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Doubt, humor, hope, motherhood

The passions of Marjorie Williams

By Todd Leopold

Marjorie Williams




(CNN) -- The late Marjorie Williams was honest about others, and with herself.

"What she was, was an interpreter of character," says writer Timothy Noah, Williams' husband. "She found it the most interesting thing in the world."

So when Williams -- a highly regarded journalist who worked for publications including the Washington Post, Vanity Fair and Slate -- wrote about Barbara Bush or the Bill Clinton-Al Gore partnership, she did so with an eye for the oft-overlooked detail: noting the younger Barbara Bush "ground her teeth at night and smoked Newports by the pack;" seeing the disintegrating relationship between Clinton and Gore as "Scenes from a Marriage."

When she wrote about her mother, she didn't shrink from the distances between her parents, her father's abandonment of the marriage, her mother's loneliness.

When she wrote about her marriage and children, she was blunt about the conflicts with the feminist ideals of her younger self, as well as the joys of making a home.

And when she wrote about the liver cancer that eventually killed her, she took note of the "appalling reactions" of some of her medical professionals, her anger at the unfairness of it all, the joy and preciousness of knowing love and life.

Her essays and profiles are collected in "The Woman at the Washington Zoo" (PublicAffairs), edited by Noah. Some themes shine through, notably Williams' fascination with the conflict between public and private life, between career and family, and the impossibility of reconciling these components of existence to everyone's satisfaction.

"She felt strongly that some conflicts couldn't be solved," says Noah in a phone interview from Washington. "She felt it was a cruel hoax that there was this idea of a perfect balance. She lived with ambivalence. It's a part of life."

'Then I had children of my own'

Though the political profiles are sharply drawn, it's the personal essays that are the most affecting.

Williams writes about pursuing bugs with her young son despite her own longstanding fear of insects: "I know, even as I do it, that this is an insane activity for a woman who spent her afternoon courting Bug Armageddon. But Willie wants this bug, and so I am going to help him get it."

There's her grudging participation in the "Cat Race," a name for the competition parents engage in through their children: "How invidious; how sexist; how not the way I planned to run my life. ... Then I had children of my own."

And her fantasy, and those of many friends, of running away from it all so she could simply be her self again: "It's about the vast difference between who we were and the women we are slowly becoming, and the insistent, half-glimpsed hunch that if only we could stop and think, or something, these selves might negotiate a more deliberate bond," she writes in an essay called "Run for Your Life."

Williams writes about herself with a searching knowledge, bringing her family into the conversation when necessary -- something Noah admits could be a little jolting.

"It did give me pause the first time she wrote about me," he says. "And when she wrote about our family ... it was not something I welcomed. Yet I felt strongly that she should write what she wanted to. And I never felt she crossed over the line of appropriateness, especially when she wrote about the kids. I think she showed great restraint."

Much good humor, too.

"Dear Tim, Let's not hurt each other. If you know what I mean. Nice little marriage you got there; shame if something happened to it," she began an exchange for Slate's "Breakfast Table" dialogue with her husband, a chance to exchange views on the morning headlines. "Talk around our real breakfast table, as any parents of two small children could attest, concerns the merits of Lucky Charms vs. Frosted Flakes. ... I've had entire months in which it seems like you're trying to tell me, every morning, that Red Skelton just died."

Telling the truth


The last section of the book is about her liver cancer, an affliction that came as a complete shock to the previously healthy 43-year-old Williams. (One doctor, whom Williams impishly calls "Dr. Liver," summed up the improbability of Williams getting the disease: "Lady," he said, "you got hit by lightning.")

She copes with how to tell her children the truth about the cancer, which she compares with telling them the truth about Santa Claus. She's uneasy about Howard Dean because he's a doctor -- and doctors, in her experience, haven't been paragons of tact and virtue. She revels in Halloween with her daughter, despite its symbols of mortality.

The publisher is positioning "The Woman at the Washington Zoo" for Mother's Day, though all of this real life may seem a bit much for a day associated with cards, flowers and family dinners. But Noah thinks it's absolutely appropriate.

"There's quite a lot about being a mother in particular. Those parts of the book touched quite a lot of people," he says.

Noah, in fact, singles out Williams' essay about her mother, "The Alchemist," unpublished until this book. The work contrasts her mother's cool personality with her love of cooking, and how the effort she put into food became one of the few outlets for her stifled emotions as Marjorie grew up. "You could eat at her table every night and never once taste the thing that you were really hungry for," Williams wrote.

"There's even more of Marjorie in that essay than in the cancer essay ['Hit by Lightning: A Cancer Memoir']," says Noah.

Williams' writing was recently honored with two notable awards: "Hit by Lightning" won a National Magazine Award Tuesday, and the book is scheduled to be given the Martha Allbrand First Nonfiction Award by the writers' organization PEN on May 22.

Marjorie Williams died on January 16, 2005. She was 47. Noah says that life since has been "difficult," but he's drawn sustenance from putting together the book and talking about itexternal link.

"This is one thing that's not difficult at all," he says. "It's kind of a balm to be working on the book. It's a way to be with her voice."

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