy. He is seriously good; check him out. Then Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, um, killing Meader’s act. Eek. That said, I understand what Mo was going for with the usual narrative about America being a more innocent country prior to the assassination, similar to how people say it was a more innocent time in America prior to 9/11, but I disagree with such longing nostalgia. It wasn’t an innocent time for minorities, who still weren’t considered persons deserving full rights, or women, or gays, and so on. I don’t think Mo is suggesting otherwise, to be fair, but there is a strong sense of wanting to capture that innocence again. I think it’s a false nostalgia, though.
- I had no idea of Elizabeth Taylor, who has perhaps my favorite performance in all of film as Martha in 1966’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, was such a staunch proponent of AIDS research and destigmatization at a time in the early 1980s when that was decidedly the radical, minority position. She even created, and helped to fund, the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation.
- Speaking of Woolf, the literary beef between her and the English writer Arnold Bennett was fascinating. He was a celebrity in his time, but Woolf came along and said, “Actually, literature is moving in this modernist direction. Bye, Arnold,” and she was right, much to his chagrin.
- Let’s just say, I would read an entire book on the Quaaludes phenomenon.
I do have to disagree with Mo: Yes, I can see the argument for Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon, and James Buchanan (he considers Buchanan the worst) being three of the four on the Mount Rushmore of Worst Presidents, but Warren Harding?! I understand that Teapot Dome was like the Watergate or Iran-Contra of its time, but I have a hard time putting that above Woodrow Wilson bringing the United States into World War 1 and his virulent racism (and how that manifest in the federal government), or worse yet, Harry Truman’s use of two atomic weapons on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Japan. Nonetheless.
Another area I didn’t so much disagree with, but found a smidge overwrought was actually the concluding mobituary: For the trees murdered in Auburn. I agree that Harvey Updyke, who poisoned the famed oak trees, was wrong in doing so, but I feel like Mo goes a little too hard at him by calling it murder, and such an unforgivable crime. Two years before Updyke died, Mo went and interviewed him to see if he was remorseful for having done it, and instead, learned a great deal about the man himself. That Updyke’s father died before he really knew him, and Bear Bryant, the famed Alabama head coach, became something of a father figure thereafter, leading to his motive for poisoning the oak trees.
Mo interviews quite a few people as research for his book, whether it was Updyke, the family members of Audrey Hepburn, or even the grandson of President John Tyler’s grandson (yes, his grandson), Harrison Tyler. Isn’t it extraordinary that America is so young, three generation of men could stretch its entire history, albeit the men had children late in life?
Woven throughout Mo’s book are also funny, often touching anecdotes about his own life and growing up in the 1970s. He mentions, for example, how elated he was to have the entire set of Encyclopedias as a kid in 1974, but then how dismayed he was to continue going to the “H” page on homosexuality because the entry was ridiculous, and in an era when the American Psychiatric Associate through its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders still considered homosexuality a mental illness and a curable one at that, i.e., one could “switch your preference” if they merely exercised some will power and used psychiatric intervention.
So, in using these anecdotes throughout, it was fitting that Mo finished with a dedication to his father, the man who inspired and formed his passions for obituaries, the entertainment business, sports, and perhaps most importantly, to infuse those passions with compassion.
The best books are ones I learn a great deal from, even if its tantamount to something that might merely make a good, “Hey, did you know?” trivia fact later down the road, I enjoy learning it. Or it is such interesting information, it makes me want to learn more, like the aforementioned short-lived Reconstruction Era. But also, Mo is funny, if a little corny at times, making for an enjoyable listen. But I also get Mo’s corny, over-the-top style: He is a person fascinated by reading obituaries, after all. A person like that is bound to be a little quirky by nature.
If that sounds like your vibe, then you will enjoy his book, and if you are into audiobooks, I quite enjoyed listening to him read it, too. His passion and compassion shine through.