The Hollywood high-concept pitch might go like this: "Sunset Boulevard," the film classic about an aging starlet's tragic twilight, meets "Dallas," the prime time soap opera about the financial and family intrigues of the Ewing clan.
But a new, four-part Dallas Morning News series, Mary Ellen's will: The Battle for 4949 Swiss, is journalism, a powerful example of investigative narrative that combines civic clarity and literary grace.
The series focuses on a contemporary social ill-- widespread financial exploitation of the elderly, whose loneliness and infirmities make them easy prey for strangers who swoop into their lives, shower them with attention, alienate them from family and friends, and make off with as much of their wealth as they can get away with.
Investigative reporter Lee Hancock, and the project's editor, Mark Miller, have created a gripping narrative that draws attention to such crimes by setting it against a dramatic and quintessential Texas landscape.
"The Battle for 4949 Swiss" exposes a public problem by focusing on the private
tragedy of Mary Ellen Bendtsen, 88, and the fight over the decaying Dallas
mansion that was her treasure. It accomplishes this feat by transforming dogged reporting into a story brought alive by vivid characters, the unrelenting accretion of status details in a society where everything seems Super-sized, and dramatic scenes that unfold before our eyes.
(A disclaimer: I have led writing and editing workshops for Morning News staffers for several years. In this case, Miller asked me to participate in an early brainstorming session. I also read early drafts, providing "movies of my reading," a running commentary of one reader's reaction. My enthusiasm, however, derives from having watched the series develop in complexity, as Hancock and Miller demonstrated the power of indefatigable revision, and, having now seen most of the completed version; the series' final installment appears tomorrow. A takeout Sunday explores systematic flaws that make the elderly so vulnerable to con artists.)
The paper's website provides an impressive menu of companion multimedia, including photo scrapbooks, character vignettes, and videos, including a poignant hospital scene where a frail Mrs. Bendsten signs over power of attorney to two men who, relatives and investigators believe, were intent on claiming her decaying mansion.
At a time when public distrust of the media overshadows good journalism, "Mary Ellen's will" also takes enormous pains to buttress its narrative, mirroring similar efforts to provide thorough and credible levels of sourcing transparency.
In addition to a source box, footnotes stud the narrative, pointing to documents and other records; some trigger pop-up boxes with links to news articles reaching back six decades. It's yet another example of the innovative ways that news organizations's online capabilities can provide as much information and documentation that a reader could want.
Like any good story, "Mary Ellen's will" is full of twists and turns.
But its greatest strength, and public service, reflects Hancock's relentless reporting and gifted prose, and the entire project team's attention to accuracy and detail.
Their contributions make it difficult to view the "Battle for 4949 Swiss" without thinking of our own aging relatives, and wondering whether vultures circle overhead.