I vividly remember Shirley Chisholm’s run for the presidency in 1972. I was 13 years old and a freshman in high school. At the time I didn’t fully realize the “symbolic” nature of her campaign, although she did get a lot of support and was so clearly the most articulate candidate during that ruthless season that saw Nixon pulling out every trick he could think of to discredit McGovern and the others (and we’d come to learn the extent of the Republicans’ tricks soon enough). I remember my “Unbought and Unbossed” Shirley Chisholm for President button (God I wish I still had it) and one that said “Aim High with Shirley.” I guess that was the beginning of the end of my “political innocence” because I could see how brilliant this woman was and what a strong message she put out, and yet no one in the media ever took her seriously as a candidate. They even mocked her a bit when she went to visit George Wallace, fellow candidate and polar opposite of everything Chisholm stood for, after he was shot by a would-be assassin. I believe Chisholm’s campaign was the first time I remember hearing about something called “women’s rights.” And after she lost the nomination I thought, “well, we’ll know this country has arrived when I’m an adult and we have black and white women on both sides of the ticket running for President and Vice President.” And now I’m older than my parents were in 1972 and we seem light years away from such a scenario. Having four women on the ticket seems more impossible than ever—much less four African-American women. 1972 was also a big year for the Virginia Slims advertising campaign:
You’ve come a long way baby,
To get where you’ve got to today.
You’ve got your own cigarette now baby
You’ve come a long, long way!
Remember those commercials with all those hip, modern women in their midi skirts and Gloria Steinem glasses? I think they may have even used images from Chisholm’s presidential run. The result of Madison Avenue’s nod to women’s rights was that the rate of 12-year-old girls starting to smoke increased by 110 percent! That’ll teach ‘em to want equality!
Another person who died this weekend who brings me back to the 1970s is Jerry Orbach. I never watched “Law and Order” so I remember Orbach best as shyster lawyer Billy Flynn in the original cast of Bob Fosse’s “Chicago” which I saw on Broadway in 1975. One weekend my friend Helena and I took a Greyhound bus 17 hours from Chicago to New York, saw a matinee of “Chicago” with Jerry Orbach, Gwen Verdon, and Chita Rivera, and then hopped back on the Greyhound for the 17-hour trip back to Chicago! Yikes, we were young then but we thought it was well worth it to see those guys. Orbach was the perfect Billy Flynn—and I’ve been forced to compare all subsequent Flynns to that amazing performance. I also have some vague memory (that just this second came back to me) of catching a rose that Chita Rivera threw to me during the closing number of that show. Little did I know that thirty years later my ten-year-old daughter would be doing a solo of “All That Jazz” at a recital and that she’d know the words to every song in that score.
I guess this is the time of year when everyone talks about the famous people who have died during the previous year. The ones I most remember are Julia Child, Marlon Brando, Ann Miller (Kendall and I had several fab encounters with her!), Tony Randall (my sister, Kendall, and I went to his memorial tribute in New York which was the best show in town), Janet Leigh (Kendall and I saw her on our first date!), Christopher Reeve, Howard Keel, Ray Charles (we live on the same block as his recording studio), and Carrie Snodgress (whose “Diary of a Mad Housewife” probably did as much for women’s rights as Shirley Chisholm’s campaign!).