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The Woman at the Washington Zoo: Writings on Politics, Family, and Fate

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Marjorie Williams knew Washington from top to bottom. Beloved for her sharp analysis, elegant prose and exceptional ability to intuit character, Williams wrote political profiles for the Washington Post and Vanity Fair that came to be considered the final word on the capital's most powerful figures. Her accounts of playing ping-pong with Richard Darman, of Barbara Bush's stepmother quaking with fear at the mere thought of angering the First Lady, and of Bill Clinton angrily telling Al Gore why he failed to win ...
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Marjorie Williams knew Washington from top to bottom. Beloved for her sharp analysis, elegant prose and exceptional ability to intuit character, Williams wrote political profiles for the Washington Post and Vanity Fair that came to be considered the final word on the capital's most powerful figures. Her accounts of playing ping-pong with Richard Darman, of Barbara Bush's stepmother quaking with fear at the mere thought of angering the First Lady, and of Bill Clinton angrily telling Al Gore why he failed to win the presidency — to name just three treasures collected here — open a window on a seldom-glimpsed human reality behind Washington's determinedly blank façade.

Williams also penned a weekly column for the Post's op-ed page and epistolary book reviews for the online magazine Slate. Her essays for these and other publications tackled subjects ranging from politics to parenthood. During the last years of her life, she wrote about her own mortality as she battled liver cancer, using this harrowing experience to illuminate larger points about the nature of power and the randomness of life.

Marjorie Williams was a woman in a man's town, an outsider reporting on the political elite. She was, like the narrator in Randall Jarrell's classic poem, "The Woman at the Washington Zoo," an observer of a strange and exotic culture. This splendid collection — at once insightful, funny and sad — digs into the psyche of the nation's capital, revealing not only the hidden selves of the people that run it, but the messy lives that the rest of us lead.

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Editorial Reviews

"...combines peerless political anthropology with heartbreaking insight into the complexities of family life and her own struggle with cancer."
November 21, 2005
The Buffalo News
"Williams is so knowing about Washington's folkways...that readers will feel they are sitting down with a world-class political storyteller."..."We're lucky to have this collection to remind us of what we'll be missing with Marjorie Williams gone."
November 13, 2005
The Rocky Mountain News
"A fitting tribute... [Williams was] a master at capturing human spirit and character...readers...simply looking for great writing won't be disappointed."
November 11, 2005
New York Post
"Williams' posthumous collection is both sharp and sad, revealing...public figures and the most personal moments of a private life."
November 6, 2005
"...brilliant and unusual, serving up a bracing dose of pragmatism and hopefulness without hardening in the predictable molds."
November 9, 2005
Linda Kulman
Williams's journalistic gifts include her delicious use of detail, wicked humor and a psychological insight so telling it raises the question of why anyone ever agreed to submit to her scrutiny … What gives the book its staying power are its second and third sections, "Essays" and "Time and Chance," where Williams turns her dispassionate eye on more personal subjects -- parenting, gender politics and the cancer that killed her.
— The Washington Post
Jennifer Senior
The Woman at the Washington Zoo is divided into three sections. The first is a series of profiles of subjects ranging from Jeb and Barbara Bush to a set of quarreling Washington heirs. The second section is more personal, a lovely mix of stories about her children, her marriage, a working woman's life, along with some shorter political pieces. Here, she effectively profiles herself, giving the reader a chance to see exactly who's been narrating these political pieces, and in what context certain sensitivities were forged.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Washington, D.C., is a city ruled by insiders, and few writers have broken through the social and public politics that govern it as eloquently as Williams. This posthumous collection presents a series of remarkably well-observed and intelligent profiles of the great and minor figures who have made D.C. for the past two decades. Williams, a longtime writer for the Washington Post and Vanity Fair, has a fine eye for telling details the license plates on a bureaucrat's car, the folds of satin in a dying socialite's dress but it's more than just details that make Williams's profiles so engaging. Underlying each representation is Williams's ability to make her characters as complicated on the page as they are in real life. It's that same concern that governs the heartbreaking personal pieces in the last third of the book, which covers Williams's losing battle with cancer. Here she is on her impending death: "whatever happens to me now, I've earned the knowledge some people never gain, that my span is finite and I still have the chance to rise and rise to life's generosity." In these final pieces, Williams steps out from under the self-effacing veil that made her such a fine journalist and speaks of her own experiences. The result is a collection of writing that dissolves the boundaries between the personal and the political to arrive at an obvious but no less startling conclusion. (Nov.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
KLIATT - Nola Theiss
Marjorie Williams wrote for both The Washington Post and Vanity Fair about personal, political and philosophical topics. After her death from liver cancer at the age of 47, her husband edited this collection of her essays into three sections: Profiles, Essays, and Time and Chance. The first eight profile selections are about Washington or political figures, which cut directly to the core of the personalities of Barbara and Jeb Bush, Bill Clinton and Al Gore and others not as well known but equally interesting: philanthropist Gwendolyn Cafritz and political "rainmaker" Vernon Jordan. She goes beyond their power to describe their essential personalities. The second section is more personal and funnier as Williams attempts, for example, to dissect feminism for her editor and writes of her reaction to her three-year-old son's obsession with bugs. The last section is the most poignant as she deals with her diagnosis and three and a half years of fighting cancer. In one essay she describes her pre-pubescent daughter dressing up for Halloween as a rock star, and she realizes she has seen an image of her daughter that she will be cheated of by death. This collection captures not only the time and place of Washington in the last fifth of the 20th century, but it also shows one woman's personal development and evolution.
Kirkus Reviews
Probing profiles and essays from the late Washington Post journalist long recognized for her insights into government's inner workings. Williams's pungent portraits of a panoply of Washington characters reveal raw power robed in an ornate, quaint, social fabric-almost as if the Rome of Tacitus were splashed across Jane Austen's English countryside. Her favorite targets include hypocrisy, of which there is plenty to burn, and the varieties of low behavior that wind up being a sort of generic lack of grace under pressure. In a chapter entitled "The Hack," for example, she skewers a California Democrat known for resigning from Congress under investigation and his tendency to backstab rivals with: "Listen to [Tony] Coelho, who pauses only to shoot his army's wounded on his way off the field . . . it's not Tony Coelho who will pay for his party's mistakes." In another instance, her predilection for psychological insight blooms forth in a comparison of the irrepressibly libidinous (her characterization) black lawyer and "message man," Vernon Jordan, with his patron, Bill Clinton: "Like Jordan, Clinton is a product of a matriarchal home that propelled him up from the lower middle class. Like Jordan, he is a man skilled at, perhaps addicted to, the seduction of everyone he meets." And in Ronald Reagan's ultimately forced explanation of the Iran-Contra situation-"Mistakes were made"-Williams nails the situation as a Washington syndrome: "the self-rescinding apology, which may be the most useful of all." Other notable chapters include Jeb and Barbara Bush as, respectively, The Sibling and The Wife. The second section comprises essays on life and fate, the most poignant of which is "Hit ByLightning: A Cancer Memoir," an account of being diagnosed with the cancer that killed her in January 2005. Somewhat dated but a nonetheless rich collection framing the kinds of people, fair and foul, destined to make Washington tick.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781586484576
  • Publisher: PublicAffairs
  • Publication date: 10/28/2006
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 384
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Marjorie Williams was born in Princeton, NJ in 1958 and died in 2005. She is survived by her husband, Timothy Noah, senior writer at Slate, who edited this volume, and her children, Alice and Will.
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Table of Contents

Pt. 1 Profiles
Protocol (Archie and Lucky Roosevelt) 3
The philanthropist (Gwendolyn Cafritz) 12
The pragmatist (Richard Darman) 30
The wife (Barbara Bush) 55
The rainmaker (Vernon Jordan) 77
The hack (Tony Coelho) 99
The sibling (Jeb Bush) 118
Scenes from a marriage (Bill Clinton and Al Gore) 132
Pt. 2 Essays
Makeup and Ms. 155
Reader, I married 160
Persuasion 166
Why character matters in politics 170
Thank you, Clarence Thomas 181
The princess puzzle 185
Entomophobia 189
The alchemist 196
In conversation 209
Bill Clinton, feminist 220
Why parents still matter 234
Flying to L.A. 240
A second thought on assisted suicide 248
The cat race 250
Grandparents' rights 253
The parent rap 256
The art of the fake apology 259
Real complicated 262
Dying for dollars 265
Do parents suffer discrimination? 268
The political wife, RIP 271
The widow's mandate 274
Uriah Heep goes to Washington 277
Run for your life 280
A woman's place is at the bar 289
Mommy at her desk 292
Liar, liar 295
The heart-full dodger 298
A working mom's comedy 300
A woman who knew her due 302
Pt. 3 Time and chance
Hit by lightning : a cancer memoir 307
Telling the real, real truth 340
The random death of our sense of ease 343
The doctor factor 346
The Halloween of my dreams 349
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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 17, 2012

    Zoo Story

    I began this book after reading Courtney Sullivan's recommendation in the NY Times. To my surprise, I had already read some of the pieces when they first appeared in the Washington Post. Not only were they equally relevant and entertaining the second time around; they are truly timeless, even though some of the political profiles are largely forgotten, and this (alas) is again an election year.
    Washington in many ways is a city with a short memory, but Marjorie Williams deserves to be remembered. She was a non-partisan truth-teller and she wrote like an angel. This book should be required reading for a curriculum that may yet to be designed. -- catwak

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  • Posted February 12, 2009

    A fascinating book from an insider's view of political personalities and personal reflections on life.

    Having been an admirer of writer Marjorie Williams from articles written for Vanity Fair, I was intrigued when I came across the book. Immediately you are drawn into the events and people being observed and discussed. The information was not old drudged up stories being hung out again, the insight instead was fresh and thoughtful. The personal reflections were delivered with a style honest and captivating. While you get no hint of how remarkable this woman was from her own writings, you put the book down when finished knowing you have seen another human being's soul, and found it good.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 28, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

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