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Post Columnist Marjorie Williams Dies

By David Von Drehle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 17, 2005; Page B05

Marjorie Williams, 47, a Washington Post columnist known for her elegantly crafted essays on American society and fearless profiles of the political elite, died of cancer Jan. 16 at her home in Washington.

Ms. Williams produced definitive journalism across a range of forms, from short essays to in-depth magazine pieces. Ms. Williams was an editor of great promise in her twenties and became a piercing portraitist of Washington power in her thirties, writing profiles of government and media leaders for The Post and Vanity Fair magazine.

Marjorie Williams was known for withering political profiles and eloquent essays. She died at 47.

_____From Slate_____
Marjorie Williams (1958-2005)
_____From the Post_____
Fisher: Writer's Truths Linger With Those She Left
_____Post Editorial_____
Marjorie Williams
_____Marjorie Williams_____
The Halloween Of My Dreams (The Washington Post, Nov 3, 2004)
Time for Changing 'Nappies' (The Washington Post, Mar 31, 2000)
The Performance of a Lifetime (The Washington Post, Sep 12, 1991)
More columns by Marjorie Williams

_____Obituary Submissions_____
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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.

In 2000, she began a weekly op-ed column that attracted an immediate and admiring audience, according to Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt. "The quality of the response to her work was remarkable," Hiatt said. "While she was doing it, there's never been anything better on our page."

Liver cancer was diagnosed in July 2001. Ms. Williams turned a prognosis measured in months into a stoic and good-humored campaign for nearly four years, hard-won time that she lavished on her husband, journalist Timothy Noah, and their children, Will and Alice.

The shelf-life of newspapers generally is measured in hours or days, of magazines perhaps in weeks; Ms. Williams was the rare journalist whose best lines and sharpest insights are still fresh in the minds of fans.

Hiatt, for example, instantly recalled her observation in a column from March 2000: "In years of writing about political figures, I have heard the friends and associates of a really striking number of men offer, as proof of the great men's warmth and cuddliness, that when their children call during work hours, they actually take the calls."

A number of other admirers cited her 1991 Style section profile of Clifford, an adviser to presidents from Truman onward, who found himself mired in scandal at the end of a long career as one of the most venerable of Washington wise men.

"But there is another mystery in Clifford's history: the intriguing question of how Washington came to repose so much confidence in a corporate lawyer-lobbyist, making him the personification, the very definition, of integrity," Ms. Williams wrote. "The answer to that mystery lies in . . . how eager Washington always is to think of its fixers as statesmen."

The guts to call a fixer a fixer, no matter how many history books he might figure in, and the craftsmanship to do it with eloquence, and the brains to make it stick -- those were the main guns in her arsenal. "She had an extraordinary concern for getting it right, not just in the details, but in the context," according to former Post Magazine editor Bob Thompson. Simply having her byline on cover stories was enough to rivet the attention of official Washington, Thompson said.

She had a one-of-a-kind résumé to match her distinctive voice. The path she trod -- seemingly casual, yet in retrospect supremely efficient -- served for many colleagues to underline the idea that there could be only one Marjorie Williams.

Ms. Williams was born in Princeton, N.J., daughter of a prominent book editor, Alan Williams, and his wife, Beverly. Perhaps Ms. Williams's ability to see through power to the human and vulnerable layers beneath was shaped by her childhood amid the dueling wits and clashing egos of an over-lubricated literary salon.

As editorial director of Viking Press, her father shepherded authors ranging from the Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer and the military historian Sir John Keegan to the blockbusters Frederick Forsyth and Stephen King. Her father was a raconteur and opera buff who loved jousting over trivia with a martini in his hand. Her mother was a scientist-turned-homemaker, equally skilled at serving up gourmet meals and acerbic commentary.

"I come from a family in which alcohol played a devastating role," Ms. Williams once wrote of her Cheeveresque upbringing.

She became a voracious reader and satisfied three years of Harvard requirements in just two academic years. But she was unhappy at college. She dropped out after her junior year and landed a job in New York as assistant to editor Joni Evans. Evans discovered that Ms. Williams "had practically read everything before I ever met her."

Together they handled a string of bestsellers, and Evans concluded that her protege was destined to become "a major publisher, major." But in 1986, Ms. Williams decided to try Washington and journalism -- evidence, Evans said, of her "enormous presence, her enormous sense of her own happiness and her own path."

"She was complicated," Evans said. "Very sure of her own goals. She didn't need the outside approval of others."

Washington Post associate editor Robert G. Kaiser was then running the paper's National staff and looking for someone to jazz up the Federal Page. He took a flier on the uncredentialed Ms. Williams. She was an immediate success, coaxing writers into banking their Page One ambitions long enough to contribute articles for her and launching the gossipy column "Talking Points."

"But she wanted to be a writer," Kaiser recalled. A lucrative offer to run the Book of the Month Club was the lever she used to pry open a slot as a reporter in the Style section. Her profiles there and in the Post Magazine were an immediate sensation -- from the start, she wrote with an authority that simply closed the book on subject after subject -- and soon led to an enduring relationship with Vanity Fair.

"Marjorie was one of the finest Washington reporters I know," Vanity Fair editor-in-chief Graydon Carter said. "She combined the political and the social aspects of the place in a way that was seamless, and she often did it without being granted access to her subjects."

Ms. Williams's dogged reporting carried her past the obstacles and barriers that image-guarding public officials tried to place in her path, Carter said.

Her byline appeared in various publications over portraits, character studies, essays, book reviews and online exchanges. She wrote trenchantly on topics ranging from the presidency to parenthood, from Julia Child to Jennifer Lopez. She ran the octaves from trivia to timelessness with speed and harmony. She could do funny and wise and sad all in the same paragraph, with no seams showing.

Many more people liked Ms. Williams than could easily explain her, for she defied easy categories. Her prose was razor-sharp, her personality gentle. Her mind was relentless, her manner good-natured. Her standards were exacting, her impulse forgiving. She was by nature the center of most rooms she entered, yet preferred to draw out others, to listen.

"This was a woman," her friend and Post colleague Ruth Marcus said, "who could be intimidated by her nanny, then turn around and skewer the secretary of state."

Said former Post executive editor Benjamin C. Bradlee: "She had that miracle touch. She made people feel so good -- about life and the paper and everything."

During her illness, she wrote occasional op-ed pieces that sometimes touched on the ordeal, but always as an illumination of a larger point. Her final column, published Nov. 3, reflected on what she knew was likely her last Halloween. She described her third-grader dressed up in a rock star costume; in that bittersweet glimpse, Ms. Williams divined the young woman she would not live to know.

Ms. Williams faced her death open-eyed. She had watched her mother die, and afterward she wrote: "You bear the unbearable, in the orbit of a loved one's death, because you have to. . . . Death is the one matter that is out of our hands."

Neither a romance nor a melodrama; just the truth. Truth was, to the end, the thing she handled best.

Besides her children and husband, a columnist for the online magazine Slate, Ms. Williams is survived by her stepmother, Robin Rue of Jersey City, N.J.; and three sisters.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company