Staff Pick: The Woman at the Washington Zoo

Marjorie Williams Battles Cancer

The Woman at the Washington Zoo
(Publicaffairs/Perseus Books Group)
by Marjorie Williams

"The beast first showed itself 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."

Those are the words of Marjorie Williams, wife, mother, and journalist with The Washington Post and Vanity Fair, who died in 2005 at age 47. The "beast" that reared its head that afternoon, when her 7-year-old son Will told her, "Mommy you're getting thinner," was liver cancer.

Given only six months to live, Williams surprised doctors by surviving three and a half years beyond her prognosis. The Woman at the Washington Zoo: Writings on Politics, Family, and Fate, edited by her husband Timothy Noah, includes a painful-to-read-but-impossible-to-put-down section on Williams' battle against cancer as well as samples of her penetrating profiles and cut-to-the-heart essays.

My introduction to Williams was, oddly enough, in July 2001 — around the time she got her grim diagnosis — when I happened to read in a doctor's waiting room her Vanity Fair article on the tense relationship between President Bill Clinton and his veep, Al Gore. Like many Americans I remembered when, as Williams wrote, "Bill and Hillary and Al and Tipper embarked on the famous ride across America [and] the media covered the boys on the bus as instant friends and boon companions . . ." She skewered that image, portraying instead a shaky partnership that simmered over the years as the disciplined Gore tried "to fix" the impetuous Clinton. Here Williams put it best: "We watched the marriage of Bill and Hillary, wondering if Bill's misdeeds would finally blow it apart. And all that time . . . we were watching the wrong marriage."

In her essays, Williams captured the truth of many issues: why feminists "muffled, disguised, excused, and denied" Clinton's sexual harassment; why Princess Diana's death held such power for women: "Whether she's riding in a gilt carriage that bears her to the wedding of the century, or in a black Mercedes that bears her to her death, a passenger — which is the most a princess can hope to be — is never in charge."

She nailed Bush as "The Heart-Full Dodger," recalling that, when asked at a presidential debate what philosopher had influenced him most, Bush had answered, "Christ, because he changed my heart." Not denying the fervency of his faith, she observed about Bush's response: "It got him past the perilous topic of whether he had read anything in his life that had stuck to him."

Finally, though, it's her observations on imminent death that seared themselves into my psyche: staggering through the days after the diagnosis; carrying on conversations while the word "cancer" screamed in her head; occasionally "raising from the ocean floor the graceful wreck of our old, normal life;" and, taking comfort, with wry wit, in the things she'd avoid, like paying taxes and getting old. Saddest of all is how death "barged its cackling way" into the simplest family moments.

In the end — though at times feeling "cursed by the guillotine" poised above her neck and resenting the fact that "you may never even catch sight of the blade assigned to you" — she savors the gift of extra time which allowed her to face her death and love her life. That love rings true in even her most heartbreaking essays. As her husband says in the book's introduction, "The insight and effervescence and tart humor and sweet sadness of Marjorie's works will always keep part of her alive." — marilyn sadler

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