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The political and the personal

The Woman at the Washington Zoo Writings on Politics, Family, and Fate Marjorie Williams, edited by Timothy Noah PublicAffairs: 368 pp., $26.95

November 27, 2005|Ruth Rosen | Ruth Rosen, professor emeritus at UC Davis and senior fellow at the Longview Institute, is the author, most recently, of "The World Split Open: How the Modern Women's Movement Changed America."

HAD she lived longer, journalist Marjorie Williams might have written a brilliant novel about the intrigue and hypocrisy that are pandemic in our nation's capital. Like the narrator in Randall Jarrell's classic poem, "The Woman at the Washington Zoo," Williams spent her adult life observing the exotic and distinctive culture that is Washington, D.C.

When she died at age 47 of liver cancer earlier this year, Williams was known for the fearless and withering political profiles she published in the Washington Post and Vanity Fair. She was dubbed "Jane Austen on the Potomac" and "Washington's most dangerous profiler."

Dangerous to whom? To the political elite she skewered with a reporter's accumulation of fact and detail and a novelist's talent for capturing a person's character. Her profile on Barbara Bush, for example, helped counter a carefully crafted public image of the then first lady as a warm, cuddly grandmother. Williams instead revealed her as a cold, calculating woman who dominated and terrorized family members. "For behind her rampart of pearls," she wrote, "the nation's most self-effacing celebrity is in fact a combative politician."

By coincidence, I happened to read that profile just as the president's mother visited victims of Hurricane Katrina at Houston's Astrodome and proclaimed, "So many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them."

In addition to political profiles, Williams also wrote a weekly op-ed column for the Post and elegant book reviews for the online magazine Slate. In a review of Cheryl Jarvis' book "The Marriage Sabbatical: The Journey That Brings You Home," Williams first brings the author to life: "Jarvis is a tall, thin woman with a gorgeous face: green eyes, lips that have the pillowy architecture of a complicated window treatment, and the bone structure of a genetic lottery winner. She looks a decade younger than her fifty-three years."

Was a brief sabbatical from marriage -- a planned time away -- a good idea? Williams took the concept seriously and wrote that Jarvis is "tangling with the biggest questions of marriage: How much can you court risk and change, and still avail yourself of the wordless security that marriage offers? What would it feel like to be alone? Who would you be without your spouse in your life? And, of course: How much do you use your spouse or family as excuses for not tackling the challenges you might otherwise choose?"

Timothy Noah, her husband, has selected some of her most eloquent and probing essays, including two that have never before been published. In "The Alchemist," Williams profiled her middle-aged mother, a woman she viewed as unable to express love and dedicated to a life of deference. "Cooking, which others praised as her glory, seemed to me her bunker. Some time during my adolescence, the mother I loved had vanished into the faultless form of giving that ruled her orderly kitchen. You could eat at her table every night and never once taste the thing that you were really hungry for."

"Hit by Lightning" is a previously unpublished memoir about living with a diagnosis of fourth-stage liver cancer. By itself, this essay is worth the price of the book. Like many people who know they are dying, Williams vacillated between trying to accept death and then, thinking of her husband and two small children, grasping for a glimmer of hope.

In the early months, she'd muse about the benefits of an early death: "[D]eath was a great dark lozenge that sat bittersweet on my tongue for hours at a time, and I savored the things I'd avoid forever. I'll never have to pay taxes, I thought, or go to the Department of Motor Vehicles. I won't have to see my children through the worst parts of adolescence. I won't have to be human, in fact, with all the error and loss and inadequacy that come with the job.

"I won't have to get old."

Trying to resign herself to an early death, she wrote, "Sometimes I feel immortal: Whatever happens to me now, I've earned the knowledge some people never gain, that my span is finite and I still have the chance to rise to life's generosity. But at other times I feel trapped, cursed by my specific awareness of the guillotine poised above my neck."

When she lived longer than her doctors had predicted, Williams dared to hope for a miracle. "I am now, after a long struggle, surprisingly happy in the crooked, sturdy little shelter I've built in the wastes of Cancerland. Here, my family has lovingly adapted to our awful tumble in fortune. And here, I nurture a garden of eleven or twelve different varieties of hope, including the cramped, faint, strangely apologetic hope that having already done the impossible, I will somehow attain the unattainable: cure."

Soon after, cancer claimed this intrepid and stylish writer.

For those who have never read Williams' work, "The Woman at the Washington Zoo" offers many pleasures and surprises. For those already familiar with her writing, this collection is a splendid memorial to an elegant prose stylist. As her husband observes, "The insight and effervescence and sweet sadness and tart humor of Marjorie's words will always keep part of her alive." *

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