Berman: Ex-News book editor Ruth Coughlin woman of wit

Laura Berman
The Detroit News

Ruth Bridget Coughlin lived in Manhattan for most of her adult life, but she moved to Detroit in a New York minute for the man she loved.

He was William J. Coughlin, a federal administrative law judge and novelist. She was a book editor — his editor at Delacorte Press, and one who worked so cleverly on his manuscripts that he didn't want to live without her. At 39, she was a first-time bride, plunked into a midwestern city that looked provincial to her. At the time, she didn't even have a driver's license.

Two years later, she arrived at The Detroit News as its book editor — a job that enabled her to interview authors, review books and maintain a presence in the literary world. Her office at The News, in those pre-cubicle days, was filled with stacks of books, decorated with photographs of award-winning authors. From it, her laugh trilled through the features department. That, the scent of her Opium perfume, and clouds of cigarette smoke all signaled her presence.

Last week, in the early morning of Christmas Day, she died at age 71 in Dover, New Jersey. Her cousin, Alicia Nordquist, who took responsibility for her well-being after she suffered a series of strokes in 2012, was with her.

Ruth was a woman of style and substance, a reader who could communicate her subtle understanding of books so well that authors she admired often became her friends. It was a time when books and publishing houses were important, when authors regularly cycled through the country on book tours.

Marty Fischhoff, her editor at The News before she left in 1993, remembers her as a stylish and erudite writer. "I remember coming to a dead stop at the word 'quotidian' in one of the first reviews she submitted to me. Reaching for my dictionary, I realized there wasn't going to be much I could do to improve her copy. But at least editing her would greatly improve my vocabulary, which it did. For the next couple months, I know I liberally sprinkled 'quotidian' in my conversations whenever possible."

She gathered friends around her, creating a kind of extended family. "She was illuminating to me," says Marney Keenan, a News columnist, remembering their first meeting. At that point, she radiated light and laughter. Her life was filled with possibility, glamor, books and friends.

Novelist Julia Heaberlin was a Detroit News features editor who remembers Ruth as "a charming, funny, sophisticated, down-to-earth, cynical, generous writer and human being whose stories were always vibrating with her own personal rhythm. She was masterful with words and was one of the most intuitive listeners I've ever known.

"She made everyone feel special. If she touched your life as a friend or a journalist, you would never forget it."

We bonded over mutual interests in books and shoes, two of her many passions. She was a perceptive listener, sympathetic and wholly tuned in, missing nothing, always patient.

Her wit was sharp, so pointed that one famously difficult friend recalls, ruefully, her telling him that "being a friend of yours is like wearing a hairshirt."

But in June 1991, Bill was suddenly diagnosed with terminal liver cancer, dying nine months later. Heartbroken, she found it impossible to return to The News. In a sustained burst of productivity and will, she wrote "Grieving: A Love Story," a memoir about love, loss and the unfathomable pain of widowhood, that was published by Random House.

That event, and all the deaths that followed — her dog Charley, her parents — came to define her existence. She moved back east, to a small condominium in New Jersey. The light turned dark. Her friend Wesley Bausmith, now the Los Angeles Times design director, who spoke to her on her Dec. 3 birthday, says she was still wickedly funny. A child of the '60s, she was aware of the irony of being trapped in a nursing home where the Fox News channel was always playing.

"In the wholeness of life, standard happy endings are but wonderful gracious pauses," the author Michael Dorris wrote in the introduction to her memoir. But much of her time in Detroit was a standard, happy ending, a pause full of family life, accomplishments and friends who appreciated her kind heart and wiry intelligence.

She is survived by her brother, the actor Michael J. Pollard, her cousin, and many friends, like me, who will always remember the light she could bring to a room.