After hearing someone dismiss her as “that Valkyrie from the Star Tribune,” Kristin Tillotson delighted in repeating the rebuff, and with good reason. As her editor Tim Campbell put it, “She did fit the bill of a Wagnerian heroine — imperious and impossibly Nordic, but one who used wit as her weapon, and disarmed all comers with a hearty laugh.”
Tillotson died May 11 after a brief illness. She was 56.
“I can still hear her saying, ‘Oh, brother,’ ” said friend Katherine Lanpher, of New York City. “She was this woman who decided she needed to live on the Greek isle of Santorini, who lived in Rome. She had this passion and zest for adventure that was inspiring to be around.”
Tillotson began writing for the Star Tribune in 1992, first about lifestyle topics and then specializing in arts and entertainment. In her weekly “Pop Stand” column in the late 1990s, she scrutinized popular culture with sass and depth. She plumbed the world of literature in her profiles for the Talking Volumes book club, and toured Europe with the Minnesota Orchestra and Osmo Vänskä.
She defined culture more inclusively than many, said András Szántó, former director of Columbia University’s National Arts Journalism Program, where Tillotson was a fellow in 2002-03.
“She had such an expansive view of what the mission of journalism is,” Szántó said. “She was a populist who had the broad idea that it’s possible to write cultural journalism about politics and political journalism about culture — that there shouldn’t be walls around these things. She could write about the opening of a laundromat and make it mean something.”
Friends described her as hilarious, adventurous, witty and chic — a modern-day Dorothy Parker. A personal delight was “casting” the Star Tribune newsroom in a movie. Others said she could only be portrayed by Uma Thurman.
Katy Reckdahl of New Orleans met Tillotson years ago at a New Year’s Eve party in a grimy Minneapolis warehouse “where she was dressed in a totally adorable black dress, a hat with a veil and long black gloves,” she said. “And she was just as exciting verbally as she was to look at.”
The glamorpuss also was deeply compassionate. She became a devoted godmother to Reckdahl’s son, Hector, now 10, becoming his “nainaine” in Creole patois. “They talked about everything,” Reckdahl said. “It was clear that if anything happened to me, she was ready to swoop in.”
Reckdahl said she never forgot Tillotson telling her “how she ached to do right by the people she reported on. That was how she put it: She ached to do right by them.”
Joan Vorderbruggen of the Hennepin Theatre Trust said Tillotson gravitated toward writing about people and projects that were, like her, “fearless and bold and meaningful,” she said. “It gave her a lot of joy to figure out, ‘What is the pulse of this person?’ ”
Nose always in a book
Tillotson grew up in Owatonna, Minn., the middle of three sisters who shared one bathroom.
Older sister Kathy Austin remembers her “marching off to kindergarten wearing a little pink dress, blue glasses and carrying a plastic rifle across her shoulder.”
At age 5, she was reading the encyclopedia. Rarely found without her nose in a book, Tillotson loved “Harriet the Spy” and the Trixie Belden books, but her favorite was “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Austin said. “I actually feel like she was Scout. And our dad did look a little bit like Gregory Peck.”
When Tillotson interviewed Peck in 1995 before a speaking appearance here, she brought along her mother, Kay.
After “her gangly years” at Owatonna High School, Austin said her sister emerged “like a butterfly in college” at Iowa State University in Ames, where she studied speech communication. The Tillotson women traveled the world, with Kay and Kristin visiting Cuba in 2014. Madeline Island near Bayfield, Wis., held a special allure.
Tillotson was an animal lover, adopting four rescue dogs over the years (most recently, Skip) and spent time at the Iowa Primate Learning Sanctuary in Des Moines, Iowa.
Her father, John Tillotson, preceded her in death. Survivors include her mother, Kay, of Owatonna; sisters Kathy Tillotson Austin, of Owatonna, and Karin Tillotson, of Atlanta; niece Katie Austin and nephew Jack Austin, and longtime partner Jack Nicora, of Brooklyn, N.Y.
A service will be held at 2 p.m. May 21 at Plymouth Congregational Church, 1900 Nicollet Av. S., Minneapolis, with a visitation preceding it.