Unlike many of her peers who shifted their radicalism from religion to politics, Bella Savitzky never left her religion behind. Throughout college, she kept lighting candles, observing the rituals, defending Zionism against ideological attack. (“Can you imagine how bitter I feel when these guys say that I’m not pro-Israel?” the still religious Bella complains about her political opponents. “Just because once in 1968 I said we should cut all our military spending—even if it meant some aid to Israel.”)
Meanwhile, Bella’s life in those Hunter College-Columbia Law days was not all religion and politics. “I was all Oriental and gorgeous then,” she recalls. “I wore a size eleven.”
Enter Martin Abzug. Their how-they-met story—he picked her up at a Yehudi Menuhin concert in Florida—is less interesting than the fact of their mutual attraction. Martin Abzug had grown up on Riverside Drive. His family had made money manufacturing clothes during the war, and Martin had set aside his dream of becoming a novelist to work in the family business. In the matter of Bella Savitzky, he was less compliant. “It was crazy,” Bella says of her first encounter with Martin’s family. “I walk in and here’s his whole family looking me over. They regard me as the wrong girl because I was poor and I was a lawyer. They wanted their son to marry some rich dilettante who could nurture him and give him babies—that’s how his mother put it.”
“But I just ignored the whole thing,” Martin Abzug explains. “When my parents were moving into the Majestic—that was a big thing in those days—I said, ‘I’m not moving; I’m getting married.’ My mother said, ‘To who?’ I said, ‘To Bella,’ and she said, ‘Who’s that?’”
“Martin,” Bella snaps, obviously sick of this story she’s heard for three decades. “Not ‘Who’s that?’ Martin’s mother says, ‘What do you want to marry a lawyer for?’”
“Then my father said, ‘What do you want him to marry…a pot?’ ” Martin looks over at Bella and notices his wife doesn’t have one hint of a laugh.
Martin was certain he wanted to get married; he and Bella had discussed her dual identity for two years before they got married to make sure she could do both. Bella was defensive about marrying into money. “She made it a point,” Fran Temko remembers, “to explain that this guy had grown up during the Depression and had ridden the rails and that this money thing was just fortuitous, that his family had made it all during the war.”
Still, there ¬wasn’t enough money for Martin to leave the blouse factory, so he made more compromises, writing from midnight until four in the morning, only sleeping four hours a night. His first novel, Spearhead, was published a few years after they were married, and his second, Seventh Avenue Story, won him notice as “a writer of some talent.” He was, Bella says, “always frustrated from doing what he most wanted to do,” but he couldn’t stomach free-lance writing as a way of making money. So Martin compromised again—he became a stockbroker.
Thirty years later, as they discuss this in the living room of their Bank Street duplex, with its worn-velvet couches and its walls which need repainting, there is an odd tension between them. She seems not to be aware of the kind of pressure her presence can put on her family. “With their lives, everything is always contingent on whether she’s going to run again,” Liz Abzug says. “I say to my father, write, write, forget about what she’s going to do, but there’s always some new struggle you have to adapt yourself to, and you’re always having to change your life to deal with that. It becomes very difficult to say, ‘All right, enough already.’” Bella seemingly avoids this, describing Martin’s primary occupation as “a writer.” His third novel, she explains, didn’t sell, and although Martin doesn’t want to face the struggle and possible rejection again, she encourages him, “Go through it; it’ll be good for you.”
She doesn’t have to say that she is a living example of this lesson. When Bella was eight months pregnant, she traveled to Mississippi to try to obtain a stay of execution for Willie McGee, a black accused of raping a white woman. The sheriff trailed her when she arrived in the town, and no hotel would give her a room, so Bella stayed up all night in the bus station, then breezed into court in the morning. That time she won her client the first of two stays of execution. (He was eventually executed.) “Those were tough times” is the offhand way Bella describes her contribution. Her other cases were a collage of 1950s social injustices: She defended dozens of alleged communists, and worked on labor cases and civil-rights violations.