Today, when every 26-year-old woman I pass on my West Village street seems to have her own start-up, and women’s empowerment conferences are redundantly full of millionairesses in Manolos with daily blow-outs and triplex brownstones in the world’s shiniest borough—Brooklyn, which used to be known for grandmothers in housedresses wielding gefilte fish grinders—it’s hard for anyone but a Boomer to remember that there was a time when a young woman having a career in the city meant being a zesty, super-competent, holding-it-all-together and rolling-your-eyes-at-the-assininity-around-you glorified assistant to the man in charge.
But that’s what it was like at the very end of the ’60s and very beginning of the ’70s. The term “Gal Friday” (for real!) had only recently been retired from Help Wanted ads, and female professionalism was still a bit of an oxymoron—most girls I knew wanted to be witty goddesses dating rock musicians, not 9-to-5'ers, and the smart girls who did want the latter knew the push-back was intense. And that is why The Mary Tyler Moore Show—which debuted in that bright first year of a new decade—meant so much to us all.
First of all, there was Mary herself—a brilliant comic actress with an expressive range that zigzagged from earnestness to incredulousness to befuddlement to shrewd irony and back; a charmingly almost-shrill voice; fine-featured beauty topped by that big near-black hair—and a knockout figure that could only come from her many years of dancing. But mostly there was her air of decency and integrity. It was glowing. Can decency and integrity glow? With her, it did. In the show—whose rousing, not-quite-corny theme song featured the hook “You’re gonna make it after a-all!”—she was Mary Richards, who came from a small town in Minnesota to be associate producer at Minneapolis’s WJM-TV’s six o’clock news. She called her boss (the charmingly gruff Ed Asner) “Mr. Grant” even though she held the whole office together. Women have always been great at that, but when the show premiered that was mostly all that young women in offices—without commensurate perks or titles—were allowed to do. She lived alone-but-not-lonely, a concept city girls had struggled to master for a few years but which she legitimized, in an apartment. And her best friend, Rhoda Morgenstern (the wonderful Valerie Harper) lived upstairs. Or was it downstairs? “Mare? Mare?!” Rhoda would implore—as out-there as Mary was composed, as self-deprecating as Mary was reservedly puzzled—when she entered Mary’s apartment to shpiel out the latest wrinkle in her life.
Mary Richards took the Rona Jaffe-ian notion of a New York “career gal” (living with roommates, looking for a man, crying over heartbreak) and made it hip. At work she was palpably better than pompous Ted Baxter, the bloviating news “star” that the crew not-so-secretly laughed at, and an optimistic foil to the perennially woebegone news writer Murray Slaughter (Gavin MacLeod). The invisible asterisk on her work character was that, once the doors really started opening for women (the show debuted a year before Ms. magazine rang in a new era of women’s-liberation-going-mainstream but the movement had already started), she would advance the way she was destined to, beyond her frequent protestations: “But Mister Gra-ant…” Of course she was smarter and more sensible than the guys in the office. We all knew that and part of the show’s satisfaction was that we knew they knew it, too.
But it was as a single woman living among other single women, without desperation or indignity, that Mary Richards may have made her biggest mark. I was a recovering pseudo-hippie, just returned from an island in the Mediterranean and working as a waitress at a soul food-and-jazz joint when the show started. I still had tie-dyed curtains in my exposed brick walk-up apartment, a little dog I bought so I could attract guys on the street, and becoming as skinny as Mary mattered enough to me to achieve that goal. I was too stupid to know that not wanting what we still called “the straight world” was a defense for being afraid of the challenges and rejections of that world. It was easier to sit at my desk and type, on my electric typewriter, little profiles for brand-new Ms., or book reviews (and the occasional memoir of capricious drug-running) for Rolling Stone.
I had an upstairs neighbor named Dana Dolan, a friend a few blocks away named Eileen Stukane, and another friend a few more blocks away named Carol Ardman. On the nights The Mary Tyler Moore Show aired, I would make what all three recall as seriously elaborate salads (such was the beginning and end of my culinary career), and we’d all sit cross-legged on the floor eating them, watching Mary and Rhoda, on what Dana recalls as “your tiny TV” (in those days, for us, stereos ruled), modeling a respectively peaceful, un-anxious and noisily bumptious independence that was a casual mirror to our own lives. “We dressed as snappy as Mary and had a sense of humor, too,” Dana, who was an assistant at Newsweek, remembers. “Mary dated without finding a husband, just like us.” Eileen, a writer then and now, remembers walking up my rickety stairs (she had them too) where, while watching Mary, we “commiserated about our love lives, encouraged each others’ careers, and laughed with Mary. We knew we were the first real wave of single women on their own in the country. She gave us roots and wings.” And Carol, also a writer (she, too, had rickety stairs; I guess rickety stairs were the early ’70s version of artisanal pork belly) remembers that my mother used to call from California to find out what I was doing; why I wasn’t out on a date; was I alone or was there a guy there? I would often just let the phone ring, my friends and I avoiding her like Mary and Rhoda avoided their hilariously annoying older neighbor, the pompous, dopily opinionated Phyllis (perfectly limned by Cloris Leachman).
When, two years into the series, I had a year-long relationship with a stylishly “spiritual” and “evolved” older filmmaker who was self-centered, casually domineering, and totally full of shit, I would rush from his big house and packed agenda to my by-now pathetic-seeming little apartment, and the glorious, illicit relief I felt in being alone there, in ostensibly reduced circumstances. I was validated by the confidence with which Mary handled her single life. “Mare? Mare?”: it was much better to have a woman neighbor knock on your door like Rhoda than be a couple with a man who looked good on paper but who effortlessly assumed you would live in his life. “But Mister Gra-ant…”: Mary’s exasperated plaint—only several inches from a breaking point and projecting an unfairness we knew she knew she was too smart not to conquer—gave me comfort: In 1973, we’d been consciousness-raised on steroids; we now suddenly hated our sexist boyfriends, who just half a year earlier we were dying to keep and please. But did that head-spin doom us to forever-aloneness? It was a high-barred (and not un-scary) dilemma, but we’d figure the fuck a way out of it, kind of like how Mary cleverly figured dozens of little office-politics things out every week.
I never thought of Mary as a role model; that was the beauty part. Susan Sontag and Carly Simon and, soon after that, Rickie Lee Jones, were my role models. If Mary had been my role model, it would have been too cloying, too obvious. I wouldn’t have absorbed her lesson in the subtle, effective way I did.
At the end of the last episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, in 1977—by now I was living with the man I would later marry (but living with him in that emotional, dramatic mid-’70s way that matched the turmoil of the soulfully bankrupted and desperate city)—Mary says goodbye to the newsroom. She has done her job. Her desk is empty, all is neat. She walks out and closes the door. Then she remembers she hasn’t turned off the light. She walks back in and does so. Punctilious to the end, about to take her honed over-competence to that next plateau that the vibrant new feminist culture, and her show, helped create for us.
To me, the remembering-to-turn-the-light-off gesture also meant something else: Turning back. Mildly regretting. Being humble and doubtful and wistful. Being honest enough to know we can’t jettison our striving, less-formed, insecure—rickety-stairs—selves. After all, they can teach us the most.
Sheila Weller is the author of seven books, including 2008's New York Times bestseller Girls Like Us and 2014's The News Sorority, a writer for Vanity Fair, former senior contributing editor at Glamour and contributing editor at New York, contributor to many more magazines and recipient of nine magazine awards. Author photo by Laura Pedrick.