A Tribute to Judith delivered a few years back at the J-School
I’ll start by saying that Judith Crist is one of the few people I feel strongly enough about to get up in front of this many people and speak. I was hoping I could just write out my thoughts and hand them in (double spaced and not exceeding 800 words), but Stephen told me that wasn’t gonna fly. So here I am.
I first encountered Judith when she spoke at a springtime orientation for students entering the Journalism School in the fall of 1995. I can remember thinking she was about as cool as they come and being impressed with her straight talk, her intelligence, her spunk, and her obvious passion for good and disciplined writing. And I can remember being intimidated as hell. I was too awed to join the horde of eager students-to-be that clustered around Judith at the end of the meeting, blurting out their names and angling for places in her class, but I left that room determined to apply for it. And I have to say that I was more excited--and felt more honored--when I saw the word “Crist” printed on my fall schedule than I had been when I received my acceptance to the school.
Judith’s course was, at the risk of offending a few people in this room, by far the best one I took at Columbia. As important as the ideas she got across in her unmistakable red script was the way she chose to structure her class--with the nine of us sitting around the table anonymously reading one another’s work. How refreshing it was to come to know people through their writing, and how valued the camaraderie engendered in that room--a departure indeed from the stifling, cut-throat vibe that characterized the hallways outside her door.
She was tough, and many of us had occasion to fight back tears, but I never heard anybody walk out of that room saying she’d felt unfairly criticized. I remember distinctly the day I was the one who came in for a reaming. I’d stayed up all night the previous Thursday trying to flesh out my “personal piece”--a too-big story about an alcoholic father, Valentine’s Day, Little League, graduation, and myriad other details from my adolescence--which, despite the time I was putting in, clearly was going nowhere. Judith cut right to the chase, nailing what was lacking (and what was painfully in abundance) in my essay. And while it was slightly uncomfortable to have bared my soul in front of my classmates only to sit through a severe critiquing afterward, I couldn’t fault her for giving it to me straight.
Then, too, there was that deadpan delivery, the occasional vulgarities, the tossed-off details about late-night conversations with Warren Beatty and ladies’-room intimacies traded with Marilyn Monroe. We laughed a lot and learned a ton. And we were repeatedly disarmed by Judy’s absolute and utter cool.
In addition to being an amazing teacher, Judith Crist is a remarkable friend. For all her strictness and tough-girl bravado, she is one of the sweetest, most giving women I’ve ever met. At my wedding a couple months back, she indulged me without a word of protest as I dragged her around to meet every star-struck parent, grandparent, co-worker, and new sister-in-law in the room. Then she proceeded to write us a thank-you note for having included her in the celebration. What other teacher invites her entire class over for pizza and martinis at the end of the semester? And who else asks every one of her students into her home to share Thanksgiving dinner?
Which leads me to the one rough spot in my relationship with Judith. Just about two years ago I met a gentleman in an East Village bar and somehow the conversation turned to Judy. He mentioned some photographs he’d once taken to accompany a story of hers and assured me they’d been fast friends. (He had in hand some of his work, lending his story some credibility despite his admittedly less-than-businesslike appearance.) It being a few days before Thanksgiving, and thinking how touched she’d be to see a dear old pal, I told him about her party.
Anyway, a few nights later, having fulfilled our family obligations, my now-husband and I made our way up to Judith’s. Leaning in to give her a kiss, I was met with what might charitably be described as an icy stare. “Your friends were here,” she told me, and then proceeded to describe the “homeless guy” and his multiply pierced and tattooed girlfriend, who’d helped themselves to turkey, pie, and ample amounts of alcohol. Having made her point--not so much that she was angry I’d invited random strangers to her catered and very-sophisticated party, but that I really ought to work on my street smarts--she later kissed me goodnight and assured me the whole incident would be relegated to the past. Which, until tonight, it was.
For your understanding, your wit, your honesty, your fabulous parties, and your late-night stamina, thank you Judith. Thank you for sharing all you are with all of us.