Concerning Obituaries

Concerning Obituaries On page 92T of the January-February issue, Deborah Smullyan pays a glowing tribute to Theodore Alvin Hall ’44, a...

Concerning Obituaries

On page 92T of the January-February issue, Deborah Smullyan pays a glowing tribute to Theodore Alvin Hall ’44, a distinguished physicist who died in 1999. Mr. Hall was a distinguished scientist, but also a truly outstanding Soviet spy. While thousands and thousands of American soldiers were suffering and dying to liberate Nazi-occupied Europe and its hideous concentration camps, Hall, who was draft-exempt, was doing his level best to supply the Soviets with atomic data. In so doing he contributed to filling Stalin’s and Beria’s gulag with millions of prisoners digging for uranium.

Yes, Hall was the subject of a book, but its title is not only Bombshell, but Bombshell: The Secret Story of America’s Unknown Atomic Spy Conspiracy. Why did Smullyan leave out part of the title? This is rank dishonesty. Hall was a disgusting American traitor, but those who pay a glowing tribute to him are absolutely obscene.

A. L. de Saint-Rat
Veteran, Free French Forces
Oxford, Ohio

I am intrigued by “Other Deaths Reported.” It strikes me as back-of-the-hand: “Here are some people who died, but we don’t know much about them.” Or worse: “These alumni/ae died, but they weren’t very important, so we’re relegating them to this list.”

I am also curious about how you learn of things like the Bronze Star and Purple Heart. Those are awards that most recipients don’t mention to anyone—at least not many years after getting them—and that aren’t routinely included in a c.v.

James T. Rogers ’42
Sugar Loaf, N.Y.

I have noticed a subtle form of discrimination in your obituaries. When a married person dies, you list the spouse (if any) first among the survivors. When a person has a same-sex partner, why do you not treat the partner as a spouse? It shows a certain disrespect to gay and lesbian relationships that is unfortunate and unnecessary. The fact that there is no legal recognition of gay relationships (except in some jurisdictions) is no excuse.

Roland Dunbrack ’85, Ph.D. ’93

Obituaries editor Deborah Smullyan replies: The omission of Theodore Hall’s espionage was egregious. Several things “conspired” to produce an account that was regrettably incomplete.

First, somehow I never saw the New York Times containing Hall’s obituary in November 1999. Then the file at Alumni Information Services, which should have contained a copy of the Times obit, was empty when I checked it. The information in Hall’s class reports was sketchy, so I wrote his widow. She provided considerable information about his scientific career and mentioned Bombshell (but not the subtitle). She also referred me to obituaries in the Times and Washington Post, but since my space is short and she had provided what seemed more than enough information, I did not look up those accounts; if I had, I would have known about Hall’s admitted role as a spy. I view an experience like this, though unfortunate, as an opportunity to improve my procedures.

I try hard not only to list accomplishments, but to give some idea of what made a person tick, his passion and purpose in life. As I now know, Hall was the youngest physicist working on the A-bomb project at Los Alamos in 1944, and his feelings of responsibility ever afterward for helping unleash that destructive technology on the world seem to have been the impetus for his later intelligence activities, which he claimed were an effort to prevent an American monopoly on nuclear weapons. Without mention of these events, the obituary that appeared in our pages was inadequate. I plead guilty not to dishonesty, but merely to ignorance and shoddy research. For those, I apologize sincerely.

“Other Deaths Reported” lists alumni whose families never responded to my request for more information—I wait a full year for an answer—or for whom I have no current address. We felt it was important to let their classmates know they had passed away. (Most families of older Radcliffe alumnae send information to the Radcliffe Quarterly. We are happy to include the information we receive, but don’t pursue it, since we are confident it will appear elsewhere.) If readers find a friend listed in “Other Deaths Reported” and can supply more information or a way to contact the family, we will be glad to include a full obituary in a future issue. The notion that the magazine would relegate “unimportant alumni” to a separate list goes against everything we believe about our responsibility to our readers.

The question about the Bronze Star and Purple Heart surprises me. I cull nearly all my information from newspaper obituaries, letters from families and friends, and class reports. Such military honors are routinely mentioned in these sources—and I include them when I can, because I believe that those combat and survival experiences were defining moments in the lives of many men of your generation.

Regarding the order of survivors, Mr. Dunbrack’s contention that “the fact that there is no legal recognition of gay relationships (except in some jurisdictions) is no excuse” overlooks one valuable aspect of legal marriage: to wit, everyone knows what is meant by the words wife and husband, which is not the case for the panoply of terms used to describe extramarital relationships: dear friend, partner, beloved companion. Our concern has been that to place a lesser relationship first in the list of survivors would offend those who follow—the grief-stricken children, parents, and siblings—so we have played it safe by putting all extramarital relationships, whether gay or straight, last.

Spurred by Mr. Dunbrack’s letter, however, Harvard Magazine is ready to shift its policy. The prevalence of life partner as the gay equivalent of spouse; the fact that one state has endowed gay civil unions with legal status; and our sense that, in this day and age, most families will feel comfortable about having the life partner of their lost loved one listed first—have persuaded us that a rule change is in order. From now on, in cases where a same-gender relationship is clearly marital in its nature and intent, the magazine will list the life partner first, in the spousal spot.

Writing obituaries in ways that honor the dead but do not irk the living can be a challenging endeavor. I thank the readers for raising my consciousness a notch.

You might also like

John Manning Appointed Interim Provost

Harvard Law School dean moves to central administration

Facebook’s Failures

Author and tech journalist Jeff Horwitz speaks at Harvard.

Kevin Young Named 2024 Harvard Arts Medalist

Museum director and poet to be honored April 24

Most popular

Convocation 2017: What Should an Education Be at Such a Moment?

Speakers reflect on the goals of a liberal arts university. 

Nicco Mele

The director of the Shorenstein Center on how the Internet came to mean so much to him. 

Found in Translation

Maureen Freely ’74, longtime translator of Orhan Pamuk, shares the nuances of bringing a text from one language to another.

More to explore

Photograph of Winthrop Bell 1910

Winthrop Bell

Brief life of a philosopher and spy: 1884-1965

Illustration of people talking to each other with colorful thought bubbles above their heads

Talking about Talking

Fostering healthy disagreement

Vacationing with a Purpose

New England “summer camps” for adults