Judith Crist, who died yesterday at the age of 90, was one of America’s most renowned movie critics. She was the first woman to write film criticism as a full-time staffer (for the New York Herald Tribune) and the first regular critic on NBC’s Today Show. But for those who studied journalism at Columbia, Crist was something else as well: one of the most intimidating professors grad school had to offer.
For over 50 years, Crist taught a course called “Personal and Professional Style” as part of the J-School curriculum. Her class, so popular that students had to apply to get into it, was “not for the faint of heart,” the curriculum warned. Each semester, eight J-schoolers were graciously allowed into Crist’s Upper West Side apartment overlooking the Hudson River. I wasn’t one of them—I didn’t even apply, perhaps too shy to brave her legendary critiques. Still, it was impossible not to hear about “Tuesdays with Judith” in the hallways, when her cowed students exchanged copies of assignments covered in red writing.
Billy Wilder once said that asking Crist for a review of your film was “like asking the Boston strangler for a neck massage.” Asking Crist to edit a story was similar. The woman who deemed Anne Bancroft’s character in The Pumpkin Eater a “cowlike creature with no aspirations or intellect above her pelvis,” obviously had a way with words—for better and for worse, as far as a student’s ego was concerned.
“She once told me my writing made her want to put her head in a toilet and flush it,” Nic Stone, one of my former classmates, posted on Facebook yesterday. Stone had written a profile of philosopher Slavoj Žižek. After having a student read the piece out loud, Crist announced the whole thing made her want to commit suicide by drowning herself in the commode. Another classmate, Ryan Neal, was scolded for writing that the famous statues in front of the New York Public Library are of seated lions. What? Lions crouch, Crist thundered. They don’t sit.
The style seminar was one-of-a-kind. Unlike other J-School classes, it required little reporting. It focused solely on the importance of one’s words. Crist was a constant reminder that a writer’s voice could carry a reader through to the end of a story, even in an age when anything over 140 characters is supposedly superfluous. That didn’t mean she cared only about the sound of sentences. But for her, to write meaningfully, you had to write well.
As ruthless as her critiques were, Crist would always end classes by telling her students they were doing a great job and that she was just an “old, cranky ,woman,” Stone says. Crist the teacher was like Crist the film critic: harsh, but honest—someone who was feared and loved in equal measure.
Travis Irvine took her class this year, and had this to say:
I was happy to be in one of her last classes and to have attended one of her last Thanksgiving parties. I kissed her hand as I left the party, and she exclaimed, “Lovely!” Lovely indeed, Judy. Glad to have known and learned from you. And I’m sure you’ll rip this post apart from beyond the grave.