It would have been a coup for any young woman to score a job at Redbook, where McCray started working in 1977. It was the intellectual women’s magazine, having published fiction by Mary Gordon and Jane Smiley and articles by Betty Friedan, and staffed by pathbreaking women who understood keenly the art of the political gesture. In 1970, a band of Redbook editors took a stand by wearing pants to work, and Sey Chassler, the magazine’s editor, was convinced by a scholar to use she instead of he in print as the generic pronoun. A couple of years later, he persuaded dozens of magazines to simultaneously publish articles on the proposed Equal Rights Amendment. McCray was young but made her home there—though what co-workers remember, mostly, is how soft-spoken she was. Frances Ruffin remembers lots of editorial assistants working at Redbook at the time. “They were all very smart. Chirlane was the quietest.”
“I Am a Lesbian,” published in 1979, was a quiet girl’s scream, and a coming out on multiple levels: a declaration of sexual preference and a fierce insistence on being heard, damn the consequences. In it, McCray describes falling in love with a woman in her freshman year in college, exploring her sexuality through relationships, literature, parties, politics, and gay bars, and, in a final devastating lament, her desire that her father accept her for who she is. She wrote the essay, she says near the opening, because even though she “fears the monster of conformity will rear its angry head and devour me … I’m weary of playing games, and hiding and being afraid.”
Marcia Ann Gillespie was the editor who published the essay in Essence. “It was brave,” she says. “It was by a fierce, brave woman who was not ashamed to say, ‘I am a woman who loves women.’ ” But Gillespie was also about a decade older than McCray and remembers having the minutest maternal hesitation about McCray’s uncompromising certainty. “I thought, She’s so young. She’s going to have a long life.”
The De Blasios’ meet-cute story has become part of the family myth. She was working in the Dinkins administration, needed some information to write a press release, and sought out the man who had it. He saw her and was bowled over—heard angels singing, is how he puts it. She resisted, he persisted, and in 1994 they were married in Prospect Park.
But what did she see in him? She was nearly seven years older than he was and pushing 40, having spent her adulthood in relationships with women, working at jobs with little glamour, not much more established than she had been at 25, and here was this person who loved her, immediately, who shared her aspirations for changing the world—for living politics. For the girl from Springfield who was told not to complain about not having friends, Bill de Blasio must have been a relief, as comfortable as an easy chair. Early on in their courtship, Bill insisted that Chirlane meet his aunts and his mother, elderly, formal Italian women who lived in Hastings. McCray was charmed, not just by the ladies, whom de Blasio called the Three Graces, but by her boyfriend’s respect for the women who raised him and his determination to share his love for her with them. “That moved me,” she says. “It really did.” People who knew McCray in her early years and then fell out of touch are struck at how she has bloomed, how the young woman who once wrote that “the poem will surely come out wrong, / like me” has now “stepped forward,” says De Veaux, “a beautiful black woman, just exquisite-looking.” Her friend Karla Schickele puts it more succinctly: “She’s into him.”
Chiara was born in December 1994, seven months after the wedding, when Bill was working on Francisco Diaz’s state assembly campaign. McCray had always imagined a life with children, but as with so many women the reality of motherhood—the loss of independence, the relentlessness of the responsibility—was difficult. “I was 40 years old. I had a life. Especially with Chiara—will we feel guilt forever more? Of course, yes. But the truth is, I could not spend every day with her. I didn’t want to do that. I looked for all kinds of reason not to do it. I love her. I have thousands of photos of her—every 1-month birthday, 2-month birthday. But I’ve been working since I was 14, and that part of me is me. It took a long time for me to get into ‘I’m taking care of kids,’ and what that means.”
By the time Dante was born in 1997—the same year de Blasio started working for the Clinton administration as a regional director for HUD—Chirlane had mostly assumed the role of the default parent. She stopped working full-time for several years, and even when she resumed, it was she who was usually at after-school pickup at 6 p.m. “The kids came first,” she says. It was then that de Blasio’s ascent in Democratic politics began in earnest—first running Hillary Clinton’s Senate campaign and then winning a City Council seat to represent brownstone Brooklyn. In 2005, Bill and Chirlane decided to move their mothers, both in failing health, into a house that de Blasio’s mother, Maria Wilhelm, owned down the street. Katharine McCray, who had multiple myeloma, occupied the top floor, and Wilhelm, who suffered from heart ailments, lived below. It fell largely to Chirlane to coordinate “the grandmas’ ” care, keeping track of the coming and going of home health aides, driving them to doctors’ appointments, rushing to the emergency room as needed. It was, she remembers, one of the most difficult periods of her life.