Is Washington Ready for Bella Abzug? Is Anybody?

From the October 5, 1970 issue of New York Magazine.

The guy was built like a Ward LaFrance pumper. He was dancing by himself in the playground between Forsyth and Chrystie Streets on the downtown East Side, dancing in his undershirt, his eyes half-closed to the Latin music coming through the loudspeakers, a can of beer in his right hand. Bella Abzug advanced on him as if the corner had told her she was behind on points. Bella came with this wide, clomping stride, brushing past people, both hands well out in front of her. The Ward LaFrance pumper shouted. Bella shouted back. Then they both shouted and took each other’s hands, the can of beer remaining in the guy’s hand, and they began to dance. First Bella swayed. Then her large ankles began to move. The Ward LaFrance pumper began to sway too. His feet shuffled. Now he began to pick them off the asphalt and slap them back down in time to the music and his shoulders swung and he began singing in Puerto Rican. Bella sang with him and they danced around. Now he decided he wanted to twirl Bella. The Ward LaFrance pumper, still singing, flexed his sweat-coated biceps and started to turn his wrists over so that Bella would spin under his hands. His wrists did not move. Puzzlement ran over his eyes. He stopped singing and stuck out his bottom lip and tried to turn his wrists again. Nothing happened. And now his fingers turned pale as Bella’s hand pressed his fingers into the beer can he had in his hand and now Bella, singing and swaying, decided she wanted to do some twirling. Bella rolled her wrists and the Ward LaFrance pumper went into a double spin and the can of beer turned upside down in his hand and the beer splashed onto his head while Bella twirled him around as much as she wanted.

This is Bella Abzug when she campaigns nice. She is the Democratic party candidate for Congress in the 19th Congressional District of New York, having won what is still a very difficult-to-believe June primary victory over the Democratic congressman for the district for fourteen years, Leonard Farbstein. Bella’s campaign headquarters for the November general election is on Christopher Street, in the old offices of the Village Voice newspaper, and the bar next door is called the Lion’s Head. On one recent evening, a Bella Abzug campaign aide, Michael Macdonald, came into the Lion’s Head saloon. Macdonald was holding his side. He ordered a drink and talked to nobody.

“What the hell is the matter with you?” someone asked him.

“Oh that dirty effin woman, I’ll never work for her again.”

“What’s the matter now?” he was asked.

“Do you know what she did to me?” Macdonald said.


“She punched me.”

He clutched his side. It developed that a bit earlier, while riding in the back of the car with Bella, he began to argue with her about the schedule and as he argued, Bella got mad. Finally, Bella gave him a whack in the side and, as she can, nearly took him out with the punch.

Macdonald spent the remainder of the evening in the Lion’s Head. The next day he received a telephone call from Bella.

“Michael, I called to apologize. How’s your kidney?”

On another recent night, she was talking to the New York Democratic Assembly, a Reform club on the second floor of a building at 87th and Broadway. Bella was wearing a very good gray coat-dress and a big matching gray hat. She stood in the front of the room, her feet apart, her right hand jabbing the air. She began hooking with the left. She looked like a fighter in training, and you had to smile. Then the hand motions stopped and her voice softened. She was not shouting the way she usually does. With a simple, unfaltering talk, Bella Abzug became a moving woman.

“I walked into the Garden Cafeteria downtown where workers go before they go to work and they tell me they can’t afford the prices anymore. They can barely live. They have to go on the subway and it doesn’t even work and besides, they can’t afford the fare, it’s too much for them. The housing they’re in is so bad. A car ran into a building on Houston Street and the building, the building collapsed and people fell into the street. And what is the policy of Nixon, Agnew and Rockefeller? The policy is to let the generals spend billions to kill Vietnamese, kill their men, women and children, and our children, the older ones, get killed and come back crippled and maimed, you should see them maimed, you won’t sleep again for them, and here at home we need 24-hour day-care centers and we don’t have them because they cost too much money and we need the money for the generals. Little children stay cooped up in little rooms with rats and the mother can’t go to work, and that means there’s no money for the child’s clothes so the mother is too ashamed to send the child to school. You watch this damn election campaign and it’s reminiscent of a time when people thought they had no right to talk about the conduct of the country and they shut up. I’m frightened. Nixon, Agnew and Rockefeller, they’re pouring millions into this campaign. They want us to shut up. We have to beat Rockefeller to show we don’t want Nixon’s policies. I’m unimportant. Just beat Rockefeller. Some of you are more experienced in acting than others. It’s the others who need help. Do it for them. And for yourselves and your children. If you want to send one loudmouth to Washington to yell about certain things, then all right, you could vote for Bella. But that’s not so important. What do I mean next to a child’s future? What do any of us mean? Who cares what happens to us? What we do in a voting booth, we do for our children.”

As she spoke, the gentle emotion in her voice caught the people in the room. She made you remember that she has been gathering petitions, screaming on phones, pushing through hallways in the Congressional office building, standing on streetcorners and in smelly meeting rooms for just as long as this war has been on. Some came early, others came late. Bella has been there forever.

And as she kept talking, her face changed. It softened. Little crinkles set off her dark eyes. She looked beautiful.

“I think the son of a bitch is copping out on us,” I said to Jack Newfield later that night. “She looked like she was from Roslyn.”

“She feeds on campaigning,” Newfield said. “It does the same thing for her that pregnancy does for some women.”

Talking about her looks is the only way you can get around her. The other afternoon, before a conference with Arthur Goldberg, Bella fussed and fumed, “What the eff am I going to say to him and what is he going to say to me?” She barged into Goldberg’s office with this attitude, and Arthur Goldberg stood up and said, “Why, Bella Abzug, you’re a very pretty woman.” It was over right there. He had her. It ended even more quickly the next time they met. Arthur Goldberg said to her, “I see you’re wearing the same perfume you had on last time, Bella. I like it. What kind of perfume is it?”

A little bit of balance came to the picture on a subsequent night. Bella walked into the private dining room of the Dreyfus Corporation on Fifth Avenue, and Howard Stein, the president of Dreyfus, began introducing Bella around the room.

“This is Sol Linowitz,” Stein said.

“How do you do,” Bella said. “Are you the man that used to be head of the Xerox?”

“That’s right,” Linowitz said.

“I’m glad to meet a big shot. I’m in hock $35,000 on my campaign,” Bella said.

At a large, square dining table, Bella was placed between Howard Stein and a man named Jacobs, whose first name she did not catch.

“… ‘Alex Rose,’ Bella spits. She would like to fight him. If the fight occurs, we will see how fast Alex Rose can run …”

Over a fruit cocktail, Bella said to Stein, “I owe $35,000 on my campaign.” Howard Stein is not exactly from Milton Academy and the Harvards. He went to Textile High School and he lived over the Stage Delicatessen on Seventh Avenue. Still, the obvious does not move him. His form is more subtle. He picked at his fruit. Bella was not going to move him in public.

So, over the soup, she turned to the man on her right, Jacobs, and she asked him what firm he was with.

“Bache and Company,” Jacobs said.

“What do you do there?” Bella said.

“I’m the president of the company,” Harry Jacobs Jr. said.

“I owe $35,000 on my campaign and I’m a poor woman,” Bella said.

Bella got to him during the fish. “I’ll try to help,” Jacobs said. “I can’t help a lot, but I can help a little,” he said. He handed Bella his business card. “Call me,” he said.

“Don’t worry, baby, you can help a whole lot,” Bella said. “I owe $35,000.”

She is loud. “The only way you can argue with Bella,” Norman Mailer says, “is to throw back your head and shout, ‘You’re full of - - - -!’ And she’ll throw her head back and shout, ’You’re full of - - - -!’ And then you shout, ‘You’re full of - - - -!’ ” She also can be good and rude. During last year’s Lindsay campaign, a period when Bella stormed around like a Cossack, she had me down to do something or other and I never called her back and finally one day she called the house. “Look, bubbie,” she said to my wife, “you’re not getting my message, bubbie. Now listen, bubbie. It may not sound so important to you, but it is and he has to call me, bubbie. You understand me now, bubbie?” In my house, a voice rang out for several hours. “It may not sound important to me because I’m just a stupid housewife, huh? Well, that effin Bella Abzug is an effin …”

And when people do not like her, they are not bashful about it. The members of Mitch Bloom’s Regular Democratic Club on East Broadway sat on folding chairs along the walls the other night and reported to Bloom, who sat at a table in the middle of the room. “They don’t go for Abzug, they want this Farber,” one of them said. Bella’s opponent is Barry Farber, who runs a talk show on WOR.

“My people find her too radical with all this women’s liberation. She comes on too strong and too loud. They resent her. They are going for Farber.”

One by one, with obvious distaste, the members said they didn’t want Bella. During a fifteen-minute break in the meeting, Bloom began to explain. “The people here don’t like her because she beat Farbstein. He was here for fourteen years, the eyes and ears of the district, and we knew him and we liked him and we didn’t want a change. Then here comes this woman from the other part of the district—all right, she has a right to run, but why pick on Farbstein?”

The resentment is not as trivial as it might appear. Congressman Leonard Farbstein always was a good vote, as far as New York City was concerned. He was late and tepid on Vietnam, like too many others. But by now, 1970, he is everything you want. And the reformers always ran a man at him in a primary. Yet nobody from the left side of the Democratic party ever has had the guts to take on somebody like James Delaney in Queens, an entrenched old man whose voting record indicates he still firmly supports all of President Hoover’s policies. Since Bella has been part of the Democratic party’s left almost since it began, she takes some of the blame. Beat Farbstein? Hurray. But does that change the vote in Congress? No.

It is a fair comment. The unfairness comes from people in the Jewish Defense League who have seized on part of a statement Bella made on radio one night, the sense of it being that she didn’t see how anybody could rely on Phantom jets to settle Israel’s problems when a political settlement was the only sane approach. The Jewish Defense League began to spread the story that Bella Abzug was against giving planes to Israel, and therefore she was against Israel and should be condemned.

“There she is in the purple dress, that’s Bella Abzug, she’s against Israel,” a little guy from the Jewish Defense League began yelling at a rally on the East Side the other night.

Bella grabbed a young guy who had driven her to the meeting. “Hit that bastard in the mouth for me,” she said. “I can’t do it where people see me.”

Another group which does not like Bella is the Liberal party. Which is thoroughly understandable. Bella Abzug is too real a human being for the Liberals to handle. It is a rule of New York politics that any time you see somebody with a weak face, he is from the Liberal party. There are no Liberal party clubhouses in this town, and no Liberal party workers. It is a paper organization which survives through strict adherence to the strategy of its leader, Alex Rose: Sneak and Shnor. The latter word means “beg.” Rose, a brilliant sneak, has convinced everybody that it was he, not a little thing called television, which kept John Lindsay in office. Rose, also a brilliant beggar, proceeded to put so many Liberal party people into City Hall jobs that it is obvious why Lindsay’s administration too often seems to lack the common day-to-day guts you need in this city. In the campaign in the 19th, the Liberal party spreads the rumor that Bella Abzug is a Communist. In 1948, she was a member of the National Lawyers’ Guild. The fact that Arthur Goldberg happened to be a member of the same thing at the same time is unmentioned. And no reference is made to the more important point: who cares about 22 years ago when you are trying to survive today?

“Alex Rose,” Bella Abzug spits. Her quite lovely face gets a little hard now. She would like to fight Alex Rose. If the match ever occurs, all of New York will be able to see how fast Alex Rose can run.

And so here she is, pushing, brawling, poking, striding her way toward the Congress of the United States—Mrs. Bella Abzug, daughter of the owner of the Live and Let Live Meat Market on Ninth Avenue in Manhattan. She will win, of course. Farber speaks with a Southern drawl and cries Communist. He is great for Greensboro. Bella could be the best New York candidate in decades.

Bella Abzug campaigns in the mornings at subway stops like the one at Grand and Chrystie Streets on the downtown East Side. The people walk to the subway in the morning sun, a light sweat starting to coat foreheads and darken the armpits of short-sleeved shirts, their stride and breathing changing as they came upon each of those obstacles which, when put together on all the streets, contribute to the harshness of life in this city at this time.

A trailer truck starts up and its diesel fumes billow across the sidewalk. People gulp the hazy air and then close their mouths and hold their breath while they walk quickly through the fumes. Six or seven steps later they gulp another quick breath. At the steps to the subway, they hold their breath again. The garbage piled against the wall alongside the subway steps smells in the morning sun. They run down the steps, holding their breath, and at the bottom they sniff the heavy mixture of sweat, hot grease, urine, metal, day-old apple cores and cheap perfume. They try to push onto the packed subway cars and ride to their dreary jobs and they are defeated by their city each day before nine o’clock in the morning.

At night, the streets are empty and the doors are locked and addicts and rats prowl the streets, and demented criminals, who claim addiction when they are caught, wait to pull somebody into a hallway or an elevator.

Bella Abzug, who has been standing in courtrooms and dealing with poverty and civil rights cases for 22 years, is made for the district. She can stand on Ludlow Street and recite the history of the buildings, who lived in them, when they were originally condemned—much of the downtown East Side was first condemned in 1906—and who isn’t doing anything about it and why. She is made for the New York of standing in police precincts or faded tenement hallways. Someday, the 19th Congressional District will be recorded as a victim of the war in Vietnam, just like Hue and Danang.

Still, in the worst stage of its history, at a time when New York deteriorates so quickly that one must wonder if it can survive as we have known it, one quality remains constant. It is the city where you can make it, and make it big. Bigger than you can in any other place in the world, if you have the nerve and verve and push and skill and timing. And this part of life in New York is something that Bella Abzug knows too.

She stood, the other afternoon, in a doorway leading from the kitchen to the backyard of her townhouse in Greenwich Village. A girl working in her campaign sat at a table taking phone messages. A television crew was to arrive at three. The Baltimore Sun would have somebody in at five. A French writer and photographer wanted to see her. Newsweek wanted to check something about her. For people trying to write for newspapers, or find something interesting to put on television news shows, Bella Abzug is the name they think of first. And Bella Abzug knows what it all means.

“Javits,” she said. “He’ll never be out there leading. He’s always following. I went to see him over the McGovern-Hatfield bill. I wanted his support for it. So he says, ‘I have to wait to see how Church-Cooper does before I do anything on McGovern-Hatfield.’ So I said to him, ‘You know, senator, we’re sick of waiting for you. Not once have you used your power to stop money from being used for this war. You’re always waiting. Well, forget about it, senator. Your time is up.’ “

“You told that to him this early?” she was asked.

“Sure I did,” Bella said. “I don’t lie. He’ll see.” Then she threw a very good right hand.

Is Washington Ready for Bella Abzug? Is Anybody?