Linda Levitt Jines, 1962-2012

It is with great sorrow that I share the news that my dear sister Linda Levitt Jines passed away last month after a short but valiant battle with cancer.  She was fifty years old.

My very first instinct, as I sat down to try to eulogize Linda, was to call her to ask her to write it for me.  Pretty much all my life, when faced with something that called for just the right words, that is what I’ve always done. 

Most famously this happened when Dubner and I were halfway through writing a book that meandered from one topic to another and had no theme.  Between the publisher, Dubner, and me, we had generated a list of perhaps fifteen terrible titles before we ran out of ideas.  I knew with complete confidence that Linda would have the answer. 

Indeed, it was just a matter of hours before she responded with a potential title: Freakonomics.  I liked it. Dubner wasn’t sure.  The publishers hated it.  Our editor told us “we gave you way too big of a book contract to call this thing Freakonomics!”  In the end, though, Freakonomics won out, and it’s a good thing it did.  Without Linda’s brilliant name, I doubt that anyone would have ever read the book.  The name was a miracle.

Freakonomics wasn’t the first time, or the last time, that I benefited from Linda’s genius. 

The first time that I remember was when I was in seventh grade and she was in twelfth grade.  I was the nerdiest, most socially awkward kid imaginable.  She decided to take me on as a project.  Then, as now, I was smart enough to know to listen to her.  We became like best friends, and she gave me a complete makeover.  She changed my clothes.  She explained to me (nicely) how terrible and unlikable my personality was, and she helped me work on a new one.   She introduced me to “cool” music – the first album I bought with my own money that year was U2’s album Boy.  After a few years of her tutelage, I was unrecognizable.  I still couldn’t get a date for another four or five years, but I was a lot more fun to be around.  Looking through old scrapbooks, I stumbled onto an example of a note she had written to me that year, which pretty well captures the way her brain worked:

Dear Oink-baby,

The year is more than half over and it seems to me that you aren’t yet hitched with a charming little sample of 7th grade womanhood.  How do you resist their insidious allure?  They’re like the Sirens or the Lorelei!  Doesn’t your heart go all aflutter when you see those tempestuous maidens in repose (i.e. math class), natural patches of cochineal flitting across their cheeks as the contemplate various virtues of the opposite sex?  Well, keep trying.

Your sister,

Linda

At my middle school, every student was required to memorize a short story or poem and recite it standing in front of the class.  Two winners were chosen from each class, and they “got” to do their speech in front of a packed auditorium.  I was a kid who almost never spoke.  Nothing terrified me more than public speaking.  I asked for Linda’s advice.  She told me she would take care of everything.  She picked out a witty, lighthearted story for me.  She practiced with me, coaching me on every line’s delivery.  But she knew it wouldn’t be enough.  The piece she had chosen was told by a girl.  So she dug out one of her old dresses that would fit me.  Then she grabbed one of my mom’s blond wigs and put it on me.  She taught me how to curtsy.  She declared me ready.  It says a lot about my faith in her that I dutifully dressed as a girl and delivered my speech just as she wanted it.  I was selected to present in the packed auditorium.  Against all odds, the shyest kid in the class, dressed in drag, took home the trophy.  After that I never doubted her – I just did what she told me to. 

When she wasn’t busy pulling the puppet strings on my life, she was doing impressive things on her own behalf.  After college she got a degree in journalism from Medill at Northwestern.  She went into the creative side of advertising, landing a job at one of the top Chicago ad agencies.  Amused by the goings-on at the shoot for the first commercial she wrote, she wrote a satirical piece about it for Advertising Age.  She got fired the next day, which turned out to be a great career move.  She got hired within days by a cross-town rival with a big salary increase. 

Eventually she tired of advertising.  In 1995, she called to tell me she was going to start an internet business.  Her idea: she was going to buy big jugs of fragrance oils used in soap-making, pour the oil into little bottles with fancy labels, and resell them online.  This sounded like the worst idea I had ever heard.  First, no one was making money selling things over the internet in 1995.  Second, how could there possibly be enough soap makers around to make good money?  We all screamed at her not to waste her time.  Seventeen years later, www.sweetcakes.com remains a thriving, highly profitable business.  It never ceases to amaze me.  Later, she started a second online business, www.yarnzilla.com.  After Freakonomics, I started a little consulting company which eventually grew into The Greatest Good.  Linda was the Chief Creative Officer, her unique spirit imbuing everything we did.

And she did all this while she and her husband Doug raised the nicest, best-adjusted, most likable seventeen-year-old boy you
could ever imagine, their son Riley. (Linda’s expertise at turning boys into men clearly improved with practice over time, because even after her middle school recrafting of me, I was nothing compared to Riley.)  In addition to Doug and Riley, she leaves behind her parents Shirley and Michael, her sister Janet and me, as well as many nieces and nephews who could never get enough of Auntie Lin.

Every time Linda entered the room, without even trying, she became the center of gravity.  One of the people at Greatest Good had never met Linda before.  He walked into a conference room and all his co-workers were “grinning ear to ear.”  He wondered why.  The answer was that Linda was there holding court.

The massiveness of her genius and creativity make the gaping hole of her absence all the greater.

Linda, we all miss you so much.

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COMMENTS: 68


  1. Jonathan Ng says:

    I’m very sorry for your loss.

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  2. mike gordon says:

    A very nice remembrance. Sincere condolences, Steven.

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  3. KEnt says:

    My condolences on your loss. She sounds like an amazing woman and a wonderful sister. As I’m sure you know, you were very, very lucky to have her in your life.

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  4. Ranis says:

    Blessings to you and your family. She sounded like an amazing woman.

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  5. Josee says:

    I am so sorry! Linda sounded like a brilliant sister.

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  6. Lana says:

    Your sister sounds like an amazing person – I am so sorry for your loss, Mr. Levitt.

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  7. Danielle says:

    So sorry to hear about the loss of your sister. She sounded like an amazing person and very funny woman. I hope many people will be inspired by your tribute to inject a little more creativity and humor into their lives with — I know I am!

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  8. Lisa Sansom (@LVSConsulting) says:

    So sorry to hear of the loss of your brilliant sister. What a wonderful remembrance, and I’m sure that wherever she is, she’s making people smile.

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  9. bill tucker says:

    What a brilliant mind. What a wonderful sister. I felt your loss in your words. I think she remains with you still.

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  10. Mike says:

    Condolences. Someone that brilliant with words should not have been taken from us so soon.

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  11. Bruno Carvalho says:

    Dear Steven,
    There´s a word in portugueses that describes perfectly what you and your family are feeling: Saudade.
    My condolences.

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  12. Vivienne says:

    Sorry for your loss, your sister sounds very cool. must be awesome to get to grow up with her.

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  13. Robert Ung says:

    I am very sorry for your loss. Your sister sounds like someone really amazing.

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  14. Richard Fitzgerald says:

    You’re in my thoughts Stephen. I hope you find the strength to remember her in her best days

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  15. Stephen S says:

    I’m sorry for your loss. My heart goes out to you and your family.

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  16. Jim says:

    So sorry, know that your loyal readers share in some of your pain. Best wishes for you and your family during this time.

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  17. Liam says:

    Very sorry to hear of your loss, Steve.

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  18. Bill B says:

    I am sorry for the loss of your dear sister. I am happy for you that you have such memories of her to treasure.

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  19. rich says:

    Profoundly written. I am extremely saddened by your loss Sir.

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  20. Eric Pinckert says:

    That your sister could integrate “the Lorelei” and “natural patches of cochineal” into a coherent paragraph on junior high courtship written as a high school senior is proof positive of her early mastery of the English language. Thank you for sharing such a fitting tribute. My condolences to you and your family.

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  21. Lucky You! says:

    Dear friend; I wish that I had a sister like yours to have good times with and am sorry to hear of your great loss. finding the right words is rough _whether in writing a book or in a debate. My analyst once gave me two pieces of advise that I will pass along and hope that you will as well to O – Get angry in debate and you lose and (once you know your stuff) – enjoy yourself. I was reading and listening to the memorials to Arthur Sulzberger and could not help but be touched by his committment to free speech and unique ability to size a situation up. All I can say is- every individual deserves to be memorialized for what they have contributed. Not everyone has a willing and able advocate. Thanks too all.

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  22. LindaCO says:

    My big sister died way too early, too. I’m sorry for your loss.

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  23. Sam_L says:

    It is clear the world is a poorer place with her departure. Your memories do her honor. I should have liked to meet her.

    My prayers are with your family.

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  24. roger st says:

    Steven, your ability to be so endearingly honest in your depiction of the pre-Linda-makeover version of yourself is, I’m guessing, one of the many changes that Linda wrought in her transformation of you, and if so, it’s perhaps her most remarkable creation of all. Oh, and I hear the Muppets are interested in the rights to Oink-baby.

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  25. Judith R. King says:

    Wow; i almost never comment on any site, but this simply and divinely eloquent “eulogy” to a fallen sister breaks the heart. What did that poem, The Charge of The Light Brigade, say: “Ours is not to reason why”….how can we ever try to make sense of such tragedy? All that we’re left to do is to remember, to appreciate, to love better and to savor. That is our lesson, both existential and greater.

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  26. Eric says:

    I’m sorry for your loss Dr. Levitt

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  27. Terry Gearhart says:

    I’m sorry for your loss. A fitting tribute to her that I’m sure she would have loved.

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  28. Marcia Gomez says:

    What a wonderful tribute you have shared with us of this amazing woman! Sounds like she was absolutely the best sister you could have ever wished for and that she was there at just the right moments throughout your life.

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  29. Ryu Fan says:

    Sincere condolences. Cancer does not discriminate — it affects so many lives, unfortunately.

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  30. Saurabh says:

    My condolences to you Mr. Levitt. I could only hope for someone so supportive and cool as your sister was. Best wishes.

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  31. Elle says:

    really a great rememorance

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  32. Marie Barron says:

    What a wonderful tribute to your sister. My sincerest condolences.

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  33. Brandon Adams says:

    I worked with Linda closely while she was at The Greatest Good and I can say that she was a flash of genius and good spirit. She was genuinely the most fun and enthusiastic person I’ve ever come across in a working environment.

    I had not heard that she came up with the “Freakonomics” title, but it doesn’t surprise me. In a conversation with Linda, you always wanted a pen and notebook. She was a fount of ideas. The makeover anecdote doesn’t surprise me; she had a way of communicating painful truths in a way that was gentle. She always called it exactly how she saw it, but did in a way so as not to offend. I will miss her.

    Brandon

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  34. Mark McGinnis says:

    Simply lovely. Your sister sounds as remarkable as my late wife. Thanks for sharing.

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  35. Bill McAlister says:

    My condolences for your loss. You are a lucky man to have had her in your life. I have to say that you did her proud with your article. I think she was lucky to have you as well.

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  36. rob schoenbaum says:

    I’m so sorry. Thank you for this appreciation of her.

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  37. Lassie says:

    You were lucky to have such a great sibling, I am so sorry for your loss.

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  38. Nikki says:

    That was a beautiful life. Sorry for your loss.

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  39. Jep says:

    It sure seems like the best people go too early. Sorry for your loss.

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  40. Quinton says:

    Well said, sir. She’d be proud.

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  41. Horatio says:

    What a wonderful tribute to your sister. I am very sorry for your loss.

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  42. Cheryl Crook Thompson says:

    That’s a beautifully sincere obituary. You obviously had a wonderful sister whom you loved very much. I hope my younger brother feels the same about me (though I’m sure he wouldn’t have the same well-crafted words…)

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  43. Jose Carlos says:

    My condolences.

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  44. Owinok says:

    Hang in there Steven. I am sure she too is proud of the result of the fine touches that led to a very grateful brother. My best wishes.

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  45. rebecca douglass says:

    …some stars in the sky are so beautiful and bright that there light never ceases to shine down upon us…

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  46. Amanda says:

    She sounds like a wonderful person. I’m very sorry for your loss.

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  47. AaronS says:

    When someone passes, we can choose to dwell on the beauty that has been lost…or to give thanks for the unbelievable and glorious experiences that we were privileged to enjoy. Steven, few men have endured the pain that you have in life. For brief moments, wondrous creatures of rare beauty and delight were placed in your life. I have to believe that they were blessed–and are perhaps even now expressing thanks–that they had someone such as you…who saw their giftedness, loved them fully, and remembers them so well. To not be forgotten is surely the greatest gift one can ask for in life. And you will not forget them. I trust that one day, some way, somehow, you will see them again.

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  48. Bruce H says:

    Steven, thank you for sharing this. You are lucky to have had such a great sister, and you’ve done her proud, too. Condolences to you, your family and friends.

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  49. gwen p says:

    what a beautiful thing to eulogize your sister this way. gone but never forgotten, she enriched your life. god bless you.

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  50. A Lau says:

    I am deeply sorry for your loss. It sounds like Linda was an awesome person. I offer my condolences to you and your loved ones.

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  51. Brigid says:

    She sounds like the sort of person I’d have treasured were I blessed to know her. Keep telling us Linda stories, please.
    May her memory be eternal!

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  52. Ralph says:

    Really sorry to hear of your loss – you’ve written a fine eulogy. I lost my sister a few years ago and really miss her still so, sadly, I really know how you feel.

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  53. Len says:

    Sorry for your loss. Your writing and work honors and celebrates her life and contributions, and you can’t really do much better than that in my book.

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  54. Sarah Babcock says:

    What a wonderful tribute to your sister. I can imagine someone so entwined in your life and success will be sorely missed. My thoughts are with you as you move through your grief.

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  55. Andrea says:

    This is such sad news. What a sweet tribute. Best wishes to your family for finding ways to heal together during this time.

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  56. chipotle says:

    What a beautiful eulogy. I’m so sorry for your loss.

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  57. dani levin says:

    stev, when tova came home and told us of linda’s sudden and devastating diagnosis we were sad and hopeful that you all would still have alot of good time together.when we heard such a short time later of her passing we were shocked and so sorry for your loss.from the stories i’ve heard about linda from tova, and after reading your post and your father’s letter about linda she was truly special. but then again so is your entire family.if the care, concern and tuteledge you have given to tova is any indication of your true nature linda probably loved bantering with you as much as the reverse.i hope the memories will be a source of comfort as well as joy for you all for a very long time.

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  58. George says:

    Condolences and good wishes to you and your loved ones. You were all lucky to have one another.

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  59. Mary F says:

    I am sad for you and your family but so frustrated and upset that your sister had to go through so many unnecessary hoops during the last month of her life. I will never forget what your father shared and what your sister went through. I think trying to stay out of the hospital when death seems inevitable is the moral to the story.

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  60. Alan says:

    So sorry for your family’s loss. May it always remind you of how much you are blessed.

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  61. Polly Anderson says:

    She sounds incredible.

    She reminds me of my little sister, who also passed away from a long battle with cancer at the age of 16.

    My God, she was brilliant. Accurately named “Sophia”, lover of wisdom, she was always glad to be my go-to writing critic who meticulously yet gently caught every off-sentence in my college application essays.

    Precocious, way beyond her years, silly, eccentric, and outgoing she was a tall, pale very thin girl who, to my envy, would read thick books in mere days, practiced stand up comedy in high school writing articulate and entertaining pieces, trained to be a volunteer for a teen hot line in between hospital visits, had a place in her heart for gangsta rap, and was not afraid to outright tell people she loved them, new friends included. Friends still stop by her Facebook wall to drop a line, two years after her passing.

    I miss her terribly.

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  62. Lynda M Otvos says:

    Steve, my heart reaches for yours. I have lost both my younger siblings in the last few years and the huge hole in my heart refuses to close. The loss is enormous on so many levels that I have been unable to write about it yet and Teri has been gone since July 2008. Tears flush words right off the page.

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  63. Elizabeth says:

    Linda sounds like she was an incredible woman and one who brought a spark of life wherever she went. The world is a little darker without her presence.

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  64. Tony W says:

    Hi Steven,

    Your sister sounds like an amazing person. I went to high school with Doug and stayed in touched with him on and off over the years. I just happen to google his name and found your blog. Thank you so much for sharing your stories and memories of her. I’m so sorry for your loss. Please tell Doug the same and that I’m thinking of him. I hope the best for you and your family and their son Riley.

    Tony W

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  65. Tom Ballman says:

    I am so sorry to hear of Linda’s passing.
    50 is way to soon to pass away.
    I have many fond memories of your entire family, each summer at “Pine Cone Lodge”
    You spoke of nerdiness in your rememberances of earlier years, but i just thought you and your entire family were mystically brilliant. I probably didnt say much, but marveled with curiosity from a distance.

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  66. Patti Lee-Hoffmann says:

    A beautiful tribute. The sad price of love is that gaping hole of grief you described. Thank you for sharing the story of this special person.

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  67. Alphonsus William says:

    I am touched by loss. I can perfectly identify with your story of being a nerd. Losing someone who held your hand and pulled you out of boyhood can be a blow harder than that recieved at the solar plexus; it takes the wind out of your sails, even if temporarily. Your account of her reminds me of my own elder sister who always looks out for her kid brother. You should stand encouraged knowing that she lived a rich and rewarding life.

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  68. EGF says:

    STEVEN where did you and Linda attend school together in that over-lapping year?

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