Anatomy of an obituary on Fidel Castro

Sixteen ‘New York Times’ journalists recount their work on Cuban revolutionary Fidel Castro’s obituary, first drafted in 1959

Richard Eder, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, recalls interviewing the former leader of Cuba, Fidel Castro, in 1964. Video: The New York Times



By Randy Archibold

Every Mexico correspondent in recent years, myself included, inherited and worked on the Fidel Castro “Death Plan”. We all thought for sure it would happen on our watch – only to see Castro outlive our tenures, just as he outlasted presidents.

Azam Ahmed, the Mexico bureau chief, is now that sweepstakes “winner,” though Damien Cave, by amazing luck, is the one who was actually there when it happened – on vacation. Randy Archibold, a onetime Mexico correspondent, is the New York Times deputy sports editor.


By Damien Cave

I was just finishing up a momentous vacation – a return to Cuba with my wife, who is Cuban-American, my two kids, and my father-in-law, who was visiting Cuba for the first time since leaving as a child 56 years earlier.

We were supposed to just get up and fly home. But then I heard a jumble of noises: a loud phone in our hotel room and a pounding on our hotel door. It was dark still, before sunup, and I was far too dazed to hazard a theory about what was going on.

So I opened the door, and there stood Raul, my father-in-law, dressed and wide awake. “Fidel’s dead,” he said. His face held decades of emotion with taut intensity. Then he rushed in to turn on the television.

From there, it was a scramble to figure out what to do, leading eventually to my family leaving and me staying behind. It was all a stunning turn of events. I’d been coming to Cuba for nearly 20 years, but what I kept thinking of was an exchange I’d had with Susan Chira, then the New York Times foreign desk editor, back in 2006 when Fidel first fell ill.

I was in Iraq covering the war at the time – a young, clueless correspondent with more passion than wisdom, and I volunteered right then to go to Cuba if Fidel was about to depart the island he’d ruled for decades. Never mind Baghdad. I craved Havana.

That request to go turned out to be a premature. I went from Iraq to Miami thinking maybe that would get me here to Havana; then I went to Mexico, from which I made frequent trips to Cuba, living out a dream of covering the island as it edged into an economic transition that many of us had gamed out without really knowing how slow and complicated a process it would be.

Even now, as I write from a wi-fi hot spot in Havana (my card is about to run out of time!) I wonder about where Fidel’s death fits into Cuba’s evolution. Because that’s what it is now: evolution, not revolution. Fidel’s obituary, his death, is the end of a chapter, as one Cuban told me, but far from the end of the entire tale.

Indeed, like many others on the island today, I have dreams for this place. More joy. More “Cubanidad,” or Cubanness. And someday, I hope to be here again. With my family. With a chance to write. With a chance to observe.

Until then, all I can say is that I’m happy to have contributed to the enormous effort of covering the end of Fidel’s era – even if took a stroke of luck to make it happen. Maybe because of it. Damien Cave – formerly a correspondent in Mexico City, Miami, Baghdad and Newark, New Jersey – is New York Times deputy national editor for digital.

Cuban leader Fidel Castro in the front seat of his car during an interview Richard Eder of The New York Times, in 1964. A Kalashnikov is seen tucked into the seat pouch. Photograph: Jack Manning/The New York TimesCuban leader Fidel Castro in the front seat of his car during an interview with reporters including Richard Eder of The New York Times, in 1964. A Kalashnikov is seen tucked into the seat pouch. Photograph: Jack Manning/The New York Times


By Susan Chira

For years, as we weathered one scare after another that Fidel Castro had died, I kept the Cuba plan close at hand. We had lists of every New York Times reporter who either had experience with or family ties to Cuba. Some would go straight to Miami; others would try various routes to Cuba, even though no one had visas. The former executive editor, Bill Keller, and I made a pilgrimage to Havana in 2009 to plead for better access, to no avail, although I did have my copy of Love in the Time of Cholera signed by Gabriel García Márquez, a career highlight.

We even had a plan to sneak someone in via the southeastern city of Santiago de Cuba, where Fidel launched the revolution in 1953 and proclaimed victory in 1959, on the thought it might be easier to slip into the country outside Havana. The Miami bureau had standing instructions to head to Little Havana (and thankfully in Lizette Alvarez we had a Cuban expatriate who had grown up there).

The magisterial obituary, by Anthony DePalma, whose wife had fled Cuba with her family, was copy edited and then revised countless times over more than a decade.

There had been wide predictions of unrest when Fidel died, but that prospect faded after the successful handoff to his brother Raúl. I remember several scares when many of us flocked to the newsroom late at night or on weekends, re-reading the obituary, laying out pages, and drawing up coverage plans, only to stand down.

This time it was true, and the years of preparation paid off. Susan Chira – senior correspondent and editor, gender issues – was New York Times foreign editor from 2004 to 2011.


By Anthony DePalma

I left the New York Times in 2008 to take a position as writer-in-residence at Seton Hall University, where I continue to write and teach today.

As a foreign correspondent, I often prepared advance obituaries for important figures in Latin America. In 2000, after completing assignments for the New York Times in Mexico and Canada, I started an Americas beat for the business section. The obituaries editor, Chuck Strum, knowing of my interest in Latin America, asked me to take a look at an obit for Fidel that had been started but never completed. I accepted the assignment and, starting from scratch, wrote the first draft by the end of 2000. I have been updating it ever since.

After Fidel took sick in 2008, rumours often circulated about his death, and a frantic call from the obit desk usually followed. On one of those occasions, there was so much static on social media that the editors pulled out the obit and set it on the print page. Of course it was a false alarm, and we were glad that it was. The New York Times had just recently changed the dimensions of the paper, and at the last minute we discovered that the layout prepared for the larger broadsheet no longer fit the smaller page size.

We’ve been updating it regularly. Of course, many changes have been made since President Barack Obama’s historic decision in December 2014 to restore diplomatic relations. The most recent overhaul of the obit was in April, after I returned from a visit to Cuba.

I’ve carried print copies of the very long obit in my briefcase since Fidel took sick in 2006. I’ll drink a stiff scotch when I move it to my files tonight. Anthony DePalma is writer-in-residence at Seton Hall University, New Jersey.

A galley proof from 1971 of an advance obituary for Fidel Castro in The New York Times morgue in New York. Photograph: Stephen Hiltner/The New York TimesA galley proof from 1971 of an advance obituary for Fidel Castro in The New York Times morgue in New York. Photograph: Stephen Hiltner/The New York Times


By Hamilton Boardman

One piece that didn’t make it into the weekend’s digital coverage was a four-part, 20-plus-minute-long audio slide show on Castro’s life. The audio slide show – a mostly bygone format intended to marry photos and audio in an age when slow dial-up connections couldn’t handle video – was originally produced around 2006 by Geoff McGhee, Lisa Iaboni and Eric Owles and featured narration from Anthony DePalma, who wrote the New York Times’s obituary.

With over 80 photos and several audio files, the slide show was managed with a custom-made program called “configurator” that lived on a single, agwing Macintosh in a windowless room on the ninth floor of the Times building.

For years, recently hired web producers would spend hours keeping the slide show up to date; something that became a rite of passage of sorts, or – given the complicated and arcane “configurator” – a hazing ritual.

Though much of the material appeared in other forms in our coverage of Castro’s death over the weekend, the audio slide show was itself lost to history sometime around 2009 when that old Macintosh was decommissioned. Hamilton Boardman is a senior editor on the New York Times news desk.


By William McDonald

Fidel Castro’s obituary cost us more man/woman hours over the years than any piece we’ve ever run.

Every time there was a rumour of death, we’d pull the obit off the shelf, dust it off, send it back to the writer, Tony DePalma, for any necessary updates, maybe add a little more polish here and there and then send it on to be copy-edited and made ready – yet again – for publication.

My biggest worry was that when the day finally came, we’d get word at, say, 10 o’clock on a Saturday night and literally have to stop the presses in the middle of the run for the Sunday paper and somehow, on the fly, shoehorn all those thousands of words into it. (Ugh.)

As it happened, the timing worked out fine: too late for the Saturday paper but right on the money for the full Sunday run, and of course digital readers had it with their Saturday morning coffee. Bill McDonald is the New York Times obituaries editor.


By Jeffrey Henson Scales

Searching through the New York Times photo archives in 2008, I was startled to find more than a hundred 35mm contact sheets teeming with vivid images of Fidel Castro. The New York Times staff photographer Jack Manning took the photos in 1964, and my colleague Sergio Florez had scanned some of them in 2001 in preparation for Fidel’s 75th birthday.

The trove included photos of Castro in the front seat of a 1960 Oldsmobile, riding across the Cuban countryside to visit campesinos, in Castro’s house, chatting with Manning and the New York Times correspondent Richard Eder. (Some of the photos showed Manning and Eder in the back seat of Castro’s car – with a Kalashnikov tucked neatly into the seat pouch in front of the reporter’s knees.)

The photos are more intimate than any others I had ever seen of a world leader.

I was an editor at the New York Times’s Week in Review section at the time and thought the photos could be the basis for a terrific photo essay or multimedia piece. Jack Manning was no longer alive, but I tracked down Richard Eder, who agreed to provide the story behind the remarkable images. Eder’s tale served as the basis for the text that accompanied the images, audio and a delightful, original score that together resulted in “Three Days with Fidel,” a multimedia piece that the New York Times published on February 24th, 2008.

After publication, the piece was revised, updated and uploaded onto a more versatile video format and, it was this updated video version – retitled “My Three Days with Fidel” – that was posted with Castro’s obituary.

The original piece – with only exclusive, remarkably up-close and intimate photographs Manning photographed in 1964 – was a spectacular discovery of a world leader surprisingly open to the New York Times and its photographers. Jeffrey Henson Scales is the photography editor of the New York Times Sunday Review.

One of two file drawers full of clippings on Fidel Castro, this one from the early 1960s, in The New York Times morgue in New York. Photograph: Stephen Hiltner/The New York TimesOne of two file drawers full of clippings on Fidel Castro, this one from the early 1960s, in The New York Times morgue in New York. Photograph: Stephen Hiltner/The New York Times


By Lisa Iaboni

I was a multimedia producer for the New York Times website in 2006. (At that point, the digital team occupied a separate office, about five blocks from the New York Times 43rd Street headquarters.)

Fiona Spruill, a deputy editor at the website at the time, recognised that there was an audience for new forms of storytelling on the web, and she decided that we should produce audio slide shows for advance obituaries.

Fiona assigned me to do visual research and build Castro’s. With images from the New York Times photo morgue, and with audio collected – usually over the phone – from correspondents, I started one of many iterations of Castro’s obit.

At the time, we built our audio slide shows in Flash using FileMaker Pro software, which helped us organise captions and image transitions.

Every audio slide show we created had two versions – one fast, one slow – because internet speeds were nowhere near what they are today. (The fact that video was not an option should tell you everything.) Lisa Iaboni is a freelance producer and photo editor.


By Marc Lacey

My first Fidel death scare came in 2006, when he fell ill just as I arrived in Mexico City as a correspondent covering Latin America and the Caribbean. The foreign desk urged me to take an immediate vacation to Havana with my family, which I did and which numerous other correspondents from around the world did as well, just in case news broke out on the island.

As it turns out, Castro’s health improved. Reports of his death came again and again over the ensuing years, each time turning out to be unfounded. When I became an editor on the foreign desk in 2012, reports of his demise continued, but I became the one contacting correspondents with each new wave of rumours, asking that familiar question: “Are you hearing reports that Fidel has died?” Marc Lacey is the New York Times national desk editor.


By Andy Parsons

At the Miami Herald, where I worked as a copy editor for three years, nothing would set the newsroom abuzz the way a Castro health scare would. One such moment came on June 23rd, 2001, when Castro, while delivering one of his trademark hours-long speeches under a scorching sun, suffered a fainting spell and was rushed away by Cuban officials.

The newsroom sprang into action, mobilising reporters and pondering banner headlines, as celebrations broke out in Miami. Castro was not heard from for hours, leading to the inevitable speculation about his demise. But that evening, Castro appeared on a Cuban television programme, as alive as ever.

The Herald’s headline the next morning: “Castro falters, recovers.” Andy Parsons is the New York Times assistant Washington editor.

Jeff Roth, who manages The New York Times archives, handles a packet of clipping about Fidel Castro. Photograph: Stephen Hiltner/The New York TimesJeff Roth, who manages The New York Times archives, handles a packet of clipping about Fidel Castro. Photograph: Stephen Hiltner/The New York Times


By David Renard

Just after midnight, I was about 10 minutes from sending a signoff note describing a “pretty quiet holiday Friday” when we saw the first tweet about Fidel Castro’s death, from a producer with MSNBC. For the first few minutes no one else seemed to have it, so we were starting to think it might be another false alarm. Then the BBC sent a similar tweet and we thought, “This time it’s real.”

Partly because of the last major false alarm, which had us on alert for several days, there was a very detailed rollout plan, so we just went to work. Usually on a breaking news obituary the procedure is to publish a few paragraphs as quickly as possible and expand the article from there. But the Castro obit had been kept so up-to-date over the years that by the time we independently confirmed the death, Charles Knittle on the copy desk had the entire 8,000-word file ready to go. We sent a breaking news alert and started remaking the website home page and mobile feed as more and more staffers who saw the news (or who we called and woke up out of bed) pitched in to help.

The next morning, seeing everyone discussing how many years of work had gone into this, I was just relieved we didn’t fumble the snap when it was time to run the big play. David Renard is an assistant editor on the news desk.


By Charles Knittle

There is no qualification needed to be the last copy editor in the newsroom on a Friday night (which, because our Hong Kong desk is dark on Saturday morning, is a little like being the last copy editor in the world). I had stayed late because a reporter on another story needed attention and anyone I could have kept was already scheduled to be back at 9.30am for the Sunday Bulldog print edition.

The Castro obit was on the copy desk as if waiting for its day. When the news started to trickle in, but before it was confirmed, I opened it up and started reading. I noted the blanks that would have to be filled in, and I made one small substantive change: I removed a reference to the king of Thailand, who had died since our last pass, in May, so that only Queen Elizabeth II remained in that sentence comparing long-lived living national leaders. Then when the news desk said go, I added Castro’s ag, and his brother’s age, and the confirmation sentence, and Friday, for date of death.

That was it from me. It was very smooth, because all the work had been done by others, most notably Gina Lamb on our end, our deputy chief on the foreign/national copy desk, who had been copy editing the Castro obituary since before there even was a foreign/national copy desk. Charles Knittle is the New York Times foreign/national copy desk chief.

The folder containing drafts and galleys of Fidel Castro's advance obituaries. Photograph: Stephen Hiltner/The New York TimesThe folder containing drafts and galleys of Fidel Castro's advance obituaries. Photograph: Stephen Hiltner/The New York Times


By Steve Kenny

Dataminr flashed us the first tweet at 12.12 Saturday morning.

I got in a cab and came in, while Dave Renard put up the 8,000-word obit and got out the alert. He and I then split the duties: He got the package in shape, and I played traffic cop.

For the next eight hours, I worked with Greg Winter, a foreign desk editor, to assemble a nine-piece package. Dave – who had to be back in the office at 4pm — reluctantly left at 3am.

I copy edited and wrote headlines and summaries. At 8am I handed off to fellow editors Dick Stevenson and Michael Owen. Steve Kenny is a senior editor on the news desk.


By Shreeya Sinha

The development of the Castro obituary is as legendary as the man himself. Countless colleagues – spanning many different technologies and platforms – have massaged it and passed the baton. Each of the many death scares gave us the opportunity to dust off the package and reassess our digital strategy based on ever-changing audience consumption habits and storytelling tools.

Under Ian Fisher’s leadership, I was tasked with guiding the digital transformation of the obituaries desk. I created digital playbooks for important obits like Castro’s, so that no matter what time news breaks anyone could see the status of the package and get going. The playbook contained contact information, engaging news alert strategies, a checklist of multimedia elements and their copy status, and audience development plans. Our immediate package included custom design treatment, slide show, video with a cut for social with Spanish translations, archival coverage, Cuban posters, timeline, translation of the obituary in Spanish, reactions on the homepage and stories planned in advance by Greg Winter.

This digital strategy and rollout plan touched all corners of the newsroom from photo, video, design, social, interactive news and more. It takes a village, and with the syncopated nature of preparing for these major obituaries, collaboration and communication were key. I’m glad I was by a computer when news broke and able to see through our collective efforts. It was a real honour to coordinate and build this coverage. The New York Times does obituaries better than any other news outlet. And this was no exception. Shreeya Sinha is a senior digital editor at the New York Times.

A draft of an advance obituary for Fidel Castro, written by Alden Whitman in 1971. Photograph: Stephen Hiltner/The New York TimesA draft of an advance obituary for Fidel Castro, written by Alden Whitman in 1971. Photograph: Stephen Hiltner/The New York Times


By Greg Winter

We had endured rumours, scares and fire drills over Fidel’s death for years. He had been reported dead many times before. But now, a decade after handing power over to his brother, Raúl, it seemed that Fidel had actually died.

The first thing we needed was confirmation from the ground. I called our stringer in Cuba, Hannah Berkeley Cohen, who confirmed that yes, this time, it was real. Hannah went into the streets to get a sense of the scene in Havana, where nightclubs were shutting down early and young Cubans, dressed to the nines, were spilling into the streets. Hannah noted that while older Cubans mourned Fidel and consoled one another, young Cubans showed little (if any) response. So we quickly wrote and posted a story about the generation gap in Cuba.

By an incredible turn of events, Damien Cave, who has written some of the New York Times most astute Cuban stories during the last few years, happened to be in the country – on vacation – when Fidel died. He jumped into immediate action and quickly produced a stirring portrait of Fidel’s Cuba from the perspective of a Cuban family that embodied the hopes and disappointments of the country over several generations.

We mobilised reporters around the country. Within minutes of Fidel’s death, Victoria Burnett, Frances Robles and Randy Archibold started a sweeping assessment of what Fidel’s death would mean – and not mean – for change in Cuba. Greg Winter is a New York Times deputy international editor.

Fidel Castro in 1964 with his trademark cigar during an interview in one of his Havana apartments. Photograph: Jack Manning/The New York TimesFidel Castro in 1964 with his trademark cigar during an interview in one of his Havana apartments. Photograph: Jack Manning/The New York Times


By Gina Lamb

I was surprised to hear that Fidel Castro was dead, because I’d lived with him for so long.

In 2006, I became the deputy chief of the foreign copy desk. One of my tasks was to be the copy-editing caretaker of Castro’s obituary and have it ready for prime time, at all times. I grabbed a manila folder from a supply drawer in the old Times newsroom at 229 West 43rd Street and filled it with photo printouts, notes, layouts, useful phone numbers and such. My best guess is that I read Anthony DePalma’s superb obit at least two dozen more times after that, along with its growing collection of print and digital elements. Every time it was revised, I revised the contents of my manila folder and the notes in pencil on the outside. A wayward cup of coffee damaged the folder after the New York Times moved to 620 Eighth Avenue, so I started another one.

I took my final pass through the Castro obit package on May 10th, 2016, as deputy chief of the foreign/national copy desk. I read new material, checked all the in-text links and made sure that the slide show and other elements were in order. A final preview left me satisfied that the reader’s experience would be a good one, whenever the time came.

Castro was part of a group my mother refers to as “Gina’s Dictators” (I had also edited the obituaries of Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic and Col Moammar Gadhafi, among others). I’m starting a new assignment soon, with big advance obits as a large part of it, and I had figured that Castro would come along with me and my other manila folders of dictators who are still among the living. But early on the morning of November 26th, I woke up at my brother’s house in the Baltimore suburbs and saw a text message from my best friend, who was on vacation in Spain. “So it finally happened,” she wrote. “And you weren’t there.” She sent a link to our published Castro obit. “Well, at least the obit was ready,” I replied. I was there, in my own way. Gina Lamb is deputy chief of the New York Times foreign/national copy desk.

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