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What Makes Bella Run?

Humor is only one way Bella keeps certain uncomfortable aspects of the world at a safe distance. Another is always to try to have the last word: Dick Aurelio remembers when John Lindsay had to flee to the bathroom to escape Bella when she’d camp out in his office at City Hall. Reporters who have spent time with Bella have long realized that she’ll deliver her most telling comments as they’re leaving, or that she’ll pull them back, slightly giddy with her media-star status, to show them a picture taken with Bobby Kennedy or tell them how, when she ran into Jimmy Carter in Washington, he said, “I love you, Bella.” There’s an endearing naïveté about this, as if she too is surprised at her own importance, and like a new face in the news, she will obsess when a newspaper runs an unflattering picture of her.

All these defenses—the humor, the obliviousness, the dressmaker friend in Connecticut who makes her clothes, so Bella won’t have to be humiliated in dressing rooms—are designed to protect her from feeling too directly the personal insults which have characterized her career and which, she insists, distract from the issues. Nevertheless, she has plenty of nerve endings that can send off a torrent of emotions, and she has a reputation as “a real crier.” At the Inner Circle dinner, during her first year in Washington, she openly wept at the skit which featured a fat woman in a floppy hat being ridiculed by her peers. When a reporter from the New York Times called to see how she felt about making more money than her husband, that sent off another torrent at the hurt the article would cause Martin. During the second race, her friend Shirley MacLaine had an event at Madison Square Garden and invited Priscilla Ryan—whose supporters had intimated that Bella, not cancer, was responsible for Bill Ryan’s death. “How could Shirley have done this to me?” Bella cried backstage.

“Everybody always thinks politicians only have one dimension,” Bella says. “Well, we have lots of dimensions.”

Over at the St. Paul & St. Andrew Church on West 86th Street, where the West Side Democratic clubs have converged to hear the mayoral candidates, they instinctively understand Bella—in all her dimensions. These are Bella’s people—“blacks, women, middle-class Jews, the Hispanics, the people who make our great city great”—and in this audience, there seems little doubt that these voters will come out again to try to put Bella in Abe Beame’s house.

For them, Bella is at her best. She’s slimmer than she’s been in months (“I’ve been following her around for two months, not letting her eat,” her finance chairman says), and she seems subdued by the presence of other candidates. But as she stands to speak, you can feel the tension surge through the crowd. This is “their Bella,” the housewife, activist, star, who never forgot where she came from and works her ass off to prove it. In this sea of love, Bella is the focal point; she is the earth mother who makes sense of change.

“We must revive the ports, revive the railroads,” she cries. “We must encourage manufacturing development; we have to erect a different base for all the costs of electricity and energy…it costs us five times more than any other place. …”

Every few moments, she is stopped with a ground swell of applause, more intense than the response for Andrew Stein and Ed Koch and Percy Sutton combined. Each outpouring galvanizes her further, until the emblematic Bella style—the clenched fist, the oratorical air-¬hammer voice—reaches every pew in the church.

“What this city needs is someone to try things. … What this city needs is someone who can bring the spirit back, who can give the people hope. …”

Her two minutes, the moderator says, are up.

“They’re telling me to stop,” Bella yells.

“Give her Mario Cuomo’s time!” come the shouts from those who’ve noticed that Cuomo isn’t around.

“They’re telling me to sit down!” Bella repeats.

The crowd stomps and cheers and hollers. These aren’t Harvard kids who are impressed by politicians who throw words like jejune around. These people respond more to her catchwords, her aura, than to the specific points of her programs. Like Rocky, like Annie, Bella Abzug’s appeal is to those who want from their politicians an umbilical tug of recognition. A woman who went to Washington and set two pictures on her desk—one of herself on a Hunter podium in 1941 standing next to Eleanor Roosevelt, the other of her mother—is, for all her dogged zeal, clearly so much the personification of the issues she espouses that she and they are indistinguishable.

Only her compulsion forces her to test herself in the mayoral race. She could wait until 1980 and run for Javits’s Senate seat, betting that Henry Kissinger will decide not to try his hand—as he’s been telling friends—at electoral politics. She would have been good at the consumer job that Carter offered her, but she refused to accept it. (“That job belongs to Eleanor Norton,” Abzug told Gloria Steinem.) She knows that to raid her former House seat is to risk being vilified, again, around town. Her International Women’s Year job is a nice way to keep her picture in the papers this year but will certainly not tax her talents till 1980. And, as for waiting, measuring her next move, that has never been an Abzug strength. Her friends tell her she loses whether she becomes mayor or not, but Bella’s inner voices say otherwise. She stalks the city not so much a politician in search of votes as a crusader who sees that New York may not have many chances left. The mind of the matriarch dictates that perhaps she can provide her city with one.


Related:

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