Marjorie Williams knew Washington from top to bottom. Beloved for her sharp analysis, elegant prose and exceptional ability to intuit character, Williams wrote political profiles for the Washington Post and Vanity Fair that came to be considered the final word on the capital's most powerful figures. Her accounts of playing ping-pong with Richard Darman, of Barbara Bush's stepmother quaking with fear at the mere thought of angering the First Lady, and of Bill Clinton angrily telling Al Gore why he failed to win the presidency -- to name just three treasures collected here -- open a window on a seldom-glimpsed human reality behind Washington's determinedly blank façade. Williams also penned a weekly column for the Post's op-ed page and epistolary book reviews for the online magazine Slate. Her essays for these and other publications tackled subjects ranging from politics to parenthood. During the last years of her life, she wrote about her own mortality as she battled liver cancer, using this harrowing experience to illuminate larger points about the nature of power and the randomness of life. Marjorie Williams was a woman in a man's town, an outsider reporting on the political elite. She was, like the narrator in Randall Jarrell's classic poem, "The Woman at the Washington Zoo," an observer of a strange and exotic culture. This splendid collection -- at once insightful, funny and sad -- digs into the psyche of the nation's capital, revealing not only the hidden selves of the people that run it, but the messy lives that the rest of us lead.
The second part of the book, her unfinished cancer memoir "Struck by Lightning", however, is brilliant. Living with cancer and raising small children just meant that you needed to eat more pancakes, she writes, and so she does, describing the details of her cancer treatments and life with her family. "The Halloween of my Dreams", the last thing she published, is a look-death-in-the-eye coming to terms that she will not live to see her children grow up. I confess I cried when I read it, and it is still something I occasionally take down and re-read today.
Also I'm a former Washingtonian and still a sporadic political junkie. Yet the only profile that has staying power is the one of Vernon Jordon and perhaps Jeb Bush (perhaps not; did she even interview him?).
Noah says that he decided not to include profiles of non-Washingtonians or non-powerbrokers, such as Anna Quindlen. I think that was a bad decision as was including "essays" that seem to have been op-eds in the Washington Post. All right, I'm lying. I couldn't plow through. Long-forgotten people and teapot tempests, Lewinsky-gate (she made assumptions and jumped to conclusions too fast--see Jeffrey Toobin's book), and then there is the mommy bloggerish stuff. Just too slight to preserve on the page, I guess. Even worse were scraps from Slate gigs.
I don't think she knew much about policy-making, the legislative process and so on, but she can note the characteristics of certain types of Washington figures. What's astute in the Vernon profile is how, like a novelist, she picks up on his physical gestures, his effect on people, clothing.
Why she isn't up to the Marc Singer (in Character Studies) standard of profiling? I read a profile of Donald Trump in that book! And enjoyed it. I don't want to think too much about this ... Singer doesn't do Washington that I know of ... and Washington has so much movement, people moving in and out, even though there is constancy too.
BUT I think she lacks the ability to lodge these people--Barbara Bush, the Clintons, Jordon--in their historical moment. In Barbara Bush's case, how did she fit in China (the diplomatic service), Houston, the D.C. social circuit, with younger generations of women. She comes across as a rather lone figure hanging onto her husband's coat-tails. Was BB even interviewed in this profile? I don't think so. That should have been reason enough for Noah to omit her.
Then the final bit is a long, long account of Williams' illness. Then this happened, then this, the doctor said, that doctor said. Ouch! I bet this was just a very rough draft and she would never have published it. It's been years since I read Anatole Broyard's memoir of his fatal disease (Intoxicated by My Illness?), but I still remember how many insights he pulled, how he was able to see outside himself.
In fact, the personal essays comprise the smaller part of this collection. Most pieces are in-depth political commentary or profiles of Washington, D.C. personalities. I'm not interested in that subject matter at all.
Also, this collection was compiled after Williams' death by her husband, and contains material that she apparently never intended to publish.
Despite both of those drawbacks, I have to give this book 5 stars. Williams was a gifted writer -- insightful, precise, and painfully honest. I enjoyed the personal essays immensely (particularly the piece about her complex relationship with her mother) and even found myself reading and enjoying the political essays.
I found it a little hard to get excited about this book when I started reading, and I don't know why. I skipped a story here and there, scanned some, and read some with relish. Soon I settled in and read. The book is divided into Profiles, Essays, and personal writings of the author's life and cancer. Once I reached essays and the personal section, I wanted to go back and read every word she wrote. The stories about famous people of DC are astonishing in details we never knew, and oh so humanizing. I was struck by how many intimate interviews, dinners, and gatherings Marjorie must have attended and by her intelligent observations. Her personal observations were no less beautiful and honest. The reader will learn tidbits about people like Barbara Bush that would never have been written about were it not for Marjorie. Unless the reader is part of the Washington DC scene or perhaps a journalist, he will learn about other characters that are virtually unknown outside DC.
The book won a Penn/Martha Albrand Nonfiction Award. It's for intelligent readers, not for readers who relish dime-a-dozen romance novels and the like. Mature readers will enjoy it more than very young readers because it has a level of sophistication and history about it that the average young reader won't appreciate. However, young readers interested in literary works, the political scene, and journalism may enjoy it. I love books that send me to the dictionary and this one did.
Marjorie's death is a great loss to all who read her columns and articles and to all who may discover her later through this book.
Noah has split the book into three parts, profiles of DC power-brokers, columns on politics, parenting, and other matters, and Williams short and utterly perfect memoir of dying in what should have been the middle of her life and leaving behind a family that desperately needed her. I read this book over the course of 9 months, dipping in and out, and leaving it on the shelf for weeks at a time. I think it is the right way to read it. The political profiles and columns are mostly excellent, but simply not intended to be read one after the next. For me at least, the shortest part of the book by far, the cancer memoir, was a single evening's read. I could not pull myself away and it affected me deeply. It is important reading not only for those facing illness, but those who have or will walk that road with someone else. I learned a lot from Williams' frankness. This is subject matter that will never go out of date. The other parts though, also proved timely.
Just as the sexual assault allegations arose against the latest addition to the Supreme Court I was coincidentally reading the columns in this book that focused on the Clarence Thomas hearings. I am old enough to clearly remember those hearings, I was a young lawyer by that time and I was obsessed, but time changes the way we think about these things. These columns were like the Trump ice bucket challenge (except not funny and no one benefits.) It was shocking to see Chuck Grassley and Orrin Hatch once again celebrate sexual misconduct with no movement forward. In fact this iteration was possibly more blatantly misogynist, than 1991. Amazing. As Stormy Daniels elbowed her way into the awareness of Americans I was reading a piece where Williams railed about American feminists giving Bill Clinton a pass as evidence of his serial sexual misconduct piled up. Some of those same feminists have shouted about DJT's grab em by the pussy mentality, but gave a pass to a President (hell any supervisor) who got blow jobs from his 22 year old intern with his wife and daughter essentially down the hall. (I include myself in this group of feminists, and I feel chastened.) A few weeks later when Hillary said Bill's blowjobs were not an abuse of power (they were) these columns written in the 90's still hit hard. There are other examples of the how timely these pieces proved to be, but these spring to mind.
This was close to a 5-star for me, but the second section -- the columns -- included a little chunk of stuff (mostly from Slate) not up to the caliber of the rest of the book and it pulled it down a little. Let's say 4.25 and leave it at that. Recommended for those interested in seeing how modern history repeats itself, and how a smart and able commentator can help us understand the world better and to those who just appreciate freaking great writing.