The sad news of the death of Mary Tyler Moore has put me in a nostalgic mood. I remember how much I loved laughing at her – and with her – on both The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. It’s worth pointing out, of course, that she was an actress and not simply a charmer. Her chilly performance in Ordinary People was definitely worthy of its Oscar nomination. But when I think about her, my mind goes back to a charity basketball game I attended, one in which the Harlem Globetrotters were challenged by Hollywood celebrities. The players were all male (I think I recall Ryan O’Neal and Henry Mancini on the court), but there was a cluster of female cheerleaders trying hard to rouse the crowd. The one person who truly stands out in my recollection is Mary Tyler Moore, who seemed to be bubbling over with delight at the opportunity to wave her pompoms for a good cause.
Along with Moore’s death, this past week has brought an Oscar nomination roster that points up that—as writers and directors—women are still at a distinct disadvantage in Hollywood. And I’ve just finished reading the biography of a once-famous 19th century American writer whose life story points up the complex and self-contradictory role of women in the arts. Anne Boyd Rioux’s fascinating Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist deals with a figure previously unknown to me. In her own day, though, she was hugely popular, with critics as well as the reading public. Such literary giants as Henry James were her admirers and close friends.
Woolson struggled, though, with the fact that in the post-Civil War era there was still a stigma attached to being a literary female. (See the Gilbert and Sullivan lyric, from The Mikado, about “that singular anomaly, the lady novelist” as one of the social species “who never would be missed.”) A demure Victorian lady, Woolson was bold in writing about the passions of others but kept her own life strictly within bounds. After a romantic disappointment in her youth, she embarked on a writing career with a firm determination to be independent and self-supporting. The corollary, for Woolson, was that she permitted herself no room to consider marriage and children. At the same time, she shied away from the public acclaim enjoyed by male authors in her day, feeling the need to deprecate her own talents in their presence.
Woolson died tragically, a probable suicide, in 1894. The news spread quickly throughout the English-speaking world, but there was little sympathy for her in an era when (in the words of biographer Rioux) “an aura of tragic sensitivity had not yet formed around the image of the suicidal artist.” In later years, the suicides of authors Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath were the stuff of movies. (See The Hours, for which Nicole Kidman won an Oscar, and Sylvia.) Woolson, though, not proto-feminist enough to be re-discovered, is mostly forgotten.
How does all this fit with the perky Mary Tyler Moore? Her first TV roles, like that of a sexy receptionist on Richard Diamond, Private Detective, focused on her body, not her brains. But on The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977), playing an associate producer at a Minneapolis TV station, she demonstrated it was possible to be a smart, talented female who succeeded in the workplace without sacrificing her girlish appeal. In an era when—in reaction to the old-fashioned world of Constance Fenimore Woolson—feminists were often seen as strident, Moore’s TV image pointed us toward a middle path.