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Journalist’s Secret Is Her Second Career

Posted on 11 October 2009

During the1950s, Joan Ellis was a full-time homemaker and mother. In 1979, at the age of 48, she completed the undergraduate degree she’d begun before her marriage. A decade later, she launched a successful new career as a film critic. Now age 69, she’s going strong. Read her reviews on her Web site, Movie buffs take note: You can search reviews by title, keyword or quotable quotes. Newsweek has called her “the Pauline Kael of the Internet.” This is her story.

Ms. Ellis married at age 19 after three years at Vassar College. For the next 40 years, while her husband built a company he started in a garage, she did the scattershot work of home and family. In the early days, she kept the books, raised three children and did the school volunteer work so typical of the 1950s.

After her last child had left the nest, she applied to Princeton University to finish her degree. She was accepted as one of the first candidates under its continuing education program. “Because I had met all my requirements before leaving Vassar at the end of my junior year, I was free to roam through the Princeton catalog,” she says. “My interest in the Bill of Rights led me straight to Constitutional law in the Woodrow Wilson Graduate School, an evening seminar with the historian Eric Goldman in historical writing, a seminar with [reporter] Don Obedorfer, on leave from the Washington Post, plus a couple of other courses.”

The year was absorbing and demanding. The dean had said “You better do well, you’re one of the first and they’ll be watching.” Because she’d met all her graduation requirements at Vassar and had been doing alumnae work for her class of 1951 there for years, she chose to take her degree from Vassar when the year was through. In the spring, Ms. Ellis became an official member of the class of 1951.

With three children gone and what were to be eight grandchildren arriving, she and her husband found they wanted different things out of life: he to travel full time and she to work. After five years of floundering, they ended their 40-year marriage in a “thoroughly amicable” divorce, and have pursued their own interests independently.

Ms. Ellis always had loved both movies and writing and decided to put the two together. But becoming a critic wasn’t easy. “Getting published so I would have clips was the challenge,” she says. “Finally, a local paper took me, then another, then another.” She’s now a syndicated columnist based in Middletown, N.J., writing up to three reviews a week published in seven newspapers in three states. “Once you get published, even in the smallest paper, you get the chance to prove your reliability,” she says. “There’s a good deal to be said about meeting commitments in older age.”

Her life is a “terrific mix” of movies, writing, friends, family and working outdoors, she says. “The weekly deadlines of the reviews are demanding. But they keep the mental muscles moving while I think about several other writing projects I want to undertake. A screenplay has written itself in my head but not a word has yet made it to the page. I’m interested in documentary film, a short memoir, and finding my way into writing about life in the later years.”

Ms. Ellis says she “almost can’t bear it” when she hears someone her age say, “I’m too old for computers.” Her view on aging is quite different: “the only bad thing is the shrinking time frame to try new things,” she says.

This attitude extends to other aspects of her life. For example, after years of being an average skier, at age 65 she had a major breakthrough in the sport. In Aspen, Colo., a ski instructor showed her how to dive into her turns. “For some reason, I saw it for the first time in my skiing life,” she says. “At first I thought it was about having ‘nothing left to lose,’ but later realized I’d simply figured it out intellectually. It’s been all pure excitement from that point on.”

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