I confess I didn’t know there was a third Berrigan brother who was also a political activist and peace protester, though not an ordained one. Nevertheless, he appears to have possessed the characteristic Berrigan sense of vocation and certitude.
And did you know that the gangster (Paulie) played by Paul Sorvino in Goodfellas (was it pasta he was cooking to serve with the lobsters in his posh prison cell?) was based on a Brooklyn mobster named Paul Vario? Or that it was an undercover cop, who also happened to be a former teenage delinquent from Brooklyn, who set up Vario and hundreds of other gangsters in one of the NYPD’s most successful sting operations? “As soon as the guy thinks you’re a cop, it’s just like him knowing you’re a cop,” explained Douglas LeVien, the detective who infiltrated the mob. “If he’s suspicious, he’s gonna ask you who’s your mother and who’s your grandmother. And that test you’ll never pass. Then you’re dead.” Ah, gangsters and their mothers. What’s up with that?
Or what about noir and B movie actress Coleen Gray, she of the “luminous skin”? Gray, born Doris Bernice Jensen, played an ingénue opposite John Wayne in Howard Hawke’s classic Red River (1948), and often complained of not being cast as more of a seductress. Later in her career that wish was evidently granted when she starred in The Leech Woman (1960), playing a predator who somehow used fluid from men’s brains to forestall aging.
That role certainly sounds like a career changer, but it didn’t prevent Gray from securing roles on TV’s Mr. Ed —you know, the show with the avuncular talking horse. Perhaps it was male brain fluid that made Mr. Ed so articulate. After three marriages, Ms. Gray ended up working with Charles Colson’s (he of Watergate fame) evangelical ministry. That’s quite a story “arc.” (More on Watergate in a minute.)
Then there is Manuel Contreras, former head of Chile’s gestapo-like secret police under dictator General Augusto Pinochet. Contreras eventually ended up in prison after Pinochet was deposed, although his accommodations there were more resort-like than punishing. On his watch more than 3,200 people were murdered or “disappeared.” In 1978 one of his agents assassinated Orlando Letelier, Chile’s former ambassador to the United States, by planting a bomb under his car in Washington, D.C. I remember the headlines, and the questions about U.S. collaboration with the Pinochet regime. Of course, Contreras never admitted a thing.
Who was the man who negotiated Richard Nixon’s pardon (quite a big deal for those of us of a certain age)? His name was Benton Becker, a lawyer and aide to President Gerald Ford. Ford hoped the pardon might help to heal the country’s divisions in the aftermath of Watergate, but it probably did the opposite. It also contributed to Ford’s defeat in the 1976 race against Jimmy Carter. For his part, Becker contended that in accepting a pardon, Nixon acknowledged that he had obstructed justice in the investigation into the Watergate affair. But Becker also maintained that the real reason for the break-in at Democratic National Headquarters in the Watergate was never revealed. He seems to have thought that someone other than Nixon, with his own motivations, was directing the operation.
As I’m sure you’ve guessed, these stories come from the obituary pages of Sunday’s New York Times. I read the Times’ obits every day. It is the nature of a newspaper to give you only part of what is an ongoing story. The news keeps unfolding each day. Obituaries, on the other hand, have a pleasing sense of completeness. Yes, it is a snapshot of a life, but still a snapshot of a life in whole. The mix of personalities on the obit page is just as important. Of course, attention must be paid to the powerful and the accomplished, but there should also be room for the eccentric, the unfortunate, and for those whose stories can broaden our understanding of what it means to live a meaningful life. Selecting just the right details is what separates an artful obituary from a mundane one. The Times is pretty good at this, better than at other things it does. Brain fluid!
I am also a dutiful reader of the Times’ opinion pages, an increasingly unsatisfying discipline. The obituaries are an especially welcome alternative to Frank Bruni’s caterwauling about Catholicism or Maureen Dowd’s gossip column. But I must admit that Dowd’s apologia for Donald Trump’s winning way with women (“I’ve known Trump a long time….he’s always treated me courteously and professionally”) was an eye opening exercise in iconoclasm. Her assessment of the choices we have when it comes to presidential candidates? “It’s always a pig in a poke. So why not a pig who pokes?”
If that is what passes for political commentary these days, please give me The Leech Woman.