A moving angle on the very public Badger family funeral

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Today's tabloids, Jan. 6, 2011. ()
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Each day, the New York tabloids vie to sell readers at the newsstands on outrageous headlines, dramatic photography, and, occasionally, great reporting. Who is today's winner?

Much of the news being sold on the front page of today's tabloids with pictures of Madonna Badger and her ex-husband Matthew, struck with grief at the funeral for their three daughters and Badger's parents in the famous Christmas fire that engulfed her Victorian house in Stamford, Conn., relates to what happened during a funeral mass at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Midtown.

I've written about deadly fires in this column before, but this one, as a public event, is different. One difference here is the detail that the victims of the fire were waked at the Frank E. Campbell funeral home, well known as the place where the richest, most important or in some cases most highly honored New Yorkers wake their families and friends.

It's there that America comes closest to the sort of public funeral once reserved pretty much exclusively for officials, royalty and the like. This has long been the case.

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In 1926, when matinee idol Rudolph Valentino died of a ruptured ulcer, the crowds outside Campbell were large enough to overwhelm the police, "creating an atmosphere of ... probably of something that had never existed before in funeral service," a former director of Campbell, Gene Schultz, told ABC's Bob Brown in 2008. (The occasion for the interview was the death of actor Heath Ledger, who was waked at Campbell.)

More than 40 years later, when Judy Garland died, the scene was similar. Schultz found members of the regular public circulating three or more times though the home while the actress and singer was waked. He did not see anything morbid or sinister in it; he felt that everyone who visited was essentially expressing genuine feeling.

"They need to be a part of that life that they ... have never touched personally, individually, privately, and in person — but through the media, through television, through the movies, it was very much a part of their growing up and their life. They want closure," Schultz told Brown. "People from every walk of life."

When people who weren't leaders are mourned this way, it isn't always because they were famous. In addition to official state funerals, and celebrity funerals, there are military funerals, and similar public funerals like the one we recently witnessed for the slain New York Police Department detective Peter Figoski, that are public because they honor men and women in uniform.

All of the above fit Schultz's parameters: The public and the press come because the dead or their mourners "touched" the public not directly but "through the media, through television, through the movies." And though the fire was less than two weeks ago, the Badgers know themselves to have been on the covers of both tabloids and fixtures on local television throughout that time. What's more, the entire city of Stamford was implicated in their grief, with some 70 emergency rescue personnel from Stamford undergoing counseling after battling the horrific fire, restraining the mother and her boyfriend from going into the house to find the children themselves, and finally finding the five victims dead.

Badger is the owner of a boutique advertising and brand-consulting firm, famous largely for connecting expensive brands with everyday buyers using the one thing that connects everyone up: Sex. Badger's artistry aside, her professional commitment is to find the language everyone wants to speak but didn't know they already knew, in campaigns like Calvin Klein's Marky Mark but also in decisions to film models in places like laundromats and lunch counters. Badger is not a stranger to media, but a keen evaluator of it.

What does all this have to do with anything? I don't pretend to know what's in the minds of the Badger family right now. But it is not difficult to imagine that Badger might have understood the position her tragedy has put her family in in the minds of the public, and sought not to fight it but to take comfort in the strange sort of attention they were getting, and try to make something useful or lasting come out of it.

Last week, her company's website went completely blank on its homepage except for a message printed in black Helvetica Light on white. "Thank you for all your prayers and support during this very difficult time," the message reads. "The funeral for Lily, Sarah and Grace will be held Thursday, January 5th at 10:30am at St. Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue between 53rd and 54th Streets in New York City. All are welcome."

This takes me to a second point. On Thanksgiving, a fire in a Park Slope townhouse ripped quickly through an upstairs bedroom, trapping four adults and an eight-month-old child, Josiah Alexis. The fire, officials later said, started when a cigarette ignited a mattress, which was then moved around in an effort to control the blaze, a fateful decision in that it only spread the flames. On Nov. 26, the day after Thanksgiving, reports indicated that all five victims of that fire were in the hospital in critical condition, with the infant having suffered cardiac arrest; firefighters revived him in the course of some five minutes of painstaking cardiopulmonary respiration that created a dramatic photo for the front page of the Daily News. The day after Thanksgiving, a report described the infant and at least one of the other victims of the fire as "clinging to life." I haven't been able to find any articles about them since.

On Badger's website, supporters are asked to send donations to a foundation already developed in the name of Badger's three daughters called The Other 364 Foundation, "whose mission is to champion compassion every day of the year." I don't know what that exactly means, and possibly they don't just yet either. But it seems to represent an acknowledgment of the short attention span of the public, and particularly the media, when it comes to tragedies like this, and perhaps to be motivated by a desire to find some way of helping people who have suffered after the public has lost track of them.

There are two things about the development of the Christmas fire story that many people I know have remarked upon, strictly from a media perspective, and completely apart from the profoundness of the tragedy.

One is that it is not to be believed that a family devastated by fire that lived in Brooklyn in an apartment building or had no money or wasn't white would get as much serious attention as the Stamford Christmas fire did. Another is that the victims and their families have been exploited for entertainment value on the covers of the tabloids. I think both are true, in a way. But what made this feel a little different to me is just that I think, for the first time in my memory, that the subjects are perfectly aware of both things.

So at St. Thomas, Madonna Badger told an overflowing crowd of friends, relatives and total strangers, “I want you to remember my girls out loud, to fight for them never to be forgotten. This is why I can stand before you today,” and Rufus Wainwright sang "Somewhere Over the Rainbow."

The picture on the front of the News is the creased face of Badger and the stoic, sad-looking father of her children just beyond her. It's a tight close-up and the word "SORROW" appears at the bottom in knockout-white text. "My little girls are in my heart" reads a sort of dek on the upper right, a quote from her eulogy to her daughters at St. Thomas.

"We weep with you" reads the headline on the Post, which shows the sobbing parents, he with his hand drying his eyes and she with her head propped against his shoulder. It's further away, and there's just slightly less of a connection being made between the reader and the story subject here; it's just that much more abstract.

Winner: Daily News.