Tag Archives: obituary

Of King Coal and Cleopatra, and icons and leaders

Geraldine Ferraro.  Pinetop Perkins.  Lanford Wilson.  The gifts they, and many other Americans, have shared are almost too much to ponder.  Their presence and passing through this age?  A reminder to appreciate the many forms leaders take and the elements that turn them into icons.  

One look at Elizabeth Taylor and those elements were abundantly clear.  Or so one thought.  It turns out that things went a bit deeper than incandescent looks and a lust for life that shot through every performance.  There were loyalty and empathy, two traits that can, but should not, be hard to come by in a leader or an icon.  

As a young Virginian exposed to Miss Taylor's charisma during a whirlwind political campaign, on a night when it seemed every man left every woman's side just to catch a glimpse of her, I witnessed not just the power of glamour but the pull of celebrity.  Standing in front of her, though, I wondered what she was thinking about all of us.  Turns out that evening was probably one of many during which she sacrificed her own comfort to support her spouse.  Yet Miss Taylor not only made it look easy, she seems to have put this quality to use later in evangelizing the importance of compassion for others.

Sacrifice is not an element usually associated with stardom, God-given beauty, serial monogamy — or being a corporate CEO.  When it is, though, it's noteworthy.  

The March obituaries told us the story of another onetime Virginian who had as elite a pedigree as any of today's CEOs, if not moreso, but chose to hone his leadership style from the ground up.  Literally.  

Ted Leisenring was the easy heir to the mighty Westmoreland Coal Company throne, but he worked as if that throne were someone else's to steal.  Upon his graduation from Yale, he headed to Big Stone Gap, Virginia, to labor underneath the ground, side by side, with the people who would be his employees.  Years after that, Mr Leisenring represented the coal companies in a long labor negotiation with the miners.  

My guess is that, for someone who respected the union, Mr Leisenring's negotiating position was reached with clarity of conscience and purpose.  According to Dan Rottenburg, author of In the Kingdom of Coal, Mr Leisenring dedicated the company to opening the lines of communication inside it after the strike was over.  He didn't revel in the victory over wildcatters, he sought to anticipate the concerns that gave rise to action which hurt the miners as much it hurt the companies.  The miners were not remote entities or heads on a spreadsheet; they were people, like him, who had a job to do.  

Here's to the leaders who don't try to be icons.  And the icons who lead.




Obituaries and eulogies

Among other types of essays and articles, I save obituaries and eulogies.  That's because so many of the latter contain nuggets of wisdom or something thought provoking — a point that takes the reader to a new place.

NEW YORK magazine published three remembrances of Paul Newman, all of which are excellent.  My favorite, though, is from fellow writer Richard Russo.

There was a pivotal scene in the film Nobody’s Fool [which
Russo wrote] when Paul’s character, Sully, and his son Peter are
sitting in a car. Sully’s trying to explain why he bailed out so early
in the boy’s life, about what an abusive father his own father was. In
the screenplay, Sully went on for about a page. Paul said, “We don’t
need all that.” I said, “How’s the viewer supposed to react to the past
if it’s not explicated?” He said, “I’ll know what to do.” So I cut it
at about half. I thought I’d done my job, until I saw it afterwards.
He’d cut it down to “He was a big man. Your mother was just a little
bit of a woman. And, boy, could he make her fly.” That was all that was
left, but with the camera pushing in on his face, all that history was
in that haunted look. Paul told me, “Don’t rob me of my memory. That’s
all I have. If you share my memory with the viewer, you’re stealing it
from me, and I’ve got to have that.”

the time, actors want more lines, juicier lines. Paul understood that
less was more. For him, the words were often so much less important
than the physicality, the gestures. He was a dream of a physical actor.
Even as he was just eating up the camera, he never showed the slightest
interest in eating the camera.

Maybe Mr Russo tells us this story for the same reason I like it so much.  One of the first things you learn as a writer is to match your adoration for words with a ruthless ability to cut them.  Russo was not only open to that necessity in the story he relates, he was open to hearing what Mr Newman could teach him.

There is much more here, too.  The true professional retains his presence in the room not just by what he says but by what he doesn't say.  One of the most distressing — and downright annoying — aspects of the new democratization of media is the amount of unedited, unfiltered drivel that gets passed around as insight.  If we all apply the lesson taught by Paul Newman in this story, we will find the eloquence we crave.

Make sure to read the other two eulogies, by actor Philip Seymour Hoffman and director Sam Mendes, too.  They are just terrific.  And most rewarding for fans who always knew that the most attractive thing about Mr Newman's eyes were the thoughts behind them.