Calvin Trillin Loves His Wife

011507 article ratner Calvin Trillin Loves His WifeOn a recent un-wintry Wednesday, two days after his latest book arrived on shelves, Calvin Trillin, the 71-year-old writer, humorist and food-lorist, sat in his West Village townhouse looking perplexed. Three S-shaped lines were etched across his forehead, and whenever he spoke, they squiggled up and down like waves.

“I wasn’t exactly aware that I was writing about marriage,” he said in his rumbly alto. “I just thought of myself as writing about Alice. And that’s why some of those letters I got surprised me.”

Mr. Trillin was perched on the edge of a white armchair, talking about the unexpected phenomenon of “Alice, Off the Page,” the love ballad he wrote to his late wife—Alice—in The New Yorker last spring. Published nearly five years after her death, the essay seemed to trip some kind of secret wire in urban romantics’ hearts. For weeks following its publication, women (and, yes, men too) passed their tear-stained copies on to friends, blasted e-mail alerts to pals, even recommended it to strangers on the subway. Quite a few took to writing Mr. Trillin letters—mostly “about what they were looking forward to in a marriage,” he said.

Now, nine months later, Mr. Trillin has turned the essay into a book, a 78-page heartbreaker called About Alice, and the tears have begun to flow again: tears on the street, tears in the office, tears for an “epic romance” (as one woman called it) between two people whom most of its readers have never met.

All of which baffles its author, who insisted he had no desire to be a mascot for marriage, let alone for male enlightenment.

“Somewhere I read something like, ‘He’s in touch with his feminine side.’ And I said, ‘Jesus Christ! I hope no one I went to high school with is reading that,’” Mr. Trillin said in mock disgust. “I am not in touch with my feminine side!”

But try telling that to the women who fell in love with Mr. Trillin for his love of Alice, who have nursed serious Calvin crushes ever since they first discovered his foodie adventure book, Alice, Let’s Eat.

“Whatever my admiration for his whole body of work, the core of why I love Trillin has been the way he wrote about Alice,” wrote Salon’s Rebecca Traister in an emotional ode to both halves of the couple. “I grew up loving Alice because her husband loved her so eloquently.”

LIKE MOST ALICE ADMIRERS, Ms. Traister never met her heroine. But she knew her, or felt she knew her, because of the years she had spent reading Mr. Trillin’s wild Americana adventures in The New Yorker, and the books he seemed to exhale by the year. In story after story, Alice popped up as the sensible but indulgent straight woman, the foil against which his antics loomed large and hilarious. She was the prudent gourmet to his lovable glutton, the wise spouse to his excitable husband—and, of course, the muse.

She was also a force in her own right, a dedicated educator and vigorous writer, and as she and her husband aged, they became a lovable New York institution. When she died of heart failure—on Sept. 11, 2001, of all days—her admirers found time amid the general heartbreak and wreckage to send her husband condolence notes.

For all this, it took more than four years, and a “cautious” question from New Yorker editor David Remnick, for Mr. Trillin to think about “verbalizing” his own thoughts about her death. When he finally did, he was inspired as much by a desire to pay tribute as an urge to correct the historical record, refine the broad-strokes character he had created in his writings.

“I felt that I had written about her, as I say in the book, as a sort of sitcom character—I mean, an admirable sitcom character, but still a sitcom character, and she was an actual person,” he said. “That’s why I was doing the piece.”

Alice herself had been ambivalent about playing the sitcom mom. On at least one occasion, she likened her portrayal to that of the “dietician in sensible shoes,” and since she was neither a dietician nor a fan of the beige orthotic pump (she was, instead, a serious teacher with a flare for elegant heels), this wasn’t exactly an endorsement of the image.

And so Mr. Trillin finally set about busting her out of her dietician’s duds. He recounted the way she “seemed to glow” the night he met her,” and how, from that moment on, he’d made it his life’s mission to impress her. He extolled her “incorrigible” optimism, praised her dedication to her daughters, and generally cataloged the wisdom of her character as if she were the philosopher queen of some great undiscovered nation.

In the process, he created a portrait of Alice—and, even more than that, of husbandly devotion—that was as liable to set readers’ hearts aflutter as Joan Didion’s sinew-by-sinew autopsy of grief, The Year of Magical Thinking, was to give them angina.

And readers—particularly those of the female persuasion—responded.

“My apologies for the slow start this morning. I was busy crying in the bathtub while reading Calvin Trillin’s About Alice,” wrote Jessa Crispin, the editor of Bookslut.com, on Jan. 4, in a typical blog post.

No doubt, Mr. Trillin’s way with the written word had something to do with the storm of emotion. But, as the therapists say, there’s also something else going on here. The dearth of decent men who can emote, let alone write a sentence about it, might well have something to do with it. Or perhaps nostalgia—a longing for a certain tradition of marriage, to say nothing of a New York where a writer-teacher couple could afford a Grove Street townhouse without having to sell off a kid. Or perhaps a large number of ladies simply want to be adored.

Katy McColl, the lifestyle editor at Jane magazine, is what one might call the Patient Zero of the Calvin crush phenomenon. She has been a Trillin-phile for years, and in 2001, shortly after Alice’s death, she wrote a condolence letter in which she admitted to looking at her boyfriend sometimes and wondering, “But will he love me like Calvin loves Alice?” (Yep, she was that girl, or so she believes.) Mr. Trillin quoted the letter in his New Yorker essay, and then in About Alice, and the comment quickly went viral, became a mantra that women would quote, Krishna-style, as the reason for their Trillin obsession.

(Interestingly, no one has posed the reverse question: Will I love him like Calvin loved Alice?)

Ms. McColl was momentarily flummoxed when she spoke to The Observer about her famous question. “Oh, gosh—how do I explain this?” she said. “My boyfriend at the time, he wanted to know why I was writing a condolence note to Calvin Trillin, because he was like, ‘You don’t even know him.’ And, I don’t know—my parents are divorced, and I think we sort of seek out couples that have the relationship that you aspire to.”

Needless to say, Ms. McColl’s relationship with that particular beau was not for the ages. But she kept up the search, and, not long after, she found a man whose rightness was confirmed not just by his habit of making her coffee in bed every morning, but also by “a sign”: Ms. McColl’s sighting of Mr. Trillin on the subway the morning after the second date.

“I told my parents I met the man I was going to marry,” she said of her reaction to the sighting—and the date. And, in fact, three and a half years later, she did marry him: “He’s very much my Calvin Trillin.”

“I’m not sure I would have known how high I could shoot for,” she added, “if I hadn’t read all the things Calvin had written about his wife.”

But the Trillin obsession isn’t just about marrying right. While some women dream of finding their own earthly Calvin, others just want him as their dad—and Alice as their mom.

For a generation raised on divorce, the Trillins—who married in 1965, just before the marriage-hopping baby boomers came of age—represent a kind of prelapsarian parental ideal. Their set-up was traditional enough to be recognizable to a kid of the 70’s or 80’s: Alice, for all her wit and strength, was very much the wife and mother, and Mr. Trillin was the charming, goofy dad. But they were also glamorous enough to be exciting—the wedding photograph on the back cover of About Alice could easily be mistaken for a sepia still from some Jacques Demy movie, with Alice playing stand-in for Catherine Deneuve. And they actually liked each other.

“They seemed like they got along so well and lived together so well,” Ms. Crispin sighed during a phone interview. “It’s just the ideal parent relationship that my parents didn’t have.”

For his part, Mr. Trillin seemed a bit uncomfortable with the whole familial-icon thing. As he sat in his living room, he listened politely to questions about his dream-husband status and would even parry with a joke from time to time. But mostly he did his best to tamp down the wide-eyed wonder that his happy marriage has inspired.

He seemed unusually reluctant, for instance, to wax confessional about his marriage, despite having just written a book about the subject. And when asked the secret to his happy relationship, he ascribed it, above all, to luck—to walking into the right party, which is how he met Alice in 1963—rather than any particular theory, philosophy or therapeutic intervention.

“It’s not a very admired notion, because people think you’re sort of kicking at the dirt and saying, ‘Oh, this is all luck.’ But it’s a huge factor in everybody’s life,” he said. “It’s luck to meet the right person, it’s luck to find something you like to do for a living, and it’s luck to be able to do it, to a great extent.”

Certainly, it was luck—or at least lucky—to find someone with whom, during 36 years of marriage, he never felt bored. “If she felt bored, she was kind enough not to say so,” he said.

As for stumbling on a mate with whom he could recall (and then only after prodding) having just one noteworthy fight—well, there’s really not even a word for that.

“It had to do with a dog being in a scene or something in a [home] movie called The Sound of Egg,” he said of the fight, which occurred during one of the summers they spent in Nova Scotia with their daughters. “And I said, ‘We have to have this or we have to have that,’ and she thought I was saying she didn’t understand humor, or something like that. And on those occasions, I used to say, ‘I’ve heard the phrase ‘hyper-sensitive Jewess.’

“But you know, that lasted for 10 minutes or something,” he said.

Such stories of marital bliss might become irritating—or at least easy to dismiss as writerly yarn-spinning—if Mr. Trillin didn’t seem to miss his wife so much all these years later. His voice had a way of getting quieter, deeper, when he found himself put upon to answer certain questions about her. And something about the hiking boots he wore seemed lonely.

Or maybe that, too, was a girl’s projection, as delusional as the desire to search for “signs” of Alice in every nook, cranny and picture frame in his house.

Mr. Trillin himself seemed to have little interest in indulging maudlin moments. When asked whether he had recovered at all from the grief of losing Alice, he replied with an optimistic, “Yeah, I’m really fortunate in having my daughters and grandchildren, and they’re obviously sort of the center of my life now.” As for the thorny question of dating, he responded that he could conceive of it, though “not in some organized way.”

“I don’t want to be fixed up with your aunt, if that’s what you mean,” he said.

Still, if dating is conceivable, the idea of sharing his life with anyone else, of falling in love again, is a different matter. “I guess I still think of myself as Alice’s husband,” he said quietly. “And that’s what makes it difficult.”