August 16, 2012 | by Harry Stein
In early July, 1971, just out of journalism school, I took off for Paris. My intention was to spend a year or so freelancing. To this end, I carried with me assignments from two very small magazines and a sealed envelope, which I’d been given by Judith Crist, lately my critical-writing professor at Columbia’s School of Journalism.
“Give this to Murray Weiss at the International Trib,” she instructed.
Weiss was the editor in chief of that august journal and, she said, formerly a colleague of hers at its long-defunct but still much-admired progenitor, the New York Herald Tribune.
“What’s in it?”
“Don’t worry, just give it to him.”
A week or so later, in the Trib offices on the rue de Berri, I handed it over to Weiss’s no-nonsense assistant. “It’s from Judith Crist,” I said meaningfully—not the twenty-two-year-old nothing standing before her.
She walked briskly to the office beyond, and, after a long beat, like in a too-obvious movie, there came a roar of laughter. “Send him in!”
Weiss was behind his desk, holding the letter, still looking much amused. He half rose to shake my hand. “Listen,” he said, chuckling, “this is very nice of Judy. But, no, I’m not going to fire our film critic and hire you.”
“But I’ll certainly give you a try on a freelance basis.”
When Judith Crist died earlier this month, she got a suitably impressive obituary in the Times, 1,487 words’ worth. The nation’s first celebrity movie critic and one of its most respected, a fixture both on The Today Show and in the Trib (and later the nascent New York magazine), she was credited with having early championed the likes of Steven Spielberg and Woody Allen, as well as with using her multiple perches to identify schlock by its rightful name. The Sound of Music, she famously wrote, “is for the five-to-seven set and their mommies who think the kids aren’t up to the stinging sophistication and biting wit of Mary Poppins,” and the long-awaited Cleopatra was “a monumental mouse.”
This was Mrs. Crist as I first encountered her, at the age of twelve or thirteen, in print. When I first saw her in person, she was even scarier. It was at a Columbia J-School conference for aspiring reporters, to which a band of us from New Rochelle High’s Huguenot Herald had been dragooned by our faculty advisor. Mrs. Crist was the featured speaker. Her subject was standards, or maybe it was professionalism; whatever it was, its import was that if any of us imagined success would come easy in the tough-as-nails world of professional journalism, we should damn well figure out something else to do with our miserable selves. We staggered from that hall feeling like Jonathan Edwards’s parishioners dangled over the pit of hell by a wrathful God.
I never told Mrs. Crist about seeing her that day, not even decades later, when I finally began calling her Judy. If we were friends by then, even quite good friends, it remained a curious kind of friendship; not so much because it was across generations, or even that it started with so decisive a power imbalance, but because given the size of her personality it was so much on her terms. As one of her favored former students, I was the recipient of her largesse, and she expected nothing in return. Indeed, she took an interest in my well-being, personal and professional, that was nearly maternal—if one happened to have for a mother a brassy, sardonic, chain-smoking, no-nonsense broad who palled around with movie royalty.
In my twenties, she and her husband Bill—a PR executive as calm and soft-spoken as she was ebullient, her support system in a strong, ahead-of-its-time marriage—occasionally invited me for weekends at their place in Woodstock. The house was a geodesic dome—no staircases, just ramps, like the Guggenheim—and the weekends always involved friends of decades’ standing, great food, and three or four movies. But it eventually hit me that a large part of the point, from Judy’s perspective, was the chance to look over whatever woman I was seeing, and in a couple of cases I got the message that she was less than pleased. But she was delighted by the one I finally married—and, in fact, our daughter’s first outing, at three weeks, was to Woodstock. “I can’t remember what babies drink,” she remarked, not joking, as she opened a refrigerator full of milk.
What might have been taken as odd about this is that her own son, Steven, was the light of her life. A working jazz pianist as a teen who’d gone off to Harvard, fell in love with the track, and would end up as publisher of the Racing Form, Steven was one of the most strikingly original people I knew, and that weekend, as a new father, I asked Judy how they’d managed to raise a kid so self-assured and utterly indifferent to convention. Seemingly baffled by the question, she said something about his having learned self-sufficiency early by figuring out how to be alone with himself. “As everyone should.”
I got to know Steven at the Crists’ big annual winter party in their Riverside Drive apartment, where he’d sit at the piano, playing standards, a drink close at hand and a cigarette dangling from his lips, as celebrities drifted from room to room amidst the normal people. There was Al Pacino, over there Jodie Foster, there in the hallway Robert Altman, leaning in close to Miloš Forman.
These gatherings continued after Bill died, now dubbed on the invitation “Survival” parties. The food actually got better, the ten-foot hero of old replaced by a catered spread. But as Judy moved into her late seventies and eighties, they were also a measure of her diminished professional status, as the number of luminaries dwindled to a precious few.
At the last one, a year ago, I believe the only notable on hand (and then, only by stretching the definition arguably beyond the breaking point) was the venerable character actress Sylvia Miles, in garish makeup and fright wig hair that called to mind Fellini’s Satyricon. Passing by, I overheard her throatily berating another guest for her appalling ignorance of the fact that “I was nominated for the Oscar! Twice!!!” At one point I thought I recognized Max von Sydow, tall, stooped, an expression of depthless melancholy on his long Scandinavian face, but it turned out to be just a longtime neighbor in the building.
Indeed, with most present well past retirement age and many navigating the apartment in super slow motion, there might well have seemed a Sunset Boulevard quality to the scene, but for the woman at its center. Approaching ninety and clearly unwell, Judy was a spectral figure, down to under a hundred pounds. Yet she was still teaching—her classes were presumably made up of kids who had only the remotest notion of who she was—and was otherwise unalterably herself. As my wife and I approached to say good night, Mrs. Crist was surrounded by friends, telling how she came by her lifelong allegiance to baseball’s Giants. One long ago afternoon, she was saying, when she was eleven or twelve, she was at the Polo Grounds with a friend, and caught the eye of New York ace Carl Hubbell, who winked and called out “Hiya, Sweetie.” “Well, my dear,” she said, gesturing with her cigarette like her old pal Bette Davis, “that is what devotion is made of!”
Harry Stein is a veteran journalist and novelist. He is Sadie Stein’s father.