Good luck is
Having a husband understand
When your books outsell his
Although he taught you all he knew
When you thought you knew nothing
And who cooks breakfast for the kids
After all these years.
Good luck is
Having a wife who makes enough
To help feed three kids
Two adults and a cat so that you
Can go off to places like Egypt
And write esoteric books that don’t sell
Is Hard Work.
—with apologies to Judith Viorst
If hearthside poet Judith Viorst had scribbled a few lines to describe her 20-year marriage to author husband Milton, they might be more felicitous but would be no less candid and wise. The truth seems to move the merchandise, too. Judith’s seven books for children and seven slim volumes of adult verse and prose on the angst and joy of contemporary marriage have sold more than a million copies. Her latest, Love & Guilt & the Meaning of Life, Etc., hit the New York Times bestseller list last year.
Milton, 50, writes sobersided, respected but less popular books (and magazine pieces) on politics and history. His latest, a 591-page tome on the ’60s called Fire in the Streets, was just published. Up to now, he admits, “I’ve had small successes, nice reviews and made 75 cents, enough for a hamburger.” Fire in the Streets, a Book-of-the-Month Club alternate with admiring reviews, is off to a more promising start.
Two writers in the same house, under the best of conditions, may be one too many. “Competition is something each of us has had to deal with,” Milton says. “There were times when my wife had a best-seller and I’d be happy and exceedingly jealous all at once.” Adds Judith, who is in her late 40s: “We’d probably murder each other if we were in the same field, but fortunately, we’ve worked totally different sides of the street.”
They met while both were undergraduates at Rutgers. (“He was dramatically uninterested in me,” recalls Judith. “He thought I was overweight and not very bright.”) Eight years after graduation, when he was working for the Washington Post and she was a children’s book editor, “He called me at one in the morning,” recalls Judith, who was then living in New York City. “We prowled around Greenwich Village all night talking and got married two months later.”
Born in Maplewood, N.J., the daughter of an accountant and a mother “who was a reader and a bridge player,” Judith Stahl started writing poetry at age 7. “I was always sending things in to magazines—nicely printed,” she says, “and always getting them back.”
After they were married twice—by a minister friend in a civil ceremony in Washington and by a rabbi in New Jersey—Judith got a job as a stringer with the now defunct New York Herald Tribune reporting on parties in the nation’s capital. “I could never recognize anyone famous,” she confesses. “Milton had to go everywhere with me. I remember the first story I covered. I had to cover something at 2 p.m. and have it written by 6:30. I said to Milton, ‘What if I can’t do it?’ He said, ‘There’s no such thing.’ ” (She now recalls: “There was a time in my life when I was incapable of sending anything out until Milton said it was ready.”)
Judith began contributing poetry to the newspaper’s Sunday magazine and in 1968 published a thin volume that was instantly popular. Its title: It’s Hard to Be Hip Over Thirty and Other Tragedies of Married Life. (Says Judith: “I’m so stunned that I’ve become successful, I can’t even say the word—it embarrasses me every time.”)
Milton was born in Paterson, N.J., the son of working-class parents. A bright student who planned to be a historian, he won a Fulbright to France after Rutgers, then served two years in the Air Force before earning his M.A. in history at Harvard. En route to his doctorate he grew weary of the academic grind and dropped out to take a job as a night reporter on the Bergen Record, near his hometown. “The year in France was the turning point in my life,” he says. “It took me out of the parochial environment of Paterson and exposed me to the fact that there were other things going on in the world.” In 1957 Milton moved to the Washington Post, where he covered night police, then worked for the New York Post as its Washington correspondent before striking out on his own in 1964.
The Viorsts live in a three-story, 100-year-old Victorian house in fashionable northwest Washington with their youngest sons, Nicholas, 16, and Alexander, 12 (Tony, 18, is a freshman at Haverford College). “The kids’ role in this should not be dismissed,” says Judith. “The delight of just hanging around the kitchen while one kid is making a chicken sandwich and the other is tossing a napkin into the trash and missing. We’re two people who know that is good, that it is better than most things going on in the universe.” Though much of Judith’s work is autobiographical (including one memorable magazine piece called “Sometimes I Hate My Husband”), Milton finds “it hasn’t been a real problem. Maybe twice in 10 years, but then I was feeling grouchy and using it as a pretext to get mad.”
Husband and wife toil in separate second-floor offices and meet occasionally during working hours in the kitchen. Says Milton: “There’s very little time-to-waste factor in our lives. That makes for a productive life and leaves us lots of time for pleasure without feeling guilty about it.” One joy is simply talking. Says Milton: “We once read that the average married couple speaks to each other 15 minutes a week. We figure it’s about 47 hours. There’s something we’re sharing or communicating all the time. We never find each other boring.” Difficult sometimes, yes. “We are very bossy, very opinionated people,” says Judith. “Nobody in this house ever says, ‘Whatever you want, darling.’ ” She admits welcoming the three months a year her husband spends on the road doing research. “It’s a good antidote to the very intense life we live together when we’re both home.”
Just back from Egypt, Milton has set to work on a new book about the Middle East. Judith writes a monthly column for Redbook and is putting together a collection of verse for children. Both her prose and poetry seem increasingly concerned about growing old, a preoccupation that her light, breezy style has never obscured:
At 3 in the morning I look toward
the future with blankets pulled over
And all of my basic equipment
My gums are receding, my blood
pressure’s high, and I can’t begin
listing my fears
Or I’ll never get finished.
“You have to confront aging with a certain amount of reality,” says Judith, “and you need to do it with dignity and grace, coming to terms with what we can and can’t be.” And what of the receding gums, autobiographical or not? “That’s the most autobiographical thing I ever wrote,” she laughs. Adds Milton: “If you don’t believe it, check our dental bills.”