The following dual blog entry is about two elderly Americans who died the same week in March 2016 and their funerals, both of which I experienced onscreen. One service was my uncle’s, which was webcast, and the other was Nancy Reagan’s televised funeral. My subject is the representations of reality that stand between first-hand (or lived) and on-screen (or mediated) experience. In the case of my uncle, I employ “mediation” in the sense of digital communications employed to share a far-away event. In the case of the former First Lady, I juxtapose the mass media’s portrait of an historical figure against a more accurate, albeit in this case irreverently treated, recollection of her character and qualities.
A DEATH IN THE FAMILY
Thursday night March 10th, my Uncle Howard Bram died. On Sunday I tuned into the webcast of his funeral, streaming from Cleveland Heights. I didn’t know whether or not such webcasts are standard operating procedure at funeral homes now, but it appeared to be at this one. It was new to me and is one of the few cases where the descriptor “surreal” seems to apply. (Since then I’ve taken an informal poll and no one I’ve asked has watched such a webcast.)
The youngest of my maternal grandparents’ four children, Uncle Howard was the second to die, following my mother’s death many years ago. He was an honorable, accomplished and generous man who will be sorely missed, as he was at his grandson’s wedding in Florida, two weeks earlier. I attended the wedding, but did not fly East for the funeral. I was pleased that my cousins had recently organized a 90th birthday party for my uncle and solicited greetings and memories for it at a less emotionally charged moment while he was alive and able to enjoy our anecdotes and accolades.
The tributes to him were also public. Uncle Howard, in fact, could be regarded as an expert in death having spent his entire working life as head of a geriatric facility—a/k/a an old folks’ home—highly regarded for its thoughtful practices and innovative design. (Its chapel even boasted a Ben Shahn window.) One obituary described him as “a visionary in the field of senior care” and the fact that decades ago he had testified before Congress made an indelible impression on me as a teenager.
Funerals are always educational and I learned from his that he was too young to have enlisted in World War II but lied about his age and went on to win a Purple Heart at the Battle of the Bulge. Twenty years ago, shortly after my mother’s death, he wrote something referred to as an “ethical will,” which I’d never heard of. It was evoked during the funeral and distributed via email a few days later to his children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews. Its two single-spaced pages of instructions begins “Be honest at all times” and ends with a final heartfelt request urging his children— needlessly—to continue to make his lovely and loving second wife part of their lives. What a thoughtful and characteristically modest memorial to him!
The unedited, grainy video footage streaming from the funeral resembled nothing so much as the automatic output of a cheap, Canal-St. security camera. Its focus on the speakers at the pulpit neither showed nor even suggested an audience listening to them. The effect of the missing congregation was profoundly alienating, and no doubt the opposite of what was intended, Judging from a two decades-old cover-story in journal format I wrote for Art in America, “The Art World and I Go Online,” little seems to have changed in our online lives since the mid-nineties. The issues central to the then-emerging “virtual” world—censorship, celebrity, online security, cultural margins and mainstreams—were mirrored in the so-called real world of that day and remain with us, both online and off-.
An exception to this stasis is the change of attitudes in the U.S. toward death. In an entry in this article dated April 23, 1995, I discuss futurist Tom Mandel and his unprecedented “blogging” about his fatal, five-month bout with lung cancer. I regarded his disclosures as an oddly self-inflicted invasion of privacy at a time when the still-raging AIDS epidemic was frequently accompanied by losses of medical insurance, jobs and apartments. He was clearly prescient, though, given today’s ubiquity of medical marijuana and the lack of blowback (or even attention) to California Governor Jerry Brown’s recent signing of assisted-suicide legislation. Is it any wonder, then, that a webcast funeral already seems not just inevitable but—even after a single, off-putting experience–everyday?
CHANNELING NANCY REAGAN
The Autobiography of Nancy Reagan by Robert Atkins is a fictional work that begins shortly after the former First Lady’s death but before her funeral. In fact, the televised extravaganza-of-a-funeral Reagan planned long before her death had taken place when this was written, as had the crescendo of gushing mass media coverage about her. The celebrity-crammed funeral brought together strange political bedfellows, each seemingly intent on effusive flattery. The most discussed remarks were those of Hillary Clinton, who credited the Reagans with stimulating discussion about the AIDS crisis during the eighties when history tells us—OOPS!— precisely the opposite. As this sketch begins, we see Nancy Reagan lying in the coffin she selected and channel her thoughts as she steels herself for the imminent funeral. Paradoxically, she has never felt more alive.
Today Nancy Reagan (nee Anne Francis Robbins, a/k/a Nancy Davis) “rests in repose.” Although her detractors insist this is merely an interlude preceding her joyful reunion with Ronnie and their likely immolation in Hell, she no longer cares. She is at peace. She is secretly pleased (and surprised) by the uncritical media drivel her death has generated. No unpleasant reminders of the past, none from Hollywood—so Jewish!—nor from the White House—so Democrat! (And hardly white!) Instead the Presidential Library staff had unleashed a tsunami of stories and pictures and film clips about the Reagan romance that cast a gendered and outdated Hollywood aura over their relationship. If they constantly held hands, it was so she might signal to him to change the subject, to return to the canned responses she and their staffs had laboriously devised. She and Ronnie were a team.
In fact, she was exultant at the their escape from what had seemed like an ever-growing horde of detractors who’d dogged them over the past half century. It was six decades since she’d initiated the therapeutic conversion that transformed Ronnie from Hollywood labor leader to capitalist hard-ass. In the glow of her death, her unappealing reputation as the Dragon Lady (Madame Chiang Kai-shek) who yanked Ronnie’s strings seemed nearly forgotten. Yet the comparison to the Machiavellian Angela Lansbury character in the Manchurian Candidate (1962) still rankled, as she’d sniffed to Barbara Walters (off the record) during their last interview. And how, her mind wandering now, could Frank (Sinatra) have persuaded United Artists to finance that pinko movie in the first place?
The novel from which it was adapted was published in 1959, long after the jittery optimism and innocence that prevailed during the immediate postwar years had passed. This was a golden age when she was Nancy Davis, and MGM was MGM! Where would she be without the studio that had brought her together with Ronnie in 1951? They’d met cute: Ronnie was president of the Screen Actors’ Guild and she’d been mistakenly (and ironically) blacklisted because of another Nancy Davis whose pseudonym she shared. On March 4, 1952–soon after Shadow on the Wall (1951), her debut film, was released–they were married. Daughter Patti was born seven months later, suggesting that she was hardly the prig some thought her. She might have said “No!” but understood all too well that a girl who wanted to be popular during the fifties had to…
Yet what a time it was! Getting General Electric to fund Ronnie’s political re-education was genius. She honed his divisive but down-home style of communicating and reflected, yet again, that he was her greatest creation. She was among the few who early on recognized his genius and its relevance to the political arena. He could tell outrageous (and invented) anecdotes about unmarried Negro welfare moms driving Cadillacs on drugs that didn’t even sound extemporaneous. Being an actor, he could always find a nugget of “truth”—usually from a movie he’d seen or acted in—to motivate what she thought of as his fables of the far right.
Afflicted by a rare sense of remorse she worried about the future of the country she and Ronnie had so shaped. She felt a twinge of guilt about the credulous media and cash-strapped schools that enabled an amnesiac attitude to history that made it easy to re-write the past, in ever more Republican- and patriotic terms. And then how to forget Iran Contra…the astrologers…and the saddening betrayal of their old friend, Rock Hudson.The list wasn’t endless but it was plenty long.
Her disastrous Just Say No! campaign certainly took a toll among the lives of the underclass, especially in conjunction with those 3-strike laws. Still, she’d been around and knew that marijuana led to harder stuff. And what about that over-the-top PR blitz for Just Say No! with Mr. T? God! What a mistake it had been to take that 1983 picture at the White House with the goony boxer-actor-rapper playing Santa while she sat on his lap and planted a kiss on his ebony head. Every little thing sounded so big in print, she thought grimly. She was afraid that her connection with the unconventional Mr. T would be used Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon-style to associate her with even more unsavory characters like Muhammad Ali.
Lost in the past, she was especially grateful that nobody had raised the subject of the contested tax deductions she’d tried to take for the costly weekly trips from Sacramento to her Beverly Hills hairdresser while Ronnie was governor. That was an embarrassment. And what about her hair? Her customary mid-week set was long overdue; perhaps the open casket viewing wasn’t such a good idea after all. Still, she held on to her faith in God and her plastic surgeon. It had been a good life, she mused. We made a difference… And at least she wouldn’t have to attend Hillary Clinton’s inauguration.