Series of four newspaper obituaries. The names of the subjects are perfect anagrams.
D’une série de quatre nécrologies publiées dans le journal Washington Post. Les noms des défunts sont des anagrammes parfaites.
In the fall of 1965 the Washington Post ran a series of obituaries that surprised and puzzled many of its readers. The death notices announced the passing of a number of significant figures in various fields of endeavour – the Austrian composer Wendall Podson-Fohr, the English grass-court tennis champion Edward Follhond-Spoon, the Australian poet Ronald Doon-Fowles, the Canadian landscape painter Ralph Donoldson Foe.
What was surprising was that no one had heard of these men. The first unusual notice ran in the September 17 edition of the Post; one followed each week, for the next three weeks. This pattern was not realized until later, to the Post’s embarrassment.
A few readers noticed the strangeness almost at once. The obituaries, all attributed to established and respected professionals in their fields, shared a number of characteristics, more apparent as the weeks passed. Each was born in or near a town named Blue Lake; the full names of each were anagrams of each other; each died of a cancer of the larynx, at precisely the same age – 53.
The four clippings themselves are kept by the Friends of the Library in a small white envelope with Owens-Flood scrawled across the back in a faded brown ink, and the filing numbers 011-27-1965. The envelope is the least impressive item in this wondrous and odd collection, and yet the envelope is soft where it has been handled and re-handled, rubbed down to a fur of paper along its edges. The clippings themselves – six half-sheets of yellowing newsprint – smell faintly of sunlight and dust and a chemical tang just sharp enough to be noticed. The paper feels so light it might not exist. When the clippings are turned and lifted into the light for a clearer reading, light flares behind the newsprint and the faint ghostings of one’s fingers are immediately visible.
Most striking, at first, are the images of the deceased – blurred images, all of them unclear. Two of them are distant photographs showing the deceased crossing a street, or standing alone at the centre of a tennis court. The Austrian composer’s head is shown only from the back. The photograph of the Canadian painter shows a crowd in what appears to be a gallery, and no caption distinguishes which man is the artist. The paper crackles very softly. The overwhelming sense is of a thing lonely, lost, and sad.
The Prud’homme family appears to have had a close relationship to these clippings. “Our great uncle was nearly killed by an automobile in the early fifties in Paris,” Henri’s great-grand-niece explains. “An American saved his life. The two became friends, and corresponded for many years. They shared an interest in hoaxes and public falsehoods. These were sent to us after his death.”
That man’s name was Randolph Owens-Flood. He was not an American at all, but a Canadian, born and raised in the town of Blue Lake, Manitoba. Owens-Flood served as the obituaries editor at the Washington Post from 1963 until the time of his death, in October 1965. He died of cancer of the larynx. He was 53.
The spurious obituaries written by Owens-Flood were noticed almost at once. Concerned readers began writing in, requesting clarification and information. These letters were delivered to Owens-Flood, as editor of the department; he carefully noted and kept each in a growing file marked Owens-Flood. He did not respond to any. These were not discovered until after his death.
The incident was noted by the Post with an awkward retraction in the November 6th edition. No further comment was ever made. Privately, newspaper editors considered Owens-Flood’s bizarre hoax a result of his illness, a brief madness, and the incident was forgotten.
Forgotten until it was featured in a chapter on media and the manipulation of truth, by the media critic (and one-time student of Marshall McLuhan), Hywell Rhys, in his 1988 book Poisoning the Waters: Truth in an Age of Lies. Rhys considered Owens-Flood an early critic of the dissemination of information, and a man whose final gesture was one marked with courage and public outrage. “Owens-Flood’s invented biographies forced the Washington Post’s readers to question the nature of what they were reading, to bring doubt into their living rooms and kitchens, at the dawn of the Vietnam War,” Rhys wrote.
Following the publication of Poisoning the Waters, the obituaries of Owens-Flood have been examined and discussed in journalism, ethics, and philosophy courses throughout the United States. His obituaries seem both current and relevant, as critiques of media relations. And yet what seems most clear is that Owens-Flood’s invented biographies, though possibly public in their outrage, were also very much private gestures.
A tall thin man with a narrow moustache, Randolph Owens-Flood was the perfect newspaperman. In the only extant photograph of him, he wears his shirtsleeves rolled, his tie askew, and he is grinning darkly at something just over the photographer’s shoulder. He did not ever marry. He left no children, no family ties, no siblings. His mother died when he was seven; his father died two years before Owens-Flood was diagnosed with cancer.
Owens-Flood was born in 1912, and moved with his father to Toronto in 1925, after the death of his mother. As a young man, it seems, he was a promising tennis champion, until an injury to his knee forced him to retire from the sport. During the war he traveled with the Canadian military to Germany as a ‘War Artist,’ and stayed behind in Paris as a correspondent for a number of American newspapers until 1952. His homosexuality made the more liberal Paris a welcome home during those years, but it seems some sort of scandal forced him to return to North America. He settled eventually in Washington, DC.
The obituaries themselves appear to be the playing out of the lives Owens-Flood did not lead. Each name is an anagram of Randolph Owens-Flood; the births and deaths identical. As the ethics scholar Janet Madhoff has written, “Owens-Flood played out, in his last days, a personal examination of his own possible lives, the people he might have been. There is no way of knowing how much of this was bitterness, or anger, or simply disappointment. But on some level, he seemed to be claiming that we are each of us not just one, but many: many lives and, in his sad instructive case, many deaths.”