Remembering Judith Crist

In addition to her career as a critic, Crist will be remembered by over half a century's worth of students

Judith Crist, the influential film critic, died today at her home in Manhattan. She was 90, and known to millions of Americans for her spiky film reviews on the Today Show and more than three decades of film criticism in outlets like The New York Herald Tribune. It was at The Herald Tribune that she became the first woman to be employed as a full-time critic on an American newspaper.

Crist was less well known for teaching at the Columbia Journalism School, where I was lucky enough to be accepted into her small “personal and professional style” class in January. I sent her my Economist review of The Rum Diary as my application to the class. It was immensely humbling knowing that one of the early milestones of my career would seem minute to a journalist who’d had her name splashed on the side of a New York bus, rubbed shoulders with Marilyn Monroe and Woody Allen, and had the balls to rubbish Cleopatra when everyone else was fawning over it.

Eight of us had class at Professor Crist’s immaculate Riverside Drive apartment on the Upper West Side. We would sit around her coffee table, with its big glass bowl full of coasters and boxes of chocolates that she would beg us to eat at the end of each four-hour session. Crist sat at the top of the table. She was always well turned out, with dyed, center-parted hair, bright silk blouses, and a spectacular array of tinted vintage spectacles that she would sometimes wear on top of one another.

Underneath the polished exterior, Crist was terrifyingly thin and frail. She spoke painfully slowly and stopped frequently to wheeze and cough. She could no longer hear, so we would sit and listen to her pull apart our work, pinching ourselves awake in the stifling heat of the apartment. Of course, she was an unbearably tough critic. She once told a student that his writing made her want to put her head down the toilet and pull the flush. But a word of encouragement from Crist could sustain me for a whole week.

A couple of hours into each class we would break for coffee and cookies, loitering in the kitchen for 15 minutes. Two of us smoked, and we would join Crist in her office, where she would rescue a half-finished cigarette from an ashtray and light up. Even at 90, she was unapologetic about her smoking habit, and took great joy in telling Seth (the other smoker) and me about the cheap consignments of cigarettes she had delivered from out of town for a fraction of the price of a New York City pack. Seth would always press her for stories, and Crist would tell us about stealing quarters from her mother’s purse and walking miles to save the subway fare so she could visit the cinema.

In the tiny back room of her apartment, opposite her bedroom, Professor Crist kept a room full of mementos from her long career. Enormous film posters bearing her quotations were pasted on all the walls. A mounted photo showed her posing with Patrick Ewing, the basketball player. A friend of mine said she had winked at him when she showed his class that photo and said, “That was a fun shoot!” I most remember a huge advertisement that had been ripped from the side of a bus. It was for The New York Herald Tribune and it read, “We’ve got Judith Crist on film.”

A few weeks into the spring semester, Professor Crist went into hospital for minor surgery, and it was decided we should have a replacement professor so that we didn’t miss too many classes. We didn’t know it then, but we would be her last class.

Crist taught at Columbia for more than 50 years. To everyone else, she will be remembered for her work. But for a few of us, who sat smoking with her in that overheated office, or sharing truffles on Tuesday afternoons, she will be remembered for her refusal to accept any work from us but our absolute best. We tried to give it, half from terror at the insults she’d invent if we didn’t. But mostly because you knew that she’d never accepted any less than that from herself.

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Hazel Sheffield is a former assistant editor at CJR. Follow her on Twitter @hazelsheffield. Tags: , ,