Hats Off To Bella:   
The Memorial Service
Former Congresswoman
Bella Abzug
There will never be another Bella Abzug. Many will remember her from Congressional days, where she fought tirelessly against the war in Vietnam And for equality everywhere, even introducing the first-ever lesbian/gay civil 
rights bill.  
Bella’s passing, like her life, was colossal. The April 2nd service was at Manhattan’s Riverside Chapel. Her oldest friend and WEDO co-founder, Mim Kelber, talked of running Bella’s campaigns, from Walton High School to the US Congress. Another dear and lifelong friend Amy Swerdlow, retired Director of Sarah Lawrence’s Graduate Program in Women’s History, told of Bella’s wonderful early activism in their student years at Hunter. She thanked Bella’s
daughters, Liz and Eve, for keeping Bella going after Martin, her husband, had died. Jane Fonda said Bella inspired her own political involvement. Gloria Steinem remarked that Bella “should have been, at the very least, President of the United States.” 

Marlo Thomas and Phil Donahue shared personal glimpses. Marlo said  Bella had pushed her to marry Phil: “You’ll never find another like him!” Phil kept his remarks brief, taking his cue from having sat beside Bella at occasions where she muttered under her breath after each pundit’s opening phrase: “Good, sit down.” Marlo said Bella had once barked at her: “When are you having a baby?” Marlo had exclaimed: “I got married, let Gloria have the baby.”

Feminist extraordinaire Robin Morgan said Bella was the only being on earth who could argue with hand squeezes. She had sat in the hospital at Bella’s side every single day for the three weeks since Bella’s heart surgery. They had arranged a signal whereby one squeeze was “yes” and two “no.” Robin had ventured: “You’ve got to fight.” Bella responded with a sharp perfunctory grasp that could only have met: “YES, BUT I AM.” Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum
observed that if God had heretofore been a patriarchal institution, that was about to change.

Faye Wattleton, the great reproductive rights leader, told of their “shoulder to-shoulder” efforts together on those fronts. And she told of how Abzug gave one of her famous hats to a Honduran peasant woman.  

Former Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro read a warm letter from  President and Hillary Clinton. For Ferraro’s historic vice-presidential  campaign Bella had  passed out cigars that said “It’s A Girl!” 

What a crowd they were! Actors Renee Taylor and Joe Bologna led a theater sendoff for Bella’s spectacular life performance - a standing ovation, loud and long.  And the audience! Betty Friedan,  Ed Koch, Liz Holtzman, Ms. Editor-in-Chief  Marcia Ann Gillespie,  Ruth Messinger, author/activist Urvashi Vaid with comic  Kate Clinton, lesbian/feminist chronicler Dolores Klaich, Valerie Harper. Then Shirley MacLaine anchored us firmly in higher planes: “As some of you may have imagined, I will be speaking directly to Bella. “Bellashka, was that you, on the night you died, slamming doors and banging things around in my apartment?” she demanded. “You know, I think you weren’t so much of a feminist as a humanist” she continued and the microphone fainted dead away. It fell off the gooseneck onto the podium. MacLaine laughed and cried at the same time: “I was looking for another sign!”

One cannot imagine the honor with which I accepted Bella’s daughter Liz’s invitation to sing at this event. She requested a song I’d written, Hats Off To Bella about a reincarnate planet whereon former Congresswoman Barbara Jordan is Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and Bella Abzug is President of the United States. When I premiered that song at a NOW (National Organization For Women) New York State event, Abzug squeezed then NOW-NYS President  Marilyn Fitterman’s hand throughout saying several times “I accept, I should be President.”

But I suggested another, more intimate song I had created for Bella’s birthday a few years ago: When Bella Sings Marlene, about her inimitable impression of Marlene Dietrich’s Falling In Love Again. Yes indeed, Bella had a beautiful, Dietrich-low voice, which she raised recently as featured guest in a Leslie Gore concert. And she went far out of her way one blistering day to record a cameo vocal on my Remember Rose: A Song For Choice. She played mandolin.

And indeed, singing was what we all did for a social life, at the wonderful Hamptons place Bella shared with her daughters, and at the welcoming East Hampton homes of lifelong friends like Claire Reed and Judy Lerner. 

Liz Abzug was very wonderful, with her warm, savvy, Bella smile. She told of family and of campaigning with the Great Lady. Jordy Mark sang Yiddisha Mama. Eve was the last to speak. She started softly, telling of her shyness and how she would “rather not have been born into such a well-known family.” She said her mother had “seemed so loud and attention getting AND SHE WAS!” Then something amazing happened. Eve’s voice grew strong and her presence large.

Everyone noticed it. It was almost as if... Somewhere in the middle of this extraordinary tribute, I sang my piece about the time Bella came direct from a National Women’s Day Rally, to sing around the piano at Eleanor Roosevelt biographer Blanche Wiesen Cook and her partner playwright Clare Coss’s home: 

When Bella Sings Marlene, stars stop in the sky. Planets stand in their orbits  'til the song goes by. On the second refrain of moths to the flame, spirits join  the tune; When Bella Sings Marlene, all the roses bloom. 

 When Bella sings, all the roses bloom. 

Sandy Rapp is a feminist singer whose CD We The People is available at 516-329-5193 & Her book God’s Country: A Case Against Theocracy is available at 1-800-3-HAWORTH. Rapp writes a regular column in Long Island’s gay paper, the Rainbow Community News  

(c) Sandy Rapp 1998