The Woman at the Washington Zoo

Writings on Politics, Family, and Fate


By Marjorie Williams

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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 façe.

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.


"Truly bracing writing. There's no one I can think of producing that kind of raw, emotional essay . . . deeply honest, quite feminine in point of view, and ruthlessly clear."
—MARIE ARANA, editor, Washington Post Book World
"I never met Williams, but what this book reveals is a woman who was incapable of being a victim. She lives in the modern world of Halloween costumes and working mom quandaries, but the story she tells is straight out of Greek literature—of a person cheated by fate, but facing reality unflinchingly and asserting personal honor despite it all."
—DAVID BROOKS, The New York Times
"Williams's journalistic gifts include her delicious use of detail, wicked humor and a psychological insight so telling it raises the question of why anyone ever agreed to submit to her scrutiny. . . . It is the heart-rending "Hit by Lightning: A Cancer Memoir" that best displays Williams's to-the-core candor as she answers the macabre question everyone has probably indulged in: What would you do if you learned you had a short time to live?"
The Washington Post
"Williams' sentences dance. They're acrobatic, graceful and sassy. . . . A call not to respectful tribute, but to pleasure and enlightenment."
—MAUREEN CORRIGAN, National Public Radio's "Fresh Air"
"Dramatic and analytic . . . meticulously walks readers through both the agony and the uplift."
—citation for a National Magazine Award given posthumously to
Vanity Fair for "A Matter of Life and Death," a longer version of which
appears in this volume as "Hit by Lightning: A Cancer Memoir"
"Like Joan Didion . . . Ms. Williams had a privileged perch from which to write about life's most universal experience: death itself. She earned it the hard way, with meticulous profiles that, as she once put it, worked the 'seam between the accepted narrative, usually hammered out between the Washington press corps and its sources, and the grubby human nature stuff.'"
—TODD PURDUM, New York Times
"[Williams] had a clear-eyed way of seeing two sides of an issue, or of a person's character, an insightfulness she brought even to her intimates. . . . It is this book of essays and columns, which have the strengths of a great novel: insight, wit, and a fierce refusal to accept anything that struck her as too reliably orthodox. . . ."
"By itself, ['Hit by Lightning'] is worth the price of the book. . . . For those who have never read Williams' work, The Woman at the Washington Zoo offers many pleasures and surprises. For those already familiar with her writing, this collection is a splendid memorial to an elegant prose stylist."
The Los Angeles Times
"Even if you didn't know Marjorie Williams through her columns and profiles in The Washington Post and Vanity Fair, you'll still be moved by this posthumous collection—and finish it with a sense of loss. . . in describing scenes like wrestling a doctor for her medical chart, she offers a glimpse of her steel-gut gumption—a quality that served her well right until the end."
People Magazine
"I'm biased by friendship, but hardly alone in believing that our era's Henry Adams is Marjorie Williams. . . . The Woman at the Washington Zoo combines peerless political anthropology with heartbreaking insight into the complexities of family life and her own struggle with cancer. . . . And in writing about Mary McGrory, Williams summed up her own gift: 'There was no divining the difference between Mary's talent and her ease at being indelibly herself.'"
"Every once in a while a writer's voice is presented to you and it sinks into your brain, and you think: I'd like to have some more of that, please. . . . Williams' inward-seeking pieces are, not surprisingly, her most poignant. Her cancer, as she raises two young children, is almost unbearable to contemplate. . . . You can find all of this very sad. Or you can find all of this very brave and learn from it. I choose the latter."
"Marjorie Williams' posthumous collection is both sharp and sad, revealing with equal skill public figures and the most personal moments of a private life."
The New York Post
"This uncanny, insightful book contains revelatory pieces. . . . It tells the truth and breaks our hearts. There is nothing more a reader could ask."
The Cleveland Plain Dealer
"Williams was known as an unsparing portraitist of the Washington elite in profiles she wrote for The Washington Post and Vanity Fair magazine. You knew you had arrived when Marjorie Williams called for an interview. . . . Her reporting was exhaustive, but it was her wit and insight and her effortless way with language that made her such a pleasure to read."
The Baltimore Sun
"Marjorie Williams . . . had the ability to infuse her journalism with the sort of psychological acuity usually found only in the best fiction . . . an astoundingly good collection of her writings edited by her husband, Timothy Noah . . . In his moving introduction, Noah pays homage to 'the intense pleasure' of his wife's company. Dipping into this compelling collection, we see what he means."
O, The Oprah Magazine
"With her intellect and perception, the late Washington Post columnist Marjorie Williams possessed a kind of X-ray vision that Superman would envy. . . . I have not enjoyed a book about politicians and the issues that engage them so much since Richard Ben Cramer's famous campaign account, 'What It Takes'.. . . Williams set an Olympian standard for profiles, which unfold in a smooth, effortless style. . . . In her analysis of national politicians, Williams was, indeed, fierce with reality. In the face of her impending death, she exhibited a bravery that bordered on the fierce."
—Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
"[Williams's] profiles are rich with personal details and insight too often passed over in stories about the powerful. . . . Williams's elegant style is at the same time so breezy and casual that you can imagine her writing her columns as notes to friends. . . Particularly moving are her writings on parenthood, marriage, and family."
The Washingtonian
"As a seasoned Washington writer, Williams was both one of the pack and anomalous. . . . Her writing also stands out for what simmers just beneath, whether it's a passage of excavatory reporting or a personal, painful insight. . . . Whether she was writing about presidents, changing mores or her own primal fears, Williams was artful, original and above all, honest."
The Minneapolis Star-Tribune
"Long ago, when we were children, I sat next to Marjorie Williams at The Washington Post. I say this in the same spirit that someone might be lucky enough to say they once worked in the same office as Dorothy Parker. She was an incredible wit with x-ray eyes and a voice, in print and in person, that was unmistakable. As you read these piece on Washington life and, then, on her own life, you also begin to see that she was a writer of intelligence, courage, and soul. We were lucky to have had her and lucky, too, to have this book."
"Marjorie saw inside what the rest of us only see the outside of—and about the most opaque subjects—family, relationships and Washington pols. . . . What a gift to the world she was."
—MARGARET CARLSON, political analyst,
CNN and editor at large, The Week
"Marjorie Williams never shied from what she described as 'the inconvenient argument, the longing to know what was real,' even as she held a mirror unsparingly to her own life. She had a kind of literary intuition that allowed her to see what others could not, and in this collection she lays bare the characters and culture of Washington with remarkable originality. Marjorie lived as she wrote, with warmth, wit, and effortless style."
—SALLY BEDELL SMITH, author of Grace and Power:
The Private World of the Kennedy White House
"A master of the political profile, Marjorie had that rare combination of old-school reporting smarts and newer-school social psychological insight. On top of this she was a witty and graceful stylist. . . . As a journalist, and as a lunch companion, she had few peers and no betters."
"What a tragedy that this superb writer—and woman—is no longer with us, but how lucky we are that she left us these marvelous writings. This is a book to treasure, as we did her."
—CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY, author of Thank You For Smoking
" There are many memoirs of illness, but the one included here stands apart for its extraordinary insight and artistry. Marjorie Williams shows us how our spirit need not succumb to even the most terrible maladies. Her writing comforts and inspires us all."
—JEROME GROOPMAN, M.D., author of The Anatomy of Hope
and professor, Harvard Medical School
"Marjorie Williams put her whole best self into everything she wrote—wit, high spirits, honesty, heart, and brilliant literary gifts. She was not just the best Washington journalist of her generation, she was one of the best journalists, period."
—KATHA POLLITT, columnist, The Nation
"Someday the great Washington novel of power and scheming, of campaign hacks and backroom deals will be written. But until that day comes, my key to that world will be the collected journalism of Marjorie Williams."


The saris go by me from the embassies.
Cloth from the moon. Cloth from another planet.
They look back at the leopard like the leopard.
And I . . .
this print of mine, that has kept its color
Alive through so many cleanings; this dull null
Navy I wear to work, and wear from work, and so
To my bed, so to my grave, with no
Complaints, no comment: neither from my chief,
The Deputy Chief Assistant, nor his chief—
Only I complain . . . this serviceable
Body that no sunlight dyes, no hand suffuses
But, dome-shadowed, withering among columns,
Wavy beneath fountains—small, far-off, shining
In the eyes of animals, these beings trapped
As I am trapped but not, themselves, the trap,
Aging, but without knowledge of their age,
Kept safe here, knowing not of death, for death—
Oh, bars of my own body, open, open!
The world goes by my cage and never sees me.
And there come not to me, as come to these,
The wild beasts, sparrows pecking the llamas' grain,
Pigeons settling on the bears' bread, buzzards
Tearing the meat the flies have clouded. . . .
When you come for the white rat that the foxes left,
Take off the red helmet of your head, the black
Wings that have shadowed me, and step to me as man:
The wild brother at whose feet the white wolves fawn,
To whose hand of power the great lioness
Stalks, purring. . . .
You know what I was,
You see what I am: change me, change me!
Randall Jarrell,
"The Woman at the Washington Zoo" (1956)

Before me is a faded clipping from the Washington Weekly, an alternative paper that enjoyed a brief life in our nation's capital during the mid-1980s. It's a column on the publishing industry, and the fourth item announces that one Marjorie Williams will open a Washington office for Simon & Schuster. She "will be aggressively acquiring Washington properties from her Dupont Circle office starting this week." The date is July 2, 1984.
The item (written by Margaret Carlson, now a well-known political commentator) didn't explain that Marjorie Williams was all of twenty-six, and that the office in question was really an apartment shared with a boyfriend, from which Marjorie continued to perform the editing duties she'd previously executed in New York. The boyfriend lasted a few months, the publishing career (in which she'd invested seven years after dropping out of Harvard, rising to a level of some influence) about a year. What endured was Washington.
Washington became Marjorie's subject—as expressed through the lives of the people within it who sought and exercised power. She wangled an editing job at the Washington Post ("I've been a news junkie since I was twelve," she wrote the Post's personnel chief), then leveraged an offer to run the Book-of-the-Month Club into a writing job in the paper's marquee features section, Style. Within five years she'd established herself, among her professional peers, as the country's most perceptive writer of political profiles, writing first for the Style section, then for the Post's Sunday magazine, then for Vanity Fair, then for Talk, and finally once again for Vanity Fair. A Marjorie Williams profile was conspicuous for its almost frightening psychological acuity, its painstaking accumulation of reportorial detail, and its elegant prose. "Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost," Henry James famously advised aspiring writers. Marjorie didn't just try; she embodied the ideal.
The Washington that Marjorie wrote about was mostly that of presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. The decade of the 1990s was a period of relative moderation in politics, bookended by two eras of ideological fervor—the presidencies of Ronald Reagan at one end and George W. Bush at the other. Most of the people Marjorie profiled were political technicians who liked to think of themselves as visionaries or idealists; some of them perhaps were. But always there was tension between quotidian, usually partisan or commercial priorities and the vague, long-term goal to apply government muscle to beneficial ends.
Marjorie liked to point out that partisan and commercial self-interest almost always got the upper hand, and when that happened Washington's power players typically looked away. That's very much the theme of "The Pragmatist" and "The Rainmaker," Marjorie's profiles of Richard Darman and Vernon Jordan. "The Hack," her profile of Tony Coelho—whom she credits as inadvertent architect of the congressional Democrats' catastrophic electoral losses in 1994—illustrates what happens when the pretense of idealism is dispensed with altogether.
Once Marjorie had perfected the political profile, she started sharpening her skills at personal observation, and within a few years she had produced a corpus of essays whose brilliance, I believe, exceeds that of the profiles. (Two of these essays, "The Alchemist" and "Hit by Lightning: A Cancer Memoir," are published here for the first time.) By the end of the 1990s, Marjorie was writing exquisitely crafted columns blending the personal and the political for the Post's op-ed page. She never lost her passionate interest in the psychology of political leadership, but increasingly Marjorie's attention shifted to the subtler and more intimate dynamics of family life, including her own. Or rather, I should say, "our own," because in 1990 Marjorie had become my wife. She subjected my marriage proposal to textual analysis in a Post magazine cover story reprinted here as "Reader, I Married." Our two young children, Will and Alice, play leading roles in "Entomophobia" and "The Halloween of My Dreams," respectively, and make other, briefer appearances throughout this volume.
Marjorie's journalism career reached its peak in July 2001, when she began syndicating her Post column to other newspapers around the country through the Washington Post Writers Group. A long piece for Vanity Fair about the rocky relationship between former president Bill Clinton and his vice president, Al Gore, had just been published, and it was getting a lot of favorable attention. (Titled "Scenes from a Marriage," the joint profile concludes the first section of this book.) Marjorie was getting ready to tackle her next assignment for Slate's Book Club, which paired off for email exchanges members of a distinguished stable of critics that Marjorie had felt flattered to join. She had also taken up running with characteristic intensity, and looked forward to entering her first marathon. Meanwhile, she was furiously refurbishing the spacious Victorian on the "wrong" side of Rock Creek Park that we'd purchased the year before. Everything was falling into place. Then everything came crashing down.
There was a lump in Marjorie's lower abdomen. It was probably a fibroid tumor, her gynecologist said, a minor annoyance. But he sent her out for a sonogram immediately, and the lump turned out to be one of several metastases. Marjorie, who hadn't felt healthier or more excited by her work in years, had an advanced case of liver cancer, one of the deadliest of all cancers, and (in the United States) a somewhat rare one. Marjorie relates the shock of her diagnosis in "Hit by Lightning: A Cancer Memoir," the first and longest chapter in the third section. She was assured that she only had a few months to live, but in fact Marjorie went on to live three and a half years more before she died in January 2005. She was forty-seven.
What made Marjorie the extraordinary writer she was? I think it was her unrelenting refusal to accept fraudulent surface reality and her remarkable skill at finding the hidden truth that lay beneath. Washington journalists tend to exaggerate the difficulty of becoming an "insider" to the political subculture, and to deny the willed blindness that is often the price of admission. Marjorie showed that you could burrow into Washington's power culture without surrendering to its deceptions, on the one hand, or embitterment, on the other. "Of course," Marjorie writes in "Flying to L.A.," Washington is "a hive of conformity and caution, but that's part of what I like about it—about covering it, anyway."
The mixture of that brittle, conservative set of social conventions and all the messy human stuff that goes on inside and among the people who try to climb to the top of the heap makes for such rich material. . . . I love working this seam between the accepted narrative, usually hammered out between the Washington press corps and its sources, and the grubby human nature stuff that is nearly always as plain as the nose on your face.
Marjorie's dispassionate assessments of her subjects and her authoritative classifications according to social type inspired this book's title, which I borrow from Randall Jarrell's poem of the same name. Jarrell was a favorite of Marjorie's, and she quoted the poem in "A Woman Who Knew Her Due," her tribute to her late Post colleague Mary McGrory, which closes the second section. I plead guilty to subverting Jarrell's meaning by casting Marjorie as the Woman of the poem's title, and by implying that this book's organization by phylum of the Washington menagerie ("The Philanthropist," "The Pragmatist," and so on) somehow mimics Jarrell. It does not. Jarrell's poem, to the small extent that it addresses politics at all, does so by casting the Woman at Washington's National Zoo as a government bureaucrat clad in "dull null/ Navy," in stark contrast to the colorful saris worn by embassy wives from the Indian subcontinent ("cloth from the moon") and to the caged animals ("white wolves," a vulture's "red helmet"). Jarrell himself, in a commentary on the poem, called the Woman an "aging machine part." McGrory, however, had (Marjorie wrote) "the heart of a buccaneer." She was no machine part. Neither was Marjorie.
But there's another way to read the poem. William Pritchard, in a literary biography of Jarrell, noted that the Woman's rage against repression, as expressed by Jarrell, "belies the woman's powerlessness" and constitutes "a sound of strength and mastery rather than weakness and confusion"—so much so that the poem "has been adopted as a rallying point . . . for liberation or 'empowerment.'" In that sense, Marjorie seems very much like the Woman at the Washington Zoo. A strong feminist streak runs through the essays collected here, from Marjorie's exasperation when Ms. magazine decided to accept cosmetics advertorials ("Makeup and Ms."), through her sympathetic exploration of the idea of a "marriage sabbatical" ("Run for Your Life"), and on to her disgust when the feminist establishment gave Bill Clinton a free pass about Monica Lewinsky ("Bill Clinton, Feminist"). To observe Marjorie's "strength and mastery" as a writer and a human being, you need look no further than "Hit by Lightning: A Cancer Memoir." (I assembled this essay, after Marjorie's death, from fragments of a book she had started to write about her illness.) Marjorie was furious that she had to think endlessly about her coming death while you, dear reader, might be lucky enough never to "catch sight of the blade assigned to you." It made her furious when doctors treated her like a child, and (in her essay "The Doctor Factor") she exposed their arrogance and their petty vanities. Above all, Marjorie was furious that her body was failing her. In this context, Jarrell's concluding lines—"You know what I was,/ You see what I am: change me, change me!"—seem right on the money.
Marjorie overflowed with love for her family and her friends, but, even before her illness, she never accepted less than she thought she deserved, which was quite a lot. Self-denial was, to Marjorie's mind, a form of self-neglect, something not to admire but to mistrust. The greatest piece of writing Marjorie ever produced, I believe, is "The Alchemist," a portrait of the self-denying figure in Marjorie's life: her late mother, Beverly Williams. I had no idea, when Marjorie died, that she had written the essay; I found it when I was going through her files to compile this book. Why did she never publish it during her lifetime? My best guess is that it felt too close to the bone.
The house on Maple Street in Princeton, NJ, where Marjorie grew up, was part salon and part five-star restaurant. The salon's host was Marjorie's father, Alan Williams, a learned and gregarious editor at Viking Press. His authors included Nadine Gordimer, Shirley Hazzard, and Stephen King, and literary figures were forever passing through the Williams living room. Filling the stomachs of these luminaries fell to Beverly, a somewhat reserved woman whose self-effacing demeanor masked a razor-sharp wit. It was from her mother, and not her more conspicuously literary father, that Marjorie inherited the remarkable acuity about human character that makes her profiles so memorable. In "The Alchemist," Marjorie describes forever positioning herself, as a child, by the back stairs separating the living room, where Alan held court, and the kitchen, where Beverly lost herself in preparing exquisite meals for near-strangers. It was an ambivalence that haunted her the rest of her life. Eventually, though, "between my mother's moon and my father's sun, I made my choice." She planted herself in the sun; she chose to be hungry and alive. That choice radiates from every page of this book.
What follows is a small fraction of Marjorie's work. Although the selections tend to represent what I felt was her very best journalism, the scheme I chose imposed some limitations. As I noted earlier, the first and longest section, "Profiles," presents the reader with a sampling of distinct social types in Washington. That ruled out inclusion of some great profiles of non-Washingtonians; her Vanity Fair portraits of Anna Quindlen and Patricia Duff come to mind. The profile subjects whom I did include are not necessarily the most significant figures Marjorie profiled. Rather, they are the people Marjorie wrote about in a particularly insightful or entertaining way. An extreme example is "Protocol," a profile of Archie and Selwa Roosevelt, two utterly forgotten Reagan-era personages. The piece is included here because of the deft comedy Marjorie employed to describe one Washington power couple's particularly clumsy pas de deux. It felt like a good curtain-raiser. Gwendolyn Cafritz, the Washington-area philanthropist profiled in the book's second chapter, wasn't a political person at all, but I included her for variety, and because it's simply too much fun to rubberneck a big fight over a rich person's last will and testament.
The book's second section, "Essays," contains a mixture of magazine essays, newspaper columns, book reviews, and email exchanges published in Slate. In choosing items to include here, I tended to winnow out anything that didn't relate in some way to family or women's issues, which were Marjorie's principal concerns during her last active years. Consequently, very few of Marjorie's fine columns on the 2000 election made the cut.


On Sale
Mar 31, 2007
Page Count
384 pages

Marjorie Williams

About the Author

Marjorie Williams was born in Princeton, N.J. in 1958 and died in Washington, D.C. in 2005. She is the author of The Woman at the Washington Zoo, a New York Times bestseller and winner of the PEN/Martha Albrand Nonfiction Award. She is survived by her husband, Timothy Noah, a senior writer at Slate, and her children, Alice and Will.

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