My Brief Career as a Professional Ghoul

Elizabeth Taylor has died, which I don’t have any particular comment on. I mean, I’m certainly not glad she’s dead; I just can’t add anything to the discussion of her lengthy career. But when she died, as many people pointed out, her New York Times obituary was written by theater/film critic Mel Gussow–who himself died almost six years ago.

This jarred two memories loose from my head. The first is that I edited a book by Mr. Gussow years ago (this one, if you’re curious) and had no idea he died, let alone died so long ago. The second is that I myself was once tasked with preemptive obituary writing.

This was many years ago, when I took a position at a publishing company responsible for many celebrity magazines. If that does not sound like the ideal position for me, you’re correct! I took the job because it paid very well and regretted this decision almost instantaneously.

This job would have been bad enough for me, spiritually speaking, but I was also deceived as to the hours of said job. I was told 10-7, which I almost balked at to begin with. In reality, you were required to be there for an oppressive, insane amount of time, and all to produce the basest, lamest garbage imaginable. Garbage that would inevitably be changed a million times after midnight because of prima donna editors no one could say no to. And you were expected to improve the quality of ultra-shitty camera phone pics blown up way to big, and Photoshop the humanity out of more professional photos. If you were allowed to leave at 2am, you thanked your lucky stars.

This also coincided with my father’s sudden, fatal illness on the other side of the world. So to sum it up, this entire experience was an extended nightmare in every conceivable way.

The first day on the job, I had to stay super late (not knowing yet just how crazy it would get) because we were running a special magazine about Pope John Paul II, who died earlier that day. The bulk of the publication had been prepared for months, years maybe. We just had to prep four brand new pages about his last appearances with some other fluff thrown in. I’d heard of on-file obituaries, but I’d never heard of on-file magazines.

A few weeks later, with my psyche being crushed exponentially each day like a black hole condensing to a singularity, my boss asked me if I’d be interested in working on some special projects. He knew I was a writer and hoped to use these abilities in some way. He wanted me to think up some major celebrities who the company might want to do magazines on in the event of their demise, a la the late Pope, then research said celebrities, then draft some outlines and text for these magazines.

Ghoulish? Maybe a little bit. Maybe a lot of bit. But it also distracted me from closing up Lindsey Lohan’s pores and lightening 1/4-tones in Angelina Jolie pics. So in the little spare time the job afforded, I drew up a list of celebrities who might kick the bucket soon, or whose untimely demise would require big glossy checkout counter magazines.

My list was whittled down to a lean five. I can’t remember all of the names, but the top two were Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor. I dug into Newman first and developed an outline for an imaginary 48-page retrospective on the legendary actor’s life, looking at his most famous roles, his charity work, his theater company, and so on. I whittled down my verbiage to an acceptable level and cut out all the $10 words.

As it turned out, Mr. Newman’s life wasn’t quite splashy enough. Sure, he was Hollywood royalty, but he was also married to the same woman for decades, did honorable charitable work, and seemed like a genuinely good human being. In other words, not what a company that specialized in flinging mud at famous people had in mind.

So the Newman book was quietly tucked away while I was told to move on to Ms. Taylor. I was informed that our archives must have scores of material on her, due to her many divorces and frequent public wackiness. I rang up our off-site archive people and they promised to deliver all clippings on the double-ex-Mrs. Richard Burton.

A week later, I received a ginormous manila envelope containing xerox copies and microfiche printouts going all the way back to the late 1970s. I started to flip through them, but they were all so catty and vicious and full of misplaced anger, I stopped before I could get deeper than three entries. It reminded me of just what kind of place I worked for, of what I helped create, and it made me feel deeply ill. Like, in my soul.

I slid the pile of articles back into the envelope and pushed them to a corner of my desk, placed a large pencil holder on top of it, and assiduously avoided working on the Elizabeth Taylor assignment, hoping my boss would forget about it. Every now and then he’d ask for an update and I’d manufacture some vague progress. Meanwhile, the envelope of sneering articles yelled at me silently inches away.

After a while, I couldn’t bear to have the envelope in eye-shot, so I quietly transferred it to a desk drawer. But in the wee hours, while I waited for layouts to come back from design, I swore I could hear them taunting me, like a tell-tale heart of bitchiness. Sometimes, if I woke up in the middle of the night, I could hear it still. Perhaps now, they are finally at rest.