Olivia Taylor Barker
“Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon.” —E.M. Forster
Olivia lived for connection. With her family, friends, and readers. On the phone, at the table, on the page. Olivia wove connections with words—wry, spry, pitch-perfect words. She was that impossible combination of patient listener and boundless emoter. She had the rare ability—eyes wide, shoulders pitched forward, head tipped sideways just a bit—to make whomever she was talking to feel like the most fascinating person alive, and to believe completely, at that moment, that they were.
Olivia’s relationship with words started young. Her mom recalls her picking up each magnetic letter in the alphabet and naming it—at age 2! She published her first poem, “Red,” in sixth grade. At Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, she developed a Napoleonic command of grammar and rose to manage the news department at The Black and White. At Brown University, she managed the College Hill Independent and wrote legendary features on the fracas inside the Brown political science department, and on a midnight romp down the slopes of College Hill with extreme skateboarders. She sharpened her talent at Columbia University, where she met her husband, Ben Court, and received her master’s in journalism. And while she achieved high honors in all her academic pursuits, graduating Phi Beta Kappa and magna cum laude, she filed the certificates away and preferred not to parade her successes.
At 26, Olivia was hired as a reporter at USA Today. “She saw stories everywhere—on the beach, at the vet’s office, at her computer, or on the New York City subway,” says executive editor Susan Weiss. “Olivia could turn just about any topic into sparkling prose.” In hundreds of stories over 14 years, she covered the state of American life as we live it, from the shifting sands of public vs. private discourse to the march of millennial culture. “Call them Generation Why,” she wrote about the surging workforce challenging the stodgy status quo.
“Her writing felt poetic in a very accessible way,” says her longtime editor Alison Maxwell. “She had an uncanny ability to craft stories that allowed the reader to feel, see, smell and taste, just like they were there.” Olivia’s coverage of supernova celebrities from Scarlett Johansson to Jon Stewart was no less nuanced than her profiles of unknown teachers, authors, and trendsetters. She was as precise and rigorous in her reporting on “Sesame Street” and the Olympic Games as she was in chronicling the aftermath of September 11 and Hurricane Katrina. “If life is a yarn, Olivia was the first to turn over the needlepoint to delight in its tangled underbelly,” wrote another USAT colleague, Andrea Mandell.
Olivia and Ben shared an appetite for adventure to match their love of storytelling– together they carved turns in the Tetons, snorkeled the reefs of Zanzibar, paddled canoes on North Pond in Maine, and hiked Caribbean beaches under the moon. Olivia’s favorite spot was Cliff House Beach Cliff House Beach, Cape Elizabeth, where she would lie on the pebbles warmed by the sun with the surf crashing and seagulls calling. Wherever she was, whatever she was doing, the activity was a vessel for conversation.
Maybe that’s why she loved sunbathing so much. “Are you with me?” she would say, dancing around her partner with references to literature and music and reality TV, “You gotta keep up with my reference train.” That train moved fast. Lyrics from a George Michael song mingled with lines from a Michael Harper poem punctuated by a quote from Mad Men.
She also had a reverent respect for the finer things in life. That’s what drove her quest to find the perfect lobster roll in Maine (like the ones at Charlie’s Lobster Garden in Old Orchard: a toasted and buttered Nissen roll, lobster flesh with a little mayo, and a squeeze of lemon), the best banana pudding in Manhattan (Billy’s Bakery), and most elegant leather boots… on the planet (to be determined!). Brunch wasn’t brunch without a glass of rose champagne. The finest thing in all her life, and by far her greatest adventure, arrived October 31, 2009: Henry Barker Court, better known to her as “Sweet Corn.” To see him belting out Beatles songs (“Paul or John?” she would quiz him), hunting giant squid, brandishing his light sabers, and curling up next to her to fall asleep—nothing gave the joy-seeking Olivia deeper joy. Even before her diagnosis, Olivia squeezed the most out of every hour.
On January 21, 2011, Olivia learned that she had a rare and hard-to-treat form of triple-negative BRCA-positive breast cancer. Over the next four years, she would endure a double mastectomy, continuous chemo, radiation, experimental trials, rounds of hair loss, blood transfusions, catheters in both lungs, steroid courses, and even spinal surgery. Her friend, Amanda Little, captured her defiant spirit in an update to Olivia’s friends and family on December 5th, when Olivia’s doctor, Eric P. Winer, M.D., the Director of the Breast Oncology Center at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, determined that the ethical choice was to stop treatment of her cancer: “All of us who have known Olivia have witnessed superhuman tenacity and grace. She has fought hard—harder, it seems, than anyone, ever—not just to beat her illness but also to accept it without complaint. Olivia has refused, flat-out, to feel sorry for herself or make excuses, this while working full-time until four months ago, while loving her son, husband, family, and friends with total abandon, and while celebrating and savoring every last buttery crumb of life.”
Even, and maybe especially, when her strength and comfort were most challenged, humor was Olivia’s balm: “I was thinking yesterday when things got bad: Which hurts more, this godawful feeling in my back, or my experience interviewing Anne Hathaway?” After a long surgery, Olivia reveled at the removal of yards of tubes and tape, which put her “in less of a spaghetti situation.” And there was the comment she made when starting her last chemo trial in November: “You won't believe it— they’re nautical-themed!” she shouted when she saw her new blue-and-white-striped chemo pills, explaining how they fulfilled her fetish for sailor-striped clothing and accessories. “They were MADE for me!”
A master of the transition on the page, Olivia used rituals to bring comfort and order to change. Even in the final week of her life, she found a way to make her beds so tautly you couldn’t actually climb in; to align cushions on the sofa with June Cleaver precision; to critique the fizziness of a G&T; to pack the dishwasher her way, so that every square inch was most efficiently utilized. Olivia never once went to bed before the kitchen was spotless. Her favorite ritual by far—her most powerful tonic—was reading with, and singing to, and sleeping beside Henry.
“I am not one to speak in superlatives,” Dr. Winer wrote in an email on December 8th, the day after she died, “but she may actually be my favorite patient in my 25-year career as a breast cancer doctor. Olivia was bright, engaging, funny, irreverent, charming, kind, and a pleasure to spend time with. She was a truly amazing woman. In spite of difficult treatment and, at times, horrible symptoms from her cancer, Olivia was always interested in what was going on around the world and in the lives of those she cared about. She lit up a room when she walked into it.”
Her light lingered, and lingers still, in all the rooms she entered. Olivia was inevitably the last person to leave a party, and she could be relied on for one more of almost anything—to pour one more drink, to share one more quip, to listen to one more song, and always, always to give one more kiss and read one more book to her beloved Henry. For all those things, and for her fully lived, but too-short life, we are unspeakably thankful.
—Amanda Little and Ben Court