Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Can a Woman Have it All in Hollywood?


As long as women have kids and careers, the question of whether we can have it all isn’t going to go away anytime soon.  In a recent article in The Atlantic, Why Women StillCan’t Have it All,” Ann-Marie Slaughter mentions the pioneer femi-nazis (not her term) of the previous generation for having to be “like men” to succeed in the bad old Mad Men days.  The next generation (ours) only had to be better than men to get ahead.  We were the first women to run ourselves ragged in the workplace in droves, and we did it voluntarily.  I was a young housewife and mother when the women’s movement came along and said the worst thing you could be was a young housewife and mother.  If a woman wanted respect, if she wanted her own money, she was going to have to earn it.  I decided to become a writer because a woman could do it from home and still be a mom, a maid, a chauffeur and have dinner on the table by six.  If I could squeeze in my writing when nobody was looking, how could my husband object?

Two years and many spec scripts later, I became one of the newly liberated working women writing about one of the newly liberated working women on The Mary Tyler Moore Show.  My son was seven and in the second grade.  The first thing I did was run out and buy a Norman Todd pantsuit just like Mary wore on the show.  Once women won the right to wear pants to work, there was no holding us back.  Seriously.

The Women’s Liberation Movement was reaching a feverish pitch when Mary debuted in 1970.  Mary represented the ideal, freshly minted career woman.  Mary was who women aspired to be--more than a secretary (but less than a boss).  Every week we got a soft little lesson in liberation.  You could be thirty and a single woman and not hate your life.  You could have a career with responsibilities and still be feminine.  You could stand up to your boss (as Mary did to Mr. Grant in her job interview) and still get hired.  Mary had spunk.  We all wanted it.

Flashback to 1964.  A funny thing happened to me on the way to my honeymoon.  I was twenty-one.  I had just married a “great catch.”  I could finally relax.  Married life was gonna be great.  Goodbye to first dates and lonely birthdays.  Hello wonderful world of kooky-artistic wife-of-successful musician.  In my fantasies we would be just like Lucy and Ricky, only Jewish.  Just like on I Love Lucy, if I dented the fender, I would have some ‘splaining to do and Hubby would scold me (in a cute way) because it was his car and his money that I was wasting by “driving like a woman.”  And that was just fine because we all thought women stank at driving back then.  Women were considered less good than men at just about everything.

My groom was tall and thin and nerdy-cute, with Clark Kent-ish tortoise-shell glasses.  He wore beautiful sports jackets and always left a trail of that intoxicating (at the time) “Aramis.”  He was smart, he was interesting.  He was a songwriter.  I was awed by his talent.  We both loved music and art.  We had lots of things in common, but the main thing we had in common was our absolute fascination with him. 

So, there we are, my groom and I, about to board our honeymoon plane to Bermuda.  In those days, the husband paid for everything and the wife offered her homemaking and baby raising skills in trade.  That was the default position even for college-educated women.  My mother was proud to say she only went to college to get her “Mrs.” degree.  Back then being a wife and mother was good enough and no higher goals were necessary for a woman to be respected and to respect herself.  Hubby would bring home the bacon, and Wifey would fry it right under her diploma. 

A job was just something a woman did till she landed Mr. Right.  I was an artist, an oil painter who also had a passion for fashion.  I was brainwashed by my mother at a very young age with her lecture “What a Woman Is and What a Woman Does to Attain the Happy Life 101.”  I’ll never forget her sweet admonishments, uttered in her Midwestern monotone, “You don’t like school, so college is out and being a teacher is out.  You think nursing is too ‘yucky,’ so that’s out.  You’re too short to be a stewardess.  You flunked typing twice on account of uncontrollable giggling, so you can’t be a secretary.  So what are you good at?  Art.  You’re very good at art, no one would deny that.  You say you want to be an ‘artist’ and ‘paint pictures all day.’  That’s nice.  Let me ask you something Miss Picasso: who is going to pay for the paint?  I’m asking you!  Don’t roll your eyes at me, little Missy.  Answer me this:  How do you eat between the time you finish your masterpiece and the day you finally sell it?  Can you last a month?  What if it takes a year?  How will you support yourself?  Okay that’s a trick question so I’ll answer it:  You don’t support yourself.  You find a good husband and HE supports you.  You let HIM pay for the paint.  Next question:  How are you going to get a good husband IF YOU DON’T EVEN KNOW HOW TO SET A TABLE?  How are you going to be a good hostess when he brings his business associates home for dinner!?  Ye gods, Karyl!  Answer me that!”

I knew what I had to do: move as far away from Mom as possible, so I moved to New York.  Despite my limited education, I always landed amazing and glamorous jobs.  Why?  I was smart.  I knew instinctively to always dress for the part, and I was a great bullshitter.  I created a PR job at Macy’s.  As their Teen Coordinator, I set up teen boards made up of  girls from local high schools, put on teen fashion shows, had celebrity autograph signings, and wrote a teen newsletter.  I was a little bit famous.  I was in Newsweek.  I was interviewed by Mike Wallace.  I won Seventeen Magazine’s AMY (Award for Merchandising to Youth) Award.  I also helped organize, and was a clown in, Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

I planned on working till I got married.  After that I’d paint and take art classes, but my main job would be to serve my successful husband so that he could become even more successful.  I would bask in his glory and raise our children singlehandedly (if need be) so he could concentrate on his career.  I had always viewed weddings as a sort of retirement party for the bride, because sooner or later it would be the man’s responsibility to support the family.

Hunting for something to read on my honeymoon, I grabbed a best seller that had just come out in paperback: The Feminine Mystique, by Betty Friedan.  I had been wondering what all the fuss was about.  Only a few pages in, Friedan said smart women (like me!) who signed on to be “just housewives” (like I just did) were desperately unhappy.  They got no respect.  They had no money of their own and had to justify every single purchase to their husbands.  These formerly smart college graduates had become nothing but diaper changing, ass-wiping zombie house slaves.  Stuck in the suburbs they were lonely, isolated and practically suicidal.  Meanwhile, their husbands were respected business executives enjoying three-martini lunches and a plethora of cleavage at the Playboy Club in midtown Manhattan.  The more I read, the more I knew Friedan was right.  All I could think was: I’ve just made the biggest mistake of my life.

I needed to come up with a Plan B--and fast--hopefully before the honeymoon was over.  I realized if a wife wanted any respect, she was going to have to fight for it.  How could I get my husband of one day to accept my new idea of my working full time?  I had just spent the past 6 months selling him on my domestic skills and convincing him that I couldn’t wait to wait on him hand and foot and to bask in his glory.  But now that I’d read this book, I still wanted to be married, but maybe not in the original Lucy-Desi way I had envisioned.  I wanted a job.  I wanted to stay vital.

I secretly vowed I would do everything I could to grow as a woman--as long as it didn’t interfere with my marriage.  All I had to do was be the perfect housewife and maybe I could fulfill myself from nine-to-five just like Betty Freidan suggested.  As long as I kept the house clean, the refrigerator filled and had dinner on the table by six, how could my husband say no? 

My husband gave me permission to work!  Yay!  The first two years of our marriage, I did PR for rock groups--most notably, the Rolling Stones.  Then I wangled myself a job on Madison Avenue as an Account Executive capitalizing on my special knowledge of what teenage girls want.  Still unfulfilled, I decided to become a dress designer.  I was an artist.  I could draw.  I had style.  I made up a bunch of sketches and I talked my way into a wonderful job designing Junior dresses.  I earned while I learned.  I took patternmaking at the Fashion Institute of Technology at night.  Of course, I still kept up with my marriage and my life plans.  I got pregnant.  I worked until my water broke and then I quit my job.  As a new mother, I was lonely and bored pushing a baby carriage in Central Park.  Chatting with other moms about the newfangled Pampers versus cloth diapers made me want to scream.  During Adam’s nap, I played “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” over and over.  I missed designing.  I missed my friends in the garment center.  I missed having something interesting to say when my husband came home for dinner.  Would he let me go back to work?

With great passion, I stated my case for NOT being a stay-at-home mom.  He agreed to my plan to return to work ONLY after I agreed to pay the nanny’s salary out of my designing salary because, taking care of the baby was the mom’s job.  Yes, I agreed to that.  It was another time!  It was a work-around to get what I wanted.  I returned to the garment center as head designer for a division of America’s #2 dress manufacturer--Bobbie Brooks.  After taxes and paying the nanny, I netted exactly zero dollars.  But I was fulfilled.

Everything changed when we moved from New York to LA.  For me, going to LA meant returning home.  I had grown up in LA.  After high school, I moved to New York to find a husband.  Now I was returning with my booty.  No one, especially my mom could say I had failed at achieving my goal of finding a nice Jewish husband and starting a family.  But that goal wasn’t enough for me anymore.  I promptly got a job designing dresses, but the garment center in LA had none of the action and excitement of New York.  I wanted to make a career switch.  Once again, it was time to re-invent myself, but as what?         

One night we were watching the Emmys on TV.  Lily Tomlin showed up in a 1950’s tulle prom dress.  Fashion jokes always kill me.  Lily’s outfit poked fun of the pomposity of the event.  She was hilarious.  I totally “got” her.  I decided at that moment to become a comedy writer and to one day write for Lily.  Two years later my wish came true.

The same day I was hired to write a Mary Tyler Moore episode, I was hired to staff write on Lily, Lily Tomlin’s first special.  Almost half the writers on Lily were women but I was the only wife and mother.  My son went to a private school less than a mile away.  How was I going to manage being a full-time mom and having a full-time job? 

Luckily, I had Maria, a “criada,” a live-in cleaning lady/baby sitter illegal-from-Mexico.  She didn’t speak a word of English, didn’t drive, couldn’t cook anything except tortillas.  My plan: I could drop Adam at school on my way to the office if his dad could pick him up from school at three and bring him home.  Maria could take over from there.  My husband lived on song royalties and didn’t work.  He had nothing to do all day except go to the gym, meet friends for lunch and call people on the phone.  Still, he balked at running this errand while I “fulfilled” myself.  I begged him.  It was only for six weeks and then I promised I’d be back at my job as Number One husband-and-child-tender.  Reluctantly, he agreed.

When Golda Meir was Prime Minister of Israel she was famous for saying that whenever she was running Israel she felt guilty about her children and whenever she was taking care of her kids, she felt guilty about Israel.  I could relate.  Whenever I could include Adam and work, it was good.  After writing on Lily, Richard Pryor and I became friends and decided to write a Sanford and Son together.  Richie’s daughter, Rain, was Adam’s age and sometimes the two of them played while we wrote.  Whenever that happened, it was the best of all possible worlds.  I staff wrote on a sitcom with Renee Taylor and Joe Bologna.  They had a son Gabriel who was Adam’s age, and again, I got really lucky that the boys could play together while we wrote, sometimes late into the night.  

I was a writer on the pilot of Cher right after she split from Sonny.  For our first staff writers' get-acquainted meeting, Cher greeted me at the door of her palatial Sunset Boulevard mansion with a naked two-year-old Chastity Bono resting on her hip.  Before the meeting began she handed Chastity over to her criada.

After Mary, TV became a hotbed for shows starring funny women.  It slowly dawned on Hollywood they might need funny women to write for them.  Yay for me.  For once, I had impeccable timing.  I wrote a Maude, a Karen Valentine Show, a Diana Rigg Show, and just about every other series about a 1970’s career woman or about a mom who wants to be a 1970’s career woman.  Even Edith Bunker had pangs of liberation.  Women writers became Hollywood’s newest novelty.  Every show wanted one.  There were around a dozen of us writing sitcoms.  Our unique status drew us together and we became friends.  We founded the Women’s Committee of the Writers Guild.  We were among the first members of Women in Film.

Just like all the other disgruntled housewives of America, women writers bonded, threw consciousness-raising parties and got enlightened.  Consciousness-raising was a lot like group therapy.  Once someone read aloud an article from Ms. Magazine (the feminist’s bible) called “I Want a Wife.”  The satirical piece was an amazingly long list of household chores assigned exclusively to the wife.  The more we heard, the angrier we got.  It concluded with “Who wouldn’t want a wife?”  Everyone in the room was blown away by it.  Everyone could relate.  Everyone got mad.  Then, everyone scurried home to cook dinner for their husbands.  If we were going to change our husbands, first we had to change ourselves.

­­­­­­My career really took off.  I could hardly keep up with my writing.  One night, purely by coincidence, I had three different shows on the air.  I wrote a second Mary Tyler Moore.  I wrote many other relics of that time including the wife-swapping sitcom Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice.  I was so popular; I got my fifteen minutes of fame.  Ms. did a photo story on sitcom moms.  My son and I were pictured goofing off wearing matching baseball shirts.  I was interviewed on the first Regis Philbin Show.  By the end of my first year as a professional writer, I was nominated for an Emmy and a Writer’s Guild of America Award for Lily.  I got invited to speak at colleges that would never have admitted me as a student.  By the end of my second year, I won the Emmy for Best Writing on Lily Tomlin’s second special, along with the American Academy of Humor Award, and the Rolling Stone Magazine award for the Best Special of the Year.  

Like everyone who becomes successful in show business, my private life stank.  After I won my Emmy, my marriage imploded and my son needed an exorcist.  The freelance writing market dried up and staff writing became the only way to write sitcoms.  Now that I was divorced, writing was no longer a hobby.  I needed the money.  Even though we women had our own anthem and were Strong, Invincible, Wo-maaan, our rightful equality was taking longer than anticipated.  I don’t know why.  All we had to do was convince men to give us half of all their jobs, to pay us equally, and to wash their own goddamn socks.  How hard could that be?

Even though I was now a single mother, I was dammed if I going to let that stand in the way of my burgeoning career.  Of course I no longer lived in a big house with a live-in criada; I had to rely on the kindness of teenagers.

I was being considered to write an episode for the police sitcom, Barney Miller.  It wasn’t a woman’s show, so the fact that they liked my Mary Tyler Moore writing enough to ignore the fact that I had a vagina meant a lot to me.  I knew I would be the first female they hired.  I was determined to show them they wouldn’t regret hiring a woman and a mother.  I wanted to hit it out of the ballpark for my sisters in the Writers Guild. 

I was resolute in playing down the mom thing because being a mother was a reason NOT to get hired.  If a child gets sick, who stays home?  The mom.  Could I have predicted my story meeting would run over to 2:30 PM and that soon my child would be waiting for me on the curb in front of his school?  Could I have predicted that after picking him up and racing home and finding a sitter (Of course, I’m NOT going to bring my child to work--that would sabotage my whole case), that my car would break down on the freeway?  That my shoe strap would break when I ran to the Call Box?  That my Ex would have cancelled my AAA card?  That I would finally return to my story meeting two hours later sweaty and bedraggled?  Suddenly, all the stress, the hurt and the anger over the divorce came spewing out in an avalanche of tears and boogers.  Everyone knows there is no greater sin than a woman crying at work.  I was flunking as a feminist and that made me cry even more!  

After Mary and Lily I was the only woman in the Writer’s Room AKA the Frat House for the first ten years of my comedy writing career.  I was a feminist in the frat house.  Good thing I had an older brother who once threw a Lionel train at me and taught me everything there was to know about armpit farts, or I wouldn’t have survived it. 

I went to London to write on a musical comedy special starring Sandy Duncan.  Did my Ex help me out and take our son for a month while I went on location?  Did he help me out with my career while we were still married?  Luckily, another PTA mom took Adam so I could take the job.  I was the only woman writer on staff.  I was jealous because all my co-workers (men) had wives back home who were holding down their forts.  I thought I was going to be like Sally on the old Dick Van Dyke Show.  There were three guy writers and me.  I was newly divorced and I couldn’t wait to explore London.  The first night after work we were riding back from Elstree Studios in our limo.  We were laughing and joking and I thought I’m finally accepted as one of the boys when one of my co-writers piped up, “Hey,  let’s all go out and get laid.“  Luckily I brought my knitting.  It was still a man’s world.

If it wasn’t for women actors, (or actresses, as they used to like to be called), I probably wouldn’t have worked at all.  I wrote on the staff of Erma Bombeck’s sitcom, Maggie.  I co-wrote a Kate and Allie.  I staff wrote and was Supervising Producer on My Sister Sam, which starred Pam Dawber and the late Rebecca Schaeffer.  I staff wrote on the first nine Cosby Shows.

The Cosby Show was a milestone for women in sitcoms.  Tom Werner and Marcy Carsey hired four writers to complete the unfinished pilot and write or re-write the first nine Cosby episodes.  The two other writers on the staff were guys.  Women writers were finally 50%!  I felt like women were finally making it in sitcom.  Our Executive Producers were 50% female and our line producer, Caryn Mandabach, was overtly female, being very very pregnant.

One day on stage I noticed Caryn was missing.  I asked around and someone told me she had her baby yesterday.  “Oh.”  A little while later I spotted Caryn walking around and she was still as big as a house.  “Oh Caryn, you’re here.  Some idiot just told me you had your baby.”  And Caryn said, “I did, yesterday.  He’s up in the stands with his nurse.”  Caryn waved to a smiling buck-toothed black lady in a white uniform.  The lady waved back while holding a teeny, tiny one-day-old baby.  ONE DAY?  ONE DAY and she’s back to work, like she played hooky for a few hours to get her roots done? Is that what Yahoo Mom Marissa Mayer is planning?  What was the world of working women coming to?   

The day after I gave birth I was still in the hospital, walking like Roy Rodgers while straddling an industrial strength sanitary pad the size of a canoe.  My hair was in a point.  I looked like Phyllis Diller.  I was exhausted, stressed and overwhelmed.  I had a case of post-partum depression so severe that it lasted for eighteen years!  Did I rush back to work?  I did not.  I took six months. 

My generation of working women accepted the old Ginger Rodgers dictum that said: to get ahead women had to do what men did “backwards and in high heels.”  Caryn represented a new generation of working women—fourteen years after Mary Richards showed us her spunk.  She couldn’t take a few days off to have a baby?  Now we’re supposed to give birth in the field, tie the umbilical cord with our teeth and go back to picking cotton?  What the hell!  If Caryn set the new standard, I couldn’t compete.  I had neither the stamina nor the ambition, but Caryn did.  Eventually it paid off to the tune of eighty gazillion dollars when The Cosby Show was sold into syndication.  No one can say she didn’t earn it.

I turned to writing movie scripts as a way to get some sleep, sold a screenplay to Kevin Costner and found out why they call it “development hell.”  Still wrote all night.

During my career I wrote sitcom pilots for Karen Valentine, Nancy Walker, Madeline Kahn, Talia Shire, Mariette Hartley, Melba Moore and Pam Dawber.  See a theme emerging?  If the show was about a woman or a family, I got the call.  I brought my pen and my vagina.  I started out as a Hollywood housewife with a hobby, but that blossomed into a writing career that lasted thirty years. 

Writing on a TV show isn’t like any other job on the planet.  They pay you boatloads of bucks to sit around a table with the funniest people you ever met and try to crack each other up.  Every day, your sides ache from laughing.  Of course, the majority of the jokes are actually hostile remarks about coworkers.  But that’s the good part.  The bad part is: if the writing takes 24/7 well, you’re STILL overpaid, so just grab some toothpicks, prop up your eyelids and keep on writing–and you better be funny.  Will you be the only mom in the room?  Probably not.  Will you have a more helpful husband than I had?  Hopefully.  Can a woman have it all in Hollywood?  Yes she can, but she’s still going to be really, really tired.

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