Frank Gray

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Frank Gray

October 3, 1941


to October 7, 2013


The late Francis Osborne Gray, a native San Franciscan, who became a Canadian and British journalist, author and prolific writer of obituaries, several of which appeared in the United Kingdom's Guardian and Independent newspapers over the years.


An extremely funny man, Frank, or Pancho as he sometimes preferred, was drawn to writing about the lives of people most had never heard of and his obituaries reflected his deep culture and varied passions for jazz, cinema, bullfighting, American football, Ernest Hemingway, boxing, all things Spanish, baseball, history and cigars.


His last obituary, published in January, was of Stan Musial, considered by some as the best baseball player in history. However, Frank also signed off on the lives of Gregorio Fuentes, the real-life fisherman who inspired the character of Santiago, the hero of Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea and Alejandro Robaina, Cuban tobacco grower and master cigar-maker. Other obituaries included those of John Barnes, passionate collector and historian who chronicled the early days of British cinema. There were also articles on Marpessa Dawn and Breno Mello, stars of the Academy award-winning late 50s film Orfeu Negro (Black Orpheus), who died within weeks of each other, and Conchita Cintrón a matador who led the way for women in the bullring.


Born in 1941, Frank was raised in San Mateo where he developed a lifelong passion for jazz and saw many of the greats, including Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Thelonius Monk perform.


Too young to drink in bars when he started visiting such fabled, but long-gone San Francisco jazz clubs, as the Black Hawk and the Jazz Workshop, Frank would sneak his favorite tipple (usually whiskey) into empty cigar tubes so he could combine his enthusiastic drinking and cigar-smoking with his love of music. In later years Frank struck up a friendship with renowned American jazz record producer George Avakian, often seeing him when in New York, where he would also occasionally make a point of inspecting the Bix Beiderbecke memorial plaque, near where Frank sometimes stayed in the borough of Queens, to make sure it was properly polished.


Oddly enough for a San Franciscan he was a devoted follower of the Dodgers starting when they were still in Brooklyn.


After high school, where he won a trophy for boxing, Frank took what was to become a life-changing grand tour of Europe. So began his love affair with the old world and with Carole Lester, his wife of almost 50 years to whom he always called his "bride." Struck by the beauty of her ankles, which he glimpsed on the train from London to Southampton, by chance Frank and Carole both boarded the RMS Queen Mary for Montreal and fell in love. Four years later, Carole finally decided to move to San Francisco and they were married in December 1963.


After moving to Toronto, Carole and Frank were ready to start a family and their first son, Nicholas, was born in 1969. Not long after, Frank was transferred to the Montreal office as a journalist. Among the first stories Frank covered there was the October Crisis of 1970 - the kidnapping of the British Trade Commissioner and the Quebec Labour Minister by French Canadian separatists. This prompted the Canadian prime minister, Pierre Trudeau, to send in the army to quash what some feared was an incipient rebellion in Quebec.


Their only daughter, Natasha, arrived in 1974 and a year later Frank was promoted, which took the Gray family on another big move to Vancouver on Canada's west coast.


After 17 years in North America, Frank and his family moved to the United Kingdom. Frank took a job on the world trade desk and then the foreign desk at the Financial Times and loved the Fleet Street life. It was during this time that Frank's knack for obituary writing was born. A tenacious memory aided him.


He was able to indulge his varied passions, interviewing Fidel Castro and Zino Davidoff in his role as the FT's cigar correspondent (as he liked to say). He used his expertise on cigars to contribute to the book The Illustrated History of Cigars.


Frank was perfectly suited to the life of a newspaper hack. Some fine wine and cigars in the company of colleagues always followed deadlines. Even after the arrival of the computer, Frank still preferred to use his old typewriter that he kept under his desk. Later, once the smoking ban was introduced, Frank would often shout through the office "I wanna smoke at my desk!"


In 1986, Frank took a risky career move and accepted a job as assistant city editor at Robert Maxwell's ambitious newspaper venture, The London Daily News. Although the paper lasted only five months, Frank was almost unique in being one of the few to leave Maxwell's employment with a redundancy payout and his pension intact. His ability to navigate corporations to his advantage served him well in later years when he doggedly and successfully fought, as a union representative, for the rights of his fellow journalists.


Frank spent many years, until retirement in 2002, at the Financial Times' newsletters' division, editing popular business titles in the utilities' sector, covering both Asian and Latin American markets.


Frank was never happier in retirement than sitting on the balcony of the family's holiday home near Malaga in Spain. with a good book, a glass of sherry and a cigar - with his favorite jazz playing in the background.


He also spent several years writing the biography of legendary Irish playwright, Brendan Behan. Despite an onset of Parkinson's disease, which was diagnosed in 2003, Frank completed The Crazy Life of Brendan Behan: The Rise and Fall of Dublin's Laughing Boy, which was published in 2010.


In May of this year, Frank was near completion of his second book about only children but sadly suffered a stroke. Family and friends supported his recovery with much love and care, but there were recent, unforeseen complications and Frank passed away in early October just after his 72nd birthday.


Frank's tributes all have one common theme: Frank was a lovely, intelligent man who treated everyone equally and was always great company. Many will miss his modest, affable manner and mischievous sense of humor. He had a gift for maintaining friendships over long periods of time and great distances. He was a great spirit, writer and raconteur.


Frank is survived by his wife Carole, his three children, Nicholas and Malcolm Gray and Natasha Gray-King, their spouses, four gandchildren, and by many grateful colleagues and friends.


Published in San Francisco Chronicle on Nov. 17, 2013
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