The Girl I Knew

My friend Elizabeth Wurtzel was everything we weren’t supposed to be.

Photo: Neville Elder/Corbis via Getty Images
Photo: Neville Elder/Corbis via Getty Images
Photo: Neville Elder/Corbis via Getty Images

She was very sexy.

Which is very important to know.

Because it’s part of the whole story of who she was, I think, and why she upset people so.

I remember the first time I saw her. It was at one of those bars where we all hung out; by “we” I mean reporters and writers and editors who worked at magazines whose offices were in New York. It was a pretty small world back then, in 1995. If you made a splash, the wave was bigger and lasted longer, and everyone knew who you were.

And there she was, this infamous girl (people still said “girl” back then, which they really shouldn’t have). This girl in white pants and a white tank top and a white cashmere scarf tossed around her shoulders. This beautiful girl. This sexy girl. This sexy girl with mesmerizing, giant eyes.

And all the men in the room seemed very upset.

And so did some of the women.

Even as they positioned themselves to be able to talk to her, or get her to notice them.

I didn’t know if I should be upset or not.

We were certainly being told that Elizabeth Wurtzel was someone very upsetting. She was everything a girl was not supposed to be: She was ambitious, she was selfish, she was self-absorbed — and have you heard, she has slept with men? “Sylvia Plath with the ego of Madonna,” said the New York Times. Which Elizabeth told everyone she took as a compliment. The arrogance!

I decided I was going to decide for myself about Elizabeth Wurtzel. So I went and got a copy of Prozac Nation. I read it in one night, thinking, ah-ha, okay, I get it. They hate her because this book is great. And — how dare she? — she’s hot.

That book made me want to know Elizabeth, but I wouldn’t have that privilege (aside from a few words exchanged here and there over the years, at parties, where she was always holding court) until 2005, when a mutual friend brought her to dinner at Esperanto, a Latin fusion restaurant in the East Village, where we both lived. The weather was warm, and we sat outside. She came with her then companion, Augusta, a black rescue dog she took everywhere. And I came with my then-5-year-old daughter, Zazie, who I took everywhere.

“I like Elizabeth,” I remember Zazie said when we were walking home. “She treats me like a person.”

I thought about the little girl that Elizabeth was, this week, while sitting at her funeral service, which was held on the Upper West Side, where she grew up. She had been battling breast cancer for a few years, but it still seemed impossible that someone of her vibrance had died, at 52. The rabbi talked about how, as a little girl, Elizabeth had excelled in Jewish studies as a student at the Ramaz School. She had won a “berakhah bee,” like a spelling bee for Jewish blessings. I thought about that brilliant little girl, and how her grown-up-self had instantly connected with my little girl — who was sitting beside me now, mourning her death — and what a blessing this had been for both me and Zazie.

After their first meeting, we all became sometime dinner companions — I, Zazie, Elizabeth, and Augusta, who eventually died, only to be replaced by the similar-looking but more formidable Alistair, another rescue dog. Whenever we made dinner plans, Elizabeth would ask, “And is Zazie coming?”

She had no children of her own, which was a shame, because she said she’d wanted some, and she was very good with kids. She treated Zazie, not just like a person, but like a person who could understand her own lightning-quick mind, which the rabbi at her funeral described as “Talmudic.” It was.

A dinner conversation with Elizabeth could cover a dizzying range of subjects; she seemed to remember everything that was in the thousands of books that lined the shelves of her apartment. Once, I remember, we had just returned from a trip to Italy, and we were telling her about how a day of looking at the art in Florence had made us feel overwhelmed and woozy. “Oh,” said Elizabeth offhandedly, “you had Stendhal syndrome” — an obscure nervous condition allegedly brought about by exposure to great beauty. She knew a lot of interesting things like that, and she was always making references and connections between them.

So this sexy girl was also, like, kind of a genius?

Well, yeah.

Which doesn’t play very well with a lot of heterosexual men, I am sorry to report, if you weren’t already aware. In her book Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women — which I love for its outrageousness, starting with the cover, which shows her giving the finger to the world — Elizabeth was no doubt talking about herself when she wrote:

I think, quite frankly, that the world simply does not care for the complicated girls, the ones who seem too dark, too deep, too vibrant, too opinionated, the ones who are so intriguing that new men fall in love with them every day, at every meal where there’s a waiter, in every taxi and on every train they board, in any instance where someone can get to know them just a little bit, just enough to get completely gone. But most men in the end don’t have the stomach for that much person.

Neither of us had had an easy time, when it came to our relationships with men, which Elizabeth was quick to admit had something to do with not being an easy woman. “Really truly,” she wrote in Bitch, “we would much prefer that, in our dealings with [women], they behave, they play by the rules: We want good girls, really we do.”

She knew she was not a “good girl,” would never be a good girl — had no desire to be a good girl — and so, I think, she had all but resigned herself to being alone. And she didn’t like it one bit.

I told her I didn’t mind it, actually.

“You have Zazie,” she told me, crankily. “It’s different.”

But then, she met Jim Freed, a writer whom she married in 2015. “Elizabeth Wurtzel Finds Someone to Love Her,” said the New York Times, which I thought, in all the years of snarky things written about Elizabeth, was one of the snarkiest. But Elizabeth never much cared about what people wrote about her — despite the depression and other demons she battled, she knew her worth; and anyway, she was too happy now to care. She and Jim settled into a cozy domestic life together, they traveled together. She made Instagram posts cataloguing their marital bliss.

A few months after her wedding took place, Elizabeth wrote about having cancer. Knowing she had been diagnosed before she and Jim were married gave me heart that their love was strong, and I was glad he would be there with her throughout this ordeal.

But then, things fell apart.

“My husband moved out at the end of December [2018],” Elizabeth wrote in her posthumous piece, “I Believe in Love.” “I knew he was moving out, but still: I was surprised. I did not see that the game was over. I did not know the clock was running. I never lose, but I do run out of time.”

Hearing about his exit, which Elizabeth posted about on Facebook in June of 2019, I immediately got in touch with her. Knowing her as I did, I felt that this was probably harder for her than the cancer itself. (“I am not afraid of cancer,” she had emailed me. “Cancer should probably be afraid of me.”) She had always wanted love — who doesn’t?

One warm night in July, Zazie and I called on Elizabeth at her apartment on East 10th Street. We sat on her terrace, ate hummus, drank wine, and talked about love. I told her I was worried about love’s future, in an age when technology was making everyone seem disposable. But Elizabeth said that she believed love was the strongest force on earth, and would always win out.

My daughter was sitting across the table from me. Alistair, ever watchful, was by Elizabeth’s side. I took her hand and told her, “I love you.” We held hands for a moment, two old broads who had been through a lot, and had made it this far.

The Girl I Knew