The Woman at the Washington Zoo

Woman at the Washington ZooMarjorie Williams was a Washington journalist who wrote for such well-known publications as the Washington Post, Vanity Fair, and Slate. The essays in this terrific collection cover the political scene of the 1990s, women’s issues, family life, and Williams’s battle with the liver cancer that took her life in January 2005.

The book is divided into three sections. The first is made up of lengthy profiles of well-known political figures and Washingtonians. The second section of short essays includes Williams’s reflections on issues of the day and on her personal life. The final section, on life with cancer, is the most personal of all.

In many ways, reading these essays was like stepping into a time warp. Williams wrote most of the political essays here before 9/11, so terrorism and the War in Iraq don’t come up. I remember most of the people Williams wrote about and followed many of the stories, although not necessarily closely, and I wish I had encountered her writing then. It would have been nice to know Vernon Jordan and Tony Coelho, two of her profile subjects, as something more than names and titles when they were in the news. Williams carefully observes her subjects and interviews people who have known them for years to get the fullest story possible. The portraits are often fascinating—and surprising. I never would have suspected that people were afraid of Barbara Bush, but, according to Williams, they were.

Williams expresses a clear point of view in her essays, although she’s not predictably partisan. She makes it clear that she’s a Democrat, but she’s ready to praise and criticize people on both sides of the political spectrum. Her essay on the feminist reaction to Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky is particularly interesting. Many of the essays are written as reactions to specific books or news stories that are long forgotten, but the issues they explore still resonate. I don’t remember when Ms. magazine started publishing beauty advertorials, but I am aware of the ongoing tendency for society to allow its understanding of beauty to be defined by what we see in magazines, and Williams’s essay on the changes at Ms. do speak to this.

Of course, illness and death are always with us, and Williams’s account of her diagnosis with cancer and her final essays on her final days are both frank and frightening. Here, she comments on people’s reactions to her diagnosis:

A cancer patient learns to see them coming, the ones who want to ask you (or tell you) just how you managed to give yourself this illness, and why you have failed so far to cure it. It is your toxic anger. It is what you eat or fail to eat. It is your neglect of your third chakra, or your stubborn refusal to take coffee enemas. They would never be so foolish.

She goes on to explain how the sniper attacks that were happening in the D.C. area at the time reveal that death is impartial, and that “there is no logic at all to some of the worst blows that life metes out.”

I’m a big fan of essays, and I enjoyed reading this book very much. I’m not sure it would be the best introduction to this kind of writing for those who aren’t at least a little familiar with politics of the 1990s, since the profiles comprise close to half of the book, and many of the names come up again in the other sections. But if that doesn’t put you off, and if you enjoy literary journalism, this is a great collection.

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5 Responses to The Woman at the Washington Zoo

  1. Kim says:

    Interesting! I got this book in the clearance section of a bookstore — no idea which one — but haven’t gotten to reading it yet. I picked it up mostly because I love narrative essays of this kind, but I didn’t know about the section on Williams battle with cancer. Anyway, it sounds very good and now I’m looking forward to reading it even more.

  2. Tim Noah says:


    Thanks for this nice review. For those who are not put off by the emphasis on people and events from the 1990s, may I recommend to your readers a follow-up volume of Marjorie’s profiles published late last year? It’s titled “Reputation: Portraits in Power,” and it includes profiles I was unable to squeeze into “The Woman at the Washington Zoo” when I edited that earlier volume in 2005. The New York Times called “Reputation” “brilliant” and the Wall Street Journal said it “provides … superb examples of a silky stylist at the top of her art.” “Reputation” is available in hardcover and will be published in paperback this coming October.

    Forgive the hucksterism, but I think “Reputation” is a pretty great book. (I can say that because I didn’t write it.)

    Tim Noah

  3. Teresa says:

    Kim: With your interest in journalism, I imagine you’ll enjoy this a lot. The profiles in particular reveal what a good interviewer can uncover.

    Tim: Thanks so much for stopping by! Next time I’m looking for a collection like this, I’ll keep Reputation in mind as I really enjoyed the profiles in this book.

  4. I love books written by journalists, so I’m delighted to read your positive review of this one. Am checking the library catalog for it just as soon as I click “submit comment”–
    Unruly Reader

  5. Teresa says:

    Unruly Reader: This book is a great example of journalistic, but also personal writing. Here’s hoping you can find it (or Reputation, as Tim Noah suggests) at the library.

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