The late writer Barbara Raskin made her mark with a best-selling book that’s about to become a movie, but her starring role was doyenne of the Washington salon.
Barbara Raskin would have enjoyed her own memorial service.
She might have been embarrassed by all the fuss, and she might have chafed at the frequent mentions of her tendency to “be generous with the truth” or to exaggerate facts to the point of fiction, but she would have been pleased with the great swath of people of every age and race who came together to share stories about her.
She would also have felt a sense of deja vu.
The author Raskin scripted many of the words and sentiments of her recent memorial service, held in a Dupont Circle chapel, in her 1987 best-selling novel, Hot Flashes. In the story, three friends of the protagonist, Sukie, converge around her kitchen table after her sudden death to grieve and set Sukie’s affairs in order. They discover her journal, detailing the agony Sukie endured when her husband left her for a younger woman. And they find an unfinished manuscript written about her husband for spite.
The book is now being made into a movie with the rumored star power of Glenn Close, Susan Sarandon, Harrison Ford, and Anjelica Huston behind it. Filming, with producer David Kirkpatrick (who also produced 1998’s The Opposite of Sex and 1996’s Big Night), was originally planned to begin on location in Adams Morgan next month, but the film is now to be shot in Toronto. Raskin watched with interest over the years as her Hot Flashes story went through the Hollywood machine. According to her friends, the script was optioned by Penny Marshall as well as by Close and went through several screenwriters, none of whom Raskin assisted. The screenplay’s final version remains veiled in Hollywood’s pre-production hyper-secrecy. But it is safe to assume that the film will roughly resemble Raskin’s own life.
Sukie, like Raskin, was a Washington author, a political activist, and the host of anti-Vietnam War planning meetings and many more intimate “kitchen-table talks.” Unlike Sukie, Raskin died in late July after years of health problems—vascular disease and cancer—at the age of 63.
The obituary Raskin wrote for Sukie is strikingly similar to Raskin’s own obituary, penned by a wire reporter and sent out to newspapers around the world upon her death.
Born in Chicago in 1935 and a graduate of the University of Chicago, Ms. [Sukie] Amram held a doctorate in English literature….Active in the writers’ rights movement, she was a member of Washington Independent Writers, PEN, the Author’s Guild, and the National Writers Union. She was one of the original members of Mothers Against the War in Vietnam.
Raskin always blurred the line between fiction and life.
“I’ve spent a lot of my adult life convincing people that [her] books aren’t a description of any one person,” says the writer’s son, Jamin Raskin, a professor of constitutional law and the First Amendment at American University. “She was very generous with the facts, and so oftentimes her stories, even when she meant to be factual, would have no resemblance to the truth—but her story would be true to the emotion.”
Barbara Judith Bellman graduated quickly—impatiently—from the University of Minnesota at the age of 19. She received her master’s in English from the University of Chicago, wrote her first novel by age 21, and met and married Marcus Raskin. The couple moved to D.C. in 1958, bringing their idealism, energy, and love of stories to a little row house in Adams Morgan. Marcus Raskin soon went to work in the Kennedy White House, while Barbara Raskin raised their three children—Jamin, Erika, and Noah—and worked as a Senate speech writer.
While the kids grew, the Raskin home became the Washington headquarters for the anti-war and civil rights movements. Joan Baez came to visit, as did many protest luminaries, meeting around Raskin’s kitchen table in those heady days, plotting the next rally, drinking, smoking, and talking until dawn.
In the late ’60s, Capitol Police grasped for any straw that would allow them to send Raskin to jail for a night. She and dozens of women once convened in the Capitol building when Congress was in session, to protest the war peacefully; she and her cohorts were arrested for “breaking and entering” even though they went in the building through the wide-open tourist entrance. The charges were eventually dismissed.
Her husband was also targeted by the Establishment. Marcus Raskin was believed to be part of the Boston Five, a group charged with conspiracy to violate the Selective Service Act for its support of draft registers. Its members were tried in 1968 on anti-draft conspiracy charges. Marcus Raskin was acquitted, but his associates were convicted; their convictions were later overturned.
After the war, Barbara Raskin turned her attention to storytelling and storytellers, founding the National Writers Union and the local literary support outfit Washington Independent Writers.
When her son Jamin was just a kid, he remembers, he told his mother she was crazy for wanting to organize writers, mercurial and independent lot that they are. She told him, “Everyone needs a union; writers just don’t think of themselves [as] a professional class, but they will. And I will get the good writers to join. Even that sexist pig, Norman Mailer, will join.” As it turned out, Mailer did not join, but the National Writers Union is now several thousand strong and has increased the pay and clout of writers over the years.
In 1979, the Raskins divorced. The event fueled much of the emotion found in Barbara Raskin’s most famous novel.
The book—which uses the menopausal symptom of hot flashes as a symbol of personal re-awakening—was a best seller for four months because it resonated profoundly among female readers of Raskin’s generation. Many of her contemporaries were well-educated women like Raskin, whose husbands left for younger women after decades of marriage during which the husband had built his career and the wife had reared the children.
Raskin drew heavily from her own sadness, and that of her acquaintances, for her book. She modeled the main characters on her good friends and included details from her own breakup for color. Like Sukie, Barbara had the divorce talk with her husband at a restaurant; an interesting ketchup scene ensued and is recounted in the novel.
“You build from what you know,” says Herb White, one of Raskin’s longtime friends, who is proud to have the Washington restaurant that he owned for many years, the old Herb’s downtown, mentioned in Hot Flashes. “Barbara wrote five books, and a lot of her life and friends showed up in those books.”
But the novels are more complicated than straight autobiographies would be. Raskin, in an old interview about Hot Flashes—hailed at the time as a new genre of books celebrating female friendships—told a reporter, “I wrote the story I knew. [My generation] has [had] such bad deals along the way, out of sync from the beginning, marrying in the ’50s, raising kids and feeling stifled in the ’60s, getting divorced in the ’70s, finding ourselves in the ’80s. We were always missing things by five years. I didn’t want us to get swept under the historical carpet and not be recognized at all.”
“If you stood back 100 yards, you could say that Sukie is Barbara,” says Bethany Widener, one of the author’s good friends, who has re-read Hot Flashes since Raskin’s death “for clues to Barbara.” “But if you knew Barbara, she was all of the characters in Hot Flashes; a variety of the different parts of her identity were transformed into the people she created in her books.”
Widener, among Raskin’s other female friends, remembers lots of things about the author, but perhaps none so fondly as the kitchen-table talks at her row house in Adams Morgan and then later (after 1996) at her condominium in the famed Wyoming apartment building. Some in Raskin’s large group of male friends, including D.C. writers Dan Moldea, Christopher Hitchens, and Jeff Stein, made occasional appearances, but these times were mostly reserved for the women. “Men go out and kill an animal, bring it home, and lay it on the table; we would have an experience and bring that story to the table in much the same way,” says Widener.
“Other than the members of her own family,” Moldea said at Raskin’s memorial service, “there is no one Barbara thought more of than her girlfriends. When all is said and done, Barbara was a woman’s woman, and one of the highest compliments Barbara could pay to a man is once in a while to treat him like one of the girls. I liked being one of Barbara’s girlfriends on occasion.”
Raskin enjoyed friendships and stories—one inevitably led to the other.
“We would sit at that rectangular table,” says Widener, “and propose, dispose, and pore over what happened to us. A lot of times we were talking about trivial things, but we would turn it over, examine it, and learn from it. Barbara collected all of these things—all the odd and extraordinary things we talked about—and they emerged in her books.”
While the most abiding image of Raskin, as told by her friends, is the picture of her in her kitchen cooking a side of beef with a Merit cigarette in her mouth and a salty dog drink in her hand, her most abiding characteristic is that many people around the writer considered themselves to be her best friend.
Widener, who met her husband around the kitchen table at Raskin’s house and even lived with her for a time, laments that she cannot now find the same sort of friendship as she found in Raskin’s kitchen: “Our group changed over the years, but it was greater than the sum of its parts. We had wonderful times, and Barbara did something to create that. I don’t know what it was, but it hasn’t existed in any other group in my life.”
Raskin “blossomed late in life,” says Moldea, who was a friend of Raskin’s for more than 20 years. “She wanted to share her gifts with everyone—and everywhere—she could.” Indeed, Raskin had a prolific freelancing career, writing for the Washington Post, the New York Times, Washingtonian, and the Washington City Paper in its early days. She also taught English at Georgetown, American, and Catholic Universities, and won a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts for her writing in 1982.
However, Raskin slowed down in her last few years, since a 1996 stroke. She died after experimental heart surgery and is survived by her three children, her seven grandchildren, and, of course, her books.
Jamin Raskin recalls that many people came to him after the memorial service and confessed that his mother—never a rich woman—had given them money to pay for a trip or bankroll a writing project. Although he says he had not been previously aware of his mother’s philanthropy, he was not surprised: “She had a genius for friendship; she helped people construct the myths of their lives and saw their absolute greatest potential.” CP