I am taking a brief break from my escapades to remember a legend who we lost two weeks ago. In her obituary in the New York Times, Judith Crist was described as one of “America’s most widely read film critics for more than three decades.” She tormented film makers (one of whom famously referred to her as “Judas Crist”) and broke barriers for female journalists, but she was also a passionate and hard-driving teacher of generations of journalists. Generations with an “s,” I am not sure if anyone else can claim that title.
Crist graduated from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism in 1945 and went on to write movie reviews for the New York Herald Tribune, New York Magazine, Gourmet, Ladies’ Home Journal and was the “Today” show’s first regular movie critic. In addition to her own writing, she returned to the J School to teach young journalists to write clearly and with purpose and conviction.
When I arrived at Columbia, I had worked exclusively in TV and Radio. I was not a print writer, or at least I didn’t think I was. Second semester we could choose from a host of electives, including a criticism class taught by Crist. Students had to submit a writing sample in order to gain entry into the class. Crist reviewed all the pieces and hand-pick her class from them. This is classic Judith Crist; just like her reviews of the classic movies of the last century, she didn’t have much patience for those who she deemed were wasting her time.
I submitted a story that I wrote about the rise of Muslim converts in New York City post 9/11 (I cannot explain how, but that piece found its way to this Muslim message board). I had gone “undercover” for this story, attending conversion classes at a local mosque with a pastel pashmina covering my head. I was very proud of this story, but I thought it wouldn’t compare to the work of those students who were focused on a career in print (as opposed to broadcast). I doubted Crist would even get through the first paragraph of my submission. I was quite literally amazed, when I was informed that I had made it. Judith Crist wanted me to be in her class.
Her goal was to turn us into critics and columnists who make strong, intelligent arguments free of stylistic and grammatical errors. Just like her reviews, her comments on our work could be scathing and acerbic (an adjective that appeared in every obit I read on her). Our pieces were usually covered in her elegant script – in bright red ink. Typos, vague phrasing, weak arguments and simple stupidity were not accepted in her class – which actually took place in her living room on the Upper West Side (she was not as ambulatory as she once was). She pulled no punches in her criticism, which sometimes led to tears, battles over her lack of cultural sensitivity or understanding of modern (circa 2005) trends. As hard as she could be, if you made an intelligent argument about your literary choices or offered a valid explanation for taking a certain approach she was the first person to acknowledge that she may have been wrong.
You wanted to please Judith Crist. I worked harder, edited more and spend more time on my assignments for her class than any other class during J School. Once, and it only happened once, I had a completely error free piece. She waved the black and white pages in the air; it seemed she thought it was as big a deal as I did…or at least that’s what I want to believe.
Judith Crist helped me find my literary voice. That voice, and my confidence in it, was one of the reasons I was able to take the leap to start this blog. I have to thank her — not only for breaking the gender barriers that allowed me to be the female journalist I was — but also for her tough love as a teacher, that enables me to be the writer I am today.