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What Makes Bella Run?

To save money when their daughters, Eve Gail (“Eegee,” she’s called) and Liz, were young, they moved to Mount Vernon; the Abzugs commuted to work. “We lived for a while in Mount Vernon,” Bella began to tell me when Martin interrupted, “What do you mean…a while? We lived there for thirteen years!” Bella’s role as a mother was hardly traditional. “I would be helping them with their books while they would be doing their homework, and I would say, ‘That’s not the way it happened,’ and they’d say, ‘Well, what should we write on the exam, what you say or what the book says?’ And I’d tell them, ‘I’m telling you what the facts are; you make your own decisions.’” During the fifties, when John Foster Dulles was convinced the commies were fast approaching, Liz remembers being instructed by both parents not to participate in civil-defense drills. When she reported that all the other students were busy building bomb shelters, Bella said, “Maybe not now, but in time everybody will agree with me.” In the sixties, when Bella was active in the Women’s Strike for Peace, her daughters would bring their mother’s pamphlets to school for show-and-tell.

Still, Bella kept out of electoral politics until her daughters were eighteen and twenty and she felt they could handle the inevitable abuse. Not long after her mother was elected to Congress, Liz recalls, a Boston University professor challenged a paper on communism saying, “Hey, Abzug, where are your mother’s balls?” This year, one of her Hofstra law professors practically accused her mother of murdering Bill Fitts Ryan in that second congressional race. Others plague Liz to get their relatives jobs as pages. “I tell them that people only mention me as a way of getting to know them better,” Bella says. Liz disagrees. “The problem is, I’m always defending a position, which is: how to get people off my back.”

Clearly, having a Bella Abzug in the family requires more than the usual political adjustment. It may not be particularly helpful that at home Bella rarely vents the full force of her famous anger; such, friends say, is her guilt about the time she spends away from them. “I think she directs all the screaming and yelling that she’d ordinarily get out on her family at me,” Ronnie Eldridge says. But that anger—and certainly that energy—is a palpable force, and each family member has reacted to it. Eegee doesn’t get involved in any publicity and has told her sister she will leave the city if Bella wins the mayoral race. “Thank God she’s out of our house and in your house,” Eegee joked with Bella zealots after the first congressional race. Martin’s reaction is to nod off whenever Bella’s inflection changes to Bella-the-politician’s.

“I’ve seen her out at dinner,” a friend says. “When Martin nods off, she’ll very sweetly put her arm around him. If you look closely, you can see she’s digging her nails into his arm to wake him up.” One classic tale about Martin’s narcolepsy comes from a few years back, when the Abzugs were applying to a private school for their daughter Liz. They visited the school’s psychological counselor together for a screening interview, and as soon as Bella began talking, Martin nodded off. “At that point,” she told friends, “I think I saw the humor in it, and I just laughed.”

The bittersweet, raucous Bella laugh has been heard a lot lately; it’s her way of coping with the endless ego stresses and anxieties which are the stretch points in her desire to make a better world. At the party launching Us magazine at Elaine’s, Bella was pleased to be asked to cut the cake. According to Rex Reed, though, she was less pleased to see Paul Newman’s face on it; in the last election, Newman supported Ramsey Clark, whom Bella privately calls “the spoiler.” “I’d like to circumcise him instead,” Bella laughed as the knife cut through Newman-in-icing. Or up at Harvard. After being asked 30 times about whether she would run for mayor, after a meal of latex roast beef and rubber peas, with nothing to look forward to but another talk to a bunch of people who can’t even vote for her, she was still the tummler. Introduced by a man who said he’d been in the State Department for 37 years, Bella said, “And you’re bragging about it?” This is the Battlin’ Bella of the early days slipping out, the Bella who once heard Ed Koch congratulate himself for his early opposition to the war and responded by bellowing, “I don’t know about you, but in 1942 I was knittin’ for Britain and crochetin’ for the Sovietin’.”


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