Tag Archives: Jeff Zaslow

The Last Book

It’s no longer news that the world of journalism lost one of the great ones last week when author Jeff Zaslow died in a tragic car accident. But the shock of his death continues to reverberate through our community. Of course friends and family are reeling; how will that ever stop? But those of us in the outer circles of the pond, those of us touched by his kindness and enthusiasm, not to mention his wonderful writing, mourn his loss, too.

Whenever I saw Jeff at one of his book talks, he always took time to talk shop for a few minutes. I am nowhere near his league, but he considered me a colleague nevertheless. He told me when his daughter shared my children’s book with the nursery school class she volunteered in at Temple Israel.I looked forward to using this space to share news of his latest book. He always took the time to thank me.

Jeff grew into an engaging and animated public speaker over the years and I looked forward to every one of his talks during the yearly Jewish Book Fair. It was always a pleasure to hear him, not only because he was wonderful to listen to but there was just something about the way he shared the writing of his books that made you proud and happy for his success. Plain and simple, Jeff was a mentsch.

Columnist for the Wall Street Journal, surprise yet superlative replacement for Ann Landers at the Chicago Sun Times, Zaslow took his talents in a new direction with the 2008 publication of The Last Lecture, written with Randy Pausch. Imagine the millions reached with that small jewel of a book and realize that he published four more since then. The irony escapes no one that this father of three daughters, a man always on a quest to better understand the females in his life, chose a bridal salon as the setting for his last book: The Magic Room: A story about the love we wish for our daughters. How bitter that he will never see his girls in lace and satin, never be the one to walk them to the chuppah.

Perhaps Jeff and Randy Pausch are continuing the conversation. Maybe he’s interviewing some particularly intriguing angels or other interesting characters about their life stories. But we’ll never get to read those words. Heaven’s bookshelves may well be richer, but there will forever be gaps on ours.

Redressing Yesterday’s Gown

Had Jeff Zaslow been the father of three sons instead of three daughters, he might never have written The Magic Room. Sweetly committed to understanding the girls in his life, Zaslow, “wanted to write a nonfiction book about the love we all wish for our daughters.”

When his wife suggested a bridal shop might be the place to set the book, he knew her instincts were right. Research led him to Becker’s Bridal in Fowler, Michigan. Fate and good old journalistic digging, led him to the women whose stories he tells so beautifully in this multi-layered gem of a book.

Every woman has a wedding dress story. Some of you have read this essay. Many of you haven’t. So here is mine.

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“I give you a lot of credit,” the bridal consultant said as she zipped me into a six thousand dollar confection of a gown. Clouds of white silk billowed around me. “A lot of women would think about doing this but not many would follow it through.” She pinned the size ten sample into an initial semblance of fit. “There you go. Let’s see what you think.”

Fifty years old and there I was trying on wedding gowns. And I wasn’t even engaged. In fact I was already married. Happily so to the same man I had kissed beneath the wedding canopy more than two decades before.

That April day in 1980 I wore his cousin’s wedding dress. Family situation and finances dictated a creative alternative to purchasing a gown of my own. We nailed borrowed right out of the gate and took care of old, new, and blue in due time. I felt pretty enough, but it wasn’t my dream dress. It fit the bill: white and lacy, right size, and best of all, free.

At the time, the borrowed gown seemed right for another reason. I married during the era when women needed men like fish needed bicycles. Matrimony was anathema. Real women wore navy suits and floppy little silk ties, not wedding dresses. When I told my boss I was taking a few vacation days to marry my fiance, she bristled with disdain. Her eyes said it all — I was turning my back on The Cause.

As a young girl I dreamed of wearing my mother’s dress. With its capped sleeves, fitted lace bodice and a runway’s length of tulle gathered into its skirt, my mother’s wedding dress was Audrey Hepburn all the way. The back hall closet was my choice haven for hide and seek. Not because the closet was such an original hiding place but because, wedged back behind zippered plastic garment bags and sacks set aside for Goodwill, I was close enough to the dress to touch it. Close enough to dream of wearing it one day. When she and my father divorced, the dress disappeared — donated, I later found out, to a local theater.

I realize this preoccupation is rather juvenile. Twenty-six years down the aisle I know that dresses do not a marriage make. Commitment isn’t forged with dupioni, underwires and lace but with dedication, understanding and laughter. Nevertheless, I’ve always felt that I’d missed out on a crucial part of what makes a woman a woman. So much so that the first silent promise I made to my daughter even before they cut the cord was that she would have her own wedding dress one day. There’s no accounting for the lost dreams of childhood.

Somewhere on the road to fifty, I decided to use the year to do those things I’d dreamed of but had put aside. Some women parachute out of Cessnas. Others train for marathons. I called up the fanciest wedding salon in our town, explained my intentions, and made an appointment.

Then I nearly canceled. This was silly. What business does a fifty-year-old woman have trying on wedding dresses? Nevertheless, I showed up at the appointed hour. Ever the writer I figured if nothing else, I might get an interesting essay out of the afternoon.

Lisa smiled when I shared the reason behind my appointment. The store was undergoing renovations and we were in last season’s sale section. “Let’s go next door,” she said. “That’s where we have all our newest gowns.” I wanted to hug her. She understood how important this was and she was with me the whole nine yards. Or fifteen or however many there are in gowns these days.

“May I choose more than one?”

“Sure. Why don’t we start with three and if none of those work, you can try on more.” I took my time. Some were so plain they looked unfinished. One Marie Antoinette number just needed the flock of sheep and beribboned staff. Most though were the stuff of dreams. I moved through the racks slowly, enjoying every moment, every shimmer of silk and taffeta. It was all there: lace, tulle, embroidered trains; hand-sewn crystals twinkling from the center of pleated rosettes; hems edged in pearls; on-the- shoulder, off-the-shoulder; strapless, backless and plunging neckline.

I chose one that reminded me of Audrey Hepburn, one that was mermaid slinky and overlaid with heavy Alençon lace, and a third that was strapless, quite high style and elegant.

Lisa took me into a curtained dressing room and I realized that I was going to have to undress in her presence. Remove my bra and nestle my real-woman, unimplanted, eighteen-years-post-nursing breasts into the bodice of these gorgeous gowns. What had I been thinking? I suddenly felt like Norma Desmond, Sunset Boulevard’s desperate, once-beautiful actress. But there was no turning back. I took a breath and reached for the Audrey Hepburn.

She drew back the dressing room’s mocha velvet curtain and gestured me towards a ten-foot wall of mirror. I hadn’t expected the afternoon to come with all this drama. I stepped up onto the carpeted platform, looked at my reflection and started to cry. Even at fifty, with wrinkles a-hinting and grey threading through my hair both north and south, I felt like a princess. The skirt billowed around me. It whispered and rustled when I turned. I laughed and pirouetted as if I were on stage. I smiled at the image in the mirror. The girl who was the bride I’d once dreamed of being, smiled back.

I looked cute and gamine. Pretty. I’m a sequin’s breadth under five feet; my stature often pegs me for younger than I am. Even at fifty, I knew I could carry off such a dress. But beautiful as it was, this wasn’t The Dress. I told Lisa it was the one I would have chosen twenty-six years ago This was the dress from my hide-and-seek days.

I took another twirl and headed back to the dressing. If dress number one was Audrey Hepburn, dress number two was Marilyn Monroe. Happy Birthday, Mr. President. Even before Lisa zipped it up I knew it wasn’t for me. My hips looked big, my bust too small. This was a hubba-hubba dress for a woman who broadcasts her sexuality 24/7. Many women can pull off a dress like this. But not me. Back to the dressing room.

Dress number three was made of a kind of silk I’ve never even heard of. Strapless and form fitting it was sexy without drifting into come-and-get-me-boys territory. The dress had a hint of flamenco about it. An asymmetric trail of rosettes began at the bodice and ended in a cascade at the train. Lisa zipped and pinned me into it and once again drew back the curtains.

I stepped up before the wall of mirror and gasped. This was it. I looked gorgeous. Flat out stunning. I’ve attended black tie events feeling plenty glam. But this dress was about something else. The woman in the mirror knew her power in all its permutations. She knew who she was, knew what she wanted, and made no bones about projecting it. She was sexy. She was competent. She was anchored to a well of confidence deep within. How could so much silk and doodads do this? I recalled Lisa’s comment about wedding dresses embodying our image of ourselves and the image we want others to see.

Back in street clothes, the froth and faille returned to the racks, I hugged Lisa and thanked her for her generosity of time and spirit. My afternoon at the bridal salon changed nothing and everything. I’m still going grey. My joints still creak when I rise each morning. But that years-long yearning has been stilled, replaced with pride and affection for my own gumption. I hadn’t only found the dress of my dreams. I came face-to-face with the woman I have become. Gutsy. Sexy. Strong. I love her all the more for daring to rewrite a small but precious piece of her past.

The Zas is Back

When Jeff Zaslow became a journalist, I bet he never thought he’d be up in front of an audience of 500 women talking about turning maxi pads into house slippers. Amazing, the places writing can take you. In town on his ninth stop of a 22-stop book tour, Jeff Zaslow was as charming as ever, funny and mind-bogglingly prolific. For he was touting not one book — The Girls of Ames: A Story of Women & A Forty-Year Friendship — but two, the second being Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters, co-written with Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger. The Girls took center stage.

Back in 2003, Zaslow wrote an article about the differences between men’s and women’s friendships. The former he concluded are side-by-side – fishing in a boat, hitting balls on a golf course. But women’s friendships, he realized, are face-to-face. Zaslow heard from more than 250 readers, stashed all their letters in a file and moved on. As his daughters grew up, he thought it would be interesting to study women’s friendships. Out came the file and when he got to a letter describing the girls from Ames, Jeff Zaslow knew he had hit pay dirt — eleven childhood friends who had maintained their connection for over forty years.

None still live in Ames, so Zaslow flew all over the country interviewing the women, reading their diaries, poring through albums and taking notes on the ebb and flow of relationships that spanned decades and encompassing college and careers, marriages and divorces, illnesses and the mysterious death of one of the group. Zaslow made it clear that the women would have to be truthful. “I didn’t want to write a Hallmark kind of book,” he said. And while the girls of Ames talked about the hurts they had caused one another, the wounds that are still tender, they also shared mountainous moments of laughter and love, recollections both fond and fraught.

Ultimately, though, the author agreed to cut forty pages from the final manuscript. I can imagine how hard that must have been. And I also understand why Zaslow did it, sacrificing content he knew made his book better but unwilling to sacrifice the good will of women who had shared so openly. Sometimes we just have to be the vessel and put aside any thoughts of being the contents as well.

When he began the evening, the author said he doubted anyone would pay money to read a book about men’s friendships. I beg to differ. Jeff Zaslow is a good writer because, as he put it, he’s a good listener and cares about people. I’d imagine there are powerful stories men might share about their friendships. The challenge for this wonderfully peripatetic author might simply be mastering the art of listening side-by-side.

First Diary/Last Lecture

Yesterday was an intense double helping of Book Fair. Lily Koppel’s talk on The Red Leather Diary and Jeff Zaslow’s on Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture made for bittersweet counterpoints. One private and forgotten, one public and intentional, each is testament to the power of the words we leave behind.

Rushing to work one crisp fall morning, Lily Koppel was stopped in her New York City tracks by the sight of a “red Dumpster brimming with old steamer trunks” on the sidewalk of her Upper West Side apartment building. As Koppel began speaking to us, the venue walls fell away; spellbound we listened as she told of diving right into the Dumspter (“archeological dig”). Burrowing through mountains of valises and steamer trunks whose colorful labels proclaimed luxurious voyages to the Continent, Koppel came across treasure after treasure: an elegant pocketbook containing a half-smoked Parliament; in another, a tube of Revlon lipstick in Bachelor’s Carnation; one shopping list reminded the pocketbook’s long-deceased owner to “pick up rug; get bra from Saks.” Now hanging in Lily’s closet is the tangerine boucle coat with an iridescent lining and a single Bakelite button that “only needed a trip to the dry cleaners.” I confess to a touch of vintage-wear envy.

The best find of all was yet to come: “some girl’s diary from the ’30’s” her doorman Hector told her. “Did she want it?” He had stashed it in his basement locker. Plastic Zabar’s grocery bag in hand, Koppel had no way of knowing that Hector had just handed her a young girl’s life preserved in the amber of her diary.

Beginning the eve of her fourteenth birthday, Florence Wolfson penned four lines every day for five years. Distilling each day’s experiences into those four lines crystalized her passion for life, art and literature until the words on the crumbling pages sparkled like a Contessa’s tiara. Florence was passionte about art and books. About men, and women. She had a crush on actress Eva Legallienne. She showed up for her admissions interview at Barnard dressed in a man’s suit. Having unearthed Florence’s admissions file, Koppel learned that the admissions director thought her “too brilliant and individual” and denied her admission. Barnard’s loss was Hunter College’s gain. Florence read Balzac, Austen and Flaubert. She despaired of ever being able to draw a pear with any skill and, heady with life, likened herself to a “ripe apricot.”

For three years Koppel lived with Florence, reading the books mentioned in her diary, searching out “remnants of Florence’s time.” Then, another dash of serendipity led Koppel to Florence, now 90 and living on Long Island. She had forgotten all about the diary. She married, penned short pieces of feminist writing years before the word entered the public lexicon; she raised a family and told Lily, “My life was a tragedy before you came along; now it is a romantic comedy.”

The idea of secreting one’s thoughts in locked diary seems anathema in today’s blog-lust era. Nearly eight decades after Florence Wolfson began her private journal, Carnegie Melon Professor Randy Pausch, stricken with pancreatic cancer, delivered a very public talk: a declaration of love, courage and heartfelt directives for making the most of one’s life. Invited to deliver the school’s annual Last Lecture, Pausch used the opportunity to deliver, in one soul-searing lecture, everything he wanted his children to know. And so the Lecture. Is there anyone who doesn’t know what came next? Four million books sold; at least that many website hits. Weekly perhaps?

No matter how many times I view the lecture or read a random chapter from the book, it is as if I am doing so for the first time. No, not because I am dense but because Pausch’s joy is incandescent. What might have happened, or not happened, had Jeff Zaslow (Carnegie Melon ’80) not made the snap decision to attend the lecture? But he did and thus the Last Lecture phenomenon that has changed lives all over the world. Literally.

I know, I know, I sound hyperbolic. Shirley Temply, Polyanna-ish all rolled into one cloying gee whiz meringue ball of exclamation. But think about it. A terminally ill father and husband gives an incredible lecture. It goes up on YouTube and circles the earth again and again and again. People start talking. And sending it to everyone they know. More people start watching it. A journalist (yea journalists!) is captivated enough to dig a bit deeper and proposes turning Pausch’s Last Lecture into a book. To accomplish this, Zaslow spoke to Pausch during the latter’s daily bike rides. He worked fifteen hours a day, seven days a week for fifty three days, transcribing the recorded conversations and shaping Pausch’s lectures into book form. All of this you know. Here are a few tidbits courtesy of Jeff Zaslow from last night’s Book Fair event

•”Is cancer solvable?” Pausch’s son Dylan asked a family friend after his father’s death.
“Pancreatic cancer is a problem,” came the reply.
“My dad said it’s within me to solve problems,” replied Randy Pausch’s son.

•Zaslow likened Pausch to Moses. Not because of any kind of leadership grandiosity or singular relationship with God. Instead, Zaslow’s analogy referred to the heartbreaking reality that Pausch, like Moses, saw the promised land of his children’s future but will not be around to experience it with them.

•Zaslow accompanied Randy to the grocery store. The self-serve scanner rang up a $16 item twice. Pausch took his purchases and made for the exit. “I can spend ten to fifteen minutes getting my sixteen dollars back or I can leave. Fifteen minutes or sixteen dollars? I’m dying.” Pausch went for the minutes.

•Was he angry about his fate? “I’ve never found anger to make a situation better.”
Yours truly thinks that’s one for the fridge magnets.

•An email arrived from someone who said he had planned his suicide. And then he saw/read The Last Lecture and chose to live.

•You can’t tell people how to live. Just tell them stories. They’ll learn what you want them to know.

•If you wait long enough, people will show you their good side.

What will any of us leave behind? Kind gestures, healed spirits, hard-won wisdom. Wounded hearts, broken marriages, resentful children. And words. Oceans and oceans and oceans of words. Thank you, Florence and Lily for yours. And thank you, thank you, Randy for yours.

If you’re still with me catch up on last week’s Book Fair Delights:
Nine, The Judicial
Three Cheers for Jewish Book Fair