I don’t subscribe to that urban myth about celebrities dying in threes but we sure lost a trio of amazing women during the past week. And to continue my tortured Zelig-like quest to place myself on the periphery of celebrity, I will point out that I’ve met all three of these extraordinary individuals: Wendy Wasserstein, Betty Friedan, and Coretta Scott King.
I was so sad to hear about Wendy Wasserstein’s death last week. I only found out she was sick about a month ago when I was in the middle of listening to the audio version of her wonderful book of essays, “Shiksa Goddess, or How I Spent My Forties.” It’s great to hear her read her own work, the minute she starts talking you feel like she’s your best friend in the world. She writes about the agonizing period when her sister was dying of breast cancer, shares tidbits from her mother Lola (“Always look nice when you throw out the garbage, you never know who you might meet”), and details her difficult pregnancy at the age of 48. Her daughter Lucy Jane is only six and it’s heartbreaking to think that she won’t be growing up with her devoted mother who must have been one of the coolest moms in the world.
My first exposure to Wasserstein was the 1979 PBS version of her play “Uncommon Women and Others” that featured an amazing cast of actresses at the beginning of their careers including Jill Eikenberry, Swoosie Kurtz, and Meryl Streep. I’ll never forget the scene in which Swoosie Kurtz bounds into the dorm room at Mt. Holyoke and blurts out, as a total non sequitir, “I just tasted my menstrual blood!” That kind of line sure got your attention in the 1970s! We saw Amy Irving in Wasserstein’s Pulitzer-prize winning play “The Heidi Chronicles,” and I always looked forward to seeing or reading about her new plays. I loved Wasserstein's interpretation on the American Jewish psyche and how that played into the gender politics of the day.
The thing that impressed me the most about Wasserstein was her work with inner-city students to get them involved in the theatre. She would get to know a group of kids each school year, many of whom had never been inside a theatre, and accompany them to a range of Broadway plays. “As far as I’m concerned,” Wasserstein said, “every New Yorker is born with the inalienable right to grow up going regularly to the theatre. After all, if a city is fortunate enough to house an entire theatre district, shouldn’t access to the stage life within it be what makes coming of age in New York different from any other American city?”
A few years ago, Kendall and I went to see Wasserstein speak at L.A.’s Jewish museum, the Skirball Center. She was delightful and when Kendall mentioned her playwright dad Oliver Hailey, Wendy was very familiar with his work and got all excited. It’s just crazy that she had to die so young and leave that little girl she fought so hard to have. And how can there not be a new Wendy Wasserstein play every few years? What a loss.
I don’t think anyone could question Betty Friedan’s all-important role in bringing about massive shifts in our society. She was constantly dismissed and ridiculed during her work in the women’s movement (I remember all the hideous jokes about her appearance) but she soldiered on, developing a tough shell that many of her loved ones commented on at her funeral the other day. She was born Betty Naomi Goldstein in Peoria, Illinois, and like Wendy Wasserstein, was another nice Jewish girl who went off to a snooty mostly goyishe women’s college. She published “The Feminine Mystique” in 1963 with a print run of only 3,000 and it became a groundbreaking work that eventually touched the lives of millions.
“How do you make sense of Betty?'' her daughter Emily asked at her funeral on Monday. “You just don't. She made so many connections and yet was exquisitely lonely. Maybe the ultimate contradiction was that Betty just didn't fit into this world. That was her curse, and yet she started a revolution. Goodbye Betty. Goodbye Mommy.”
“Betty was not the perfect mother,'' her son Jonathan said. “Emily, Daniel, and I ate TV dinners growing up way beyond the recommended limit.” But when tens of thousands of people cheered his mother at a rally when he was 17, he said, “My heart, despite its adolescent shell, burst with pride.”
In the late 1980s and early 90s I was part of a small Jewish study group led by Laura Geller, one of the first women to be ordained as a rabbi in the United States. Laura was friends with Betty Friedan and whenever Betty was in town she joined our group. It was a thrill to have Friedan’s sharp wit and brilliant mind in our class, bringing new insights that we never thought of to the Torah portions that we were interpreting. I remember everyone in the group being especially on their toes when Betty was there. She couldn’t have been nicer, but it was a little intimidating having this icon in our midst. Whenever I said something in the group and Betty engaged me in discussion, I felt on top of the world. But if I said something and thought I saw a glazed look pass over Friedan’s eyes I wanted to curl up and hide under the nearest Sisterhood Is Powerful poster.
Betty Friedan died on her birthday, just like Ingrid Bergman. The Virgo in me loves that symmetry, the punctuation of having the same birth and death date. I’ve spoken so often about wanting to die on my birthday that everyone in my family gets nervous when September rolls around. Not yet, folks, don’t worry!
It was only after Coretta Scott King’s death a few days ago that I learned about her past as a classical singer and the promising career she gave up when she married Martin Luther King, Jr. at such a young age. She and Martin were married in 1953, a few weeks before my own parents' wedding, and they had four children who all became civil rights activists. Coretta King’s public speaking style was worlds apart from her husband’s but every bit as powerful. I remember hanging onto her every word whenever I heard her speak. Like Friedan, King was a woman who did not suffer fools gladly and she stood by her beliefs no matter what anyone thought. Did you know she campaigned vigorously for gay rights even when many people, including some of her own family members, were dead-set against it? She felt that her husband’s memory demanded a strong stand for gay and lesbian rights. “I still hear people say that I should not be talking about the rights of lesbian and gay people and I should stick to the issue of racial justice,” she said a few years ago. “But I hasten to remind them that Martin Luther King Jr. said, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’ I appeal to everyone who believes in Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream to make room at the table of brother- and sisterhood for lesbian and gay people…We are all tied together in a single garment of destiny. I can never be what I ought to be until you are allowed to be what you ought to be.”
In the late 1980s, not long after I had moved to Los Angeles, a former colleague of mine came to town because she had written a TV special to celebrate the newly established Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, something for which Coretta King had fought for years. My friend Sandra asked if I wanted to attend the star-studded taping at a theatre on Hollywood Boulevard and I jumped at the chance. When I picked up my ticket at the box office and was led to my seat, I almost fainted. I was sitting in the first row next to the King family! Some of the best entertainers in America were performing that night but I could not take my eyes off of Coretta Scott King. I thought she was the most beautiful, regal woman I’d ever seen. But as Bill Clinton said at her funeral this week, “I don't want us to forget that there's a woman in there--not a symbol--a real woman who lived and breathed and got angry and got hurt and had dreams and disappointments.” And that was the most amazing part about sitting next to Coretta Scott King that night—getting a brief glimpse into the normalcy and intimacy of her conversations with her children, hearing her say the things that any mama might say to her kids as they sat in a theatre waiting for a show to begin—the refreshingly banal talk and private laughs that made me realize that even the most powerful icons of our time are flesh and blood creatures under their public personae.
I don’t understand all the controversy about the “politicizing” of Coretta’s funeral. What would any of the speakers talk about at such an event if not the struggle that Coretta Scott King fought for during her entire life? I have no doubt George W. Bush was uncomfortable listening to some of the remarks condemning his administration’s policies, who wouldn’t be in that situation? But hey, if you can’t stand the heat, Mr. President, get out of the freaking kitchen. As I watched him and Laura squirming in their center-stage seats and then heard all the pundits moaning that more respect should have been placed at his royal feet, I wanted to scream that popular cliché of our time: “It’s not about you, Georgie!” I’m not a big fan of George Sr., but if George W. had half the humility or self-awareness of his dad, he could have weathered the funeral without looking like he’d rather have been in the Eye of Hurricane Katrina.
I didn’t see that much of the six-hour funeral proceedings but was excited to see Maya Angelou on the platform. I think Angelou is one of the greatest voices of our time, I would travel for hours to hear her speak about a new sewage system. As I listened to her eulogize her beloved friend, I had the sad, morbid thought that Maya Angelou’s own funeral will suffer immeasurably because Angelou won’t be there to speak at it. If you haven’t read Maya Angelou’s multi-volume autobiography, beginning with “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” you should definitely put that on your list.
“On those late nights when Coretta and I would talk," Angelou said, "I would make her laugh. And she said that Martin King used to tell her, you don't laugh enough. There is a recent book out about sisters in which she spoke about her blood sister. At the end of her essay she said I do have a chosen sister-- Maya Angelou, who makes me laugh even when I don't want to. And it is true. I told her some jokes, jokes only for no mixed company. Many times on those late evenings, she would say to me, 'Sister, it shouldn't be an either or, should it? Peace and justice should belong to all people everywhere all the time. Isn't that right?' And I said then and I say now, Coretta, you are absolutely right. I do believe that peace and justice should belong to every person, everywhere, all the time.”
Can’t you imagine a great conversation happening right now between Wendy Wasserstein, Betty Friedan, and Coretta Scott King? I wish I could hear that.