Bella Abzug

How One Tough Broad from the Bronx Fought Jim Crow and Joe McCarthy, Pissed Off Jimmy Carter, Battled for the Rights of Women and Workers, Rallied Against War and for the Planet, and Shook Up Politics Along the Way

Suzanne Braun Levine and Mary Thom

Farrar, Straus and Giroux Paperbacks

Bella Abzug
1
The Early Years: A Passion for Social Justice
Chronology
 
 
My parents had the foresight to give birth to me in the year that women got the vote. I was born July 24, 1920, in a South Bronx apartment on Hoe Avenue. All the rooms were on one side of a hall that ran the length of the apartment. Mama and Papa shared a room, as did my grandparents (on Mama's side). Uncle Julius, the youngest of Grandpa's four sons, had a room. He lived with us until he married my gorgeous Aunt Janet. I think I slept in my parents' room. My sister, Helene, slept on the couch.
Papa was a serious man, but not too good at making a living. First he owned a laundry with his brother-in-law Geffen, but down went the laundry. Then he owned a "dry" stationery store--it sold no drinks. That didn't work either. So my mother's brother Hymie set him up in the butcher business. Papa put on a white coat, hired some butchers, and put up a sign over the store that read, "Live and Let Live Meat Market." This was his philosophy, and his personal protest against the imperialist World War I.
 
Helene Savitzky Alexander When I was about fourteen, Bella's and my father, Emanuel Savitzky, didn't want me to be on the street with boys, so every Saturday, I came down to his store on Ninth Avenue in Manhattan. It was cold, and I would always get burned because I sat at this box with the heater. One of the butchers would give me a ticket, which I stamped and took in the money. Then the butcher went back and got the meat. The box had holes where you would put in the quarters, dimes, and nickels. The bills went underneath. On a Saturday, I would take in a thousand dollars--a lot in those days. Customers would come from across the river in Jersey. Bella was five years younger than I was, and she got so jealous that she started to come down and sell bags for shoppers to carry their provisions. She'd sell these paper bags along Ninth Avenue for maybe a nickel or a few pennies.
We were good kids--nothing like the rebellious kids today. For instance, my father would say to Bella, "Now you were fresh. You go stand in that corner." She'd say, "I'm not gonna stand in that corner!" That was her rebellion. My father was actually a very gentle man.
 
Papa was a big disciplinarian. When he would tell me to stand in the corner, there was a big struggle between us. "For what reason should I go into the corner?" I'd say. "How will that change anything?"
 
Helene Savitzky Alexander Bella was a hot Zionist as a young kid--about eleven or twelve. She would get dressed in this gold outfit with an orange tie and go to meetings and come back late. Our mother, Esther Savitzky, never made a fuss about it. She was the disciplinarian of the family, but with Bella, she somehow understood. Bella would go on the subway trains collecting money for Israel, and she wouldn't come back until her blue jar was completely full. When I think back, my mother was remarkable with Bella--very supportive. She never said, "You can't do this." She knew where my sister was and what she was doing, and she understood that this was Bella's interest.
 
I spent most of my free time with a group called a Kvutzah in Hebrew. We sang songs, danced the hora, studied socialism and communal living and the history of Israel. This was 1931. Few people understood what we meant by the establishment of a homeland for Jews.
 
Robin Morgan Bella was the first person to ever reposition Zionism for me, by saying, "For Christ sake, it started out as a national liberation movement like every other national liberation movement but it kind of has gone--you know--bad. It's a problem now."
 
I would go on the subways and make a speech in between stops describing the need for a homeland. This all seemed to irk Papa, especially the late hours. His exasperation reached a peak when I borrowed a dolly and pulled our Victrola and records--including Caruso and Chaliapin--through the streets of the Bronx to the local synagogue because they had no entertainment. I have no recollection of having the Victrola returned. It was then that Papa used his belt.
Papa came and stayed with me the first time they sent me to camp, and I cried and wanted to go home. Papa stayed for a week, and by that time, I hardly had time to say goodbye when he left.
 
Liz Abzug We have a picture of her on the cover of the camp brochure throwing a ball, and she looks like such a little tomboy.
 
Helene Savitzky Alexander When our father was in Russia, he worked for his brother, who had a club in Kiev, so he danced very well--folk dancing particularly--and he taught me. We grew up in a large family and had these big weddings where I would dance with him. Bella was younger and in the background. So she always felt that I was my father's favorite.
I played the piano, and he taught me how to sing in Russian, so I would play and sing for his family when they came. Bella played the violin until she stopped and didn't practice anymore. I have her violin now. Of all her things, when the kids asked me what I wanted after my sister died, I wanted that violin. We would play for my father on Friday nights. Bella had a marvelous voice, and when she was young, it was much higher. When I was music counselor at camp, Bella was the soloist in my choir. She was also the camp bugler--she played it by ear. Years later, her friend Judy Lerner would give these great New Year's parties, and they invited me once. I played the piano and they sang all these oldies and the folk songs. Liz is the musical one in Bella's family.
 
Eve Abzug My mother never said she regretted giving up studying the violin, but she would say, "They paid more attention to Helene." She said they pushed her sister, and then, when they got to my mother, they didn't really pay much attention to her musical education.
 
Helene Savitzky Alexander Our grandfather was the one who took a cotton to Bella as a youngster, so to speak. He was crazy about her. My grandfather wasn't a religious man when he was in Russia. He owned a saloon there. But he came to this country and had nothing to do--his sons sent him money to live on becausethere was no unemployment insurance or anything like that. He started taking Bella to the synagogue with him when she was six years old. She became very knowledgeable in Hebrew. Of course, the synagogue was Orthodox, and she went upstairs with the women. They all asked her to point out the place in readings. She would say later that's when she started to be a feminist, because they separated her from the men.
 
He was my babysitter, and since he spent a lot of time in the synagogue, so did I. He was very proud of me, but after showing off my reading prowess to his cronies, he would dispatch me to sit with the women behind the "mechitzah" [curtain].
 
Liz Abzug My great-grandfather Wolf, the one who took her to the temple, he would say in Yiddish, "She's an 'oytser'--a jewel!"
 
Helene Savitzky Alexander I didn't know what the word [oytser] meant until I asked the women at Women's Space here in Great Neck. They said it meant "treasure." There was something in Bella that my grandfather found. And she always kept that part of her--her Jewishness. Perhaps the cultural aspect more than anything else, but she always belonged to a temple. Even when she was in Congress, she would come home for the holidays no matter what. She would tell them, "This is my holiday. I'm leaving."
 
Eve Abzug My understanding growing up was that Judaism teaches you that Jews care about social responsibility, that you aren't free until every person is free. What my parents stood for instilled in me a desire to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves and has become the foundation for all the work that I do.
 
Helene Savitzky Alexander Bella was young when our father died. He had hardening of the arteries--today they have all kinds ofthings they can do for that, but they couldn't help him then. She was very affected by his death. In the Jewish religion, the child of the deceased goes to the synagogue to say Kaddish. Well, they never had women do that. And I didn't do it, but Bella went every day for one year, in the morning before school. When she was running for Congress, one of the volunteers, a man, came in and said, "I will never forget your sister, eleven or twelve years old, how she came to the synagogue every morning."
 
I stood apart in the corner. The men scowled at me but no one stopped me. It was those mornings that taught me you could do unconventional things. After I had become a congresswoman, I was invited back to speak at that synagogue. [I spoke about securing] the right of women to become rabbis and for women congregants to be able to participate as "persons" in all rituals. The rabbi--perhaps wanting to outsmart his speaker of the evening--said, "I disagree. How would it look if Elizabeth Taylor was walking down the aisle carrying the Torah and the men, as was the custom, in reaching out with the talesim [prayer shawls] to kiss the Torah, one of their hands slipped and touched Elizabeth Taylor?" I replied, "It would be wonderful. The synagogue is always looking for more congregants. This would be, to say the least, an enticement." Later, when I got to know Elizabeth Taylor--she attended my sixtieth birthday party with Shirley MacLaine--she got a great kick out of the story.
 
Shirley MacLaine I remember when Elizabeth Taylor gave her the little tiny diamond. She wore that thing on a chain that Elizabeth gave her. And the chain got tighter and tighter. It became a choker, but she would not take that diamond off. Wore it for ten years.
 
It was not until I was in my sixties that I actually was permitted to go up to the bimah--the platform in the synagogue on which the Arkrested--to chant an opening prayer. My actor friends Renée Taylor, who is Jewish, and Joe Bologna, who is Italian, had agreed that their son should have a bar mitzvah, and so began a search for a synagogue that would allow this uncircumcised Italian to accompany his son with his wife to the bimah. We found a conservative synagogue in need of funds and a rabbi who figured out a way for Joe to participate without being circumcised. When I stood up there and started to chant "Baruch atah Adonai"--blessed art Thou oh Lord-the tears came to my eyes. At long last I was considered a human person in my own religion.
 
Liz Abzug After my mother's father died, my grandmother Esther worked in S. Klein's and another department store so that she could feed her daughters and nurture them and put them in the best of everything. She was short, five feet, but very tough. She was a young woman when my grandfather died, but she never went back with a man. She would say to both her daughters, "You can do anything you want and then some." But she was also very much a mother who would cook and care for them in the traditional way. She had enormous endurance. My mom got it from somewhere!
 
Helene Savitzky Alexander Bella used to win all the street games from the boys. My mother wouldn't buy her a bike--she thought it was dangerous--so Bella rode every boy's bike in the neighborhood. I have a neighbor here in Great Neck who remembers that she borrowed his bike. Once when we were kids, someone rang the bell and told my mother, pointing at me, "Your daughter hit my kid." Mama said, "You got the wrong daughter."
 
I never saw a reason why girls couldn't play immies--which were marbles--down the sides of the gutters, or checker games on the sidewalks, which only boys played. Yes, I jumped rope, played potsy--agame like hopscotch--with the girls. I had a doll and a carriage, but I also wanted a real bicycle.
 
Helene Savitzky Alexander Every night with her supper, Bella would sit in front of the radio for her three programs--Just Plain Bill, Myrt and Marge, and one other one. I was never interested in that, but I used to read a lot. My mother had twenty volumes of The Book of Knowledge. They had everything--including fairy tales--and I read them all. I was a good student and my mother was a frustrated teacher. In those days you would skip grades if you knew the material, and I knew all the multiplication tables because she would drill me as we walked to school. With Bella she didn't do anything like that because she was so tired of doing it with me, I guess. Anyway, Bella was just naturally bright, and she immediately showed it. My sister was born with a sense of herself.
 
My mother more than any other person gave me self-esteem and selfassurance. She would meet me after school every day, take my books, and give me my Hebrew school books. I attended Hebrew school all during my elementary and high school years. My mother always worried I might become a rabbi. Then, when I became a lawyer, she said it was too much work--I should have been an actress. In my mother's view, an actress led a charmed life, lying around in a beautiful negligee.
 
Claire Reed One day during the Vietnam War, I'm at a demonstration with Mrs. Savitzky, that's Bella's mother. Mrs. Savitzky is standing next to me, and she's going, "Oy vey. I don't understand. I don't understand." I said, "What is it that you don't understand?" "My Bella has worked so hard against this war, how come it hasn't stopped?" She wasn't kidding! She was totally serious. If you're brought up to believe there's nothing you can'tdo--which is how Bella was brought up by her mother and father--then nothing can stop you. There was nothing that Bella couldn't do.
 
Liz Abzug Everything was extreme with her--the sports, the violin, the bugle. How is it that a young girl rose up in the 1930s and knows she wants to be a lawyer when she doesn't even know any lawyers--women or men? How did she come up with that? How did she know that she should go and collect nickels on the subway for this homeland they were trying to create that she didn't even really understand at twelve years old? I don't know.
 
In my home always there was a fair sense of social justice, based on no ideology--just hardworking sincere people with a tremendous sense of values and standards. They subscribed to philosophical Judaism, which relied on the creed of justice for all. That's one of the reasons I wanted to be a lawyer ever since I was a little kid. I had no role models. But I always thought if I could become a lawyer I could set things straight.
Teenage Organizer for Social Change (1931-1938)
Mim Kelber I'm Bella's oldest friend. We were classmates at Walton High School, and we were polar opposites. Bella was our champion athlete. She always seemed to be bouncing a ball, climbing a rope, riding a bike, running a race, diving into a pool, and making waves literally and figuratively. Walton was an academic all-girls' school in the West Bronx, and they had lots of buildings. Bella used to roller skate around the campus. I hung out in the library and was shy. Bella was not shy. She was elected senior class president--a natural leader. She liked herself too much, but I think you need that. She was very self-confident.
 
Rosalyn Levitt People came from all over to go to Walton. They had an excellent academic record. And parents liked it because it was all girls. We had a tennis court and played basketball against the faculty. We swam and learned to dive. This was around the time of the first World's Fair in New York [1939], when Billy Rose had the [synchronized] swim team starring Eleanor Holmes, and we did a little of that ensemble swimming--learning how to swim without making splashes and breathe without making bubbles. Bella and I were friends at school but we didn't visit each other's homes. Bella also lived in the Bronx, but not in my neighborhood. You've got to remember, these were apartment houses with a lot of people in them. You didn't have to go anywhere for friends.
 
Eva Lederman She was a fresh kid. A fresh Jewish kid. She was sixteen ... I was twenty, looking like twelve. She said, "Who are you?" Just like that! And I said, "I'm your teacher." "You're too young to be my teacher." And I said, "No, I'm very smart. That's why I'm here. And now you shut up." And the next day she met me before class and said, "You're the first person who ever told me to shut up." And I said, "I'm sure I won't be the last person."
 
If I got into trouble--which I sometimes did in school, being somewhat outspoken--and they would scold me ... I'd come home upset about it ... and my mother would go to school and scold the teacher.
 
Rosalyn Levitt Bella could multitask before multitask was a word. I took Latin with her, and she would be sitting in class, doing her algebra homework. When she was called on, she would pick up the book, do a translation, sit down, and continue doing the homework. If she had not devoted so much time to politics and student government, she probably could have done even better academically, but she did very well.
She was editor of our social studies department newspaper, called The Outlook. There must have been six of us in the group that worked on the paper. I guess you'd say we were young radicals, a very idealistic bunch. We were children of the Depression--ready to remedy all the faults in society. We had the advantage of some very good columnists, like Walter Lippmann and Eleanor Roosevelt.
Bella was the leader. In any group she was in, she was a leader. Nobody had to teach her how. She had a certain abrasive quality about her, and not much patience with stupidity. But her personality never bothered us. As a matter of fact, we sort of admired it. Once when she was editing The Outlook, I wrote a paper for it and she threw it back at me--literally threw it--and told me it's too superficial. I realized it was not that good, but she sure let me know about it. So I did some research, looked some things up in the library, and rewrote it.
 
June Zeitlin When Bella was in Congress, in her last term, I did her women's rights and civil rights legislative work. One of the first things I had to write for her was a statement against an amendment to restrict school busing. I wrote it up and thought it was pretty strong. I bring it to her. She looks at it, throws it down, and says, "This is so weak! You expect me to say this? Go back and rewrite it." In my whole career since then, no one has ever sent me back to write something stronger.
 
Rosalyn Levitt I look back on high school as a very pleasant time of my life. We were introduced to things in literature, music, current events--New York had a lot of advantages. I thought everybody had museums and concerts and the theater. Bella and I lost touch after high school. But once, after I moved to Orlando, I was back in New York on a trip. I turned on the TV and I heard this Bella Abzug talking. It was during one of her campaigns. Isaid, "That's Bella Savitzky!" And I called a classmate of ours, who laughed and said, "Yes. You spotted her."
Peace, War, and Campus Big Shot (1938-1942)
Mim Kelber Bella and I went from Walton on to Hunter College. It was maybe our second day there when she said, "Quick, we're electing the president of the freshman class." She won. When we got to college, suddenly Bella turned from being a tomboy to wearing hats. She started to dress as if she was on stage all the time.
 
Amy Swerdlow I was a freshman, sixteen years old. That was the time when, if you had a brain in your head, they skipped you. Bella was a sophomore or junior and already a big shot. I had been in the American Student Union1 in high school, and Bella was involved in the ASU, and we somehow hit it off. She would say, "Get that Amy with the braids," and I would do things for her. She had a very close friend by the name of Helen Bierman. I thought they were like twins. The two of them ran the progressive and antiwar activities on campus. Bella was always in charge of something.
We were very peace-minded, hoping there would be no war. But the day the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union, the pro-Soviet faction stopped their antiwar agitation. That turnabout was very troublesome to me, but then, of course, I was Jewish and it was Hitler. You went along with it. Bella claimed later that the reason she was against the war was not that she was influenced bythe popular front and the left, but because she hated Britain and its attitude toward Palestine. I knew that she was head of some Zionist organizations, but I hadn't realized that a lot of where she was coming from was that loyalty to Israel.
 
Mim Kelber Bella would only eat kosher food when we went out to dinner. We made fun of her, but she was adamant about that at the time.
 
While I was going to Hunter, Mama would make me what she would call "nutritious" meals for lunch--one pound of calf's liver in between two pieces of bread--to make sure I had enough iron in my system.
 
Mim Kelber We had a Young Communist League unit at Hunter with maybe ten people in it. Some years later, Bella asked, "Why didn't you ever try to recruit me?" I said, "You don't understand. You were our 'broad element.'" It was the war period, and we were supposed to be working with all kinds of groups--not just party members.
 
Amy Swerdlow My second semester at Hunter, we moved to the Bronx campus. It was in April--Peace Day--and Bella and I dreamed up this event where we would invite Dalton Trumbo to read from his antiwar novel, Johnny Got His Gun. We brought a mimeograph machine outside on the campus and kept running off these flyers announcing the performance. It was like guerilla theater! Actually, we didn't invent it. My friends at Brooklyn College did it first, but we were very enterprising.
 
We were anti-Franco and anti-Japan because of its invasions of China. We wore lisle stockings and had a lot of demonstrations. We'd get up early in the morning or stay late at night and leaflet every locker, calling on people to come to a rally. We were a politically consciousgroup, although not as much as the City College boys, who were very into anti-fascist activity.
 
Henry Foner I met Bella when I was at City College and active in the ASU. We were both part of a delegation of people from the various city colleges that went to Washington on some student issue, I think. I remember because it was the first time I ever flew in an airplane, and my fountain pen leaked all over the place because the cabins weren't properly pressurized in those days. I was president of the student council, and she held some student office, and we had many friends in common between Hunter and City College. As a matter of fact, there's a song, "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody." The version I wrote went, "A City boy is like a malady that haunts you spring and fall / Pleasing to you / With a perfect IQ / When day is done he's on the run with a Hunter girl or two."
I think Bella and I were in the same class, and I took a young lady to the senior prom at some hotel, and I know Bella was there. Whenever I needed a tuxedo, I'd go to my cousin who was an undertaker, but this night it was being used by another cousin who wore it to the prom. I said to my date, "There but for the grace of God."
 
When I was in college, I had various relationships with different men. None of it was very torrid, as far as I was concerned. That may be because a couple of the people I went out with were rabbis, and they were preserving themselves!
 
Moe Foner The ASU was very large ... It could bring to a big rally, its annual peace rally, fifteen hundred, two thousand, three thousand people. But it had influence among the leaders of the student council, the editors of the publications ... Bella was like she is now [October 25, 1984], but less so ... She was always a leader.
 
Judy Lerner I was seventeen when I entered Hunter College, and Bella had been there for one year. A terror! I ran for president of my class and I had a brilliant campaign. It was a sign that said, "Don't be snooty. Vote for Judy." Bella saw it and screamed from an upper window, "Who is this idiot?" I said, "Bella Savitzky, you don't know me or my politics!" I was already an activist kid in high school. And she said, "Alright." Anyway, I won, and we were in the student council together. She became president of the student council and my mentor--it meant everything in the world to me.
 
There's a whole group from college who stayed friends. One of us, Judy Lerner, her husband died and she had this new man she was interested in. I said one night--at first not in his presence, then I said it in his presence--"Listen here. We have been together for fifty years. You have to please us, we don't have to please you." Poor Judy. But everybody loved my saying that.
 
Mim Kelber I saw Bella transform in those college years from a short-haired tomboy to a sophisticated, cool young woman who wore suits, high heels, and hats, and who knew Robert's Rules of Order backward and forward. She was always getting into trouble with the college president and deans because of our student demonstrations, but they treated her with respect. They could recognize a formidable opponent.
 
Judy Lerner It was during a terrible period, politically. The New York Post accused Bella of being a leftist, and the president of Hunter came to her defense. I'll never forget him defending her right to be an activist.
 
Amy Swerdlow She had enormous influence at the school. And she was very gutsy. The left was calling World War II, which had begunin Europe, the "phony war." The Rapp-Coudert Committee2 had held hearings in the state legislature on campus activism--a kind of mini-McCarthyism--and we were very unpopular. But it didn't scare her.
 
I was not influenced by the Communist movement. I was a sympathizer to most progressive causes, but I was an independent. So I had no commitment to the Soviet Union as such. When the Hitler-Stalin Pact happened, I was shocked, but I was more shocked by the people who were trying to justify it. Even as a student, I always said, "Look, my work is to be influential in this country. I'm not going to get involved in bickers internationally. What I'm concerned about is American policy, how to influence it and make it work.
 
Amy Swerdlow Bella was not kind to stupid people. She just attacked them. "You jackass!" There was a little bit of a sadistic streak--if you really couldn't talk back to her, she could get even more abusive.
 
Phil Donahue She could spot a phony across a crowded room. Nobody had a detector for pomposity and pretense quite as well tuned. I found myself seated next to her at an occasion that was to be an evening with Abba Eban that evolved into a very thoughtful, somber reflection on the life of Prime Minister [Yitzhak] Rabin. And as the movie stars got up and began to speak, I was instructed as well about her impatience with oration, because sooner or later, four or five sentences into the speech that referred to the man "without whom the future of peace in the Middle East and the region would be unsure for ourchildren ... so that all of us may live in the next century," and her voice would say--for many around her to hear--"Good. Sit down." The next speaker would take a breath about five sentences in, and I would hear her say, "Good. Sit down."
 
Toward the end of my time in college, when we had entered the war, we spent enormous energy organizing to help the soldiers. We were knitting these masks--I always said I was "Knittin' for Britain and Crochettin' for the Sovietin"--but I pitied the poor soldier who had to try to keep warm with the mask I knit.
 
Judy Lerner I remember going to a meeting when Eleanor Roosevelt came to Hunter, and Bella and Mim Kelber really connected with her. I got to know Mim better afterwards. She was like a shadow person. She was the editor of the college newspaper, and she did a splendid job, but she never put herself forward.
 
Mim Kelber Bella shared a platform at Hunter with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt at a student assembly. They both spoke. We have a photo of them sitting together, both wearing hats. They were two of the greatest women of this century and they both ended their lives by working at the United Nations.
A Passion for the Law-and for Martin (1942-1944)
[Our first date] was a pickup. Martin was twenty-six, and I had just graduated from college. It was 1942. I had gone to an aunt in Florida, and I was bored. A friend said, "There's a concert in Miami City, Yehudi Menuhin playing the violin for Russian war relief." I used to study the violin, so I said, "Okay. Let's go." During intermission I noticed three guys looking at us, but I didn't pay much attention. Then, after the concert, one of these guys offered us a seat on the bus, andstarted talking to us. He seemed to talk in free verse, and I was thinking, oh, God, poetry. I had enough of that already in college.
Then he insisted on meeting us the next day to go bicycle riding. My friend said, "Let's do it, he's handsome." I said, "You like him, so you go." She said, "No, you have to go." So we went. He insisted on taking me out to dinner. I didn't really get to know him, because he was leaving the next day. But he kept writing me, and sending me books and pictures of himself, and arranged to see me when I came back to New York. We went to another concert. In the middle of the concert, he said, "We're leaving." We went up to the West Side, and it was a farewell party at his house. He was going into the army the next day. Everybody started to eye me up and down as if I was the girlfriend--and I had barely met this guy. Whereupon he took a bottle of scotch and drank the whole thing. Just before he passed out, he said to a friend of his, "Be sure to take her home," and I thought, well, thank God that's all over.
About two days later, I got a call from a Mr. Abzug, who said, "I'm Martin's father, and we're all going to see Martin in Fort Dix. Martin would like you to come." I said to my mother, "I don't even know this guy, now I gotta go to Fort Dix with his family?" My mother said, "Well, how can you refuse a soldier?" So I wound up going to Fort Dix. "Look, what is this? Set me up here with your family, and we hardly know each other?" He said, "Will you save some room under the apple tree for me?"3 "Oh," I said, "I'll be around, you know."
 
I must have had about six jobs in succession after college. I worked for the Board of Regents of New York State, and they fired me because I talked while I marked papers. I worked for the Psychological Corporation, and they said I was too intense, asking questions beyond the ones that appeared on their questionnaires. One day I got this call fromHunter College. They had an inquiry for a graduate who not only was scholastically capable but had been a leader. What do you suppose that job was? It was at Macy's department store and I was to demonstrate the different ways you could shape and wear a Chanel turban. I got about fifty dollars a week, which was a fortune in those days. I didn't get much more three years later on my first job as a lawyer. But I couldn't put my arms down without a sharp pain at the end of the day. It was like a Charlie Chaplin movie. I stayed for about three days.
Martin was in the army, determined to fight fascism. He wrote to me about how important it was to be involved in the nation's defense. So I go downtown and get a job at Gibbs & Cox, which was providing all the naval engineer designs of the ships. I was put in charge of procurement for the hull of the ship (about which I always said I was a "procurer"). I was in charge of all the confidential communication, okay? A bunch of high school kids would stamp my mail and give it to me--and they would throw paperclips at each other. I thought I was going to go crazy on that job. I lived in the North Bronx and I have to come down to the bottom of Manhattan and be there at eight. And of course there were no unions or anything like that, so they treated you like a piece of crap. Fifteen or twenty minutes for lunch because we were in Defense, right? Until finally I said, "This is not for me, I cannot do this. I've got to go to law school. It's what I've always wanted to do."
 
Rosalyn Levitt Bella applied to Cornell, to Harvard, and to Columbia. Harvard would not accept women at the time, so she was rejected there. After her acceptance to Columbia she came home one day and found a letter in the mailbox accepting her to Cornell. She got real excited and ran upstairs to her mother, and said, "Mama, I'm going to Cornell." And Mama said, "Where's Cornell?" Bella said, "Ithaca." "And where is Ithaca?" Bella told her where it was. Her mother said to her, "For a nickel on the subway you could go to Columbia and they'll probably give you a scholarship, too," and they did. As Bella said later, "We listenedto our mothers in those days." We knew our financial limitations. We were smart, and we may have rebelled at certain things in society, but not family.
 
The law school faculty did not treat us well. They were condescending. They were querulous and scornful. Dean [Young] Berryman Smith was a boor and a pig, in that he was always picking on the women and trying to make us look foolish. But Jerry Michael was a cute little guy. He taught criminal law. I was a little rebellious at their attitude, you know, so he loved it. He loved to spar with me. I always feel that there is a sign of believing someone is equal when they're willing to take you on--beat you up, instead of just making you feel like a fool.
 
Constance Baker Motley I remember being at Bella's house one night years later when she had a cocktail party. She was talking to a guy, and he said, "Okay, okay, okay," and she got angry with him because he wouldn't argue back. She was pounding this guy, she was so angry that he would back off because she was a woman. That's the way she was.
When we were in law school, Bella would yell and scream and so forth, but her friend from Hunter, Gloria Agrin, she was as quiet as a mouse. Bella was always so brash and outlandish. Both of them were brilliant. They came from the same working-class background. I was two years behind them, and when I got there both of them were on the Law Review.
 
There were many men and women like myself--young and first out of college. There was the Oyster Bay crowd, the hicks from the sticks. There was a collection of famous foreign lawyers, victims of Nazism who were required to go to law school here and take the bar examination before they could practice. There were seven or eight women. There were even a few minorities. There was a crowd that played cards in the lounge every day. After they taunted me to come play fora year and a half, I finally succumbed and they taught me how to play poker.
 
Lyonel Zunz For the first time women in substantial numbers were admitted, largely, unfortunately, because many of the men were now in service. Bella was an exceptional student. Law Review was an achievement that very few obtained. She also gave lessons to the professors. They had no idea of what it was going to be like to deal with a Bella. They didn't have any idea of what it would be like to deal with women, because they had very little experience from the past.
 
Constance Baker Motley There were so few women generally, we just kind of hung out together in the alcoves of the library. We were supposed to be studying together, but we were really debating some issue of the day. And, of course, as Bella would dominate the conversation, nobody else could speak. That's just the way it was. Nobody thought anything of it. That's what we would do.
 
While I was in law school, Martin came out of the army. He had eczema--which he did not tell them--and when he was in officer's training, he broke out. All of his mates went to Camp Edwards and they were later wiped out. Martin was saved by being medically discharged. He would come around and mope, unhappy about not being able to fight fascism, and he was in love with me. I was dating other people, but I still saw Martin. He used to type all my papers for me. He had this rare sense of dignity about women. I was always an activist, even as a student. I would have a date and I'd sometimes send a telegram and say, sorry, I'm going to a conference. I can't show up. Martin wasn't threatened. Well, I fell in love with him.
We had a stormy courtship. We got along so well in forty-two years of marriage because we fought out all our differences for two years before we got married. And we got married when I was twenty-four,in the middle of law school. He was just four years older, but extremely mature. I was in the middle of writing a "note" for the Law Review when we went to Mexico on our honeymoon, so I didn't complete the note. They decided I didn't earn my credit for the third-year essay that everyone had to write unless you were on Law Review. So I had to write this third-year essay in two weeks. Some people spent a year writing it.
 
Lyonel Zunz Bella would never let us revise an article that she wrote for the Law Review, which was a procedure that had to be followed. As a result, she was told, "If you don't let us revise it, you won't be permitted to get the points necessary to graduate at this time." That didn't make any difference to her. The principle was what counted. So she had to write a thesis, and finished five months later. As we spoke about it from year to year, I said, "Why didn't you just let us review it, Bella? It wasn't that important." She said, "Every principle is important, and if you compromise one, you'll compromise many."
 
Because of the war's housing shortage, Martin and I lived in the St. Moritz Hotel for several months. I would arrive sometimes as late as one or two in the morning, wearing a dirndl, sandals, no stockings, with books under my arms. In the lobby the ladies of the evening would look at me with shock and suspicion.
 
Marlo Thomas I asked her one time, I said, "You know, Bella, I've always been so scared about getting married. I don't know how you do it, how you put it all together. How do you stay who you are as a woman, and how do you become a good wife to a man, and how do you balance that out?" And she said, "Great sex."4
People kept being drafted, or were coming back to law school. People were distracted--they had lots of things to do and worry about. But it was an entry point for women. I, of course, had more advanced views than most of the people, male or female. But I really didn't get a chance to do very much activity. I was working day and night, either going to school or making money slinging hash for the Navy training program--I stood behind these big steam tables and dished out the stuff to these guys in the Navy--and I was working on the Law Review , which is a form of torture.
Championing the Rights of Working People (1944-1950)
Ralph Shapiro It was a very exciting time for a young lawyer to be involved in labor law, because it was the end of the war, during which wage and price controls were supposed to be in effect. The wage controls took effect, but as for price controls, the major industries needed for the war effort just blackmailed the government--particularly before Pearl Harbor was attacked. If Roosevelt wanted more arms and more tanks, they'd say, "All right, we're the guys that can do it, now what are you gonna do for us?" Much to the disagreement of many of the labor leaders, no-strike became the policy of the labor movement. And the workers by and large did not strike, but there was pent-up resentment. So the years right after the war ended showed massive strikes in every major industry--automobile, coal, steel. They said, "Hey, now we wanna get ours!"
And there was the usual reaction to the strikes. The cops did not have the policy they now have of alleged neutrality. Nightsticks were in great use. So people went to jail for preventing scabs from entering, for holding picket lines, for violating injunctions, and all that kind of thing. I met Bella when I went to work for the law firm of Whitt and Cammer--we did labor lawwork and the firm had a major roster of clients. We would go to magistrates' court and get the people out. Frequently at night, that's where you would spend your time. As the low people on the totem pole, that was our job.
 
I always felt I was going to represent working people. But I had tremendous problems getting a job as a labor lawyer. First of all they would ask me if I could type. When I was going to school, we never could afford typewriters, so I couldn't type. But I would simply say, "Well, I'm not applying for a job as a typist. I'm from Columbia, I was on the Law Review and I expect to be treated as a lawyer." Then they would offer me money which was lower than the minimum wage paid the workers they were representing!
 
Amy Swerdlow Once Bella and I were writing a flyer for Women Strike for Peace. I was typing; she was talking. Then I said, "Look, I've got to go. It's two o'clock and my kids are coming home from school." That was my life in the early sixties. I'd get hysterical and run back to Great Neck. I said, "You take over and finish typing it." She said, "I don't know how to type." "What do you mean you don't know how to type?" Any idiot knows how to type. I taught myself how to type when I was in high school. She said, "I purposely didn't learn how to type, because if I knew how, the lawyers would've always asked me to type things, and I just decided I was not gonna learn how to type." I got so angry at her. It seemed so exploitative. "Like everybody's gotta type for you?"
 
Constance Baker Motley I guess Bella could have gotten a job in a law office, but they weren't hiring women. She couldn't have gotten a job on Wall Street. Not only did they discriminate against women, but they discriminated against Jews. Herb Feiler, who was first in the class at Columbia Law School, could not geta job on Wall Street. I started working as a law clerk for Thurgood Marshall at the NAACP5 my last year of law school, and I just stayed on.
 
Ralph Shapiro Bella and I shared an office. We were pretty low down on the totem pole so we weren't entitled to much more than a desk and telephone space. Our relations were cordial. Indeed, my first wife and I and Martin and Bella occasionally went out together socially, but nothing unusual. She did her work and I did mine. But it was clear that she was kind of restive. She wasn't the type that could work for somebody.
 
I had a lot of trouble with some of the unions because of tremendous male chauvinism. I argued a big case before the National Labor Relations Board for the Mine & Smelters Workers Union. Boy, they were tough guys. The corporation had ten lawyers, and when I was sent instead of the people they knew, the two union bosses wired them and said, "You're sending us some fucking secretary? To handle this?" Later they apologized to me and told me how great I was. So at least they learned a little. At the furriers' union, a bunch of old-timers, they used to try to blame everything on me. Some of those people used to say, "We lost the strike because of the maidel [girl]."
Wherever I went representing my firm, I would say, "How do you do. My name is Bella Abzug and I'm here from the law firm of soand-so." They would always say, "Yes, please sit down." After waiting awhile and seeing nothing happen, I would clear my throat and say it again. They would reply, "Yes, yes, we know, but we're waiting." I would say, "What are you waiting for?" They would say, "Thelawyer." They thought I was the secretary or the clerk, but not the lawyer. I went home and discussed it with Martin. In those days professional women wore hats and gloves. I put on a hat and gloves and whenever I appeared for my firm, they knew I was there for business. In the meantime I got to like wearing hats and continued to wear them to this day. I've since taken off the gloves--as I suppose most people have noticed.
 
Faye Wattleton On a delegation in Central America, around 1980, we were in the middle of Honduras, speaking to women who had lost their loved ones in the wars of Central America, and a peasant woman walked up to Bella and said, quite simply, "I like that hat." It was a beautiful straw hat surrounded with very expensive pheasant feathers. Bella simply took it off and gave it to the woman. I said, "Bella, that's an expensive hat. Why did you give her that hat?" She said, "Because she wanted it."
 
Ralph Shapiro At Whitt and Cammer, partners were addressed by "Mr." and the staff was addressed by a first name. The office staff started to call her "Bella" when she first got there. So she said, "When you start calling Mr. Cammer, 'Harold,' and you start calling Mr. Whitt, 'Nat,' you can call me 'Bella,' otherwise, I'm 'Mrs. Abzug.'" That is typical of her. Another woman lawyer, I won't mention her name, did work for a small labor law firm, and she was frequently assigned to get coffee and run errands and type things. She just did not have whatever it took to fight the system. She was a very bitter lady, more bitter because she was working for a progressive lawyer whose progressivism didn't extend beyond certain sexual boundaries. Bella was very aware of that whole sexist thing, and she fought it.
 
If I had to work eighteen hours a day as a young labor lawyer, Martin would keep me company, reading a book or typing in the room next tomy office. On weekends, he would always say, "You rest. I'll go do the shopping."
 
Ralph Shapiro When Lee Pressman came, the firm became Pressman, Whitt & Cammer. He had been counsel for the CIO and for the Progressive Party, so he and Nat Whitt had been very close friends in Washington. Pressman was the great lord, but he didn't stay that long.
 
So Pressman came in and he was as arrogant as hell. He would have me go to court with him and carry his briefcase. I wasn't a clerk. I was representing whole unions by myself. They said, "Look, we want you to get along with him." I said, "Well, I'm going to get along with him. He has to get along with me." They said, "Pressman's going to make a great contribution to civil rights, civil liberties." I said, "Why will he make a great contribution, more than anybody else? Even more than me, for example?" At that time I was a young, fiery lawyer and I was chairing the civil rights committee for the New York City Lawyer's Guild. They said, "Oh, you have no respect."
I never liked the guy. I thought he was arrogant. I thought he was self-centered. Brilliant, absolutely. Give the man his due. Great talker.
 
Ralph Shapiro I think she was treated that way because she was young, and second because she was a woman, and third because she didn't recognize his eminence, so to speak. We represented a major client, Ben Gold's furriers' union, and Pressman did a lot of work for them. But also he was busy running for office at that time on the Progressive Party line. He ran for Congress and soon became an ardent supporter of Israel. I don't think he had thought for thirty-five seconds about Israel before then. He committed the worst act of betrayal, because when he was called before the McCarthy committee, he named Nat Whitt, his longtimefriend, as a member of the Communist Party. And that was an ultimate act of betrayal.
 
He was a traitor. People never talked to him after that, and they stopped bragging about him. Lee Pressman had been horrible to me. I had not gotten along with him, and things were uncomfortable after that. They began to find fault with me as they had with other employees. So I left.
When I was finished with them, I went to Europe and when I came back, in 1949, the thing that made the most sense for me was to go into my own practice--a room in the Nelson Towers on Thirtyfourth Street and Seventh Avenue.
 
I wanted to be a lawyer. I was serious about it. I was in love, and I decided to get married. I was serious about that. I thought I would like to have children. I was serious about that. So I never felt I couldn't have it all. I do not feel guilty. I did my best. Maybe it wasn't the best.
On the trip to Europe, I felt that I might have become pregnant on those misty nights traveling on the Atlantic Ocean on the Queen Mary, First Class--which was Martin's idea of a treat he felt we had earned. In Warsaw I was recommended to a Dr. Shibovsky, who said he thought I was pregnant and that I should go home, not to be easily arranged in early postwar pandemonium. In Paris one of the French lawyers I knew arranged an appointment for me with the great Lamaze6 himself. He was a friendly gentleman, bearded and stocky but nice looking, jovial, and warm. He examined me and without a rabbit test or further ado, he said, "Madame, vous êtes certainement enceinte." He, too, advised me to go home.
Copyright © 2007 by Suzanne Braun Levine and Mary Thom