A Much-Missed Writer, Wife, Mom

Marjorie Williams always hoped to write a book. She thought it would be a novel. Instead, after two decades of penetrating the lives of Washington's power brokers, Williams began examining her own life and her four-year battle with liver cancer.

The former Washington Post columnist and Vanity Fair writer died in January at the age of 47, and it was her husband, Slate senior writer Tim Noah, who edited "The Woman at the Washington Zoo: Writings on Politics, Family and Fate." It is a collection of Williams's previously published profiles, essays and columns, as well as her reflections on her illness, her marriage and her mothering of Will, 12, and Alice, 9.

"The book starts out about the culture of Washington and very subtly turns into a memoir," Noah said yesterday from New York, the first site of five readings across the country. Excerpts from the just-published book, which takes its title from a work by American poet Randall Jarrell, will be read tonight at Politics & Prose bookstore by author Sally Bedell Smith and Beth Frerking of the Casey Journalism Center at the University of Maryland; Wednesday's reading at the National Press Club will be presented by writer Maureen Orth.

"I think Marjorie's voice sounds strange coming out of a man because it's so distinctively feminine," Noah said. "I also thought it was a nice way to pay tribute to other women in journalism."

Vernon Winfrey's Character Education

Spend a few minutes chatting with Vernon Winfrey and you'll wonder: Why doesn't he have the talk show?

Then it becomes clear. While daughter Oprah found a television audience for that billion-dollar blend of wit, wisdom and you-go! affirmation, her dad exercised that very gift without ever leaving the office -- his Nashville barbershop.

"It's a time for everything," drawled Winfrey, who's been behind the chair for 40 years. "There's a time in my shop to be serious and encourage the young folk to do well in school, and then there's a time for laughter."

Now, though, his barbershop bull sessions are getting the spotlight. Winfrey is one of the real-life barbers whose true stories are captured in a new play, "Cuttin' Up," that opened at Arena Stage last night. Winfrey and his wife, Barbara, came to town for the world premiere of the play, based on Craig Marberry's book of the same name. No word on whether his daughter will catch the show.

Stuck as we ladies often are in fa-fa hair salons, we wondered what we've been missing. "We have a good cross-section of folk coming in," Winfrey said -- construction workers, teachers, judges. "If you just be quiet, you can get a barbershop education: I go in, I'm too busy, but someone else has read the paper so I'll get a sense of what's gone on in the world."

The play captures some of Winfrey's bons mots, such as: "Don't love your children too much to tell them no. Don't let them lead you. You lead them." And, when asked if Oprah is his only child, the 72-year-old Winfrey responds: "The only one so far."

The actor who plays Winfrey called him for some performance tips. "I told him, 'You're going to have to slow down a little because I don't talk that fast,' " Winfrey said. "He weighs about 200-some. I told him he's going to have to go on a diet real quick. I'm about 150."

LOVE, ETC.

* Late Shift Dad: "Late Night" host Conan O'Brien and wife Liza are parents again. Baby boy Beckett O'Brien -- how Irish is that? -- joined 2-year-old sister Neve on Wednesday.

* Si, Si Senor: NBC correspondent Campbell Brown, 37, is engaged to Fox News analyst Dan Senor, 34. The globe-trotting co-anchor of "Weekend Today" and the former spokesman in Iraq for Paul Bremer have been dating for 16 months. Brown revealed the proposal by flashing a rock on Saturday's broadcast. They plan to marry next spring in Colorado.

* He Said Yes: WHUR morning co-host "TC" Pitt celebrated Sadie Hawkins Day with a surprise on-air proposal last week to longtime boyfriend Bilal Hailstock. Hailstock, 40, was in traffic headed to work when Pitt, "40 and fabulous," called his cell, recited her favorite poem and popped the question.

HEY, ISN'T THAT . . . ?

* Theo Huxtable -- or rather, Malcolm-Jamal Warner -- picking up photos at a downtown CVS this week, looking all grown up and handsome with a full head of braids. Store management denied that the Cosby kid was there, but we tracked down his mom to confirm it: He was in town hosting a KenCen children's book festival.

* Jessica Biel -- former "7th Heaven" child star, now grown into Esquire's "Sexiest Woman Alive" -- in a Thomas Circle photo shoot Wednesday, posing on a motorcycle with a wicked cool Department of Defense seal.