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Arts and Entertainment

Is 'M*A*S*H' Star Harry Morgan's Past Getting Whitewashed in His Obituaries?

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Harry Morgan died yesterday at his home in Los Angeles at the age of 96, and most of the obituaries about his legacy mentioned his work in "M*A*S*H," "Dragnet" and "Inherit the Wind." But there was something troubling missing from the obits: a description of his relatively recent arrest for beating up his wife.

The paid obituaries penned by family members can be notoriously boring and whitewashed (see this obituary for porn star Echo Valley described as a "self-employed web page designer" and a "member of the Catholic faith"). But obituaries about public figures penned by journalists shouldn't flinch from the truth, argues KPCC's John Rabe.

In 1996, Morgan was charged for an incident that the New York Post reported left her with a cut on her eye, a bruised arm and a swollen foot. The Los Angeles Times reported that Morgan was able to avoid jail by taking an anger management class.

No major papers mention the incident in their obits: The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Guardian and The Associated Press.

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But Rabe argues that journalists are whitewashing the legacy of Morgan by leaving out the fact that he nearly did jail time for beating his wife until she was bruised and bloody:

To be clear, I don't think this merits more than two or three lines in an obit, absent any more similar incidents, and of course you'd write it in context: "his otherwise glowing reputation was tarnished by ... Of that episode in his life, Morgan said ..." (Did anyone ask?)
Robert Mitchum, surely a better actor, had his pot smoking ways dredged up in the NYT when he died in 1997 ...
Off the screen in his early years, he accumulated a reputation as a bad boy, a ladies' man and outlaw who shocked naive movie fans in the 1940's when he was arrested on a marijuana charge at the home of a starlet.
... And hitting your wife isn't getting caught with a joint in the glovebox, or jaywalking. It's a serious matter, and it happened only about 15 years ago, not 50.
But, as they say, "print the legend." An arrest fits the Mitchum tough guy image; it doesn't fit Morgan's Dragnet and M*A*S*H personae. Why clutter up an obit with facts about the person's life? Why write about an arrest of a beloved character when you can say he grew up in Muskegon MI? Isn't overcoming adversity and dealing with personal demons to be respected? At the very least, isn't it more interesting?

The lone mention I could find was in a post on The Wrap that does exactly what Rabe would want to see near the bottom of the story:

Morgan did have one notable off-screen scandal. The character actor was arrested in 1996 and booked for spousal battery after police responded to a 911 call from his wife, Barbara Bushman. Bushman had a cut under her right eye and a swollen foot, according to reports. Charges were dropped after Morgan agreed to attend a six-month domestic violence program.