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What Makes Bella Run?

There’s also a subliminal feeling that Bella is the “wrong kind of Jew,” that she can’t fit into boardrooms or in with bankers; that you need Henry Kissinger—or Ed Koch—for that. (“That’s ridiculous,” Bella snarls. “I’ve always dealt with bankers, my whole law career. Of course I can sit in boardrooms.”) In the Senate race, that feeling of her inappropriateness even infiltrated the newspaper of record. The Times’s editorial board had decided to endorse Abzug over Moynihan, but Punch Sulzberger, upholder of German-Jewish propriety, wasn’t about to let that Russian peasant agitator represent his city. “I want him to win,” Sulzberger told his editorial-board chief and cousin, John Oakes. He wouldn’t have to overrule his board today. On May 10, the Times’s editorial page said it had cause to “doubt the suitability” of the Abzug candidacy, and the Times’s front-page photo of her after the NDC win—a fat, middle-aged woman adrift and alone in a sea of folding chairs—seemed calculated to show the image which most pleases Bella’s critics. It takes Bella Abzug to arouse that primal a passion.

In this mayoral race, those primal passions are especially important. Bella’s strength is based on her assertiveness and high visibility, but this kind of appeal makes her position all the more precarious. Abzug supporters who watched her swear during the Senate campaign she’d never support Pat Moynihan are praying that this time out, Bella can control her outbursts. “Half of working for Bella is repairing the damage,” says Doug Ireland.

Much of the damage can never be repaired. Bella Abzug is a woman who can make enemies without realizing it, then feel bewildered or betrayed when the enmity is revealed. “I blow up and then I forget about it right away,” she shrugs. Daughter Liz explains it another way: “She gets intolerant. She makes jokes about it sometimes, then says, ‘You know me, what else do you expect?’” Les Whitten, for one, didn’t expect a hysterical Bella on the phone after he printed a pre-election rumor that she’d told friends she didn’t think she’d beat Moynihan. “No one had ever spoken to me like that before,” he commented. Abe Rosenthal, Victor Gotbaum, and Nelson Rockefeller have all picked up the phone to hear Bella raging on the other end. And no place is out of bounds: Charles Rangel was once accosted by a shrieking Bella on the floor of the House not long after her Senate loss. “Why didn’t you get the blacks out for me?” she yelled at the stunned Harlem Democrat. And her former colleagues in Washington remember well the screaming match she had with Ed Koch after he endorsed Bess Myerson for the Senate race.

For Bella Abzug, there is no right time or place. She has been perfecting a set piece of outrage and commitment ever since, as ten-year-old Bella Savitzky, she hung around subway stops soliciting money for a Jewish motherland.

She was never held back. Her father was a political idealist—he named his Ninth Avenue butcher shop the Live and Let Live Market—who made sure both his daughters went to synagogue every Sabbath and learned Hebrew and Yiddish. Bella was eleven when he died. Without hesitation, she invaded the shul’s all-male sanctity to say Kaddish for him, returning every day for a year without anyone daring to stop her. Her mother, Esther, extended the encouragement Bella had received from her father. In short order, Bella mastered the mandolin (which she refused to play on the Carson show, arguing, “I’m a politician, not a performer”), took dance lessons, was elected president of her high school class, worked out with the swim team, maintained honor grades, and gave—in her spare time—Hebrew lessons at the Knightsbridge Community Center.

Esther Savitzky was right behind her. “She even used to go to school and fight for Bella if she thought she was having trouble with her teachers,” Liz Abzug says. And both Bella and her sister Helene, who now teaches music in Great Neck, did fulfill their mother’s thwarted ambitions. “My mother always wanted to be a teacher,” Bella recalls. “When my father died, she was forced to become a bookkeeper to support us, so she always stressed education and professionalism.” As a result, Bella knew from age eleven that she would become a lawyer.

When she left her Bronx high school for Hunter College, Bella was already formed as a crusader. The New York Post clips from 1942 describe Bella Savitzky as “a known campus pink,” but her classmates elected her student-council president. “In her spare time,” a friend wrote, “she takes the faculty to task for not providing more chairs in the cafeteria, campaigns for the rights of students to visit classes other than their own, lobbies for courses in Negro lore and Hebrew. …. Bella never tires of campaigning.” Her mother’s reaction to these hosannas was that Bella wasn’t appreciated enough: “All the work you do, and they just talk about your carrying chairs.”


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  • Archive: “Features
  • From the Jun 20, 1977 issue of New York
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