Her first order to me, sent by fax, was to buy and read Joan Didion's Slouching towards Bethlehem. I was 23 and recently graduated from Thomas Aquinas College, a Catholic liberal arts school where the nonfiction we read was academic in nature. Judith knew where I'd gone to school, and she had a hunch that the commitment to the idea of objective truth that defined my alma mater would translate into good journalism. I think she was right. She was also right to start me on Didion's clean-yet-detailed prose.
For a rainy January week in 1995, I reclined on the queen-sized bed in my hotel room across the street from the Reader, drank acrid instant coffee, and read Joan Didion's stories of San Francisco hippies, desperate suburbanites in Pomona, and the provincial snobs of Sacramento. Every other day, Judith called and asked in a husky voice that made my young hormones tingle, "How's your reading coming, honey?"
"Fine. I really love how Didion gets across the idea that these hippies..."
"Honey," she interrupted, "I want you to pay attention to the details she gets: the size of rooms she's in, the temperature of the air, the color of eyes and clothes, sounds, smells, and mannerisms. All of that observation makes good writing."
Those first two weeks, the only time I'd been alone in my life, Judith and Joan Didion were my chief connections to the rest of humanity. So much so that my mental picture of Judith became the dust jacket photo of Joan Didion. I was disappointed a few years later when I realized that the photograph on an editor's desk of a matronly woman sporting a bad '80s perm and holding a dachshund was Judith. Thereafter, I tried not to look at the photo when I talked to the editor, and I let my mind reform its image of Judith as the pretty, petite lady wearing oversized shades and a Jackie Kennedy silk scarf. I still think of her that way.