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Area Consumer Succumbs

Not a week after she had cemented her place in history by chastising a neighbor on a matter of style, correcting a retail clerk's grammar and delighting much of the block once again with the story of how she had come to terms with moving all the way out to the "East Jesus" section of Washington, Rusty Ruskin surprised everyone but herself and left us.

Rusty lived a couple of doors down the block, and when we moved in, she was described to us as the grande dame of Harrison Street.

"No," she corrected me when I first met her, "I'm just O-L-D, and there's nothing worse to be."

But Rusty -- who died on the Fourth of July at the age of 86 after having predicted her own demise for long enough that everyone figured her for immortal -- did allow as how she had been living on the block longer than anyone else. Therefore, she said, she knew all. She proceeded to give me the lowdown on pretty much everyone, including the sort of details you dare not put in the paper, in language that might raise eyebrows even on the Internet.

Rusty, who worked at the New Republic, I.F. Stone's Weekly and the National Journal in a time well before the phrase "working mother" had entered the language, hated old people, Dr. Phil, stupidity and organized religion -- not necessarily in that order.

She loved dogs, debate and the riches of the English language.

She long ago selected the headline she wanted over the story reporting her death: "Area Consumer Succumbs."

In the early 1960s, when Rusty moved out to the Chevy Chase section of the District, she was initially appalled by the notion of living in what seemed to her a rural outpost far from the buzz of the city. But then she happened upon a news report about a 56-year-old real estate man who was charged with shooting his wife to death while she kneeled beside her bed. The neighbors said the couple's quarrels could sometimes be heard all along the block. And the best part was that the incident took place just a few houses from Rusty's new place, and the woman who called the shooting in to police -- indeed, the woman who had been on the phone with the victim at the very moment she was executed -- lived in the house immediately next to Rusty's new place.

This, she decided, was going to be an okay place to live after all.

Rusty was a woman far ahead of her time. In 1952, this paper featured her in a story about the then-curious phenomenon of combining "marriage, motherhood and a career." Rusty worked at the New Republic while a maid cared for 5-year-old daughter Diana. "Don't let anyone tell you it's easy to work and bring up a child at the same time," Rusty told The Post. "It's really terribly difficult. It's the quality, not the quantity, of time you spend with a child that counts." (The article went on to marvel that when Rusty had to leave town on a trip, her husband, Alan, "took almost complete charge of Diana, had great fun taking her on outings, and even out to dinner.")

If some people attributed Rusty's acid tongue and frank manner to her age, they clearly had not known her for very long. In 1974, The Post's Tom Donnelly devoted a column to a classic Rusty encounter with a sales clerk at Sears. Rusty sought to buy four pairs of jeans for her son, Tony. When Rusty presented a check for the total, the clerk asked to see a driver's license. Rusty said she didn't have one, which wasn't true.

Rusty saw no good reason why she should have to present a document that revealed her age when some other form of identification would suffice. "The insane nerve of Sears," Rusty said. "Expecting a woman to tell these things to the whole world when her best friend to whom she has lied for years is standing right next to her!"

Hold on, the reporter said. You didn't say your best friend was with you. Well, Rusty said, her best friend was actually not with her, but she might have been.

Rusty was not one to take no for an answer. When she didn't get her way at Sears, she found a way to put her story before a million or so newspaper readers.

When she went to work at a new job at the National Journal, she was assigned a spot on the editing desk.

"You mean I don't get my own office?" she asked. No, everyone works on the common desk.

"What about my obscene phone calls?" Rusty inquired.

"You get obscene phone calls?"

"No, I make them."

She didn't get an office, but she got their attention.

She was a hoot and a character and a bit of a crank, but she was usually right and always passionate. She got on me for lazy language; I once referred to someone in print as so-and-so's mom, and for a year thereafter, Rusty would collar me on my way into the house: " 'Mom' is what you call her, but 'mother' is what she is."

Rusty brought people together, around her table, wherever she might be. She gave us something to talk about, and something to aspire to. She made it plain just how bland and safe and boring we've made our lives. It made some people uncomfortable. It made me love her.

By Marc Fisher |  July 8, 2007; 2:07 PM ET
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Some years ago, I worked with Rusty at the NAS/NRC. And for the past 30+ years I've been her neighbor (I live on Ingomar). She was indeed one of a kind--funny, quick-witted and spicy, an absolute delight! We shall all miss her.

Steve Rattien

PS How can I forward Fisher's article to out-of-towners?

Posted by: Steve Rattien | July 8, 2007 2:32 PM

Some years ago, I worked with Rusty at the NAS/NRC. And for the past 30+ years I've been her neighbor (I live on Ingomar). She was indeed one of a kind--funny, quick-witted and spicy, an absolute delight! We shall all miss her.

Steve Rattien

PS How can I forward Fisher's article to out-of-towners?

Posted by: Steve Rattien | July 8, 2007 2:32 PM

Some years ago, I worked with Rusty at the NAS/NRC. And for the past 30+ years I've been her neighbor (I live on Ingomar). She was indeed one of a kind--funny, quick-witted and spicy, an absolute delight! We shall all miss her.

Steve Rattien

PS How can I forward Fisher's article to out-of-towners?

Posted by: Steve Rattien | July 8, 2007 2:32 PM

Hey Steve, can you post that three more times?

Posted by: Anonymous | July 8, 2007 5:33 PM

the easist way to forward a WaPo article is to use the Print function. Once its formatted for printing, simly cut and paste the whole article into an e-mail.

Posted by: forwardign WaPo articles | July 8, 2007 6:42 PM

She sounded like a hoot:

"What about my obscene phone calls?" Rusty inquired.

"You get obscene phone calls?"

"No, I make them."

The world needs more characters like this!

Posted by: LOL | July 9, 2007 9:25 AM

I am happy to say that Rusty is leaning down from heaven, terribly upset and flipping you the bird for printing her actual age. Until she died, not even her own children quite knew (and often debated on her birthday) what the actual number was. EVERYONE was terrified to ask, you wouldn't get a correct answer anyway, and she would look at you in disgust and say "You never ask a woman her age".

I will never forget that she disliked her Jewish background. She told her Lutheran neighbor that the Lutheran's were "low brow" and that we if you had to choose a religion (she hated organized religion) we should at least be Episcopalian because it's a classy religion.

Speaking of class, the woman had the most impeccable taste in clothes, jewelry, home decor, furnishings, art, and company. And she was very vocal about everyones taste if it didn't meet the minimum required Rusty standard. Marc, I drove by your house the day she died. Can you imagine the horror and shock and the serious amount of flack you would have received had she seen the color choices on your house? She would say something lashing, roll her eyes, and park herself in front of her TV shaking her head and picking up the Washington Post or NY Times and wonder why G-d keeps punishing her.

She told us that she wanted her tombstone to say one of two things: "She's not sleeping, she's dead" or "She doesn't like it here much either".

So was so funny and witty that it's so difficult to mourn her death without sporadic outbursts of laughter.

She was a true gem and we are really going to miss her. Thank You for writing such a great article about her. Tony and Diana are so tickled by it.

Posted by: Shawn | July 9, 2007 10:01 AM

I lived on Harrison Street until last year, and spent a lot of time chez Rusty. Marc - you're article had me both in tears and laughing so hard my stomach hurt. What a terrific way you captured Rusty's spirit. She used to laugh and say that although she was always going to die tomorrow, God was punishing her because she was such a bossy broad. And a smart one. Some of the nice things she said to me:

"Your late mother-in-law is rolling over in her grave at the garage in your back yard."

"Why don't you fix that crack in your sidewalk - I could trip and kill myself."

"Don't let your cat outside. It will run in the street and get killed. You are being cruel."

Rusty was beyond passionate about animals - particularly dogs. She took in all dogs from friends, neighbors and family. When her dogs would bark and scare (unintentionally) young children, she yelled at the kids for not being nicer to the dogs!

Like Shawn said, she always publicly denied her Jewish heritage - I admit to sometimes talking about Jewish things just to rile her! But quietly she would call me up to ask if I would take her to Shalom Kosher Supermarket to get a couple of things that reminded her of her youth in New York. She would say, "Sonia, take me to the Jews". Although a little offended, I did want to indulge the little bit of old world culture she maintained. She really really liked the prune lekvar - oh did she kvell when we found that!

Rusty was indeed the grand dame of Harrison Street. If you wanted to know something, ask Rusty. If you wanted to keep something quiet, definitely don't tell Rusty! She loved having everyone at her house. Her front door was never locked. We never rang the doorbell - just walked right in and said, hello, anyone home? She said she would never move to an apartment because all the "street traffic" (non-stop stream of visitors) would stop.

But as Marc says, a visit to Rusty meant you had to endure having your grammar corrected every other sentence, being needled for personal information and then suffering her opinion about the same information, and if you came at the right time, participate in Jeopardy on the television. But she always had a full fridge for everyone (eat, eat - drink, drink - and she denied she was Jewish!) and candy for the kids. She loved the kids in the neighborhood. She went to all the block parties. And she never ever came downstairs looking anything less than mahvelous.

Rusty used to talk about how much her late husband adored her and treated her like a queen; I hope she really knew how lucky she was to have children who loved and took care of her passionately as well.

Bye Rusty. Love to Diana, Tony and Shawn, and her grandchildren.

Sonia (& Eli)

Posted by: Sonia | July 9, 2007 11:28 AM

In a day and age where everyone is casual, it was nice to meet a woman so polished and refined that she got the mail in full make-up, donned in dry-cleaned and accessorized clothing.

She was graceful in her actions--and reminded you are a very refined era of women hood. Don't take her polish for frippery--she had a sharp New Yorker wit and a highly developed mind.

She was the concept and embodiment of the modern woman--long before magazines defined the movement.

Goodbye Rusty.

Posted by: Anonymous | July 10, 2007 11:43 AM

I wish I'd known her! Before I got my driver's license I gave store clerks grief too. I'd say "I don't have a driver's license because I don't drive. Guess what? I don't have a fishing license either. Should I get one?"

My friends made me stop doing it. I wish I'd been shopping with Rusty.

Posted by: Amy | July 11, 2007 12:41 PM

It seems that is all we black people are good for is throwing a party. This guy should be getting skinned alive for such a dismal job!

Posted by: GivingUp | July 16, 2007 12:27 PM

Thank you for a wonderful appreciation of a woman who is not easy to capture. I married into the extended Rusty family, and even after my short marriage ended, Rusty kept me in her force field, inviting me and my dog over for brunch, offering opinions and criticisms and wisdom. She was a most generous curmudgeon. The only aspect of Rusty that is missing here is her unerring sense of style. She was a true eclectic whose love of art knew no bounds -- from high to low and everything in between. As long as it was beautiful and said something, it had a place in her home. She always met every compliment with the same response: "I don't traffic in shabby." I will miss her.

Posted by: Jeanne Duncan | July 17, 2007 3:17 PM

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