From the June 20, 1977 issue of New York Magazine.
For anyone else, it would have been a moment of truth. Here she is: ex-congressperson, almost United States senator, now candidate for mayor of New York—probably the best-known female politician in America—sitting here in the airless Harvard room, allowing the arrogant eighteen-year-old photographer to compound the record-breaking heat with a battery of lights and the endless snapping of pictures, which he knows, and she knows, will never be published anywhere. Her perky little straw hat is beginning to wilt and she’s perspiring, even though she’s already traded in her early-morning long-sleeved Ultrasuede suit for a cooler short-sleeved model, and Bella is trying, really trying, to fire up these twenty undergrads who are simply not getting her at all.
All morning long, she’s been hearing about John Connally, who preceded her at Harvard’s Institute of Politics as visiting fellow. People have been telling Bella the Connally turnout was so astounding—so unexpectedly reverential—that one professor was heard to wonder if “the Harvards” imagined Watergate to be anything but the name of an apartment complex. But she doesn’t seem to hear this. Earlier, Bella, Hunter-educated, was grousing in the car—but loving it too—about being “the visiting fireman” in this elitist territory. Perhaps her memories of Harvard are of the political strikes and rallies of the glorious war years. So she does not appear to get agitated that the twenty kids surrounding her at the Winthrop House lunch do not have a single interesting question to ask. In fact, she seems oblivious to every indignity—until a soccer player announces there are no issues worth getting fired up about.
“You think we’re living in calm times?” In a gesture I will see her repeat on a dozen occasions, Bella snaps into a different mental and physical state, as if she is most herself when she is on the attack. Her hand grabs the table for strength. Her voice shifts from basso Abzug-at-rest to a decibel level a colleague on the Public Works Committee once likened to sitting next to an airport. And Bella Abzug—the Bella Abzug you either love or hate but cannot, no matter how you try, ignore—starts yelling at the Harvard soccer player.
“Nothing for kids to be concerned about? You’ve got unemployment, you have got nuclear proliferation in technology that’s crazy, you’ve got the cities decaying for a lack of funds all over this great country, you’ve got a failure of major programs in education, you have enormous energy problems—aren’t these global problems?” She hesitates for a moment; in New York at this point she’d be getting an orgiastic response. Here? Nothing. She peers over her half-rimmed glasses, seeing, as if for the first time, that these faces are, if not bored, at least uncomprehending, but she cannot not press the point. “Well, what do you kids think about that?”
And still there is no cacophony of voices. Finally a blond Harvard female speaks up. “Well, frankly, Mrs. Abzug, here at Harvard, I don’t think most of us worry about unemployment. Actually, most of us have summer jobs that are…quite good.”
At last, a gauntlet. “What kind of jobs?”
Now she is flooded with responses. This summer, Harvard students will work at HEW. One will write “little phrases and words” for President Carter’s speeches. Another will report politics for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Jobs like that.
Hearing this, Abzug shows no annoyance. It’s almost as if this dash of reality therapy causes Bella to tune out. “Well, if you go to City College, you don’t get a job so easily,” she tells them, but it is conceding the point; she saves her energy for the issues.
For the Harvards, the issue is reverse discrimination—aren’t women being favored too much?—but Bella hurdles that with stunning outrage, then goes on to the next topic: a set speech about the decaying infrastructures of the city that makes sense only to Bella and one or two other New Yorkers in the room. Finally she notices that the photographer’s lights have congealed the oil and the mayonnaise in her picked-over salad, and nobody has a glass of water for her, and just as you think, Why is she putting herself through this? someone asks the day’s first personal question: “Bella, is it depressing for you to see this apathy? To see that nobody cares?”
If Bella Abzug has ever entertained this thought, she doesn’t show it; she won’t even dignify the possibility of doubt with a first-¬person pronoun.
“You can’t allow yourself to get discouraged,” she says. “Because if you get discouraged, you’d…just…stop.”
Stopping—even slowing down—is something Bella Abzug cannot allow herself to do, so she is running for mayor instead. It hasn’t been the easiest decision. “For health reasons,” her family wishes she wouldn’t, and Bella is aware that running New York “is the toughest job, maybe in the world.” Friends have been telling her that she’s “a legislator, not an administrator” and that her career can’t sustain two losses in the same year. And they tell her “What do you want to be, like John Lindsay and wind up on Good Morning, America?”
“The same thing that everybody is telling her around town she’s hearing in the family too,” her daughter Liz Abzug says. “You want to support her because you see her frustration, and she wants it because it will be such a great challenge. On the other hand it’s such a terrible job…and are we throwing our support behind something she doesn’t really want?” And that people may not want her for. Dick Aurelio feels that “Bella would endear herself to a lot of people if she would have the self-discipline not to make the run.” But that kind of endearment is—for Bella Abzug—clearly out of the question. “Bella is fully convinced that she can change the world,” a friend says. “And now that she’s 56, every moment is precious.” Too precious, anyway, for Bella to hesitate, much less retreat. Her response to her friends’ doubts is a snapped “Anyone who says things like that isn’t a friend….” Then she catches herself. “Well, they’re all concerned about my health,” she finally says, referring to her weight problem, brought on, primarily, by her nervous eating habits.
But there’s more at stake than her health in Bella’s desire to throw herself into—as she phrases it—“the biggest horse race since that horse, what’s-his-name…Secretariat.” For Bella, running for mayor will not be a long-planned piece of her grand political design—that was the Senate seat—but a chance for her to stay in the action. Equally important, it’s a chance for her to recover from the terrible ego blow she suffered when Moynihan beat her by about 1 percent of the vote: “She left a position as one of the most potentially powerful congresspersons to try for something that few people privately thought she was going to get,” a former aide explains.
Moving into Abe Beame’s house might salve some of the hurt from those still open wounds. So, for months before she announced, Bella says, she had been “weighing the whole process.” Her seeming equivocation caused her to petition hundreds of friends, former colleagues, and people on the streets. “She never has a moment’s doubt on any of the issues,” an aide says. “But the minute it’s a question of politics, Bella will discuss, agonize, and analyze with a hundred people.” The aide has missed it a little here: Bella may appear to be weighing her prospects, but she’s hardly considering the negatives. She’s oblivious to negatives in her anxiety to just…steam ahead. Everywhere she goes, Bella feels she’s seeing signs that the people really do want her.
After Stewart Mott’s medieval festival this past winter, Bella was climbing into a limousine when the driver turned around and said, “Are you running for mayor?” Bella turned to her fellow passengers: “You see, everywhere I go, people are begging me to run.” Her two favorite polls of 1977 have been Carter Burden’s private tally, which showed her to be the leading contender in the mayoral race, and another which showed that she was favorably thought of by 71 percent of the city. With ammunition like this, Bella Abzug isn’t taking in what might be considered more calming advice. She must constantly test herself; in this race it will be her ability to get out the vote. Always she keeps herself barreling forward. “There’s no realistic assessment of her own limitations,” a former aide explains. “Bella simply feels she can do everything.”
And if Bella’s “everything” had to suddenly change from the Senate to Gracie Mansion, well, for Bella Abzug, there’s little difference. “People are depressed in this city and I can give them hope,” she says. And until June 1, the only thing stopping Bella from officially trying to give them hope was the equal-time law. That Bella Abzug you saw on The Merv Griffin Show or on Saturday Night or in Sunday-morning interviews didn’t have to share time with the other candidates till her announcement became official. For weeks back then, her finance people were out raising money; Warner Communications’ David Geffen was lining up the superstar benefits, the buttons were printed, and the family became resigned to the inevitable. Already, in every way, Bella Abzug was actively trying to prove that New York is ready to embrace a municipal matriarchy.
If the biological appeal of matriarchy might function as Bella Abzug’s secret weapon, it’s a weapon that Abzug and her staff don’t seem to recognize or quite know how to cope with. Although she gets her votes from working-class Jews, Italians, blacks, Chinese, Puerto Ricans, women, and gays—all minorities which recognize the power held by a strong mother—Bella’s characterization of that support is that it’s based on strictly political, not anthropological, grounds. To Bella, votes come from people who agree with you, not from those who simply like you; she takes offense when she’s held up as a symbol. “People want leaders who care, who are people like themselves—real people, as human and emotional and agonized as they are,” she says. Congressional staff member June Zeitlin recalls, “Bella’s theory was that no matter how hopeless an amendment might be, if you really believe in what’s behind it, suppose you only do get five votes the first year? Maybe next time you’ll get 10 or 20, then 30, but it’s all part of the education process. Look at her antiwar stance; when she first started getting involved in the women’s peace movement, she was thought of as crazy.”
Changing the minority position to popular acceptance is what Abzug thinks she is all about; every political office she held or aspires to hold is the vehicle of that mass transformation.
“If you have women who come out of a certain ideology, then they have certain goals when they come into politics. They want employment for everybody, decent housing, health care, child-care centers. Most people don’t have those kinds of commitments,” Abzug says. But liberal New York Democrats do have those kinds of commitments, and in this year’s mayoral race, ideological differences are practically imperceptible; the passionate tunnel-¬vision zeal on “the issues” which first gave Bella political visibility won’t help her this year. Neither will her brassy mouth (“talking straight,” she calls it); if talking straight and histrionics really impressed the voters, Norman Mailer and Jimmy Breslin would now be running City Hall.
One reason Abzug resists the purely personal appeal that might be most useful in this election is that she’s been battling her “Battlin’ Bella” image for years. When she first went to Congress in 1971, an unnamed reporter for Ralph Nader wrote that her name cosponsoring a bill was enough to cost it 20 or 30 votes. “You would have said, ‘Here’s an oddball who’s never going to make it,’” Tip O’Neill recalls. “But she made good. She was the guiding light for a group of young freshmen who had beaten Republicans and who figured she was fighting for the changes they’d come to Washington for.” Gary Hymel, who helps O’Neill set the House’s daily legislation schedule, remembers Bella’s “calling me every single day to find out if I could adjust the schedule to maximize her time. She was one of the only congresspersons I’d hear from regularly.”
The human cost—to Abzug’s staff as well as to herself—of those years in Congress is what worries some of her supporters when they think of her administrating City Hall. During her last, frenetic terms in Congress, Abzug lived in a motel from Monday to Thursday. There’s a certain resentment from her staff because even when she could have gone back to her room, she ¬didn’t. As one of her legislative aides explained, “I don’t mind working, staying late if there’s work to be done, but I never liked the idea of staying late just to be a companion.” Others speak more bluntly about Abzug’s reputation as an abuser of those who work for her. “Her staff has suffered tremendously at her hands,” Congresswoman Millicent Fenwick says. A staffer who endured explains the problem this way: “Once you learn she’s a good person and what she’s trying to do is good, then you can take everything off her. A lot of people couldn’t understand that.” Staffers who called in sick were often told, “I don’t give a damn. As long as I’m paying your salary, you’ll show up.”
Abzug knows she makes excessive demands on those who work for her, but complains that people use this criticism as a reason “not to like me.” Bella also insists that her staff has to accept overwork as part of their larger work effort—taking care of the underrepresented constituency which she regards as her extended family. Her former campaign manager, Doug Ireland, has a slightly different interpretation: “The people who stay with her are either masochists or ideologues.”
Nowhere is Bella’s maternal appeal more obvious than when she’s out on the streets. Yes, she is stopped every few feet, but it’s not because she’s a media star whose hat-dominated picture is instantly recognizable. If that were the case, Bella would get the greeting which involves a quick intake of breath and shy recognition from the accoster. She does not get this kind of greeting. People greet Bella as if they know her…as if she is, if not their mother, at least a close relation. At La Guardia, for example, a woman strolls over to her and begins, “Hi, Bella, you looked real pretty on The Merv Griffin Show the other night.” And Bella gets right into it. “Thanks,” she says sincerely. “How are ya?” “Well,” the woman confesses, “I’m really shlumping along this morning. …” “Aren’t we all?” Abzug says with a heavy sigh. Later she seems surprised to be asked how she can put up with a constant barrage of similar bores. “People talk to me,” Bella says. “That’s how I learn things.”
Because Bella Abzug doesn’t see this as the pull of the matriarch, she has no particular understanding of how the flip side of her personality can cost her as many votes as she gets. What the Ed Koch crowd decries as Bella’s “bad manners” can be translated into a larger truth—Bella is an uncomfortable figure, a larger-than-life representation of every aspect of an uncomfortable family structure they’ve tried to leave behind. “If Bella had the same politics, but looked like Mary Lindsay, she could be president,” one of her detractors told me.
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.”
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.
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’.”
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.