“NOTHING IN THIS BOOK is derived from the use of Google or Wikipedia” reads the last line of Adrian Dannatt’s Doomed and Famous: Selected Obituaries. I had thought not. This entertaining collection must derive primarily from personal experience. Jabs, exultations, gossipy whispers, filagreed connections, damning praise, unsung triumphs, proud damnations are not gleaned from plodding research but from the perspiring intimacy of a witness.
How does the author come up with these people? Surely not by assignment. And who is Adrian Dannatt? According to him, his own obituarist (or perhaps this was the one entry his father penned), he has lived a “life haunted by its inherent fictionality.” He seems to be a collector, critic, “resting thespian,” scribbler, gadabout, wit, pleasure seeker, clubber, father, perpetual student, lover, and workaholic. Notebook in hand, he circulates through London, New York, and Paris. With the aurelian passion of a Vladimir Nabokov, he whisks idiosyncratic individuals into his mental butterfly net, examines them, and then releases them back into the wild. As he explains the process:
For decades I wrote obituaries for national newspapers, magazines, newsletters, websites, about people who would not normally receive such attention: the truly marginal, utterly obscure, mad, bad and definitely worrying. Actively avoided by others, many were dear friends or at least dangerous acquaintances.
The artist Adam Fuss notes that tombstones display a dash between the birth and death years, and that little “mark of time” is supposed to represent someone’s life. But isn’t the life the point, not the dates of birth and death? It deserves far more than a dash — and that is the job of the obituarist. The obit is not a melancholy elegy or pavane, not an in memoriam conveying loss. It is not a lamentation, threnody, dirge, burial rite, ablution, burning ghat, or shrine. The obituarist’s work is to evoke presence from a parallel universe of unforgetting. The 2016 documentary Obit, about obituarists at The New York Times, is an obituary for obituary writers, as, apparently, they are a dying breed. Another glorious species facing extinction!
Dannatt displays a dizzying familiarity with high and low society, marking achievements that have designed, dyed, or shredded our cultural fabric. You begin to think, gee whiz, this guy sure likes weirdos. His subjects are not all weird, however, not by a long shot, though the cumulative effect is extravagant eccentricity. You can find Andy Warhol superstar Ultra Violet and degenerate film actor Rockets Redglare (who made “his gesture to the night on a stolen saxophone”), as well as gallerist Guillaume Gallozzi (who introduced graffiti art to the marketplace), prominent architect and editor Michael Spens, or — a favorite of mine — Abe Feder, who created lighting for stage and architecture. Light “is the only design material that can fill space without blocking it,” Feder said. He developed gels and intensities to light an all-black cast in 1934, which led to his 1936 collaboration with Orson Welles in what came to be known as Welles’s “Voodoo” Macbeth, and went on to light a continuous stream of Broadway hits.
Dannatt has chosen his 75 subjects from both the famed and ill-famed, the widely celebrated (“an accomplished and acclaimed artist”) and the flamingly obscure (“New York’s most famous unknown artist”). Energetic descriptions revive dazzling heydays. Each subject is distinguished by his or her style, expressed through grace, stubborn excess, artful neglect, or relentless experimentation. Even I have personally glimpsed some of these people through the windows of the rushing express train of my life.
There’s no negative space, no death in these obits. Doomed and Famous is not a rage against the dying of the light but rather the flick of a match igniting a cigarette that is to be enjoyed in long draws, its ember burning closer and closer to the lips. Danger sizzles in each of these lives. Would you invite Adrian Dannatt to write your living obituary, a service he offers for a small fee? What, in his estimation, encapsulates your life? Would you pique his interest? Do you have that je ne sais quoi? He’s in love with a certain energy, a vintage champagne of vitality. The book can be a rich diet if you try, like I did, to read it cover to cover. It is a salon frozen in print, or a Wunderkabinett of rare specimens. The language is tasty, erudite, and slightly offbeat.
If I were in charge of high school curricula, I’d make Doomed and Famous required reading, to empower eccentric young souls. Dannatt celebrates the life that’s navigated from a true spot, from the inside out. And the book is enlivened by Hugo Guinness’s charming drawings, which add an impish warmth. “You cannot mention a painter, a writer or a society figure from about 1600 AD to the present day without [Adrian] knowing something about them or their circle,” Guinness tells us. “When he arrived on his pink bicycle, wearing other people’s cast off clothes, full of beans and mischief, I couldn’t possibly have said no to his request for me to illustrate his book.”
Which brings us to Doomed and Famous: Selections from the Adrian Dannatt Collection, the exhibition mounted in early 2021 at the Miguel Abreu Gallery on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, on the occasion of the release of Doomed and Famous: Selected Obituaries. According to the gallery’s description, the “show, somewhere between a brocante, an alpine monastery library, and a cabinet de curiosité, gathers highlights from the author’s varied collections, assembled over the years and around the world.” Pleasingly hung in the airy gallery is a myriad of paintings, drawings, photographs, and publications, including work by Rammellzee, Adam Fuss, Tina Modotti, Brion Gysin, Nan Goldin, Damien Hirst, Isamu Noguchi, Richard Smith, Pablo Picasso, and a “quasi-invisible thread” by Siobhan Liddell.
How did I not know that Marcel Duchamp was Constantin Brâncuși’s agent in the United States? Or that Guy Debord valued Claude Lorrain’s work most of all? Downstairs in the gallery sits a striking wooden construction that is either an artwork by Donald Judd or a piece of Judd’s trash (I vote for the former), along with the most beautiful example I have ever seen of a cut-up artwork inspired by Gysin and William S. Burroughs, by Laurie Anderson. There are several portraits of Adrian Dannatt by prominent artists, which indicate that the man himself is not inherently fictional, as Dannatt (or his father) suggests, but a living, breathing fact.