PEOPLE's own Alison Schwartz — who died of complications from the coronavirus — was a bright light with a beautiful smile

By Zoe Ruderman
Updated May 01, 2020 05:25 PM
Advertisement
Alison Schwartz
Alison Schwartz/Instagram

Ali Schwartz would have had the perfect way to begin this article. She’d have known just what to say to grab the reader’s attention, writing a paragraph that managed to be poignant, clever and somehow also funny all at the same time. In normal times, if I were writing something important for PEOPLE.com and felt stuck on what to say, I would call her or Slack her and say, hey, got a second? She’d come to my office within a few minutes, her leather-bound Smythson of Bond Street notebook and pen in hand, a willing smile on her face, and she’d help to come up with just the right lead for this article.

But these are not normal times. Even if I were able to be in the office, waiting for her to round the bend beaming, she’s no longer here to offer her brilliance. Ali passed away the evening of Tuesday, April 28, after she fought hard for over three weeks against COVID-19. She was a few weeks shy of her 30th birthday. And so, sadly, she can’t impart her humor, her wit or her astounding creativity to us and millions of PEOPLE readers anymore.

I’m not embarrassed to admit I leaned on Ali whenever I needed a brilliant idea or a creative solution to a problem that seemed unsolvable. She may have been younger than me and reported into me, but she was better than me, plain and simple. She was better than all of us on the PEOPLE staff, and believe me, it’s a staff of the quickest, smartest, most creative people in the industry. Ali was the first person I went to when I needed someone to take on a project, which is how she came to run Snapchat for this brand. She began here as an intern, and just a few years later, she was holding a director title, managing a team and presenting to the C-suite.

Colleen Kratofil, Alison Schwartz and Sarah Kinonen
Alison Schwartz/Instagram

Earlier this year, as I discussed a major new partnership that would need someone sharp to run it, our VP of Public Relations and I looked at one another and said, practically in unison, “Ali?” When I wondered aloud who would be best equipped to take over my duties when I went on maternity leave in June, our Style Director offered up the only logical response: “Ali?” And my own manager and I often joked that every project, every partnership, every new platform would be taken care of … if only we could clone Ali. So, you see, I’m not the only person who felt this way about her.

And let me be clear, she wasn’t just good at her job. She was also an absolute joy to be around. As our coworker Gillian Telling wrote, “She was the kind of person you actually wanted to be in an elevator with: the type, instead of hiding behind her earbuds, would take them out, talk s--- about life and work and actually ask about your kids and you’d laugh. She was just fabulous."

Alison Schwartz, Taylor Swift and Rosa Heyman
Katie Kauss

In the days before Ali passed away, her wonderful parents Robin and Richard and her brother Adam set up a Zoom with Ali with the help of the heroic staff caring for her at Yale New Haven Hospital. We spoke to Ali — we all know she could hear us — and family and friends shared stories. I learned a lot about Ali on those Zooms. But most of all I learned that she touched and improved the lives of everyone she came in contact with.

That theme became even more obvious when I emailed the staff to let them know the heartbreaking news that we’d lost our dear friend and coworker. I received over a hundred responses from colleagues saying they adored Ali and couldn’t imagine PEOPLE without her. And in the past few days I’ve heard and read countless tributes from current and former coworkers who have reached out or posted to Facebook and Twitter and Instagram with a common sentiment: Ali was special. One of a kind. A once-in-a-lifetime friend, coworker, cubemate, boss. A bright light with a beautiful smile. (Seriously, can anyone who worked with her ever remember a time when she wasn’t smiling huge? Okay, fine, she occasionally smirked, raised one of her perfect eyebrows and said something so spot-on and snarky that you’d dissolve into laughter and wonder how someone’s brain could possibly work that fast.) She had a big heart to match. She wasn’t just smart and creative, but also unbelievably kind and selfless. We didn’t deserve her. And yet she made each of us feel like we were her office best friend.

Andrea Lavinthal, Zoë Ruderman, Brittany Talarico, Regan Stephens, Whitney Little, Kristin Boehm, Alex Apatoff and Ali Schwartz
Courtesy Brittany Talarico

These are some of the things her PEOPLE family has written that show just a sliver of the impact she had on her coworkers:

“Outside of work, she was the truest of friends. The first to arrive and last to leave at your after-work birthday drinks. The most excited about your big life news (or boring life updates). When I moved to Chicago, she sent me cupcakes from my favorite N.Y.C. bakery on my first birthday away because she knew I missed them. When my kids were born, she surprised them with the cutest personalized gifts (turns out my son is the future Sexiest Man Alive, according to the bib Ali commissioned). She scooped up goodies from the annual beauty sale and dropped them in the mail for me. She was the definition of a warm person.” —Kate Hogan

Kate Hogan with son Henry, Lydia Price, Julia Emmanuele, Grace Gavilanes and Ali Schwartz
Ben Trivett

“Back in July 2015, we had gone out to New Jersey to work a Taylor Swift show — she was always Ali’s celebrity of choice. Unbeknownst to her, our friend Katie had snagged a few meet and greet passes and we decided to surprise Ali shortly before we were due in the dressing room. Yelling that we ‘hadn’t given her enough time to prepare,’ Ali frantically swiped on lipstick on the elevator ride, laughing all the way down. Taylor adored her, of course. Everyone did.” —Sarah Michaud

Sarah Michaud, Rosa Heyman, Alison Schwartz and Katie Kauss
Katie Kauss

“I cried on the way home from my interview at PEOPLE because I leaned in to hug the woman who’d interviewed me. (Literally who does that? So unprofessional. I was sure I blew it.) That woman would go on to become a mentor and my manager, Ali. She had a way of making you feel like you mattered. Going through old messages, she never missed the chance to call us ‘heroic’ for pitching yet another story about beauty YouTubers or horoscopes. I’ve always looked up to her. And now, remembering just how special of a person she was, I get why I leaned in to hug her. I wish I could do it again.” —Carly Breit

Alison Schwartz
Ali Schwartz/Instagram

“There was one Oscars night that happened to coincide with a snowstorm. Ali let me share her twin bed with her so that I wouldn't have to commute back to New Jersey for the three or so hours we had in between the night shift and the morning shift. [And] for April Fool’s Day one year, Ali convinced [former coworker] Whitney Little that she had scored an exclusive interview and maybe also a concert with Gavin DeGraw courtesy of the ‘Live Laugh Love Foundation.’ She doctored a press release and everything.” —Kiran Hefa, former PEOPLE staffer

Ali Schwartz, Kiran Hefa, Whitney Little and Kate Hogan
Courtesy Kate Hogan

“If you've ever laughed at anything on People.com, chances are high Ali wrote it. She was a one-of-a-kind PEOPLE person, with an encyclopedic knowledge of everything pop culture and an incredibly unique prism through which to view it, but she was also just a spectacular human, a generous friend and a bright light to everyone, even strangers. Somehow she was always the last person at work (especially on awards show nights) and at your party; she balanced a wickedly sharp wit with genuine kindness and caring; she was the best writer in the room but always willing to pitch in on the smallest tasks. Anyone who knew her would agree: She was the best.” —Alex Apatoff

Alex Apatoff, Whitney Little, Michael Calcagno, Brittany Talarico, Sarah Michaud, Lauren Lieberman, Colleen Kratofil, Kelli Bender, Kristin Boehm, Alison Schwartz
Ben Trivett/Brittany Talarico/Instagram

“I keep telling people that unless you knew Ali, it’s tough to explain what made her so beloved by everyone. She was a light. She had a big heart. She was thoughtful. She was generous. You just felt happier in her presence. Mainly because she was hilariously funny, with a sharp wit and great sense of humor. She made me laugh harder than anyone else, whether she was sharing her weird encounter with Grumpy Cat, boasting about her Pinterest-fail baking or accidentally insulting the Rapid Ramen Cooker rep by telling him his product was pointless.” —Mark Marino, former PEOPLE staffer

Whitney Little and Ali Schwartz
Courtesy Whitney Little

“Ali, before we knew each other, I would see you staying late night after night after night in the office and I thought, that girl, how does she do it? And how can I be her friend? We thankfully did become friends, and ever since, you became my confidante, my person to go to for anything — especially a laugh. You brought me into your world when I was new and didn't have any other friends in NYC and I'm forever grateful for you. You invited me into your life and made me feel like the luckiest person on the planet. You were there no matter what, no matter when, to give the greatest advice, the most hilarious commentary or to hand me one of your special holiday-themed cocktails. In a way you may not have even realized, you gave me true, true friendship.” —Colleen Kratofil

Alison Schwartz and Colleen Kratofil
Colleen Kratofil/Instagram

“The sharpest, funniest, sweetest person I have ever worked with and was lucky enough to call a friend…Ali made me a better writer, thinker, and person. There was no funner person to get drinks with (or watch Mariah Carey with at a Pier One, true story). There was no smarter person to share ideas with. There was no kinder person to sob to. Ali did more in 29 years than most people could do in 100.” —Maria Yagoda, former PEOPLE staffer

Whitney Little, Alison Schwartz, Alex Apatoff, Regan Stephens, Brittany Talarico and Rosa Heyman
Courtesy Whitney Little

“She was one of my first new friends when I started at PEOPLE. Ali wrote funnier, faster and better than everyone and because of it, she was always busy because everyone gave her stories to write. But she never seemed stressed, always made time to help me when I was new and confused. She was infectiously happy so pretty much every day I would find time to stop by her desk for my daily dose of Ali.” —Laura Lane, former PEOPLE staffer

Alison Schwartz
Alison Schwartz/Instagram

“The first time I went into the offices in New York, I had already been working remotely for the company for years. I knew all these people so well, but meeting them face to face was daunting. Walking into the newsroom was overwhelming to say the least. I started saying awkward hellos to people and making the rounds. And then suddenly a ball of energy came bounding across the office with the biggest smile on her face. She hadn't even reached me yet before she blurted out, ‘Oh my gosh, hi, hi, hi, I need to hug you right now!’ Before I could even answer or react, she had me wrapped up in her arms.” —Anya Leon

Ali would also have the perfect way to end this article, a kicker that made you glad you read until the end. But since I can’t sit with her to workshop this and I can’t lean on her brilliant mind anymore, I’ll keep it simple: Ali was just the best. I will miss her and her smile terribly.

A scholarship in Alison’s name at her high school, The Dreyfoos School of the Arts, has been set up by her parents Robin and Richard Schwartz and her brother Dr. Adam Schwartz. To donate, click here and select Alison Schwartz Memorial Scholarship.