When the Wicked Witch of the West and her evil winged monkeys appeared on screen in “The Wizard of Oz,” A.O. Scott ’87-’88 ran out of the room screaming.
While he was only three at the time, his mother Joan W. Scott, who received an honorary degree from Harvard in 2007, explained that her son’s reaction is not exactly what you would expect from the future chief film critic for the New York Times.
From a very young age, his mother said, Scott had won writing competitions held by English teachers and children’s magazines. Although it was always clear that he had wanted to be a writer of some kind, his foray into a professional career in writing did not begin with films.
At Harvard, in fact, when Scott was not at home in the Dudley Co-op or waiting tables at Café Pamplona, he spent most of his time with books.
Scott, who graduated magna cum laude with a degree in literature, found that his time on campus influenced his career in many indirect ways, whether it was through his conversations with friends, attendance at local movie screenings, or focus on his coursework.
Michael Katz ’87, a close friend of Scott’s from college, remembered Scott’s passion for literature. He loved reading stories, and he loved telling them.
“He could sit at a manual typewriter and type an entire essay for whatever essay he was doing from beginning to end,” Katz said. “You could count the number of times on a hand that he would backspace.”
Katz said that the group of friends spent most of their time at Harvard discussing a range of topics, from poetry to books to movies.
“Whatever it was—it could have been a Latin American novel that Carlos Fuentes was teaching at the school at the time, or it could have been anything—he would just have a blast talking and thinking about it,” Katz said.
Justine H. Henning ’88, now Scott’s wife, also stressed Scott’s genuine interest in his studies. The two first met while attending to some of the Co-op’s chores: He had signed up to wash the pots, while she had signed up to wash the dishes.
“He was part of the cigarette smoking crowd of the Co-op, and I was more of the vegetarian, hippie crowd,” Henning said. “It was a little bit like Romeo and Juliet.”
Scott’s intellectual nature was something that Henning found charming.
“He took academics very seriously, which he still does. He reads absolutely everything,” Henning said. “He has this impressive breadth of knowledge which has served him really well.”
One of her fondest memories of Scott from their college days involved a trip to the library together. When she and Scott first began dating, he offered to walk her to Hilles Library, carrying her books for her as they walked.
“It’s so old-fashioned, and I was really touched by that,” Henning said.
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