Alice Trillin, a gifted author, educator, film producer, activist on behalf of cancer patients and muse to her husband, humorist Calvin Trillin, died September 11, 2001, age 63, from complications due to lung cancer. (See New York Times obituary here.)
From condolence letters he received, Trillin felt readers didn’t know Alice beyond a “sort of an admirable sitcom character” that he created in his books and magazine pieces. Four years after her death, New Yorker editor David Remnick, suggested that Trillin consider writing about Alice. In 2006, New Yorker published Trillin’s essay “Alice, Off the Page: Expanding on—or maybe correcting—some of the things I wrote about my wife.” The 2007 memoir About Alice developed from the slightly shorter New Yorker essay.
Rather than memorializing his grief, Trillin celebrates their New York romance, 36-year marriage, family, and the real Alice. Reviewing the memoir, Peter Stevenson, New York Times, wrote
“Sometimes we come across a piece of first person writing that shocks us back into a restorative innocence vis-à-vis the human heart…Neither partner seems to have done any grievous or even subtle harm to the other. It was as if he had traveled out beyond familiar territory and brought back a moon rock, something worthy of preserving. And you could tell: he and Alice had a ball. Recalling that party (where they first met)….Alice would sometimes say,
‘You have never again been as funny as you were that night.’
‘You mean I peaked in December of 1963?’ I’d say, 20 or even 30 years later.
‘I’m afraid so.’”
Though Alice never smoked, at age 38, she discovered she had lung cancer. Against terrifying odds, Alice survived for 25 years and wrote eloquently about living with the disease.
“A blood test will never again be a simple, routine procedure…. It is particularly important to face the fact of death squarely, to talk about it with one another.” (“Of Dragons and Garden Peas: A Cancer Patient Talks to Doctors,” 1990, The New England Journal of Medicine)
And in “Betting Your Life” (2001, The New Yorker), eight months before she died, Alice wrote:
“I’d come to think of it as the dragon that sleeps inside anyone who has had cancer. We can never kill this dragon, but as we go about our daily lives–giving our children breakfast, putting more mulch on our gardens–in the hope it will stay asleep for a while longer.”
The play begins with Calvin observing,
“There was one condolence letter that made me laugh. Naturally, a lot of them made me cry. Some of the ones that made me cry, oddly enough, were from people who had never met Alice. They had become familiar with her as a character in books and magazine pieces I’d written…Virtually all those letters began in the same way, with a phrase like ‘Even though I never really knew Alice… I was certain of what Alice’s response would have been.”
Alice, no longer a subject as in the memoir, and now present in Calvin’s imagination, replies,
“They’re right about that. They never knew me.”
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