The Worldly Wisdom and Wit of Judith Wax: Book Review and Personal Reflection

Altered Aspirations
I once wanted to grow up to be Grantland Rice. He was the classics-steeped dean of American sportswriters who came up with “Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again…” To my young mind, that line was perfection itself. If only I could write like him!

Author Judith Wax

Author Judith Wax

That was until I read Judith Wax. She was my first professional crush. I wanted to write like Judith Wax. I still want to.

Grantland Rice wrote about sports. Judith Wax wrote, for the most part, about a much more interesting subject: women.

In 1973, she burst onto the journalistic/literary scene with “The Waterbury Tales,” subject of which was the Watergate scandal. It was a wonderfully creative, funny, and stylistically accurate parody of Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales.”

Judith was 42 years old at the time. Her poem was picked up by several national publications, and she quickly became a hot commodity as a magazine feature writer and interviewer.

Judith’s first book was “Starting in the Middle,” published in 1979. The prologue begins

“Whan that forty with his hot pursuite,
Play happy birthday to yow on his floote,
And even they who marathon hath wonne
Can no the moving calendar outronne,
When heads that hadde blacke hayr, and blondys,
Discovyr in ther midst some straunge strondes,
Whan dimplyn’ folks flesshe with cellulyte,
And troubyl creepin’ in on smal crow’s feete,
Whan Mothyr Bell hath print her book too smalle,
Whan movying hands writ HOT FLASSH on youre walle,
Than starts the pilgrimage thru middle ages,
A tryp the OLDE WYFE tel in these pagys.”

Is that not brilliant? This is what “The Waterbury Tales” was like. As soon as I heard she’d done a book, I bought it, devoured it, and eventually lent it to someone who never returned it. Just recently, I bought another copy via Amazon. I love it even more than I did 30 years ago.

Back then, I longed to be as clever and witty as Judith Wax was with her similes, metaphors, literary allusions, and observations. One of the worst shocks about middle age, she suggested, was finding out that no one is really in charge. I can’t disagree with that.

She titled a chapter about raising her children “Slouching Toward Bettelheim.” In a piece titled “The Latest Wrinkle,” she interviewed people who’d undergone cosmetic surgery. She wrote

“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may is still advice for virgins
For this same flower that smiles today too soon seeks plastic surgeons.”

In that same article, Judith went on to surmise that people feel comfortable talking to her about having face-craft done was for the same reason she could draw them out on such sensitive subjects as child-rearing and marriage problems: that we are comfortable talking with those “…as least as far from perfection as we are…Would you ask Cybill Shepherd whether she thinks your laugh lines are all that bad?”

The chapter concluded with a personal anecdote. Near the end of a vacation trip, she and her husband had gotten up early to catch a flight out of Rome. Her makeup-less face was the “worst Roman ruin around” as her husband shoved her into a tiny hotel elevator where she came face-to-face with Catherine Deneuve.

“Has any middle-aged woman ever had a crueler confrontation at dawn’s early light?” Her spouse had arranged for himself, she said, “…a close-up comparative view, cheek-by-jowl, of Catherine and me – Beauty and the Creased.”

In an earlier chapter she wrote that she’d met her husband at college, went steady for two years, got “pinned” and then engaged, and married him only partly because, in the dark garage behind her freshman dorm, he had explained “Sex is an integral part of life. Nobody had ever said ‘integral’ to me before.’”

My First Impressions

Wax - book2When I first read this delightful work so long ago, I marveled at all that – Judith’s humor, artistry, and self-deprecating personality. Also, like any male who’s honest will admit to, I couldn’t get enough of her confidential talks with thoughtful, experienced women on such topics as beauty, sex, and marriage. Several of the chapters have material like the above that had originally run in magazines like Cosmopolitan, Vanity Fair, and Vogue. None of them were on my subscription list.

Here’s just an example of such a discussion. In a chapter on women who’ve had, or are contemplating, an extramarital affair, she begins “…a lot of us didn’t discover the possibilities of the double life until we’d been hit by the possibilities of the double chin.”

She interviewed a woman named Norma, twenty-one years married, who admitted to fantasizing for years about “…an aging Prince Charming somewhere around who had the balls to break my spell.” In anticipation of such a liaison, Norma secretly built up a stash of “adultery underwear.” Pantyhose had not yet arrived on the scene, so she bought a flame-red latex girdle with black lace, so as to distract her lover-to-be from the ugly girdle grippers that held up her stockings.

As it turned out, Norma never did go through with her plans to cheat on her husband, and stated, “It’s too late for the red girdle. But maybe just as well. With my luck, I probably would have picked a man who would have asked to borrow it.”

Re-Visiting and Looking Deeper

Going back to Judith and re-reading her three decades later was even better. Much better. My appreciation for her work, when I was young, could never have matched what I felt and realized about her the second time around.

Why? Because I’ve been through middle age myself. Like Judith had, I’ve heard Time’s Winged Chariot at my back. I too have worried about my looks and my physical and mental capacities. More telling, I’ve lost dear friends to cancer, as Judith did. Some beautiful ladies I know would be worthy interviewees for her.

Judith Wax gets to the heart of the matter in her conversations with people. She captures them and tells their stories with grace, respect, good humor, and loving sympathy when it’s needed. That’s the kind of writer I try to be.

About friendship and her own life, she says “The best thing about the midyears, at least about mine. Is the depth of the friendships. The worst thing can be losing them. It’s to be expected that in middle age, mortality is not only intimated, but sometimes delivered, that pain and loss are birthday presents no one asks for.”

Bringing her own experience into the matter, she goes on about “The December day the wittiest friend I’ve ever had had come home from the hospital. I brought her homemade soup and instant lies. Both offerings were meant to comfort (me as well as her); neither could be swallowed with ease any more. I found her sitting at her living room window, watching the melting snow. ‘I’m sitting here in a blaze of optimism, planning my garden,’ she said. We both laughed, an astonished burst, and then stared at each other in shocked recognition of what had been unspeakable between us, that maybe she wouldn’t live to see the garden’s blossoming. She didn’t.”

That passage cut right through me. I’d been there too. It was just a few years ago that Bobby, beloved and admired companion of my youth, was fast losing his battle with cancer. Our lives had diverged and I hadn’t seen him for a long while. Knowing he wasn’t doing well, I temporized about going over to the old home town. Would he even be well enough to see me? Will he want to? When his reply to my query came back almost immediately, “would love to see you,” I promised to be there the next day.

I had him all to myself for about three hours – a lot of laughing and reminiscing, a few long-wondered-about questions asked and answered, and just a little reflecting on the rotten hand of failing health he’d been dealt. He wasn’t able to drink the half-quart bottle of Schaefer beer – one of our favorites – I’d bought him for the occasion. I left, feeling tremendously guilty at how healthy I still was but grateful that I’d had the chance to talk with him once more. That day was the very last time I could have done so. He was dead within a week.

I suppose I could go on and on with examples both funny and poignant, on topics like emptying-nest angst, Jewish-mother-guilt, psychiatrists and rebellious children, career versus stay-at-home, the instant and unwelcome change of social status that comes with widowhood, and coming of age sexually. But maybe, if this review/ reflection appeals to you, then you could go and find a copy of the book. It’s out of print, but can be found on line.

The Key to Happiness?

While Judith Wax doesn’t purport to dispense advice, much of what she wrote is wisdom to be heeded. I’d like to cite one more passage as an example because I, too, have known people who’ve done what she tells. I also know people who’ve gone the opposite way in their lives.

On the topic of aging gracefully and happily, she mentions two women. One is wealthy, the other nearly penniless. But they both “…share continuing engagement. What their newspapers tell them each day is infinitely more interesting to them that what their mirrors do (though both are strikingly, and painstakingly, attractive). ..And whatever sneak attacks fate has prepared for them, they have stayed participants in a larger sphere than self-concern.”

Haven’t you met them too? Some people who can’t get enough of life, or can’t give enough? And others who have already quit at age fifty?

This compact little book is both Judith Wax’s self-introduction to her reading public and her smiling embrace of her own life and her future. At the end, she returns to the style of Chaucer and writes,

“I telle you that ripeness is the beste.
I vow that midlyfe’s bettyr than the reste.
I swear young folk have naught on myddl-agyrs,
(I swear, also, I’m Far y-Fawcett-Majyrs.)”

A Tragic Ending

“Starting in the Middle” was the only book that Judith Wax wrote. She and her husband were passengers on American Airlines Flight 191. Leaving Chicago on May 25, 1979, the plane crashed on takeoff from O’Hare Airport, exploding into a roaring fireball that killed all 271 people on board instantly.

For me, who believes that there’s a story worth telling about everyone, Judith Wax will always be an inspiration, an interviewer and storyteller to emulate. Here, that word means to imitate with the hope of equaling or surpassing. I doubt I’ll ever get there. No one did it better than she.

3 Responses to “The Worldly Wisdom and Wit of Judith Wax: Book Review and Personal Reflection”

  1. fighturnext.Cwsurf.de Says:

    Wow! Finally I got a website from where I be capable of truly obtain valuable data
    regarding my study and knowledge.

  2. Ernie Davis Says:

    Thanks very much! I remember “The Waterbury Tales” from when they were published 43 or so years ago, just found them online here http://www.amiright.com/parody/misc/geoffreychaucer0.shtml
    Googled her, and found your beautiful essay. I definitely have to get hold of “Starting in the Middle”.

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