Was It Really So Bad That Rocket Scientist Yvonne Brill’s Obit Mentioned the Beef Stroganoff?

A column about life, culture, and politics.
April 2 2013 1:14 PM

Obit Gaffe

In rocket scientist Yvonne Brill’s obit, was it so bad to mention the beef stroganoff?

President Obama awards the National Medal of Technology to Ms. Yvonne C. Brill for innovation in rocket propulsion systems for geosynchronous and low earth orbit communication satellites, which greatly improved the effectiveness of space propulsion systems, at the White House, Oct. 21, 2011, in Washington, D.C.
President Obama awards the National Medal of Technology to Ms. Yvonne C. Brill for innovation in rocket propulsion systems for geosynchronous and low earth orbit communication satellites, which greatly improved the effectiveness of space propulsion systems, at the White House, Oct. 21, 2011, in Washington, D.C.

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

I found the dust-up over Yvonne Brill’s misguided obituary in the New York Times oddly compelling. There was the absurd first line— “She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children”— that later vanished, after online mockery and outrage, and then transformed into a more acceptable version with the phrase “brilliant rocket scientist” in the first sentence.

 

This was clearly a misstep on the part of the Times’ obituary writer. Brill invented an important propulsion system to keep communications satellites in their orbits. He should not have opened with that line. But would it have been so terrible to mention her beef stroganoff, her years off of work, her dedication to motherhood somewhere in the obituary? Part of me had the upstanding feminist response that it would have been, but I was not actually so sure.

 

All of this reminded me of an obituary-like piece Elizabeth Hardwick once wrote about Mary McCarthy that I had found unsettling. Hardwick wrote, “She had her say, but I never knew anyone who gave so much pleasure to those around her. Her wit, great learning, her gardening, her blueberry pancakes, beautiful houses.” Those blueberry pancakes seemed gratuitous, the nod toward her domestic arts dismissive, especially in memorializing such a fierce, uncompromising writer. It seemed to soften her contribution, to subtly demean her. I couldn’t help thinking that in spite of Hardwick’s apparently admiring tone, it was somehow an effort to undermine McCarthy (Hardwick had, after all, in spite of their very close friendship, published a parody of McCarthy’s The Group in the New York Review of Books under a pseudonym.) On the other hand, I have noticed the detail of the blueberry pancakes has stayed in my mind for years and years of teaching and reading Mary McCarthy. I had somehow become attached to the blueberry pancakes. They complicate and broaden and enhance my inner picture of McCarthy, her spirited navigation of life. (She may have slept with three men in one day, ruthlessly parodied acquaintances, but she also had a strain of traditional feminine correctness, pretty ideas of domestic peace.)

 

But McCarthy is a writer, and some argue that women scientists are treated with special condescension and unseemly fascination that needs to be specifically addressed. This brings us to “The Finkbeiner Test,” which has several criteria for stories about women scientists, including that they not mention the fact that she is a woman, her husband’s job, her child care arrangements, how she is the first woman to do whatever it is, among other things. One can entirely sympathize with the intentions behind this test, the outrage women scientists must feel at the curiousity about their lives, the attention to their femaleness, the scrutiny of their personal lives and yet it strikes me that something about this “test” is a little doctrinaire. One is supposed to write about women scientists in the same way as male scientists, but if we are honest, they are not exactly like male scientists; at this precise moment in history, they are cooler.

 

It turns out that Brill said some things that strict proponents of the Finkbeiner Test may wish she hadn’t. The Washington Post’s more detailed obituary mentions that in describing her choice to follow her husband she said, “good jobs are easier to find than good husbands.” In fact, this is more disturbing or challenging to an easy or uplifting feminist narrative than the beef stroganoff. She says it with confidence, and of course she turned out to be right in her own case, having managed to pull off a stellar career, a long marriage, three children, and four grandchildren. This particular calculation may “have no place” in an obituary that is solemn and serious in its celebration of her achievements, or in any correctly feminist assessment of her life and times, but it is interesting. If you read obituaries like little novels, like many people do, it does engage the reader and complicate a tiny bit her understanding of the world, to know a little more about Yvonne Brill.

 

One aspect of the Finkbeiner Test is to switch the genders and see if the sentence sounds ridiculous (and there is at least one parody of the Brill obituary that does that, “Family Man Who Invented Relativity and Made Great Chili Dies.”) To do this myself, I think of my own father’s obituary in the New York Times It mentions his contributions to psychoanalytic research, his clinical studies of infants and children; it does not include the line, “He loved to catch striped bass and cook it for his family and friends” or “he made a mean boeuf bourguignon.” It occurs to me that it would have captured him better, come closer to the spirit of the man, if it had. The idea that obituaries should stick reverently to work and steer clear of life may be a sort of lifeless convention when it comes to men or women.

 

To begin the obituary on Brill with her domestic life is clearly absurd, but to include it somewhere? Maybe the idea of personal detail, of family life, of mean beef stronganoffs and blueberry pancakes, of years off for children, or outlandish love affairs are not out of place in an obituary or an obituary-like appreciation of a life on earth. We are focused on work, as the sole acceptable measure of a woman, but maybe if we are honest, that’s a bit of a narrow view.

Katie Roiphe, professor at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, is the author of Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Marriages and In Praise of Messy Lives.