With wit as sharp as the scalpels she dreaded, Susan Tifft kept a blog about engaging fully in life after being diagnosed with cancer. So informed and incisive were the entries that a doctor suggested, only half in jest, that she could write "Oncology for Dummies."
"In the first fraught days after my diagnosis, something miraculous happened. I got X-ray vision," Ms. Tifft wrote on Sept. 5, 2007, less than a month after learning she had cancer. "I know that sounds weird, but that is precisely how it felt."
"I would walk down the street or look out the window of our apartment onto Cambridge Common and the love and kindness I saw in everyday life practically made me weep. It might be something as simple as someone helping an elderly person into a wheelchair, or a father hoisting his daughter on his shoulders, or two friends hugging each other. It was as if I were a Martian seeing humans for the first time and being enormously moved by how compassionate and caring we are toward each other, for no obvious reward. It's truly spectacular, and somehow, in my former busy-ness, I never really noticed."
If the blog is any evidence, little escaped her notice in the last 2 1/2 years of her life. Ms. Tifft, who with her husband, Alex S. Jones, co-wrote acclaimed books on the families that controlled The New York Times and the Louisville Courier-Journal, died in her Cambridge home today. She was 59.
"She cared about that blog," said Jones, who directs Harvard's Shorenstein Center. "That was the distilled essence of Susan: valiant and indomitable, witty and loving life."
The writer Roger Rosenblatt, a long-time friend, said of her blog: "Given an opportunity, even the most painful one, to write from the heart, the writers who really have the gift will show things that are so surprising, even to themselves. Under these most painful circumstances, Susan made a work of art, and not just for herself, but for other people. In reading this, you find it makes you aware of what it means to be human."
Ms. Tifft published two books with her husband, "The Patriarch: The Rise and Fall of the Bingham Dynasty," and "The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind The New York Times." She also formerly wrote for Time magazine and was a speechwriter for the 1980 campaign of President Jimmy Carter and Vice President Walter Mondale.
Turning her focus to cancer, she wrote blog entries that sifted medical terminology, leaving easily understandable prose. Other observations are enlivened by allusions to everything from poets such as Emily Dickinson to popular culture.
"I'm here to tell you that chemo-strength Benadryl is a horse of a different color, as the Wizard of Oz so memorably said," she wrote of her preparations for chemotherapy sessions. "Three minutes after itís administered I am slurring my words and fumbling with my cup as predictably as any freshman at her first fraternity party."
Those who knew Ms. Tifft well would have a hard time imagining her fumbling anything.
Ms. Tifft was born in rural Rumford, Maine, and grew up there and in suburban St. Louis, where her father moved for work. To New England she always returned, though, often to a house her grandparents owned on Vermont's Lake Fairlee. In Ms. Tifft, humor mixed liberally with a Calvinist work ethic.
"If a beautiful woman could be flinty, it would be Susan," Rosenblatt said.
"She spent some time in St. Louis, but she was a New Englander in blood and bone," her husband said.
After an older brother died as a child, she became the eldest of three siblings. She went to Duke University in Raleigh, N.C., where she studied English and graduated in 1973.
She was a press secretary for the Federal Election Commission and the 1980 Democratic National Convention, then attended the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, from which she received a master's in public administration in 1982.
In September 1981, she and other students crowded into Memorial Church in Harvard Yard to listen to the Rev. Peter Gomes give a welcoming sermon. There she met Jones, who was at Harvard as a Nieman fellow.
"We met and went to walk the Freedom Trail that afternoon," he said. "We've been together ever since."
At Time magazine, she was a national writer and associate editor until 1991. By then, she and her husband were at work on the Bingham book.
"Her name is first in the co-author titles of both books for good reason," her husband said.
"She was just wonderful, and we managed to stay married despite these two books," he added with a laugh, but after the book on The New York Times, "we decided we would never do it again because we would rather be married."
Ms. Tifft also taught for more than a decade at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke, where her media courses were so popular that in three separate seminars she received perfect ratings from her students.
"To put it simply, Susan has consistently been an extraordinary teacher and mentor," Bruce Kuniholm, dean of the Sanford School, said last year when Duke established in her honor an award for excellence as a teacher of undergraduates.
"She was a stunningly good writer, but more than anything, she was a teacher, and that is what she came to care about most," her husband said.
Her friendship was equally esteemed. Trish Karter, CEO of Dancing Deer Baking Co. in Boston, said Ms. Tifft's friends "admired her generous heart even more than her famous wit and obvious intellect. She had an enormous circle because she invested so much sincere personal energy in the art of friendship."
"The first time we had Susan and her husband to dinner, she wrote me a thank-you note that was a page long, describing the food and the people," said Ellen Winner, a psychology professor at Boston College.
When Ms. Tiff became ill, "I would call to ask how she was and immediately she'd say, 'Let's talk about you.' She was genuinely interested in others and didn't want to dwell on herself."
And it was friends that Ms. Tifft thanked in her last blog entry, on March 24, when illness made typing painful.
"My oncologist on Monday advised me to think about what I want my legacy to be," she wrote. "My conclusion? I want my legacy to be all of you -- my friends, loved ones, former students -- a human chain of those who have guided and influenced me, and whom I touched and influenced. Final advice? Always do the right thing. It will gratify your friends and enrage your enemies."
In addition to her husband, Ms. Tifft leaves her sister, Sara Tifft of Bainbridge Island, Wash., and her brother, Douglas Tifft of Fairlee, Vt.
A memorial service is planned for 11 a.m. April 23 in Memorial Church in Harvard Yard.
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