The Glorious, Messy Life of Liz Wurtzel

Even before her wild literary success, it was clear to those of us who knew her that she was a force to be reckoned with.

Neville Elder / Corbis / Getty

I didn’t remember having signed up to host a high-school senior in my freshman dorm room, but suddenly there she was, fresh off the train from her yeshiva in New York, suitcase in hand. She didn’t look like a yeshiva girl. Or even really like a New Yorker. She looked like a Malibu-born-and-bred hippie even back then, with her straight blond hair, her perfectly worn-in Levi’s, her giant eyes that drew you in and threatened to drown you. “Hi. They told me I was staying here this weekend. I’m Lizzie Wurtzel.” She dropped her suitcase on the floor and flopped on my couch.

It was 1984. I couldn’t check my answering machine for a message from the admissions office heralding her arrival, because I didn’t have one. I couldn’t send the office an email to make sure this wasn’t a big mistake, because we were all still using typewriters. Plus I was instantly captivated: What was her deal? In my memory of that day, she still glows yellow. “Welcome to Matthews,” I said, which was the name of my dorm.

“So do you like this school?” she said, getting straight to the point. She’d heard the social life could be boring.

All I knew about Harvard’s social life at that point, in the fall of my freshman year, was that it seemed to be nonexistent unless you were in an all-male final club or invited to attend a party at one. I told her about the giant bus that had picked up select freshman girls—those of us who had been plucked based on our photos in the freshman facebook—and then driven to a party with too much grain alcohol and not enough restraint. Consent was not yet part of the college vernacular.

“Sounds fun!” said Liz, and she meant this earnestly, not eye-rollingly. Four years later, in The Harvard Crimson, where we both became columnists, she would write: “I cannot deny that I have spent a fair amount of my time at Harvard at final clubs. I have drunk their liquor, snorted their cocaine, smoked their pot, popped their ecstasy, eaten their food and danced on their floors. I have no right to say what I'm about to say … But of all the stupid and morally questionable things I have done in the name of a good time—and there have been a few—I cannot forgive myself for hanging out at final clubs.”

The next thing I knew she was browsing my bookshelf, snooping. Wanting to know why I had so many issues of Seventeen magazine.

I told her I’d had a column for the magazine in high school, which I was supposed to have continued writing once I’d arrived at college, but with my schedule of classes and all the reading I had to do, I could never find time.

“I have time!” she said. “What’s your editor’s number?”

The next thing I knew, she had taken over my column.

Years later, she wouldn’t exactly thank me, but she would say that meeting a teen girl who’d published articles in a real magazine had given her the courage to do the same.

By the time of her arrival at Harvard the following fall––now Liz instead of Lizzie––she was instantly college famous. Within weeks on campus, everyone knew who Liz Wurtzel was. How could you not? Particularly after the popped-cherry party she threw midyear. Or rather, our mutual friend Donal Logue threw the party, and Liz commandeered it. “So the story is we threw a huge party sophomore year in Adams House,” said Donal earlier today, when we spoke to commiserate over her death. “Liz, a freshman at the time, showed up and announced she had just lost her virginity and it was now officially the ‘Elizabeth Wurtzel lost her virginity party.’ At first, I was surprised. She seemed so wild. When I got to know her and understood her Ramaz background, her high-school life, it made sense.”

Now Donal and everyone else who knew Liz, or has encountered her work since, are trying to make sense of the idea that she’s gone. Elizabeth Wurtzel died on January 7, 2020, at the age of 52, of complications from breast cancer. When I spoke with Roberta Feldman Brzezinski, her college roommate and friend ever since, she remembered Liz as “brilliant, acerbic, volatile, and fiercely loyal. In her last years, she became a fountain of life wisdom. Why do you care how people behave? You are the star of your own drama, and everyone else is just a bit player. In her case, that was epically true.”

All of us who knew her, in fact, have a Liz story. Our friend Amanda Brainerd, a real-estate agent who, at 52, will be publishing her first novel this year, thanks in large part to Liz’s example and urging, sent me a typical Liz-related text in the wake of her death: “She accused me of stealing the hairbrush that Jimmy Cabot gave her. I still have it. Also once relatively recently I bumped into her in the pharmacy in the San Francisco airport, and she hugged me then said she had the flu and was looking for meds. And yet her fearlessness helped me tell my deeply personal story, albeit in novel form.”

Wurtzel’s 1994 memoir, Prozac Nation, forever changed the literary landscape. It redefined not only what women were allowed to write about, but when they were allowed to write about it: their messy, early decades in medias res. Mental illness was no longer something to be hidden or shameful. It was a topic like any other, to be brought out into the light.

Liz was suddenly the It Girl in New York, throwing epic, unforgettable parties in her loft. Suddenly, in the same way that she’d once drawn courage from my teenage writing, I now drew courage from her literary descriptions of early adulthood. “You should write about your war-photography years,” she urged me during one of her parties. And so I did. From then on, whenever anyone wanted to criticize women memoirists for oversharing; or dismiss personal writing as lesser or not literary; or shame us for describing, in intimate detail, the joys and miseries of human love, in all of its messy glory, we’d get lumped in together or collectively shamed as examples of what not to do. As the years wore on, we sometimes even found ourselves “oversharing” on the same stage.

After my marriage fell apart, Liz showed up at my first post-separation dinner party wearing an outrageous miniskirt with spikes and chains and spouting equally outrageous stories of sex with rock stars, completely hijacking the conversation until we were all laughing so hard, I forgot about my broken life. Yes, she was famously difficult. Yes, she could be infuriating, hypercritical, annoying. Sometimes I felt like a prisoner in her apartment, looking for a break in the conversation that would never come. But when the term narcissist got thrown around to describe her, I’d put my foot down. No, I’d say. She’s not a narcissist. It’s not that.

I would argue, in fact, that when the chips were down, either for me or for one of her other friends, whether close or not, Liz was the first to pick up the phone and invite us over to carefully dissect each part of our sad, pathetic narrative, looking for places to insert a decent laugh track.

After she got married, she was happy for once. And I didn’t see her for several years.

The last time we emailed was this past summer, after I’d heard she was going through new travails. No, not the breast cancer that eventually stole her from us too early: that she’d made her peace with. It was other stuff. Private stuff. The kind of stuff we don’t––or, rather, didn’t–– share with the world, which was best discussed alone, just the two of us, for several hours, preferably on a floppy couch with several dogs between us. I kept offering up dates to come over for dinner, and she, in typical Liz fashion, kept flaking. “Hi and forgive me for the (very) delayed response,” she wrote on July 3rd, in one of her multiple forgive-me emails in that same chain. “I am like that. It takes me the longest time to do anything. Instead of reflexes, I have deflexes. Which, I’m sure, makes complete sense. Anyway, thank you for thinking of me. I am here and completely crazy, I don’t even know why. Shocked and maladjusted. That must be it. I would love to see you. Xelw”

The last time I saw her alive was last week, at Sloan Kettering, but she never saw me. Her giant, mischievous eyes were closed, lightless. Her yellow glow was gone, replaced by a hospital gown and the loud beeping of machines. Her mother was gripping her hands, leaning over her body like a chiaroscuro, shooing my friend George and me out of the room. We’d brought her a vase filled with fake red roses, not knowing if real ones would be an issue in her critical condition but wanting to let her know she was loved nonetheless.

I find myself wishing, right now, that Liz could send us a missive from the beyond, one last word to let us know she made it there safely, that the music was just meh, and that she was already asking everyone not how they died but how they lived, helping each to find, without shame, the humor, pathos, and humanity in their narrative arcs.