Janet Malcolm (1934–2021)

June 18th, 2021

Janet Malcolm, a longtime writer for the New Yorker who influenced generations of essayists and journalists with her trenchant, lucid prose and fearless approach to controversial subjects, died today in New York at the age of eighty-six. The news was first announced on Twitter by her colleagues at the magazine. A frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books, Malcolm was the author of the well-regarded The Journalist and the Murderer, about the ethics of journalism, whose theme remains a hotly debated topic of discussion nearly thirty years later. Her 1986 New Yorker profile of twenty-seven-year-old Artforum editor Ingrid Sischy, “A Girl of the Zeitgeist,” stands as an illuminating portrait of this magazine’s early years.

Born in Prague in 1934, the daughter of psychiatrist Josef Wiener and his wife Hanna, Malcolm emigrated with her parents and sister to the United States in 1939. There, the family changed their name to Winn, out of fear of anti-Semitism, and did not for several years tell their children they were Jewish. Malcolm would later characterize her imaginative life as “deeply affected” by her parents’ dread. After graduating from the University of Michigan, where she wrote for student publications, Malcolm returned to New York with her first husband, Donald Malcolm. In 1963, she wrote her first piece the New Yorker, a poem titled “Thoughts on Living in a Shaker House.” Her relationship with the publication, for which she wrote profiles, reviews, and reporter-at-large articles, would last nearly sixty years. Malcolm, a devoted collagist whose work has been shown in several galleries in New York, borrowed that form for her writing, too, as in a profile of David Salle cobbled together from forty-one ledes to an article about the painter.

Malcolm wrote a number of books, some of which stemmed from her work for the New Yorker. Among these were 1980’s Diana and Nikon, a collection of essays on photography; 1981’s Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession, which profiled psychoanalyst Aaron Green; and 1984’s In the Freud Archives, about author Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson. Masson sued her for libel over the book, claiming that she had fabricated quotes, including those in which he called himself an “intellectual gigolo” and, after Freud, “the greatest analyst that had ever lived.” The case dragged on for a decade before Malcolm was cleared of wrongdoing.

The Journalist and the Reporter, which Malcolm published in 1990, was an examination of the relationship between convicted murderer Jeffrey MacDonald and author Joe McGinnis, who detailed MacDonald’s transgressions in the nonfiction thriller Fatal Vision (1983). Malcolm famously opened the book with the line, “Every journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.” The searing single-sentence indictment of her own profession sparked outrage among her colleagues but has since become accepted, with Gore Vidal citing source betrayal as “the iron law’ of journalism” and New Yorker colleague Susan Orlean acknowledging it as a “necessary evil.” The book is now considered a classic and is frequently taught in journalism classes.

Malcolm, who married New Yorker editor Gardner Botsford in 1978, three years after her first husband died, would go on to publish a raft of books, including 2001’s Reading Chekhov, 2007’s Two Lives: Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas in War and Peace, and the 2019 essay collection Nobody’s Looking at You. A smoker in her earlier years, Malcolm succumbed to lung cancer, her daughter Anne told the New York Times.

“We are each of us an endangered species,” Malcolm wrote in the New Yorker in 2018. “When we die, our species disappears with us. Nobody like us will ever exist again.”