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Rossner, Judith Louise

Rossner, Judith Louise

(b. 31 March 1935 in New York City; d. 9 August 2005 in New York City), best-selling author who wrote about the perils and pains of women in late-twentieth-century America in such acclaimed novels as Looking for Mr. Goodbar and August.

The elder of two daughters of Joseph Perelman, a textiles jobber, and Dorothy (Shapiro) Perelman, a public school teacher, Rossner grew up in a comfortably middle-class home in the Bronx and spent nearly all of her life in New York City and its suburbs, the settings for most of her ten novels. Even before she could read and write Rossner was dictating poems and stories to her mother and later said that she knew at age five that she would be a writer. She also was encouraged by an uncle, Charles Yale Harrison, author of several well-received books, including a classic novel of World War I, Generals Die in Bed (1930). Rossner attended public schools, graduating from Taft High School in the Bronx in 1952. She then entered City College of New York but dropped out in 1954 to marry a schoolmate, Robert Rossner, who later became an English teacher and the author of several crime novels under the pen name Ivan T. Ross. They were married on 13 June 1954.

The couple lived in Manhattan and had a daughter in 1960. Rossner sold a children’s book, What Kind of Feet Does a Bear Have?, in 1963, but publication of major adult fiction eluded her for another three years. Among rejections of her short stories was a letter from a women’s magazine that concluded: “When all is said and done, she does not wear sufficiently rose-colored glasses for us.” Rossner’s sister, Nancy, promptly made her a gift of red-tinted spectacles that Rossner kept on her desk but never on her nose.

The Rossners’ son was born in 1965, after a move to Croton-on-Hudson, New York. The following year Rossner sold her first novel, To the Precipice, about a woman who marries her way out of poverty but later bears a child by her first lover. It was followed in 1969 by Nine Months in the Life of an Old Maid, which focused on a dysfunctional family near Peekskill, New York, at the time of the infamous 1949 anti-Communist riot in Peekskill, when concertgoers at a civil-rights benefit given by the singer Paul Robeson were attacked with baseball bats and rocks. Respectfully, if briefly and tardily, reviewed, the books displayed her hallmark style of pared-down, incisive prose; caustic wit; and what one reviewer of To the Precipice described as “the apparently casual observation that explodes like a time bomb.”

With their marriage showing strains, the Rossners moved in 1969 to Acworth, New Hampshire, where Robert Rossner taught in a commune’s alternative countercultural school. Judith Rossner later commented with sardonic hyperbole that the local population was one hundred: ‘50 natives on welfare and the other 50 middle-class dropouts.” In 1971 she took her children back to the West Side of Manhattan. Her marriage was formally dissolved in 1973, the year after she published Any Minute I Can Split, in which a nine-months-pregnant woman leaves her husband and rides a motorcycle to a commune in Vermont. The title, she said, was a pun based on her feeling that epidemics of divorce, alienation, and social unrest “related to the new sense of the world’s fragility.”

While recuperating from a car-crash fire in 1973 that permanently scarred her right leg, Rossner read newspaper accounts of a schoolteacher’s murder by a man she had picked up in the city’s tawdry singles’ bar and casual-sex scene. Sensing the story’s commercial possibilities—her first three books had earned her only about $11,000 over nine years—she set aside work on another novel, about a woman and her friend who marry Siamese twins, and plunged into what became Looking for Mr. Good-bar, published in 1975. She hoped that the book, inspired by the death of Roseann Quinn, might earn her enough to quit nine-to-five secretarial work but hardly dreamed that it would bring financial independence. The book’s relentless power and drive, combined with what one observer called “some of the raunchiest sex scenes ever written,” earned her millions from hardcover, book-club, and paperback sales in the United States and abroad. Hollywood bought the rights for a movie version that the author detested.

Eight heady and productive years ensued, during which Rossner published Attachments, the Siamese twin story, in 1977; the elegiac Emmeline in 1980; and her second blockbuster success, August, a pitch-perfect rendering of a young woman’s psychoanalysis, in 1983. While she was gratified that August’s authenticity put it on reading lists of psychotherapy seminars, Rossner said that she took particular pride when any of her books elicited letters from ordinary readers who said that her writing made them feel “less alone in the world.” Emmeline, Rossner’s only noncontemporary work, was based on the tragic fate of a real thirteen-year-old girl in nineteenth-century Maine who was sent to work in a textile mill to support her impoverished family. The book was turned into a highly lauded opera in 1996.

Rossner and her second husband, the magazine editor Mordecai Persky, were married in 1979 and divorced in 1983. A final, lasting union, with Stanley Leff, a publisher’s representative, began in 1985 and was solemnized with formal vows in 2002. They lived in a twenty-first-floor apartment on West End Avenue with spectacular Hudson River views. There Rossner, a handsome, warmly appealing woman with reddish-brown hair, entertained a wide range of friends who relished what a colleague called her cranky charm, her straight talk, and the marvelous meals she whipped up, seemingly effortlessly.

During this decade she used her money and celebrity in support of nuclear disarmament and, closer to home, to fight the developer Donald Trump’s proposed overbuilding along the Hudson. She also allied herself with feminist causes but had little sympathy for men-bashing, doctrinaire “women’s libbers.” (The psychiatrist in August dismissively refers to them as the “No-Such-Thing-as-a-Vaginal-Orgasm Mafia.”) Rossner also experienced career-and life-threatening afflictions beginning in 1983. Viral encephalitis destroyed her short-term memory, a writer’s nightmare. Then, in 1987 she was hospitalized in a diabetic coma; a few years later a dormant form of leukemia was detected and became full blown after the turn of the century.

Rossner kept working, but it was seven years to her next book, His Little Women, a 1990 updating of the Louisa May Alcott classic that got mixed reviews, some suggesting that she may have lost her touch. In writing the book, whose central event is a libel trial that explores a writer’s creative processes, Rossner had to labor against her memory loss. She often found herself writing, as new, passages or chapters that she had completed days or weeks earlier, with characters that had different names. Her sure-handedness returned in 1994 with Olivia; or, The Weight of the Past, a mother-daughter conflict set in the world of gastronomy, and in 1997 with Perfidia, another novel inspired by a real-life murder, this one of an abusive mother by a victimized teenage daughter. Eight years later she died of cardiac arrest. Her body was cremated, and her ashes were spread beneath a sapling in the garden of her son’s home in Warwick, Rhode Island. At her death Rossner left a completed manuscript, When Love Turns to Hate, whose main characters, but not events, were based on the imagined personalities of the U.S. State Department official Alger Hiss and the writer who accused him of espionage, Whittaker Chambers—both icons of the era of cold war paranoia.

Rossner’s papers are housed in the Mugar Memorial Library of Boston University. For information on her life and career see the interviews by Barbara Bannon, Publishers Weekly (22 Aug. 1980); Nicholas A. Basbanes, Worcester Gazette (12 Nov. 1980); David V. Forrest, the Academy Forum of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis (Summer 1984); and Barbara Hauptman, Dutchess (Jan./Feb. 1992). A reminiscence is Francine Klagsbrun, “Recalling an Author and Friend,” Jewish Week (16 Sept. 2005). Obituaries are in the New York Times and Washington Post (both 11 Aug. 2005), the London Daily Telegraph (12 Aug. 2005), and the Guardian (13 Aug. 2005).

Rayner and Nancy Pike

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