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Janet Malcolm, elegant and incisive writer for the New Yorker, dies at 86

Ms. Malcolm, during court proceedings over a libel suit filed against her by the psychoanalyst Jeffrey Masson in San Francisco.
Ms. Malcolm, during court proceedings over a libel suit filed against her by the psychoanalyst Jeffrey Masson in San Francisco.JIM WILSON/NYT

Janet Malcolm, a journalist and critic whose elegant and incisive articles for the New Yorker explored issues of truth, objectivity, self-deceit and betrayal, most notably in the fraught relationship between writers and their subjects, died Wednesday at a hospital in New York City. She was 86.

The cause was cancer, said her daughter, Anne.

Ms. Malcolm combined meticulous reporting with a ruminative and slashing style, illuminating her subjects’ personalities and pretensions while also revealing her own eye for detail. Her stories variously described a journalist who chopped tomatoes “with agonizing slowness,” a pianist who dressed for a concert “like a dominatrix or a lion tamer’s assistant,” and a psychiatrist who decorated his office “like a Victorian parlor - or perhaps like a stage set for one.”

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In magazine articles and a dozen books, she examined topics ranging from psychoanalysis and photography to Russian literature and the "Gossip Girl" novels. Much of her work focused on the contrast between the messiness of real life and the tidy narratives offered by lawyers in the courtroom and by journalists and biographers on the page.

She argued that the latter two were the literary equivalent of burglars and con artists, pilfering material from their subjects' lives and gaining the trust of people who often felt disappointed or even betrayed by the results.

“Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible,” Ms. Malcolm wrote in the opening lines of her 1990 book “The Journalist and the Murderer,” to a chorus of gasps and howls from some of her fellow writers. “He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.”

Adapted from a two-part New Yorker article, “The Journalist and the Murderer” became a dog-eared staple of journalism seminars and creative nonfiction classes, and it was named one of the 100 best nonfiction books of the 20th century in a Modern Library list. It also made Ms. Malcolm a lightning rod among her peers, contributing to her reputation as “both a grande dame of journalism, and still, somehow, its enfant terrible,” as author Katie Roiphe wrote in the Paris Review.

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A Czech native who spoke no English when she immigrated as a child to the United States, Ms. Malcolm wrote dozens of essays for the New York Review of Books but was most closely associated with the New Yorker. She initially wrote shopping, design, and photography columns, developing a keen eye for interiors, clothing, and other surfaces that she later brought to long works of reportage.

Those extended articles mixed elements of biography, criticism, and the personal essay, with Ms. Malcolm frequently disclosing (in the first person) her own doubts, anxieties, and strong opinions about her subjects.

One of her most acclaimed pieces, a profile of artist David Salle that later served as the title essay of her collection “Forty-One False Starts” (2013), was a deconstruction of the typical magazine profile, composed of 41 beginnings that seemed to mimic Salle’s collagelike style of painting. In one of the “false starts” came an admission: “I have never found anything any artist has said about his work interesting.”

Ms. Malcolm’s longer articles were adapted into books such as “The Silent Woman” (1994), a meditation on biography that examined the twined legacies of poet Sylvia Plath and her estranged husband, fellow writer Ted Hughes; “Two Lives” (2007), about the survival of the artistic couple Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas in Nazi-occupied France; and “Iphigenia in Forest Hills” (2011), about a murder trial in Queens.

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Inspired in part by her father, a neurologist and psychiatrist, she also wrote frequently on psychoanalysis, profiling a pseudonymous New York analyst for "Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession" (1981). The book probed the discipline's theoretical underpinnings in addition to exploring more provocative questions, such as whether analysts were ever aroused by their patients' fantasies.

"What emerges from these questions and answers is a complex but elegant profile of psychoanalysis - the way it works, its history and theoretical foundation, the issues that its various practitioners contend over," wrote New York Times book critic Christopher Lehmann-Haupt. "I am sorry for the tens of thousands of people who have had to consider psychoanalysis without Miss Malcolm's guidance."

Ms. Malcolm remained best known for “The Journalist and the Murderer,” her examination of a high-profile lawsuit filed by Jeffrey MacDonald - an Army doctor convicted of murdering his pregnant wife and two young daughters - against author Joe McGinniss, who chronicled his story in the best-selling book “Fatal Vision.”

In exchange for access, McGinniss had agreed to share the profits of his book with MacDonald, who sued the author for fraud and breach of contract after “Fatal Vision” turned out to portray its subject “as a psychopathic killer,” as Ms. Malcolm wrote. McGinniss ultimately paid $325,000 in a settlement with MacDonald, who maintained his innocence in the murder case. (A federal judge denied his request for a new trial in 2014.)

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Treating the case as a striking example of “the moral problem of journalism,” Ms. Malcolm chronicled McGinniss’s duplicity toward his subject, quoting at length from letters in which the journalist sought to maintain a relationship with his subject long enough to finish the book. In many of the letters, he wrote that he believed MacDonald was innocent, despite later acknowledging he felt otherwise.

Ms. Malcolm also interrogated her own relationship with MacDonald, calling out the “fundamental falseness” of her letters to him in prison. Her thesis seemed to build on Joan Didion’s earlier remark that “writers are always selling somebody out.” Detractors said her argument seemed to apply more to magazine writers and other practitioners of creative nonfiction than daily journalists covering local politics or foreign affairs.

Some critics also noted that “The Journalist and the Murderer” failed to mention — at least until a brief afterword — that Ms. Malcolm had also been accused of journalistic misconduct in a previous book.

That book, “In the Freud Archives” (1984), was a devastating portrait of Freud scholar Jeffrey Masson, whom Ms. Malcolm portrayed as a kind of psychiatric P.T. Barnum, a narcissist who hoped to turn the Freud archives in London into “a place of sex, women, fun.” Disputing that quote and several others, Masson sued Ms. Malcolm for libel.

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The case was dismissed but went to trial after the Supreme Court ruled that it could go forward. After nearly a decade of legal proceedings, a jury sided with Masson but deadlocked over damages, leading to a second trial, in 1994. This time, the jury concluded that two of the contested quotations were false but decided that neither was libelous.

Ms. Malcolm insisted that she had not fabricated any quotes, but the jury, and a number of journalists, objected to her practice of rearranging and compressing quotations, and accused her of carelessness.

Born Jana Wienerova in Prague on July 8, 1934, Ms. Malcolm was the oldest child of Jewish parents who fled to New York City on the eve of World War II. Her father resumed his psychiatry practice and wrote poetry in his spare time. Her mother, a lawyer, found work at Voice of America.

Ms. Malcolm, who took the Americanized name Janet Clara Winn, studied English at the University of Michigan, where she edited the school humor magazine and married her predecessor as editor in chief, Donald Malcolm, before graduating in 1955. They moved to Washington, D.C., and wrote for the New Republic.

Her husband later became the New Yorker’s first off-Broadway theater critic, and Ms. Malcolm became a regular contributor to the magazine in 1966. Donald Malcolm died in 1975 and she married her editor, Gardner Botsford. She soon became the New Yorker’s photography columnist, writing pieces that were collected in her first book, “Diana & Nikon” (1980, expanded in 1997).

Ms. Malcolm later exhibited collages and published a book of photography, “Burdock” (2008), that featured images of “older, flawed” leaves she had collected near her home in rural Sheffield, Mass.

Botsford died in 2004. She leaves a daughter from her first marriage, Anne Malcolm of Cambridge, Mass., and Cambridge, England; a sister, Marie Winn, who is also a writer; and a granddaughter.

Ms. Malcolm’s reputation continued to grow in recent years as she published books including “Nobody’s Looking at You” (2019), an essay collection that spurred a Times review headlined, “In the Hands of Janet Malcolm, Journalism Becomes Art.”

She also worked on - and apparently abandoned - an autobiography, after years of examining the difficulties of trying to accurately capture a life in print.

“The letters and journals we leave behind and the impressions we have made on our contemporaries are the mere husk of the kernel of our essential life,” she wrote in “Reading Chekhov,” a 2001 examination of the Russian author’s life and works. “When we die, the kernel is buried with us. This is the horror and pity of death and the reason for the inescapable triviality of biography.”