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Judith Rossner, 70; novelist wrote 'Mr. Goodbar,' 'August'

NEW YORK -- Judith Rossner, the straight-talking, straight-writing New Yorker who in ''Looking for Mr. Goodbar" and other novels relentlessly analyzed educated women amid the fear and freedom of social and sexual revolutions, has died at the age of 70.

Mrs. Rossner died Tuesday night at NYU Medical Center, her family said yesterday. She had been ill with diabetes and leukemia, but the cause of death was not immediately determined, said her brother-in-law, Rayner Pike, a retired Associated Press writer.

''Mr. Goodbar," which came out in 1975, was probably her best-known work, because of to the 1977 movie that starred Diane Keaton as the Roman Catholic schoolteacher in New York City who frequents singles bars, with fatal results.

''The sureness of Judith Rossner's writing and her almost flawless sense of timing create a complex and chilling portrait of a woman's descent into hell that gives this book considerable literary merit," The New York Times wrote.

Mrs. Rossner's many novels also include ''To the Precipice," in which a woman leaves her husband after she becomes pregnant from an extramarital affair, and ''His Little Women," a modern, feminist retelling of ''Little Women." The No. 1 bestseller ''August," published in 1983, tells of a young woman and her Manhattan psychoanalyst, whose own travails include dealing with two husbands, a lover, and a society that views women over 40 as over the hill.

In a 1983 interview with The Washington Post, Mrs. Rossner said, ''It's astonishing what some women will put up with just to have a warm body -- some of the brightest women I know are just obsessed with that search. It's very sad."

It was a subject she explored repeatedly.

''My abiding theme is separations," Mrs. Rossner, married three times, said in the same interview. Her women yearn to connect with men or family to find love, but typically find it unattainable.

Influenced by such explicit works as Erica Jong's ''Fear of Flying" and Truman Capote's ''In Cold Blood," Mrs. Rossner narrated in fullest detail life's most extreme and private moments, from the murder in ''Mr. Goodbar" to an orgy in ''Attachments" that featured Siamese twins.

Longtime friend, journalist, and author Betty Rollin said yesterday that Mrs. Rossner's personal honesty was inseparable from her writing.

''You knew what was on her mind and in her heart. She let you know," Rollin said. ''In the world we live in, where everyone was careful, Judy wasn't careful at all. . . . In this great way, she didn't give a hoot. She wasn't for show at all."

Another close friend, film critic Andrew Sarris, called Mrs. Rossner ''an exemplar of that New York sensibility" -- cosmopolitan and ''skeptical of everything.

''She was always trying to push the envelope a little bit, to come up with something beyond the ordinary," Sarris said. ''Her writing . . . is very much a reflection of who she is and what she is. She was like her writing."

Born Judith Perelman in 1935, she was a native New Yorker who dropped out of college to marry Robert Rossner, a writer and teacher whom she divorced in 1972.

As a single mother with two children, and author of three previous novels that sold little, Mrs. Rossner consciously sought a more commercial story and began working on ''Mr. Goodbar," based on the true story of a teacher murdered in a singles bar.

She wrote in the early morning, before leaving for her job as a secretary, and hoped the book would make enough money to allow her to take time off from work. She achieved far more. ''Mr. Goodbar" was both a bestseller and hot property in Hollywood, which purchased film rights even before the book came out.

In a Detroit News interview, Mrs. Rossner credited her mother, a schoolteacher, for inspiring her to become a writer.

''She kept encouraging me when I was young, and so I just accepted it -- this was what I was going to do -- I was going to write books," Mrs. Rossner said. ''But she never said anything about money or success, so none of that was built into my expectations. Just writing and getting published was enough at first."

She leaves her husband, Stanley Leff; her children, Daniel and Jean Rossner; and three grandchildren.

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