Know Who Died?

Growing up in my family, the most suspenseful words any of us could hear were, "Know who died?"

Whoever spoke those words had the drop on the rest of us. We'd hold our breaths until the name of the newly deceased was revealed, then exhale slowly as the cause and time of death were added.

If it was someone who ate too much, well, too bad, but what did we expect? His heart had been working overtime for years.

If it was a neighborhood character with a drinking problem, well, it's a shame, but what did we expect? His liver was shot!

And if it was a celebrity death, my mother would always precede the announcement with the words, "I feel very bad about"... as in, "I feel very bad about Robert Mitchum."

Mitchum the bad-boy actor died in 1997, and my mother felt bad for him because the following day good-guy movie star Jimmy Stewart died -- and got the lion's share of the attention.

"Mitchum," said my mother, "was a lot sexier."

Last weekend, for the first time ever, I knew about a celebrity death before my mother, and I couldn't wait to break the news to her.

"I feel very bad about Efrem Zimbalist Junior," I announced the moment I saw her, and her eyes widened. She'd loved him in "77 Sunset Strip" and on "The F.B.I.", and I awaited an expression of sorrow.

Instead, she asked in wonder: "He was still alive?"

When someone dies young, it's a time for mourning. When someone lives to 95, like Zimbalist Jr., it's a time for marveling.

What was his secret? Maybe there is no secret.

I once interviewed George Burns when his age was approaching triple-digits. The whole time he sipped on a Bloody Mary and blew cigar smoke in my face.

I knew an old Greek who lived well into his nineties, even though he chain-smoked and ate three desserts a night.

When people tried to get him to live right, he'd say: "You're born with a clock in you, and there ain't much you can do to change it."

That theory probably has a few holes in it. All I know for sure is that in the newspaper business, the headline sets the tone for the obituary to follow.

I once did a feature story that accidentally turned into an obit, thanks to the headline. It was about a former New York Post reporter named Joe Kahn who had a sweet retirement career painting watercolors of city scenes.

JOE KAHN HITS THE CANVAS, said the headline. People who were hip to boxing terminology were calling Joe's house all day to console his grieving loved ones, about ten years ahead of schedule.

When New York Yankee legend Roger Maris died at age 51, the Post headline said TRADED TO THE ANGELS. Well-intended, but yeesh!

And then there was Rose Kennedy's obituary, which The Post had on file for at least ten years. All it needed was a paragraph or two up top for when she actually died, which didn't happen until she'd reached the astonishing age of 104.

If memory serves, the reporter who'd written the standing obituary couldn't finish it, because he'd died years earlier. The obi-tu-ee had outlived the obi-tu-er.

Try and figure it. You can't.

So I leave you with one more tale of life and death from many years ago, in the East New York section of Brooklyn.

My grandfather stood with his cronies around the casket of a buddy who'd died suddenly -- maybe his name was Frankie. One of the guys gestured at the corpse.

"Did you hear Frankie took out a life insurance policy just last week?" he asked. "He really stuck it to the insurance company!"

Another crony shook his head. "That Frankie," he sighed. "He always had the luck."

Charlie Carillo is a novelist and a producer for the TV show "Inside Edition."