The Next 20

The Woman Who Taught Me Prudence

What I learned from the life, and death, of Marjorie Williams.

Photo illustration by Slate. Images by Slate, iStock.

“The cupboard is bare.” This was how Marjorie told our mothers group, the one she had organized nine years earlier when we all had babies born within a few months of one another, that she was going to die, and soon. Marjorie Williams, columnist for the Washington Post, writer for Vanity Fair, contributor to Slate, was the country’s most acute and original chronicler of how power worked in Washington, D.C., and of its delusions and hypocrisies. Then in July 2001, she was suddenly diagnosed with end-stage liver cancer at age 43 and told she would be lucky to live to Christmas—her children, Will and Alice, were then 8 and 5. A grueling succession of treatments had given her a three-year reprieve from that sentence. Now, in the fall of 2004, the doctors said that the treatments were done, there was nothing left.

When she told us this, she was wearing a turban, which because of her innate élan didn’t shout chemo but rather just seemed like a fashion choice. She put a morphine lollipop to her lips as we clucked around her: Surely there was a clinical trial left! There had to be some miracle drug in the pipeline! She shook her head, no tears, a small smile. “The cupboard is bare.” I couldn’t help but admire the deftness of her allusion to the nursery rhyme, the still-young mother making a reference to Old Mother Hubbard, by way of telling the mothers she had called together that this would be our last full gathering.

At her death in January 2005, days after her 47th birthday, then–Slate editor David Plotz asked if I would write a remembrance of Marjorie. In my 18 years at Slate it was one of the few assignments I turned down. (Jack Shafer ably captured Marjorie’s gifts in his tribute: “She could see character the way most of us see the visible spectrum.”) It was my idea to write my tribute to Marjorie now, in part to give her credit for the influence she had on my work for this magazine. But even more than a decade after her death, I approached the task with a small degree of dread. Would it be too sad to go back and plunge into her writing? Of course, I did cry, but I was more often buoyed by the sheer pleasure, so much missed, of immersing myself in the workings of Marjorie’s mind.

Journalism is the most ephemeral of professions; our work dates as it is created. But a surprise of re-reading Marjorie’s writing is how undated so much of it is. After her death, her husband, Tim Noah, edited a magnificent collection of her work, The Woman at the Washington Zoo. One of the first pieces I turned to again was her bold Vanity Fair analysis of the Clinton scandal. (Bill’s, that is; this scandal was about his affair with Monica Lewinsky.) Reading it again today made me want to send a series of bulletins to Marjorie. When she wrote that feminists forgave Bill Clinton because, among other things, he appointed the first woman secretary of state, I felt like shouting, “Marjorie, you will not believe who became the third female secretary of state—and Hillary is running for president now!” I longed to hear Marjorie’s take on this insane election and imagined how she would have reveled in filleting Donald Trump.

Her posthumously published essay, “Hit by Lightning: A Cancer Memoir,” is a tour de force that grabs you from the opening line: “The beast first showed its face benignly, in the late-June warmth of a California swimming pool, and it would take me more than a year to know it for what it was.” Yet it would not be an essay by Marjorie without her perfectly turned wit. Of the weasel words found in pathology reports, she writes, “A pathologist, I will learn, would look at your nose and report that it is consistent with a breathing apparatus.” She writes about her fears—“trivial and serious”—of leaving her children motherless, one being that Alice will never learn to wear tights because “you’d think, from watching my husband try to help her into them … that he’s been asked to perform a breech birth of twin colts.”

Marjorie and I got to know each other when she welcomed me to Washington in the late 1990s, after I moved from California for a new marriage. I was in my late 30s, and our connection was through Tim—he and I had become friends when we were interns together at the New Republic. Though Marjorie was a few years younger, she had already established the kind of grown-up life—a husband, full-time job, a toddler son, a house—for which I was getting a late start.

At one of our early coffees she dared ask that tricky question people put to newly married women: Did I want kids? I said we were going to try, and she said that she and Tim were trying again, too. She added with girlish enthusiasm, “Maybe we’ll be pregnant at the same time!” as if getting pregnant, especially at my age, would be so easy. But magically, it was. There are pictures of us, about a year later, facing each other, our bellies immense with the girls, born weeks apart, who would go on to become classmates and fast friends.

I don’t want to elevate my place in Marjorie’s life. We were not best friends, I wasn’t even an intimate. I was searching for how to describe the nature of our friendship, when a passage in “Hit by Lightning” did it better. Facing death in her 40s, and not younger, meant, she wrote, “I had had every chance to flourish. I had a loving marriage. I’d known the sweet, rock-breaking, irreplaceable labor of parenthood, and would leave two marvelous beings in my place … I knew what it was to love my work. I had deep, hard-won friendships, and diverse, widespread friendships of less intensity.” I was comfortably in that latter group, which was large because Marjorie brought the same attentiveness to her friendships that she brought to her work.

There’s another thing, too. As we were becoming friends, I had just become a mother and was still trying to figure out how to put that together with the vagaries of freelance journalism. One of Marjorie’s great subjects was the intersection for women of family and work—she was writing brilliantly about the dilemma I felt I was figuring out badly. One day, stuck at the veterinarian’s office trying to corral my miscreant beagle and my 3-year-old daughter, a Washington talk show appeared on the waiting-room TV, and there was Marjorie. She looked glamorous and was dropping bons mots, and I felt the sharp sting of jealousy. I hated myself for it, especially since I knew that Marjorie’s success was earned. How well I knew this was demonstrated by the fact that before I undertook any writing of my own, I would read something by Marjorie. Not to copy her voice, but to help me find my own, to be inspired by her tart precision.

Not long afterward, at a dinner party of mutual friends, Marjorie had some big news. Her Washington Post column was about to be syndicated! We all raised our glasses, and I made a mental note that she would win the Pulitzer, that she would deserve it, and that I’d better deal with it.

In the alternate world that should have been, she would have won that Pulitzer. I would have had a party to celebrate. In the alternate world, Marjorie and Tim would have raised Will and Alice together. Instead, shortly after that first syndicated column went out, the doctors found in her abdomen “the mother ship—a tumor the size of a navel orange.” And so it was that many years later, instead of sitting next to Marjorie at Alice’s high school performances (Alice has an ethereal singing voice and, unsurprisingly, a delivery sophisticated beyond her years) and watching Marjorie bask in her daughter’s gifts, I would embarrass my own daughter by trying to keep my crying quiet.

A year after Marjorie died, I became the Dear Prudence columnist. While I had understood my place in Marjorie’s life, her place in mine shifted after her death. Our family’s love of Alice ensured thoughts of Marjorie would frequently surface. But during the near-decade I spent being an advice columnist, I often called on what I learned from Marjorie. For one thing, jealousy was a frequent subject of letters, though it is a surprisingly little-explored topic in the psychological literature. I felt it as an emotion of subtraction, posited on the false sense that the good things in life are a finite resource. I tried to convey to readers that grappling with jealousy meant recognizing that someone else’s engagement, or pregnancy, or syndicated column was not a theft of yours.

And Marjorie was in every letter about illness, loss, grief. It was because of Marjorie I felt able to counsel the young woman with end-stage cancer who wanted permission to tell her loved ones that there was no hope, no miracles—the cupboard was bare. I also learned from Marjorie that it is a gift from the sick person to her friends to let them do something specific and useful. Marjorie and Tim’s intimates and acquaintances formed a dinner brigade that lasted for more than three years; a core group of us took turns running it. From this experience I was able to pass on to readers some insights about delivering meals to an ailing friend:

1. You are dropping off dinner, not dropping in for a visit.
2. Disposable containers only.
3. No lasagna.

“The Halloween of My Dreams,” published in November 2004, was Marjorie’s last newspaper column; it’s about helping Alice get ready for Halloween, their final one together. It rightly was listed by the National Society of Newspaper Columnists as one of the 15 best ever published. In it, Marjorie writes in an aside about awakening from one of her many punishing medical procedures: “I’d said clearly out of a cloud of Dilaudid, ‘I love all these random thoughts.’ All my life I’ve worked so hard to get words and sentences into line. They have to have a point. I love floating along on all these random thoughts.” I understood so well what she meant because writing this remembrance had a similar effect on me. It allowed me to float along on random thoughts of Marjorie. (The time, close to the end of our pregnancies, when Marjorie and Tim and my husband and I went to the movies, and in sitcom fashion, got stuck in the elevator to the parking garage. The time, close to the end of her life, while out to dinner with a group of friends, she said to the table what an extraordinarily lucky person she had been.) But writing it also allowed me to arrive at a point. And that was to discover just how indelible Marjorie’s influence has been, to realize how much I owed her for helping me—and Slate’s readers—with a column I never got to show her.

I hope I brought some of the bracing honesty of Marjorie’s columns to mine, but it’s only appropriate that I end with her wisdom. This is from a 2002 column, “The Random Death of Our Sense of Ease,” in which she tried to answer Will’s questions about the terror struck in Washingtonians from a series of sniper shootings, though it was also a reflection on her own mortality. She wrote, “Time and chance happen to us all, darling boy, and even grown-ups can bear it only a little at a time.”