Lessons from Bella AbzugJanuary 15, 2011

A number of years ago, when I had a gallery in Santa Fe, I was in LA on business, and staying at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. The evening was spent cruising up and down Hollywood Boulevard and snacking and salooning with my friend Steve Rose, who owned the Biltmore Gallery. He was kind of my guru and I always listened tight when he talked.

Now, I’m not an imbiber but the situation made rules that were not of my own selection, so I had a beer and heard a couple of stories that insinuated another beer. Steve knew everything about art and clients and dealing with other dealers. Some of his stories scared me pretty good, but I was becoming insulated by the fermented juice of a few vineyards.

Well, when I entered the hotel it was about midnight and there was just one person in the lobby, standing right there in the middle like Joan of Ark. Actually, I could have worded that sentence a better so I’ll try again.

The hotel lobby was absolutely filled up with Bella Abzug.

She wore a wide rimmed hat that made her look shorter, and she was already kinda short. The problem was, I recognized her right off, and worse, I knew a lot about her. That she was the first Jewish United States Congresswoman and a severe feminist. That was OK with me but I had seen her on television at a hearing where she totally beat up some poor guy witness to the point where even some of her colleague Democrats on the committee tried to calm her. They seemed embarrassed at being there and I totally hated her. The word embargo came to mind.

So a few beers and I walked right up to her as she stared me down. I said, “You’re Bella Abzug, aren’t you?” She countered, “YES I AM,” and put her hands on her hips. “Well,” I said, “I’ve never liked you but maybe I’ve been wrong. Can I buy you a cup of coffee?” That’s really what I said! So she blurted, “Yes you can,” and grabbed my arm as her hat aimed at the coffee shop.

I knew that President Carter had appointed her to some high commission on women’s affairs, and then fired her when she criticized him. I was in waaaay over my head. Besides, she was ten years older than me and had a law degree from Columbia. Her biographer said she was “born yelling.”

I just Googled Bella Abzug and here are some of her quotes:

“Women have been trained to speak softly and carry a lipstick. Those days are over.”

“The test for whether or not you can hold a job should not be the arrangement of your chromosomes.”

“I began wearing hats as a young lawyer because it helped me establish my professional identity. Before that, whenever I was at a meeting, someone would ask me to get coffee.”

“We are coming down from our pedestal and up from the laundry room. We want an equal share in government and we mean to get it.”

“All of the men in my office can type.”

I was preying for an earthquake.

Bella ordered black coffee and I did too. I wasn’t going to let her up me. The first question from her was, “Do you believe in equal rights for women.” I felt like a mouse at a mountain lion convention because I knew I was about to get stomped. I could hardly breathe and quickly checked where the exit was, and if there was a bouncer.

But I managed, “No I don’t. I don’t believe in boys in the Girl Scouts, I don’t believe in men in the ladies room, and I don’t believe in American women being drafted in the Army to fight hand-to-hand with the Gooks in Vietnam.”

Her hat probably started to tighten but she didn’t appear fazed.

“That’s different.”
“No it isn’t, equal means equal.”
“You’re a #### chauvinist.”
“That’s not what we’re talking about.”
“Yes it is, everything is on the table.”
“Now you sound like a #### lawyer.”
“So, you hate women and lawyers both.”
“You’re putting words in my mouth.”
“Somebody has to help you.”
“I’m not intimidated by your hat.”
“Be careful sonny, you’re getting brittle.”

It went on.

The waitress had her hand on the phone.

Bella’s hat was getting tight.

We sipped and glared.

A feather on her hat kept swinging around and getting between her cup and her mouth. I saw it as an omen.

“Look,” she said. “I don’t care if the little boys want to go with the little Girlie Scouts, and if perverts want to go in the ladies room we can handle that, but I’m wondering how in hell you would deny the rights of women who want to fight for their country? Whose side are you on for Christ’s sake?”

What do you say to a woman who thinks that fast? I was completely denuded, out of ideas and out of courage, all at the same time. And I wishing I was out of the dumb coffee shop.

But soon we both started laughing and pointing at each other and claiming victory. That sweet, chunky feminist could tell some pretty filthy jokes. Finally, the waitress threw us out saying she had stayed open late to clean up the mess. Bella and I walked out arm in arm and her hat fit again. I promised to vote for her. She promised not to kill me.

The next morning I wondered why I liked the woman I hated so much.

PS The best feminist line I ever heard was from the mouth of Gloria Steinem. “I lived in my New York apartment four years before I found out the oven didn’t work.”

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