Dead Hand Control

Posted on July 6, 2017 by Martin Oaks under Community
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playwright, Edward Albee

Through the years, Martin Oaks has seen a number of unfortunate disagreements between family members following the demise of a loved one. Frequently, these fissures developed because of the way family member interpreted the wishes of the deceased.

Last week renowned playwright, Edward Albee, who passed away on September 16, 2016 (and who was cremated — his ashes were scattered over his Long Island estate), posthumously was the subject of a dispute about his work. Wanting to preserve only his best work, Albee, in his will, noted that he preferred any of his “incomplete manuscripts” to be destroyed. This type of request is, in legal circles, called “dead hand control.” Is it effective?

Lawyers who specialize in estate law say that there is a lot of wiggle room here. History is replete with examples of families setting aside the deceased’s wishes and substituting their own. Albee’s case is further complicated by the fact that his last project, “Laying an Egg,” has been twice scheduled to be produced and then withdrawn – meaning that there are copies of it existent. This raises the question if the manuscript is indeed “incomplete.”

Although arguments exist on both side of this issue, we here at Martin Oaks tend to believe that the deceased’s wishes are a trump card. However, there are exceptions.

the trail by Franz Kafka

In the artistic world where Albee operated, many great works have been published (sometimes specifically against the authors last wishes). Chief among them is “The Trail,” by Franz Kafka, a book published a year after his death. In fact, all of Kafka’s novels were published after his death. Prior to passing he had asked his friend, Max Brod, to burn all of his work – Brod felt that the writing was too brilliant to destroy. Had he done so, the world would have lost one of the truly great novelists of all time.

Similarly, “You Can’t Go Home Again” by Thomas Wolf was published two years after his death. Not having this outstanding work available would be a tragedy.

A cult classic by John Kennedy Toole, “A Confederacy of Dunces,” has a very interesting history. Toole wrote the book in 1963 and spent years trying to place it with a publisher. Unfortunately, he committed suicide in 1969. Through the efforts of his determined mother, the book finally was issued, and astoundingly, won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Another example of posthumous publishing is a most compelling story. In his lifetime, Steig Larsson, published some poetry, but wrote crime stories as a hobby. He was a journalist who had an extremely unhealthy life style; this led to his fatal heart attack at the age of 50. His partner discovered the manuscripts of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” “The Girl Who Played with Fire,” and “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.” Amazingly, this trilogy has sold more than 80 million copies worldwide – when you add in film and television rights, Larsson was sitting on one of the largest literary fortunes ever.

Two other authors who have been published extensively after their deaths are, of course, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. This is a situation that is rich with irony: they knew each other personally — there has been much written about their professional jealousy, friendship, and other aspects of their relationship. Both drank heavily, and both have literary reputations that have gone in different directions — Hemingway’s had descended and Fitzgerald’s has ascended.

I'd die for you

Since Fitzgerald’s death in 1940 at the age of 44, there has been one novel (“The Last Tycoon”) and seven short story collections published, including one last month titled “I’d Die for You.” In the main, these collections have been fairly well received.

After Hemingway’s suicide in 1961, 10 works have appeared – the best of which are “A Movable Feast,” (non-fiction) and “Islands in the Stream,” (novel). A number of the other books – particularly “True at First Light,” disappoint.

A moveable feast

One other egregious example exists: “Summer Crossing,” by Truman Capote. The author actually threw this manuscript into the trash and had no intention for it to ever see the light of day. It was recovered by a house sitter, and ultimately issued by Random House. Scholars may find some interest here, but, in my opinion, it does nothing to burnish Capote’s reputation.

In closing, it will be interesting to see how the “dead hand control” of Edward Albee plays out. My guess is, at some time in the not too distant future, “Laying an Egg,” will be available.

Call Martin Oaks for an immediate response (469)605-7215. Inexpensive, affordable cremation services are available through the funeral directors who work with Martin Oaks in and around the Dallas, Texas area. All cremation services must be arranged through the licensed funeral directors who work with Martin Oaks.

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