Judith Thurman perceives everything. Meticulous observation is a hallmark of her 50-year writing career, whose laser-sharp gaze traverses millennia, countries and genres. She is as interested in the smallest details of Stone Age cave paintings (which she descended to examine, flashlight in hand), as 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 themes come up in A Left-Handed Woman, a collection of essays over the past 15 years, many of which have appeared in The New Yorker, where Ms. Thurman has been a writer for 35 years. “Judith feels drawn to different worlds and at home,” says writer David Rieff, her boyfriend of 40 years.
Woman. Thurman’s eclecticism and meticulous 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).
Woman. Thurman has filled the house with artifacts, fabrics, and paintings she’s brought back from her travels, given as gifts by artist friends, or found in thrift stores. She compares decorating to a kind of culinary art: “When you ‘stock’ a room, you know when it’s missing something. You have to provide the nutrients. Sometimes the nutrient is blue. Sometimes it’s old. Sometimes it’s a bit wild.”
The house is at once sumptuous and comfortable, but too densely built-up to take in easily – much like Ms. Thurman herself, who despite her affable charm often seems preoccupied with the intricacies of her own thoughts. Sometimes she gets frustrated with what she just said and shakes her shaggy black bonnet in dissatisfaction.
Then she pauses and begins again, treating conversation with the same exactitude with which she lavishes her prose. “She’s not satisfied with a paragraph until it sings,” said Henry Finder, one of Ms. Thurman’s editors at The New Yorker.
A strong thread running through Ms. Thurman’s diverse work is her determination to shed light on the hidden corners of culture, particularly those occupied by brilliant women.
Her 1982 biography of the Danish writer, Isak Dinesen: A Storyteller’s Life, won the National Book Award and formed the basis of the 1985 film Out of Africa, starring Robert Redford and Meryl Streep. Her 1999 biography of French writer Colette, Secrets of the Flesh, was a finalist for both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. “Lost women are my specialty,” Ms. Thurmann said. “Women lost either to history or in some ways to themselves, women who deserve to be noticed.”
Woman. Thurman also pays attention to so-called women’s issues: the complexities in marriages, friendships, and especially what she calls the “hostile love of mothers and daughters.” She’s open about her strained relationship with her own mother, who she said lacked “a sense of her own reality.” She lived vicariously through me. I became a writer partly for this reason. I write to give my subjects a kind of reality that they don’t have or haven’t gotten. There is an act of repair there.”
Fashion is one of Ms. Thurman’s most frequent subjects and she has written essays for The New Yorker on designers such as Poiret, Balenciaga, Charles James, Isabel Toledo, Guo Pei, Miuccia Prada and Alexander McQueen.
“David Remnick asked me early on what I wanted to write about,” says Ms. Remnick. Thurman remembers the editor-in-chief of the New Yorker. “I said fashion because fashion is a language, a universal cultural phenomenon. Every single person decides every day how they will appear in public. Why isn’t that a main topic?”
By Mrs. Thurman’s hands, it’s ice cream. Her fashion work is about much more than just clothes. “There’s the economy, the aesthetics, the eroticism, the violence of fashion,” she said.
Here, psychologically immersive profiles examine how garments can shape the lives of their wearers. Explaining Mrs. Prada’s offbeat, upbeat aesthetic, for example, Ms. Thurman wrote: “It’s only in the dressing room that you discover that her supposedly correct little pleated skirts, ladylike silk blouses and lacy suits are a test of your cool. If you can’t wear them with a wink, like Prada herself does — and crooked noses over common notions of beauty and sex appeal — they can make you look like a governess.”
Aside from its sizzling insight, the passage makes an intimate, entertaining move. Woman. Thurman positions himself in the dressing room. She is the reader’s representative, our field reporter.
To form. Thurman, this girlfriend-esque aspect of fashion is key. She respects the usefulness of fashion as a language of attachment, to quibble about what looks good or horrible, or where a bargain can be found. “Long before feminism made fashion a guilty pleasure,” she wrote in The New Yorker in 2014, “I had my first experience of sisterhood in a shared dressing room.”
One of Mrs. Thurman’s closest friends of 50 years, Danish writer Suzanne Brogger, happily spoke of their sisterhood while shopping: ‘Judith is a great temptress! She tempts me to write things and buy things I can’t afford! Luckily, she also introduced me to thrift stores in New York. She’s my dresser!”
So what’s Mrs. Thurman feeling about fashion now? “I lost the ‘Jones’ for buying clothes. Part of it is the pandemic. And I’ve got all the clothes I’ll ever need,” she said, draping her diminutive frame in a simple all-black ensemble of oversized sweater and cashmere pull-on pants. “I recently bought a pair of comfortable Thierry Rabotin shoes, but they don’t count. I will have no pain.”
But she hasn’t given up fashion entirely, telling, not without girlish enthusiasm, about a recent purchase.
“I bought a really nice Prada dress for my 75th birthday last year. I walked by the Prada store and there in the window was this dress that was calling me on the sidewalk. It said, ‘Come in!’ It was a sheer black silk dress with a knitted, almost diamond-shaped placket that went all the way down the front, with buttons. A strange juxtaposition with the very transparent black silk.” Woman. Thurman said she never buys retail but just has to have it.
That dress might have been a treat, but so did our discussion of it – conspiratorial and funny, a shared locker room conversation between women.
And what are Mrs. Thurman’s thoughts on getting older?
“You are invisible as an old person. It helps to accept that,” she said. “I like being invisible. I was in India with my son and some friends about seven years ago. And I was often alone in the dining room as my son and the others would leave. And there was a loneliness that was interesting to me. People didn’t start talking to you. Or they try to escape. Maybe they think you’ll cling to them and they’ll get bored. I think the old lady sitting alone in the restaurant or at the coffee table is in some kind of weird bubble.”
“Invisibility is a form of freedom that I cherish most of the time,” she added. But she’s also open about losing some of her actual physical visibility — her extreme recent weight loss (she’s recently battled a bad flu and a few other ailments) and the surprising effect her newfound thinness is having on she had.
“I got up this morning and weighed myself and it only showed two digits,” she said. “So 99 pounds. What I weighed at 13. And I was thrilled and it was so pathetic. Getting so skinny was an achievement of sorts, and I thought, why? Why do you care?”
But somehow she cares. Age hasn’t dulled her lifelong fear of weight: “It has nothing to do with what I weigh, but with the fact that I’ve been carrying around with me all this time some kind of burden, a longing, an idea of an ideal body for reasons that culturally – peer pressure, the media, etc. For all my sophistication and worldliness, it’s still there.”
Woman. Thurman has a deep respect for the body positivity movement, despite (or perhaps because of) her own fear of weight: “I think confident women of any form don’t want to be left out, condescended, or shamed. Or made invisible. Women accepted their invisibility passively, or with desperation, or stoically, or ironically, and now they don’t.”
Where does beauty fit in? “This is such a profound and difficult question,” she said, before falling into one of her silences.
“Physical beauty? I’ll inarticulate until I find something interesting to say about it. I guess for me beauty is always associated with something opposite. So the cheerleader was never a beauty model for me. Elegance without rough edges, without irony.. .without that awareness. Okay, forget it all. Forget it.”
Woman. Thurman had pressed her verbal delete button and fell silent again. Then, predictably, she switched to fashion and language.
“I’d rather talk about style than beauty. Style is the confident attempt to create beauty, and that requires technique. It involves experience, knowledge, worldliness. What makes fashion interesting is not what’s hot. It’s about a sense of originality expressed in language that stays away from the mundane. A language that is self-aware, aware of the ideas it receives. Vulgarity is really a form of unconsciousness.”
In celebration of her 76th birthday, Ms. Thurman traveled with Ms. Brogger and Mr. Riff. At the Prado, they enjoyed a special behind-the-scenes look at restorers restoring some Renaissance paintings. (“Judith has a particular talent for selecting fascinating things to do and see,” Ms. Brogger told me.)
One of the paintings had originally shown a bare-breasted Mary Magdalene, but in the 19th century restorers, in exaggerated prudishness, had painted a so-called modest shawl. As Mrs. Thurman and her friends watched, today’s restorers carefully removed this scarf.
It was an opportune moment for Ms. Thurman to witness. “Scratch off the carelessly applied fig leaves of convention and get ideas, many about feminine virtue and delicacy,” she said. “I see that as a metaphor for the kind of criticism I do.”