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Marc Fisher

Writer's Truths Linger With Those She Left

By Marc Fisher
Tuesday, January 18, 2005; Page B01

Floating over the stairwell at the Phillips Collection's exhibition of work by Alexander Calder and Joan Miro, friends for life, is a Calder mobile that is lighted to cast an alluring shadow on the wall. But this shadow arrests your ascent. Calder spiced this particular mobile with shards of colored glass, making this a shadow with colors -- stark and bright, strong and bold, a shock to the system.

To see a shadow burst with color, changing everything you've always associated with shadows, is to know what Marjorie Williams meant to those who were blessed to have her in our lives. She took the people you saw every day and painted them with the tint of truth.

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Maybe you read her columns on the op-ed page of this newspaper. Maybe you read her profiles of political celebrities in the pages of Vanity Fair or in the Post's Style section or Sunday magazine. If you did, you saw famous people anew, and you had to think harder to piece your world together.

Those of us who knew Marjorie, who died Sunday after a three-year campaign against liver cancer, received a greater gift. If you are fortunate, there is a Marjorie in your life too, someone who commands admiration without inflaming jealousy.

Here's how she did it:

Like the best writers, the great artists and the wise parents, Marjorie named things for what they are. In the halls of power and in the quotidian rounds of motherhood, Marjorie saw how people jockey for position and quest after recognition, and she called them out. So the mother who boasted incessantly of her mastery of the conflicting duties of work and family became Efficient Mom, and Marjorie's stories about her made everyone else feel better about their own struggles. The mom who buffered her offspring from every last one of life's dangers, making all the other moms feel like the Evel Knievels of parenthood, became The Mother Who Cares. Marjorie even had a moniker for herself; she became Cancer Mom, freed by the lottery of misfortune from ever having to make another fruit salad for the next school function.

I loved Marjorie because she had the courage, confidence and charisma to put names to bad ideas and baldfaced lies, to the heroes and buffoons who populate any place, but especially this one. I loved her because she could raise an eyebrow and obviate the need to write a thousand words.

All of us need someone who realizes, without ever saying so, that we are who we know and what we make of them. That summer at the beach house before anyone had kids, when we could sleep all day and talk all night, I discovered that Marjorie knew there is no harm in thrashing through the pros and cons of those whose lives intersect our own. The judgments we make and the stories we tell about the people around us are not idle gossip, but a crucial process of figuring out what really matters. Then, when we've hashed that all out, our humanity depends on our ability see the truth about the people we know.

Marjorie did that without favor and with rip-roaring humor and courtly gallantry. The moms in her mommy group luxuriated in her stories about the powerful people she'd interviewed. We dads heard these tales secondhand and still lapped them up like the last bits of a rich Thanksgiving soup.

In another time and place, Marjorie would have been one of the women at James Joyce's dinner table -- strong as a bull, with wit as her weapon and sorrow as her brace.

Marjorie explored her subjects the old-fashioned way, digging into their pasts and confronting them with truths. She waited for politicians to reveal themselves; she held back to allow the self-important to self-destruct. With all of us, she had a rigorous empathy; in a room packed with ego, she'd find the wallflower and make his evening.

Those who wield a stiletto in their professional lives are often the sweetest of souls. Marjorie had seen more than enough pain before she received her own mortal dose. What she saw enabled her to create a world of possibility and imagination that will enrich her children for all their days. Marjorie knew that, and that's why she could leave us as I first came to know her, still smarter than the rest of us, seeing clearly what we viewed only as shadows. Long before we could see all the colors, Marjorie was already laughing about how they didn't match.

The final installment in my series on affordable housing, scheduled for today, instead will appear Thursday.

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