In the ’70s, the one-named political icon Bella was as well-known as Oprah, and as famous as her first-name-only gal pals: Gloria (Steinem), Lily (Tomlin), Shirley (MacLaine), and Barbra (Streisand), who headlined the “Broadway for Bella” concert at Madison Square Garden, just before Election Day in 1970. That campaign, which put Bella in Congress, introduced the legendary slogan “A woman’s place is in the house—The House of Representatives.”
Harvey Fierstein, the four-time Tony award winner, wrote Bella Bella, in which he interprets the feisty firebrand politician Bella Abzug. Directed by Kimberly Senior, Fierstein affectionately lauds the brash Bronx native, who was born in 1920, the same year the 19th amendment giving women the right to vote was ratified.
Barefoot, and dressed in black by costumer Rita Ryack, Fierstein reveals—and often quotes—the candidate, while standing near a poster-stuffed bathtub in front of a uniquely Bella-style red coat dress and big-brimmed hat. (That signature headcover was a symbol of power initiated after her forever-husband, Martin Abzug, suggested that men don’t expect a woman wearing a hat and gloves to carry their coffee.)
Fierstein, the writer/actor/activist, shares humor-filled and heart-felt mid-century history, which some of us remember. And he gives the audience a sense of Abzug's passion, strength, challenges, and this particular failure. The actor’s own passion, comedic talents, and, of course, raspy voice, hit the mark, as do his snapped T’s; though Fierstein’s over-the-top New Yawk accent somewhat reduced the stature of the highly accomplished, Columbia University-educated labor lawyer. As an author, Fierstein’s script is warm and fast-paced, though it sprinkles in more Yiddish expressions than my friend and I recall from Abzug’s powerful professional appearances and, perhaps, reflect a private vocabulary that we never heard.
Abzug was a formidable presence whose arrival into any room was an event, even amidst the New York notables who flocked to Jimmy’s, a West 52nd Street restaurant. By the time she ran for senate in 1976, women were hopeful about future female representation. By 1972, the National Women’s Political Caucus was founded; Ruth Bader Ginsburg co-founded the Women's Rights Project at the ACLU, which litigated against institutionalized gender discrimination; Gloria Steinem and Letty Cottin Pogrebin co-founded Ms. magazine; and Brooklyn’s Liz Holtzman was elected to Congress. (Holtzman served on the Judiciary Committee and voted to impeach Nixon.) Carol Bellamy had been elected to the New York State Senate and Mary Ann Krupsak was inaugurated as state Lieutenant Governor. States were ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment and many of us believed that simple statement of equality would be passed.
Warren K. Leffler, U.S. News & World Report Magazine, 1971.
This generation of feminists were my heroes because they inspired multitudes to become involved, including this once young, suburban, married-mom-teacher-feminist. Seeing Bella Bella (and I felt that way about Gloria: A Life) is more than entertaining. It’s a good way to introduce young people to predecessors who tried to improve the world and who sometimes succeeded. (Bella got the law passed that permitted women to access their own credit cards without their husband’s signature after American Express refused her one, while she was in Congress!)
Bring other generations to see Bella Bella; then, share your own stories.
Bella, Bella is playing at Manhattan Theater Club at New York City Center, Stage I (131 W. 55th St.) through December 1st. For tickets call 212-581-1212 or visit nycitycenter.org.
Irvina Lew, author of You Can’t Do It All: Ideas that Work for Mothers who Work (MacMillan, 1986; Berkeley, 1988), is a freelance writer who served as President of the Suffolk Women’s Democratic Caucus.