Columbia Journalism School

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J-School celebrates life of Judith Crist ’45

August 07, 2012

The Columbia Journalism School community was saddened today to learn that Judith Crist ’45, a renowned film critic and long-time adjunct professor at the J-School, has died. In over fifty years teaching, in which she earned the distinction of teaching one course for longer than anyone in J-School history, she was a friend, mentor, and inspiration to many. She will be missed.
 
"Judith Crist taught here, with dedication and distinction, for more than fifty years," Dean Nicholas Lemann said. "Not just as a legendary teacher but also as a loyal and active alumna, as a great critic, and as a neighbor on the West Side of Manhattan, Judith was a constant, warm presence in the life of Columbia Journalism School. We will miss her terribly."
 
A passage from The New York Times’ obituary captures some of Judith’s pioneering accomplishments:
 
“Her commentary had many homes: The New York Herald Tribune, where she was the first woman to be made a full-time critic for a major American newspaper; New York magazine, where she was the founding film critic; and TV Guide, which most defined her to readers. Her reviews appeared there for 22 years at a time when the magazine blanketed the country, reaching a peak readership of more than 20 million.”
 
She also appeared regularly on television as the first regular film critic on NBC’s “Today” show. She was the author of three books and winner of a George Polk Award.
 
Judith Crist was recently included in 50 Great Stories, a collection of outstanding work by Columbia journalists compiled for the J-School’s centennial, for film reviews that included her personal favorite, the review of Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra in 1963. She sat down in May, shortly before her 90th birthday, to share some thoughts on her life and career in a video interview with Sree Sreenivasan and Melanie Huff.
 
All those touched by Judith Crist’s remarkable life are invited to share their reflections at the J-School’s centennial website.
 
Below, a profile of Professor Crist published by the school in 2007.
 
The "Mrs. Chips" of the Journalism School:  Judith K. Crist '45
by Irena Choi Stern

After enrolling at Columbia Journalism School in 1974, Stephen Silverman made sure he was accepted to Judith Crist's movie criticism course, which required a separate application.  After all, growing up in the little town of West Covina, Calif., Silverman used to watch Judith Crist on The Today Show before he rode his bicycle to school.

"Here was this woman speaking on television about a very sophisticated world," Silverman said.  "I respected her opinion, even though I was far too young to see the movies she was talking about."

Silverman '75, now the news editor for PEOPLE.com, remembers Crist as a "tough teacher and editor who didn't let a single word go by." 

She's been called "the Mrs. Chips of the Journalism School," a reference to the novel and film about a beloved teacher who influences generations of students.  This year, Crist begins her 50th year of teaching at the Journalism School and, to commemorate the occasion, a special alumni award was presented to her during Alumni Weekend in April.  The audience gave her a standing ovation. 

Since graduating from the Journalism School in 1945, Judith Crist has achieved a rare trifecta:  a successful career in newspaper, magazines and television as the arts and film critic for The New York Herald Tribune, New York Magazine, TV Guide, and The Today Show.  She is the author of three books on film: "The Private Eye, The Cowboy and the Very Naked Girl"; "Judith Crist's TV Guide to the Movies"; and "Take 22: Moviemakers on Moviemaking".  She has won a number of professional awards, including the George Polk Award and alumni awards from the Journalism School's and Columbia University's alumni associations.

She first began teaching at the Journalism School in the fall of 1958 when she was a "hot shot girl reporter" at the New York Herald Tribune and was invited by the school to patrol the newsroom, then located in the present-day Lecture Hall, and critique student assignments.  When she became editor of the arts at "the Trib", Crist was asked by the school if she could instruct small groups of students in arts coverage and reviewing.  Later, when she became a critic, the School suggested she teach critical writing.  It was then dean Fred Yu's idea that a seminar on Personal and Professional Style" would stretch students beyond RW1 writing assignments and provide "an opportunity to fail."  Several of today's best-known critics are her former students, including David Denby '66, film critic and staff writer at The New Yorker; Kenneth Turan '68, film critic for The Los Angeles Times and Morning Edition on NPR; Anna Kisselgoff '62, former chief dance critic for The New York Times; and Margo Jefferson '71, critic-at-large for The New York Times.

Denby recalls taking Crist's course during the spring semester and "my heart leapt up, as they say."

"She gave us a lot of brisk no-nonsense advice on how to organize a piece, how to write a lede, how much plot to give and how to contour an opinion so you made a definite impression," Denby said.  "She gave you a notion of how you could be a tough critic and keep your sense of humor and your balance, and function in the real world of professional journalism." 

Kisselgoff describes Crist as "a role model as a woman journalist at a time when very few were presented to us as such."  Crist taught Kisselgoff that "if you train yourself and you have basically a passion for what you're reviewing, you can do it."

Crist had always thought of herself as a writer, editing the literary monthly in both high school and in college.  A lifelong movie buff, Crist says she would have made Phi Beta Kappa at Hunter College had she not earned "D's" in Philosophy and Greek, preferring to cut those classes to watch movies. 

It was Crist's mother who suggested she apply to the Journalism School, and she did, but when her acceptance arrived, Crist had already secured a two-year teaching fellowship at the state college in Pullman, Wash.

"I thought it would do me good to live on the other side of the country," she said. So instead of enrolling in the class of '43, Crist took off to teach English in Washington State.  She had decided to forego the second year of the fellowship to enroll in the Journalism School's class of '44, until the head of the English department contacted her, saying that an air force base unit had been established at the university and they were desperate for English teachers.

"Well, I was 21, I came from an all girls school in New York City and, in the state of Washington, there were about 30 men for every woman and, my lord, serve my country, bombardiers, pilots and navigators?"  Crist said.  "So once again I said to the School of Journalism, I'm so sorry, but duty calls!"

Finally, the Journalism School put its foot down and demanded she enroll in the class of '45 or they would no longer hold a place for her. 

"The wonderful thing that year gave me was not only skills that enabled me to be active in every section of journalism, it prepared me so I could wind up writing for TV Guide as well as The Herald Tribune," she said.  "I've worked on morning newspapers, weeklies, monthlies.  I did radio, TV, all based on the skills that the school had given me." 

Two years after graduation, she married William Crist, a public-relations counselor to schools and colleges, and they had a son, Steven Crist, whom she describes as "a wonderful writer, better than I ever was."  Her husband died in 1993.

Turan says he wouldn't have become a film critic but for Judith Crist.

"She was a major influence, hard but fair," he said.  "I now teach at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School the exact same kind of course that I took with her at Columbia.  I partly teach it because there's a Jewish concept of 'the golden chain,' where you pass things on from one generation to the next, and I kind of like the notion of hopefully influencing aspiring critics the way she influenced me."

"Tough and fair" are adjectives that comes up time and again when students describe Judith Crist, who continues to teach two sections of "Personal and Professional Style" each semester, even holding class in her apartment overlooking the Hudson River while she recovered from health setbacks, including a heart attack in 2002 and Hepatitis C in 2005.  She turned 85 on May 22.

For some, however, Crist was just tough.

Silverman laughs and notes the late Billy Wilder said it best.

"Billy Wilder said, 'She's so tough, getting a movie review from Judith Crist is like getting a neck massage from the Boston Strangler.'"
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