Fluent in the Language of Style
Judith Thurman notices everything. Meticulous observation has been a hallmark of her 50-year career as a writer whose laser-sharp gaze traverses millenniums, countries and genres. She is as interested in the faintest details of Stone Age cave paintings (which she descended to examine for herself, flashlight in hand) as she is in little-known dying languages (such as Maltese), Emily Dickinson’s poetry, Schiaparelli’s fashions or the life of Helen Gurley Brown.
All of these topics figure in “A Left-Handed Woman,” a collection of essays from the past 15 years, many of which have appeared in The New Yorker, where Ms. Thurman has been a writer for 35 years. “Judith is drawn to and at home in various worlds,” said the writer David Rieff, her friend of 40 years.
Ms. Thurman’s eclecticism and keen attention to detail are evident in the Upper East Side townhouse where she has lived for three decades, and where she raised her son as a single mother (with the help of a favorite aunt who lived with them).
Ms. Thurman has filled the house with objets d’art, fabrics and paintings brought back from her travels, given by artist friends, or discovered in thrift stores. She likens decorating to a kind of culinary art: “When you ‘plate’ a room, you know when something is missing from it. You have to provide the nutrient. Sometimes the nutrient is blue. Sometimes it’s old. Sometimes it’s a little savage.”
At once splendid and comfortable, the house is too densely appointed to take in easily — much like Ms. Thurman herself who, beneath her genial charm, often seems aroil with the intricacies of her own thoughts. At times, she grows frustrated with what she’s just said and shakes her shaggy black coif in dissatisfaction.
Then she’ll pause and start again, treating conversation with the same exactitude she lavishes on her prose. “She’s not happy with a paragraph until it sings.” said Henry Finder, one of Ms. Thurman’s editors at The New Yorker.
A strong through-line that distinguishes Ms. Thurman’s multifarious work is her determination to bring light to the hidden corners of culture, particularly those occupied by brilliant women.
Her 1982 biography, “Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller,” about the Danish writer, won the National Book Award and formed the basis for the 1985 film “Out of Africa,” starring Robert Redford and Meryl Streep. Her 1999 biography of the French writer Colette, “Secrets of the Flesh,” was a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. “Lost women are my specialty,” Ms. Thurman said. “Women who are either lost to history or lost in some ways to themselves, women who deserve to be paid attention to.”
Ms. Thurman pays attention also to so-called women’s topics: The complexities within marriages, friendships and, especially, what she calls the “hostile love of mothers and daughters.” She is open about her vexed relationship with her own mother, who lacked, she said, “a sense of her own reality. She lived through me vicariously. I became a writer partly for her sake. I write to give my subjects a kind of reality they don’t have or didn’t get. There’s an act of reparation there.”
Fashion is one of Ms. Thurman’s most frequent topics, and she has written essays for The New Yorker on designers including Poiret, Balenciaga, Charles James, Isabel Toledo, Guo Pei, Miuccia Prada and Alexander McQueen.
“Early on, David Remnick asked me what I wanted to write about,” Ms. Thurman recalls of the New Yorker editor in chief. “I said fashion, because fashion is a language, a universal cultural phenomenon. Every single person makes a decision every day about how they’re going to appear in public. Why is this not a major subject?”
In Ms. Thurman’s hands, it is. Her work on fashion is about far more than clothes. “There’s the economy, the aesthetics, the eroticism, the violence of fashion,” she said.
Her psychologically penetrating profiles explore how garments can shape the lives of those who wear them. Explaining Ms. Prada’s edgy, jolie-laide aesthetic, for example, Ms. Thurman wrote: “Only in the dressing room do you discover that her ostensibly proper little pleated skirts, ladylike silk blouses, and lace dinner suits are a test of your cool. If you can’t wear them tongue-in-cheek, as Prada herself does — thumbing her crooked nose at received ideas about beauty and sex appeal — they can make you look like a governess.”
Beyond its crackling insight, the passage makes an intimate, conversational gambit. Ms. Thurman positions herself in the dressing room. She’s the reader’s stand-in, our field reporter.
For Ms. Thurman, that girlfriend-y aspect of fashion is critical. She respects fashion’s usefulness as a language for bonding, for kibitzing over what looks good or terrible, or where to snag a bargain. “Long before feminism made fashion a guilty pleasure,” she wrote in The New Yorker in 2014, “my first experience of sisterhood took place in a communal dressing room.”
One of Ms. Thurman’s closest friends for 50 years, the Danish writer Suzanne Brogger, spoke with delight about their sisterhood of shopping: “Judith is a great temptress! She tempts me to write things and to buy things I can’t afford! Luckily, she’s also introduced me to thrift shops in New York. She’s my dresser!”
So, what is Ms. Thurman feeling about fashion now? “I’ve lost the ‘jones’ for buying clothes. Partly it’s the pandemic. And I have all the clothes I’ll ever need,” she said, her tiny frame draped in a simple all-black ensemble of oversize sweater and pull-on cashmere pants. “I did buy some comfortable Thierry Rabotin shoes recently, but they don’t count. I won’t have pain.”
But she hasn’t given up on fashion entirely and recounted, not without some girlish enthusiasm, a recent purchase.
“For my 75th birthday last year I bought a really beautiful Prada dress. I walked past the Prada store and there in the window was this dress that called out to me on the sidewalk. It said, ‘Come in!’ It was a sheer black silk dress, with a knitted, almost argyle placket that goes all the way down the front, with buttons. A strange juxtaposition with the very sheer black silk.” Ms. Thurman said she never buys retail but just had to have it.
That dress may have been an indulgence, but our discussion about it felt like one too — conspiratorial and fun, a communal-dressing-room conversation between women.
And what are Ms. Thurman’s thoughts on getting older?
“You are invisible as an old person. It helps to accept that,” she said. “I like to be invisible. I was in India with my son and some friends, about seven years ago. And I was often alone in the dining room, since my son and the others would go off. And there was a loneliness that was interesting to me. People didn’t strike up conversations with you. Or they try to flee. Maybe they think you’ll latch on to them and bore them. I think the old woman sitting alone at the restaurant or the cafe table is in some sort of strange bubble of her own.”
“Invisibility is a form of freedom that I do cherish most of the time,” she added. But she also speaks candidly about losing some of her actual, bodily visibility — about her extreme recent weight loss (she has battled severe flu and some other ailments recently), and the surprising effect her newfound thinness has had on her.
“I got up this morning and weighed myself and it said only two digits,” she said. “So, 99 pounds. What I weighed at 13. And I was elated and it was so pathetic. It was some sort of achievement that I had gotten so skinny, and I thought, why? Why do you care?”
But somehow, she does care. Age has not attenuated her lifelong anxiety about weight: “This has nothing to do with what I weigh, but with the fact that I have carried with me all this time some sort of burden, a longing, an idea of an ideal body for reasons that were culturally determined — by peer pressure, the media, et cetera. For all my sophistication and worldliness, it’s still there.”
Ms. Thurman deeply appreciates the body-positivity movement, despite (or perhaps because of) her own angst about weight: “I think empowered women of whatever shape don’t want to be excluded, condescended to, ashamed. Or made invisible. Women accepted their invisibility passively or with despair or stoically or ironically, and now they don’t.”
Where does beauty fit into this? “It’s such a profound and difficult question,” she said, before lapsing into one of her silences.
“Physical beauty? I’m going to be inarticulate until I can find something interesting to say about this. I guess for me, there’s something contrary always involved in beauty. So the cheerleader was never a model of beauty for me. Elegance without an edge, without irony … without that awareness. OK, forget all of that. Forget it.”
Ms. Thurman had pressed her verbal delete button and again fell silent. Then she swerved, predictably, to fashion and language.
“I’d rather talk about style than beauty. Style is the self-conscious attempt to create beauty, and that engages technique. It engages experience, knowledge, worldliness. What makes fashion interesting is not about what’s hot. It’s about a sense of originality that comes through as a language that stays clear of the trite. A language that is self-conscious about itself, self-conscious about received ideas. Vulgarity is a form of unconsciousness, really.”
To celebrate her 76th birthday, Ms. Thurman traveled to Spain with Ms. Brogger and Mr. Rieff. At the Prado they enjoyed a special behind-the-scenes visit to watch conservators restore some Renaissance paintings. (“Judith has a special talent for picking fascinating things to do and see,” Ms. Brogger told me.)
One of the paintings had originally featured a bare-breasted Mary Magdalene, but during the 19th century, in an excess of prudery, restorers had painted on a so-called modesty shawl. As Ms. Thurman and her friends watched, the present-day conservators carefully removed that shawl.
It was a propitious moment for Ms Thurman to witness. “Scraping off the carelessly applied fig leaves of convention and received ideas, many of them about feminine virtue and delicacy,” she said. “I see this as a metaphor for the kind of criticism I do.”