Judith Rossner, 70; 'Mr. Goodbar' Author

Judith Rossner based
Judith Rossner based "Looking for Mr. Goodbar" on the murder of a teacher who went to singles bars. (Christopher Littlefield - AP)
By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 11, 2005

Judith Rossner, 70, a novelist who had her greatest popular success with a terrifying account of the singles bar scene, "Looking for Mr. Goodbar," died Aug. 9 at New York University Medical Center. She had diabetes and leukemia.

Mrs. Rossner's nine other books, beginning with "To the Precipice" (1966) and ending with "Perfidia" (1997), similarly were concerned with women's perspectives on ambition, loneliness and love.

"My abiding theme is separations," she once said, and that played out in plots involving divorces, runaway pregnant wives, adolescent anger and unusual love affairs. That last subject included her novels about a woman who grows sexually obsessed with conjoined twins ("Attachments," 1977) and the story of a 19th-century Lowell, Mass., millworker who, through tragic and improbable circumstance, unwittingly marries her own illegitimate son ("Emmeline," 1980).

She also wrote the top-selling "August" (1983), involving a young woman and her psychiatrist.

By far her most graphic novel was "Looking for Mr. Goodbar" (1975), based on the 1973 slaying of a schoolteacher in New York City who frequented singles bars. In her book, the schoolteacher is exploited through a series of devastating affairs. She finds a form of sexual freedom and personal empowerment in picking up men in bars but eventually takes home a man who kills her.

In a New York Times review, writer Carol Eisen Rinzler called "Looking for Mr. Goodbar" "uncommonly well-written and well-constructed fiction, easily accessible but full of insight and intelligence and illumination."

The 1977 film version starring Diane Keaton was a box office success, tapping into popular questions about the limits of sexual liberation. Mrs. Rossner distanced herself from the movie, saying that, without Keaton, "the flaws would be more obvious."

Judith Perelman was born March 1, 1935, in New York. Her mother, who taught first grade, pushed her to be a writer. "She used to say magazines were my favorite toys," she said.

She dropped out of the City College of New York to marry Robert Rossner, a teacher and writer. Early on, she did secretarial work in a real estate business. "I was efficient, and it took absolutely nothing out of me," she told a reporter. She wrote short stories and shopped them to women's magazines, which dismissed her submissions. One rejection slip read: "When all is said and done, she does not wear sufficiently rose-colored glasses for us."

She also wrote her first novel, published years later as "To the Precipice," about a Jewish woman's decisions in love.

Her initial books did not sell well or make money, but they usually were praised for their wit and verve. Soon after leaving her husband, with whom she was running a free school in New Hampshire, she published "Any Minute I Can Split" (1972), about a pregnant woman who runs away to a commune but soon has doubts.

Nora Ephron, editing a women's issue of Esquire magazine in the early 1970s, asked Mrs. Rossner to contribute. She suggested the real-life story of Roseann Quinn, a young schoolteacher who was slain by a man she reportedly met at a singles club.

She wrote the story but said Esquire lawyers axed the piece because it might affect the pending trial. She wrote the novelized version, spurred by a mood of general gloom that she thought would be terrific for storytelling. "I had just had a car accident and burned my leg and I was all depressed and everything," she later said.

The book brought her financial stability and allowed her to write full time. Her last novels included "His Little Women" (1990), playing off the Louise May Alcott classic but set in Hollywood.

"Alcott's idea that women are wonderful friends has been welcomed by the feminist movement and there's a large measure of truth in that, but it stops at a certain point," she once told London's Guardian newspaper. "All women are great friends until they're in competition for a man or a job, and then they're not such great friends. And the very idea of sisterhood, well, I'm very close to my sister, I adore her, but I was madly jealous of her and we had terrible fights when we were young. One truth does not eliminate the other."

Her marriages to Robert Rossner and Mort Persky ended in divorce.

Survivors include her husband, Stanley Leff; two children from the first marriage; a sister; and three grandchildren.

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