A visitor to the Greenwich Village town house of author Calvin Trillin will find just one picture of his late wife, Alice, on the main floor. It's a small, framed photo of Alice and Calvin carrying bags and walking on a dirt road, backs to the camera, their bodies close together as if returning from a long journey.
For Calvin Trillin's many readers, especially those who have followed his adventures of food and family, Alice Trillin seems as familiar, and as one dimensional, as a still image, a "sit-com" character, he acknowledges. Just as Calvin Trillin keeps most of her pictures on the upper floor, much of her life was carefully omitted from his work, where she was presented as the sensible spouse with the "weird predilection for limiting our family to three meals a day."
That character, of course, was very much a real person. She was an editor, educator and author. She was a nonconformist who didn't mind zinging a sitting governor, a nonsmoker who survived lung cancer, became a crusader for cancer victims and then died at age 63 of heart failure, in the early morning of Sept. 12, 2001, of all the times to go.
"There was a nightmarish quality to it," Calvin Trillin says in an even voice during a recent interview at his home, remembering how his children couldn't get into Manhattan because of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"I've never been down there (to ground zero). I don't read about it too much."
Seated in a high-backed wooden chair, overlooking a courtyard of brick and ivy on a cool, sunny morning, Trillin explains that he had no plans for a memoir until New Yorker editor David Remnick suggested "tentatively," the author says, that he "didn't want to interfere, but I might think about writing about Alice."
An essay appeared in The New Yorker last March, and he has expanded it into a short book, "About Alice," which he found "emotionally hard" to work on, but not technically difficult, if only because he knew the story so well _ or thought he did. What for Trillin was an attempt to add at least a second dimension to his wife, became, unknowingly, the portrait of a happy marriage.
"Judging from the letters I got on The New Yorker piece, I'm not sure whether I understood what the piece was about," he says. "I wrote it because I didn't know what else to write and people saw a lot of different things in it, particularly younger women wrote me that it was about marriage.
"I did think we were pretty lucky, but I didn't set out to write about a happy marriage. I just set out to sort of write who Alice actually was, as opposed to this sort of caricature in my other writing."
The story of "Bud" (as friends call him) and Alice is one of the amiable Midwesterner, an immigrant's son whose father advised "You might as well be a mensch," and the spirited Easterner, an inventor's daughter who never wore perfume and missed out on the high school cheerleading squad because she was considered too intelligent.
They met "cute," you might say, or certainly "smart," at a party thrown by a political magazine called Monocle, run in part by Victor Navasky, now publisher of The Nation. It was 1963. She was an English professor at Hofstra University, he a Time magazine writer who had recently started at The New Yorker.
"I don't remember thinking that they were a perfect match at the time, if only because they were so different," says Navasky's wife, Anne, a longtime friend. "She was a much more matter of fact person than he was. And her boyfriend before Bud had been a Wall Street guy who was totally different from Bud."
For Calvin Trillin, at least, it was love at first sight, understandable when you see the book's back cover, showing the fashionable, grinning Alice in checked skirt, matching coat and light turtleneck sweater, blond and fresh-faced like a young movie star. She "seemed to glow," Trillin writes, and she was a thinking man's woman, a dream for "guys smoking pipes."
The 71-year-old Trillin is, of course, a thinking man, author of more than a dozen books, ranging from the humorous "Alice, Let's Eat"; to the emotional "Remembering Denny," about the suicide of a former Yale University classmate; to the historical "An Education in Georgia," Trillin's first-hand account of the first two black students to attend the University of Georgia.
At least today, Trillin does not smoke, or quote Shakespeare or even brag about The New Yorker. A bald, stocky man with dark eyebrows and sharp eyes, he'd look pretty good with a pipe or a cigar, and it's nice to imagine him pausing to puff as he tells of his days as a student reporter, walking through downtown Kansas City with Harry Truman, "no entourage, no secret service," as he escorted the former president to a doctor's appointment.
Bud Trillin, friends agree, is easy to be around, "drop-dead droll," as Tom Brokaw describes him, yet meaning no harm even as he ridicules the Bush administration in his weekly poems for The Nation. Alice Trillin was apparently a harder sell. "She set a very high standard," Brokaw, the former NBC anchor, says with a laugh. "You had to earn your way into her company."
One story in Trillin's new book tells of Alice attending a Yale Westchester Alumni Association dinner at which New York governor George Pataki gave an emotional talk about his brother getting into Yale and his father, a postal office worker, pleading with the school to grant a scholarship.
"That was one of the best speeches I've ever heard," Alice later told Pataki. "Why in the world are you a Republican?"
Bud and Alice married in 1965, moved to the Greenwich Village house four years later and raised two children, Abigail and Sarah. They were warm, smart, successful. Alice was spouse, mother, editor, inspiration, for whom all his books were written. They had it made. Calvin Trillin recalls Alice often shrugging off a repairman's inflated bill. "He doesn't have a very nice life," she would say. "And we're so lucky."
She never lost her sense of fortune, or humor, even when granted every reason. Although a nonsmoker, she was diagnosed with lung cancer in the 1976, the victim, it seems, of second-hand smoke from her parents. Radiation spared her life, but damaged her heart. Anne Navasky believes one reason Calvin Trillin included Alice so much in his work was because it seemed a way of keeping her alive.
After her initial treatment, Alice likened herself to a knight slaying a dragon that wouldn't die. In 2001, the monster roared. She had bypass surgery that spring, a procedure gravely complicated by the radiation from years before. She was in and out of the hospital for weeks, checking out just hours before her daughter Abigail's wedding, where she walked down the aisle and gave a speech at the reception.
"It's hard for me to even talk about it," Brokaw says, remembering her toast. "I kept one eye on Alice and the other eye on Bud. The unconditional love of that moment, it will stay with me forever. Frail, beautiful Alice, up there, raising a glass, thrilled to be with her daughter, her friends gathered. Then Bud looking on with such love, such concern."
Alice Trillin was never as famous as her husband, but she did have a public life well beyond his books. She wrote an article on her illness for The New Yorker and an influential piece for The New England Journal of Medicine, "Of Dragons and Garden Peas: A Cancer Patient Talks to Doctors." When the Navasky's 12-year-old son, Bruno, was diagnosed with cancer, Alice sent a letter of encouragement later turned into a book, "Dear Bruno."
"The radiologists were very nice, but they always wanted to talk to me about real estate," she confided to young Bruno. "I don't suppose your radiologist talks to you about real estate. That's one of the advantages of being 12."
Calvin Trillin is close with Joan Didion and relates to "The Year of Magical Thinking," her award-winning memoir about the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, and the bewildering, disabling grief that followed. Like Didion, Trillin said he had a hard time even acknowledging that Alice was gone, reluctant, for example, to get rid of her shoes.
Didion says he hasn't changed much in the past few years _ friends note that he has always kept darker thoughts to himself _ but that when her husband died, Trillin was one of the few people who understood how she felt, able to laugh with her at the remarks others would make. She remembers him coming over to console, not with advice, but with food.
"He had come up from Chinatown and he brought me some Chinese rice soup, congee," she explains. "I said, `I don't think I can eat.' And he said, `Yes, that's one of the things that happens. But you need food.' And that was the thing about him. We didn't have to talk about how we felt. He just knew what to do."