Hugh Massingberd, 60, Laureate for the Departed, Dies
Hugh Massingberd, a celebrated former obituaries editor of The Daily Telegraph of London who made a once-dreary page required reading by speaking frankly, wittily and often gleefully ill of the dead, became the recipient of his own services after dying in West London on Christmas Day. He was 60 and lived in London.
The cause was cancer, according to The Daily Telegraph. The newspaper announced Mr. Massingberd’s death in an expansive obituary that described, not unkindly, his being “invariably strapped for cash” and the “gourmandism” and “bingeing” that had turned him “into an impressively corpulent presence whose moon face lit up with Pickwickian benevolence.”
Sometimes called the father of the modern British obituary, Mr. Massingberd was The Daily Telegraph’s obituaries editor from 1986 to 1994. He was also a shy autodidact who had never been to college; a past editor of Burke’s Peerage, the venerable record book of the titled families of Britain and Ireland; the author of dozens of books on the English aristocracy; a recognized authority on the country homes of England, stately and moldy alike; and a rabid theatergoer whose enthusiasm for “Phantom of the Opera” was undimmed by the fact that he had seen it more than 50 times and knew every word and every note by heart.
In 2002 The Spectator, a British weekly magazine, described Mr. Massingberd as “an English eccentric of the sort Hollywood imagines shoot snipe in their underpants.”
Mr. Massingberd did not actually shoot snipe in his underpants, but he did once pose for a photograph dressed as a Roman emperor garlanded with sausages, as his obituary in The Daily Telegraph helpfully reminded readers on Thursday.
Traditionally, the obituary departments of most newspapers were little Siberias, and The Daily Telegraph’s was no exception when Mr. Massingberd arrived. The long, leaden recitals of awards, club memberships and honorary degrees massed on the page were distasteful pills that writers, and readers, choked down dutifully each day.
Mr. Massingberd transformed the paper’s obituaries from ponderous, sycophantic eulogies into mordant, warts-and-all profiles of the delectable departed. His model, he often said, was the 17th-century English writer John Aubrey, whose collection of biographical sketches, “Brief Lives,” offered gossipy backstairs portraits of eminences of the time.
In Mr. Massingberd’s hands the newspaper obituary became unabashed entertainment, and the page attracted a passionate following that endures to this day. It also helped to set a benchmark for newspapers throughout Britain, where obituaries are now far more irreverent, more editorial and more prurient than their American counterparts. (Witness The Daily Telegraph’s send-off of one Lt. Col. Geoffrey Knowles, “who as a subaltern was bitten in the buttocks by a bear — he survived but the bear expired.”)
Typically unsigned, Daily Telegraph obituaries are written by a stable of contributors. But during Mr. Massingberd’s tenure, observers widely agreed, every obit in the paper bore his droll, distinctive stamp. Naturally, he covered the presidents, kings and captains of industry who are the grist of obit pages everywhere. But Mr. Massingberd also sought out eccentrics; having the good fortune to live in Britain, he found them.
One Daily Telegraph obituary, from 1991, opened this way: “The Third Lord Moynihan, who has died in Manila, aged 55, provided through his character and career ample ammunition for critics of the hereditary principle. His chief occupations were bongo drummer, confidence trickster, brothel-keeper, drug-smuggler and police informer.”
Another, from 1988, memorialized Peter Langan, a London restaurateur: “Often he would pass out amid the cutlery before doing any damage, but occasionally he would cruise menacingly beneath the tables, biting unwary customers’ ankles.”
And there was this much-quoted line, also from 1988, which appeared in The Daily Telegraph’s obituary of John Allegro. A once-renowned scholar of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Mr. Allegro later advanced a theory that Judaism and Christianity were the products of an ancient cult that worshiped sex and mushrooms. His obit in The Daily Telegraph pronounced him “the Liberace of biblical scholarship.”
To dispatch his subjects, Mr. Massingberd used the thinnest of rapiers, but also the sharpest. Cataclysmic understatement and carefully coded euphemism were the stylistic hallmarks of his page. Here, for the benefit of American readers, is an abridged Massingberd-English dictionary:
¶“Convivial”: Habitually drunk.
¶“Did not suffer fools gladly”: Monstrously foul-tempered.
¶“Gave colorful accounts of his exploits”: A liar.
¶“A man of simple tastes”:
A complete vulgarian.
¶“A powerful negotiator”: A bully.
¶“Relished the cadences of the English language”: An incorrigible windbag.
¶“Relished physical contact”:
¶“An uncompromisingly direct ladies’ man”: A flasher.
Hugh John Montgomery was born on Dec. 30, 1946, in Cookham Dean, in the Berkshire district of England. His family, The Daily Mail wrote in 1994, were members of the “stranded gentry.” Hugh’s mother was a schoolteacher; his father worked for the BBC.
But as young Hugh was dreamily aware, the Montgomerys had nobler roots: Through their blue-blooded Massingberd relatives, he stood to inherit two country houses. In the 1960s, in the hope of securing one, Hugh’s father changed the family name to Montgomery-Massingberd. But both inheritances fell through. In the 1990s Hugh shortened his name to Massingberd.
As a young man, Mr. Massingberd planned to go to Cambridge University, thought better of it and took a job as a law clerk. Hating the work, he found his way to Burke’s Peerage, where from 1971 to 1983 he was the chief editor.
When Mr. Massingberd joined The Daily Telegraph as obituaries editor, he later said in interviews, friends regarded him with a mixture of pity and contempt. But he realized two things immediately: First, that a subject’s passage from cradle to grave furnishes writers with a built-in narrative thread from which to spin a ripping good yarn. Second, that personal stories, the odder the better, can be the stuff of deep, life-affirming levity.
One story belonged to this man, the John Allegro of the piano:
“The first sign that Liberace had embarked upon a road along which reticence would never ride came when he placed a candelabra on his piano. At this, the dam of discretion appeared to burst: first came a white tail suit, followed by stage patter about his mother and his philosophy of life, then a gold lamé jacket and a diamond-studded tailcoat.”
Mr. Massingberd’s first marriage, to Christine Martinoni, ended in divorce. He is survived by his second wife, Caroline Ripley, known as Ripples; and two children from his first marriage, Harriet and Luke.
His books include “Royal Palaces of Europe” (Vendome, 1983); “Blenheim Revisited: The Spencer-Churchills and Their Palace” (Beaufort Books, 1985); “Her Majesty the Queen” (Collins, 1985); a memoir, “Daydream Believer: Confessions of a Hero Worshipper” (Macmillan, 2001); and six anthologies of Daily Telegraph obituaries, which, he often said, made splendid bedtime reading.
Mr. Massingberd also belonged to a spate of respectable clubs, but they will not be itemized here.