SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - When he discovered there was no biography of Bella Abzug, one of the most compelling and well-known American political figures of the 1970s and 1980s, Alan Levy, Slippery Rock University history professor, set out to correct that omission.
Rowman and Littlefield Publishers' Lexington Books has now published, the American history professor's latest book "The Political Life of Bella Abzug, 1920-1976: Political Passions, Women's Rights and Congressional Battles," the first of a two-volume compendium of her tumultuous life.
Levy, who has written 10 other historical works, said he didn't set out to write a two-volume biography of Abzug, but "because I found her life so interesting, and such a great commentary on American politics of the mid- and late-20th century, it just grew."
He said his manuscript on the three-term congresswoman from New York, grew to 900 pages.
"Editors obviously asked me to trim, but it was difficult to leave out important areas of her life. Fortunately, I found a publisher willing to publish the manuscript in two volumes," he said. The second book, covering Abzug's life from 1976 until her death in 1998, will be published next year.
For Levy, who joined the SRU faculty in 1985, the life and times of Abzug was a natural choice. Among his previous books are biographies of well-known figures that had also never been the subject of complete biographical studies.
His biographies of American composer Edward MacDowell; zany, but brilliant, baseball player Rube Waddell; the story of famed New York Yankee manager Joe McCarthy; and his biography of the heavyweight boxing champion Floyd Patterson, provided the first in-depth and complete examination of their respective lives.
Levy said he is attracted to treading on new ground in biographical research.
Although from New York, Abzug was nationally and internationally known, frequently in the news throughout her political life. Always available to reporters, Abzug seldom held back quotable comments. When first running for office in 1970, she often quipped, "This woman's place in in the House - The House of Representatives."
"When she saw a wrong, she set out to make it right," Levy said.
She often shared issues, and arguments, with such feminist leaders as Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan. To many she is remembered as "Battling Bella."
As an example of her nature, Levy points to her early childhood and the death of her father when she was 13.
"The tradition among the Orthodox Jews was to have a male family member, usually the oldest son, or a brother, say a daily prayer, the Mourner's Kaddish, at synagogue for an entire year.
"Since young Bella, who was already fluent in the Hebrew language, had no brothers or uncles, she elected to say the prayer herself. This was just not done in those days - 1933," Levy said.
"The synagogue elders glared at her, but no one actually stopped her. She followed the philosophy 'if it makes sense, do it - do what is right, do not just follow custom,'" he said.
Joseph Dorinson, history professor at Long Island University, said in the book "Levy artfully creates a vivid portrait of Bella Abzug from her birth in the Bronx in 1920 (one month prior to the ratification of the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote) to political defeat in 1976, with more to come in a much-anticipated sequel. As an advocate for the poor, oppressed minorities, women, blacks, Hispanics and gays, she had no peer. This page-turner reads like a psychological novel that explains the rise and fall of a brilliant, if flawed, woman."
Levy traces Abzug's political rise, covering many features of her career and personality; among her most notable habits was wearing a hat; a trademark that helped make her famous.
Those living in the era could instantly recognize her on television or in newspaper photos from her large, floppy, but always stylish, hats.
Levy explained that in the post-1945 era, Abzug, although an attorney admitted to the bar, was often mistaken for a secretary when arriving for meetings. "People would say, 'I'm sorry, your boss has not yet arrived.' Abzug realized that if she arrived for meetings wearing a hat and gloves, people would more readily know she carried some importance. She later joked 'I got to like wearing hats, but the gloves have come off!' Big hats became her identifying trademark," Levy said.
"Indeed, at her funeral in 1998 a large hat adorned her casket," he said.
Abzug was clearly a force with which to be reckoned. "Some joked," Levy explains, "that she opened doors for women, but in many instances, she broke them off their hinges."
According to the book's introduction, few, if any, held mild opinions of Abzug.
"Many people saw her as one of the most powerful forces for positive political change in the country and through the world, particularly, though not exclusively, via the many causes of feminism," Levy said.
"Others found her, especially in later years, to be pragmatically ineffective and even narcissistic figure who too often merely used the vocabularies of feminism to act out needs to feel herself in position of power and visibility."
"Descriptive words for her abounded - fierce, aggressive, arrogant, forceful, cocky, vigorous, vehement, imposing, belligerent, immoderate, savage, intense, combative, antagonistic, pugnacious bellicose, scrappy, nasty, warm, pushy, confident, unyielding, unrelenting, unremitting, a New Yorker - the words and phrases were endless, and, in varying degrees, they all applied for some with a big smile, for others with great anguish," Levy wrote.
Levy examines Abzug's Columbia Law School education, her marriage and her early work as a labor attorney and advocate for a number of controversial causes, including the case of an African American falsely accused of raping a white woman in Jim Crow-era Mississippi. She was active against the Vietnam War and won three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, before losing to Daniel Patrick Moynihan when she elected to give up her House seat in favor of the 1976 bid for the U.S. Senate.
"Had she won the Senate race," Levy said, "there is a strong likelihood that she would have later run for president."
"A keen passion for justice always drove her, and her skills could render her passions most effective," Levy said.
She learned in 1975 that she had been the subject of FBI surveillance and that the bureau had secretly opened and read her mail - even letters from her law clients - an outrage that disturbed her for many years, Levy said.
He said much of his research was completed in reading the many volumes of newspaper and magazine clippings along with Abzug's personal papers housed at Columbia University.
Levy earned his doctorate and master's degrees from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and his bachelor's degree from Washington and Jefferson College.
His other books include: "Joe McCarthy: Architect of the Yankee Dynasty"; "Musical Nationalism," a study of the American composers who came to prominence amidst the expatriate era of the 1920s; "Elite Education and the Private School," a discussion of the vagaries of private secondary education at one of the nation's premier academies; "Radical Aesthetics and Music Criticism," providing a look at the relationship of leftist political ideologies to
the realms of music and aesthetics; "Government and the Arts," a history of the debates over the subject of the federal government's support for the arts; "Edward MacDowell," a biography of the renowned American composer; "Rube Waddell: The Zany, Brilliant Life of a Strikeout Artist," that traces the life of the early 20th-century baseball player; "Tackling Jim Crow: Racial Segregation in Professional Football," a study of the origins, breakdowns, and legacies of racial segregation in professional football, and "Floyd Patterson, a Boxer and a Gentleman," a look at the athletic, personal, and political travails of a heavyweight champion.
His latest book is available online at: http://www.amazon.com.
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