Remembering Marjorie Williams

Remembering Marjorie Williams… A beloved member of The Washington Monthly extended family, journalist and columnist Marjorie Williams, died yesterday, after a long, brave battle with cancer. She was 47. She is survived by her husband, Slate columnist and Monthly contributing editor Timothy Noah, and her two beautiful children, Will and Alice.

It?s impossible to exaggerate what a fantastic person Marjorie was. She possessed in abundance qualities you don?t normally find in the same person. She was brilliant and sweet, self-assured and self-effacing, ruthlessly honest and unfailingly considerate. She had a dazzling mind, a delightfully tart tongue, and a generous heart. Spending time at her and Tim?s home, which my family and I often did, you felt both excited and at ease?with the kids playing in the toy-strewn living room and the adults talking politics around the island in the kitchen. And in those conversations, when Marjorie talked, you wanted to listen.

Regular readers of The Washington Post and Vanity Fair circa the 1990s will probably remember her work, especially her extraordinary profiles of Washington power players. Journalists crank out hundreds of such pieces a year, the vast majority of which are utterly forgettable, owing largely to the inherent difficulty of the genre. It?s tough to say something new and interesting about people who have already been profiled many times, especially canny Beltway officials who are experts at manipulating their image. Yet Marjorie was always able to crack such people, and her profiles rose to the level of literature, as David Von Drehle explains in his wonderful obituary of Marjorie in today?s Post:

A portrait by Ms. Williams was seen as a ritual signifying that a person had reached the center of the political universe. First came the charm, then the withering scalp-to-toenails examination under her all-seeing eye. Her conclusions were published for millions to read in keen and crystal prose.

She profiled everyone from Bill Clinton to James A. Baker, Al Gore to Colin L. Powell, Larry King to George Stephanopoulos, from archetypal insider Clark Clifford to upstart moneyman Terry McAuliffe. Her portraits blended microscopic observations and universal conclusions as a sort of Plutarch’s “Lives” for an end-of-millennium Washington.

Over at beliefnet, editor Steve Waldman and his wife Amy Cunningham offer another perceptive and touching reminiscence of Marjorie, including a story I?d forgotten: about how Steve and I, in a drunken conversation, determined that if we had to choose someone to write the one and only profile that would ever be done of us, the person we?d pick would be Marjorie. (There?s room on the site for others to share their memories of Marjorie.)

Marjorie also wrote a widely-read column for the Washington Post, the great subject of which was the unavoidable existential tensions of working motherhood. No one, with the possible exception of her good friend and fellow columnist Ruth Marcus, captured these tensions with more grace and wisdom than Marjorie.

In addition to her column and profiles, Marjorie frequently reviewed books for The Washington Monthly (she insisted on a clause in her contract with Vanity Fair allowing her to do so). She was a master of that form, too. She could be, depending on the material, appreciative or withering, often in the same sentence, as when she said of a book by Betty Friedan ?if this slim volume has any virtue, it is as proof that fame, influence, and the well-earned sense of respite that comes at the end of an illustrious career are the enemies of good writing.?

In Marjorie?s memory, we?ve collected and posted her reviews; you can read them here.

I hope others?perhaps her colleagues at the Post or Vanity Fair?will make available the rest of Marjorie?s splendid pieces, online or, better yet, in book form. Her work deserves to live on, as I know her memory will.

Paul Glastris

Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly.