And throughout the book there's a series of "Forgotten Forerunners." These are Mobits for people whose great achievements have never been truly recognized—people like Ada Lovelace, the woman who wrote the world's first computer program, way back in 1843.
There are also Mobits for people who aren't people at all. Dragons were for a long time thought to be real. (Game of Thrones fans may want to skip that chapter.) Ditto the behemoth known as the station wagon, which didn't get any kind of obituary when it passed on in 2011. It gets a Mobit.
Distinctions between who is famous now, who used to be famous, and who was never famous are ultimately moot. Back in 2002, my friend and colleague Rita Braver interviewed the late, great writer-director-wit Nora Ephron (Sleepless in Seattle, When Harry Met Sally) for CBS Sunday Morning. (I would later on become friends with Nora.) The segment was tied to the Broadway premiere of Nora's musical Imaginary Friends, about the titanic feud between the larger-than-life writers Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarthy. The interview included this sobering exchange:
RITA: What would you like people to say about Nora Ephron's work in years to come?
NORA: Oh, well, I think one of the things you realize when you write a play about Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarthy, who were in their time way more famous than I am—and who almost no one knows who they are and they've only been dead what, ten or twelve years?—is that there's no point in thinking about what people are gonna say about you...because they probably aren't gonna say anything!
Nora was right. None of the people under thirty who helped put the Mobituaries podcast on the air (and these people are whip smart) knew who Nora Ephron was—and she's only been dead for seven years.
So I'm pretty sure that all the people in these pages are new to someone—and one day sooner than we realize they'll be new to everyone. They'll all be Forgotten Forerunners. All except Audrey Hepburn. I mean, c'mon, Ariana Grande tweets about her.
So please enjoy this book. But first, here is a sentence diagram of the first line of Bill Cosby's obit: (Not Shown).
DEATH OF THE FANTASTIC
I know what you're thinking: Mo, you can't write an obit for dragons because dragons never existed. I mean, what's next? Obits for those silly cartoon animal appliances on The Flintstones? To which I have a three-part response:
1. I, for one, loved the animal appliances on The Flintstones. My favorites were the woodpecker camera and the pelican dishwasher.
2. This isn't an obit; it's a Mobit.
3. Dragons may be imaginary but here's the thing: people used to believe they were real.
For most of Western history, in fact, dragons were considered part of zoology or "natural history," no more mythical than horses or chickens. Ancient writers describing dragons never questioned whether they were real. In the year 77, Pliny the Elder, in his Natural History, a model for the encyclopedia, described epic battles in India between dragons and giant elephants with the professorial tone of a biology teacher detailing how a cheetah runs down an antelope. For the Greeks, in fact, the word drakon simply meant "snake." Over time, bits of folklore and religious symbolism got mixed in with the natural history of the ancients. Writers started to describe dragons of exotic colors that could breathe fire and fly and that Peter, Paul, and Mary would one day sing about. (St. Augustine seems to be the main authority for claiming that dragons can fly. By the eighth century it was normal to see dragons represented with wings.) But no matter how magical these beasts seemed to get, historians still struck the tone of the worldly zoologist whom no marvel could faze. In the early third century, for example, Philostratus, a Greek teacher and orator, sounds as if he sees these flame-belching terrors every day while he's out walking the dog:
The dragons of the mountains have scales of a golden color, and in length excel those of the plain, and they have bushy beards, which also are of a golden hue; and their eye is sunk deep under the eyebrow, and emits a terrible and ruthless glance.
In 1025, the Persian philosopher Abu Ali Ibn Sina (aka "Avicenna") added marine species of the dragon to his Canon of Medicine. He was probably referring to moray eels and stingrays. Fifteenth-century maps warned explorers, "Here be dragons," and featured drawings of both land and sea dragons. And again, in Conrad Gessner's Schlangenbuch, a Renaissance treatise on snakes, a dragon was just another reptile. As late as the early eighteenth century, it was not strange for university-educated men to believe in dragons.