At least a little. LIFE was interested in the whole issue of assisted suicide, so they sent me out to Detroit to sort of live there. Dan Okrent, a rarity amongst editors in that he was remarkable with both words and pictures, gave me very sparse directions. “Go to Detroit and get Kevorkian to like you.”
It’s funny, my feeling is that people outside the magazine business might think assignments for major publications are attended to with lots of planning, forethought, trumpets blaring, an emergency session of the House of Representatives, a Papal Fiat, or some sort of whole shebang type of deal. Doesn’t happen that way at all. Many magazine go week to week, month to month on gut calls, hunches, hoped for stories, and reaction to stuff that just plain and simple either does or doesn’t work out. Cut and paste, improvise, and turn on a dime is often the watchword of a pub cycle. Except of course at the National Geographic, which tends to have life sort of planned out for the next couple of years. At least in the past, there was a certain ceremony to the awarding of an assignment down at the Yellow Border house. It was weighty, ya know? The editor would give you a blessing, recite certain ancient incantations, and you would go forth. (Kidding. Just barely, though:-) All this deliberation was with good reason. Back in the day, virtually every story I did for Nat Geo had a very substantial price tag. The allocated funds bought a lot of Kodachrome, to be sure. Not to mention air tickets, hotels, meals, rental cars, helicopters, fixers, bribes, services of guides, drivers, translators, bush pilots, gifts for locals, and other stuff that ranged from the mundane to the truly exotic.
But LIFE was pretty last minute, seat of the pants journalism, and Detroit has never been accused of being exotic, so without too much thinking, planning or fuss, I just threw some cameras in a bag and went. I did, I think, get Jack to like me a bit. Actually, that’s probably allowing too much. He tolerated me. I was, after all, a member of the press, an occupation he was by and large disdainful of, depending on the day, or the nature of the coverage. If he felt criticized in any way, he grew prickly and vituperative. But, for him, I think, far worse than bad reviews was being ignored. He would rail against the press, and then titter like a schoolkid looking over his clippings. It was this need to be noticed that finally led him to prison, really.
Off and on, I spent about six months with him. It must have been a bit like having a LIFE photographer as a pet, really. I’d just hang out there, and see if he did anything interesting that he would allow me to partake in, photographically. Off the radar, it was obvious he was doing newsworthy stuff. I intersected with him during a time when maids at certain hotels around Detroit would, on a somewhat regular basis, make a housekeeping knock on the door and encounter not a messy room, but a corpse.
I admired him, in certain ways. Love him or hate him, he stuck to his guns in uncompromising fashion, and brought the whole notion of controlling the end of your days into the forefront of the nation’s consciousness. (In terms of disclosure, I do feel it is an essential right, when all alternatives are exhausted, and all quality of life gone, to control how and when you turn your last page.) The tough thing with the doc was that he was just generally so difficult, and irascible, that the issues got swallowed up by the controversies over his personality and methods.
The story was never completed. I had to let go, for lots of reasons.
But, I did hang with Jack, ate with him, played poker with him. He was quite set in his ways, across all the activities of his life. For instance, at breakfast, he liked his toast burned. You know, charred. He would shake his head and complain when it came in a less than blackened state. With issues both small and large, he marched to the beat of his own drummer. He was, quintessentially, a contrarian.
It was in fact at breakfast at a local diner, after we finished the meal, that he summed himself up. We were leaving, and of course, everybody knew who he was. (At the time, he was probably the most recognizable person in Detroit.) A diner waitress, smiling, wagged a finger at him, and in mock mothering tones, told him, “Be good!” He shot back an impish (some would have said devilish) grin, and said, simply, “No!”