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Trillin Remembers Beloved Wife in His Latest Book

Journalist, humorist and novelist Calvin Trillin's latest book pays homage to his wife, Alice, who passed away in 2001. Jeffrey Brown speaks with him about his latest book and the memory of his wife.

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    In 1963, Calvin Trillin met Alice Stewart at a party. They married two years later and had two daughters. Alice Trillin was a wife, mother, college English instructor, for a while an arts producer for public TV. Calvin Trillin became a well-known writer for the New Yorker, taking on subjects serious and humorous, and many of his books and articles, especially about travel and food, featured his wife.

    In 2001, Alice died of heart failure. Her heart weakened from treatment for cancer she'd had 25 years earlier. Now, Calvin Trillin has written about a marriage, about a family, about Alice.

    We talked recently at the Greenwich Village house she was smart enough to convince him to purchase many years ago.

    You write early in the book that your writings in which your wife was a character were something like sitcoms. When you were writing them, did you feel that way?


    Yes, because I didn't really want to write about them. I mean, I didn't — I think you could read everything that I wrote about Alice and the girls before this book and not know anything about them, really. You couldn't tell the girls apart. And so they just played roles, really. They were pretty close to the roles they played in the house.


    Pretty close?


    Pretty close. I mean, Alice, who was the sort of wise mother of the sitcom, was definitely the most sensible grownup in the house. I won't deny that.


    You say that, when she died, you got lots of letters of condolences from your readers. And invariably, they would begin, "Even though I didn't know Alice." Many readers must have felt like they did know her from the writing.


    Well, they'd say, "Even though I didn't really know her," or something like that, "I felt I knew her," or something. But I say that I knew what Alice would have said to that. "They're right; they don't know me."

    I mean, she always said that, when people asked how she felt about her portrayal in those stories, she always said it made her sound like a dietitian in sensible shoes. And she wasn't a dietitian, although I did mention that she had a weird predilection for limiting our family to three meals a day. And she definitely didn't wear sensible shoes.


    She wore rather expensive shoes, it sounds like.


    She did, yes. And once, when she gave that answer — when I gave that answer, when somebody asked me after a speech about how she felt about the way she was portrayed, they asked her to stand. And she stood, and she didn't say anything. She just took off her shoes, one shoe. And the shoes I described as looking — they cost about enough to tide a family of four over for a year or two, and waved it, and sat down.