When Weingarten is working on a big story, the world around him just about ceases to exist. He becomes, in his words, “the machine.” Photograph by Stephen Voss
The son asks the father why he’s not wearing a seat belt. The father says it’s because long ago the father’s sister drowned. She backed her car into a swimming pool and, because she was strapped in, was unable to free herself. Her lungs filled with water and she died. The seat belt, the very device meant to protect her, sealed her doom.
The son believes the story. Why wouldn’t he? What kind of horrible person would make up a story like that?
Gene Weingarten is not a horrible person. If anything, according to those who know him, he’s empathetic, even sweet, if also obsessive, slovenly, and slightly nuts. Maybe more than slightly. He regrets fooling his son, who only found out the truth about the dead fictional sister years later.
Weingarten told me that anecdote knowing it would end up in print. It’s the kind of story that, depending on your point of view, you might find either darkly funny or deeply repugnant. It is comedy and tragedy with a side of self-flagellation. It is Gene Weingarten, abridged.
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You probably know Weingarten. He writes a humor column that runs in the back of the Washington Post Magazine. He helps run the Post Hunt, the paper’s annual urban-puzzle contest. Perhaps you’ve noticed his byline atop stories like the one about the famous violinist who played during morning rush hour at a Metro station and was more or less ignored. Or maybe you’ve seen the comic strip, Barney & Clyde, that he writes with his son, who didn’t let that morbid joke-gone-wrong ruin their relationship.
Weingarten may also be the best writer in American journalism. He’s the only person to have won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing twice, once for the violinist story and once for a story about parents who accidentally leave their children in hot cars. And as amazing as those articles are, neither is generally considered his finest. That story, about a children’s entertainer, is as good a piece of writing as you’ll ever find tossed on your front lawn.
You might wonder why the best writer in American journalism would have fake poop as his Twitter icon. Or spend an inordinate amount of time making prank phone calls. Or concern himself with monkey sex, fake sneezes, or bacon taped to cats. As he once put it in a column, “I mostly write about underpants.”
Weingarten is not a horrible person, but there may be something wrong with him.
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