Remembering Judith Crist
The assignment, maybe the first one, was to describe a place. I chose the Gethsemane Chapel at Riverside Church, a tiny and dramatic space where my parents were married.
Wait. I hear a voice that’s interrupting me right now. The voice says, “What exactly do you mean by a ‘dramatic’ space? Couldn’t you describe the space and let the reader decide, rather than imposing your adjectives and your judgment, especially when it’s a confused and unclear conclusion that you have drawn?”
Who is this voice?
It belongs to Judith Crist, I swear.
Much of the world knew Crist as a famous and sometimes caustic film reviewer. She found mass appeal, writing succinct but oh-so-smart criticism for TV Guide, kicking off film coverage for New York magazine and appearing on the Today show. Her writing career stretched back to the glorious old New York Herald Tribune, and she was famous both for her put-downs and for not being Pauline Kael or Andrew Sarris. In an era when film critics traded blows and barbs and had followers with almost religious dedication, Crist kept her eyes on her responsibility as a reader’s representative. She was tough but fair.
She was that way in the classroom, too. When she died earlier this month at 90, she had only been away from her job as a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism for a few months. She taught one particular class there longer than anyone ever had. I was lucky enough to take it.
I remember that early assignment, the one about the chapel. I wrote that the church was quiet, which was fine with Professor Crist, but then I added that there was “no CNN” or other noticeable sound. When I got the paper back, Crist wrote that my sentences were “space-wasting and ridiculous,” because I was defining a place by what was not there, rather than concentrating and explaining what was. She said she had never seen CNN in a chapel.
From the start, Crist was crystal clear about her beliefs: Shoot for clarity. Choices are important. Don’t waste the reader’s time.
This passion was delivered in an understated and ironic style. But she could be cutting in the classroom. I do vaguely recall at one point crying in a subway station. The class was tough, and so was the teacher, but I met her at a time in life when I was strong enough to hear what she had to say.
I adored her. I told her as much, and she invited me over, but I was always intimidated by the woman. She was an icon from my childhood who was even more imposing in person. Scared or not, I believed what she said. She taught me not only to be dedicated to the written word, but also to be unashamed about the dedication.
The Times closed its obituary with a comic-strip reference I remember hearing firsthand. “Amid all the easily loved darlings of Charlie Brown’s circle, obstreperous Lucy holds a special place in my heart,” Crist said. “She fusses and fumes and she carps and complains. That’s because Lucy cares. And it’s the caring that counts.”
I will always think of Judith Crist pretty much the way she thought of Lucy. The caring counted and it always will.
Christopher Moore lives in Manhattan. He’s available by email at email@example.com.
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