When I heard that Carolyn Heilbrun had written a biography of Gloria Steinem, I was excited. Heilbrun's book "Writing a Woman's Life" has been required reading in women's studies classes since its publication in 1988 as a pioneering framework for understanding the lives of "women who write their own scripts." As Steinem is undoubtedly one such woman, this seemed an inspired pairing of biographer and subject.
Indeed, the "serious" parts of Steinem's story are well-told: her difficult, poverty-stricken childhood with a mentally ill mother and a lovable but irresponsible father; the formation of her ideas during a post-college year spent in India; the evolution of her feminism in the '60s and '70s, and the trials and tribulations of Ms. magazine are presented cogently and insightfully, as are the personal changes she went through when she reached the age of 50. After all, Gloria Steinem is a feminist icon not only because of what she has had to overcome, but because of the colorful life she's led, and the fun she's had. Heilbrun's careful telling of Steinem's life is a respectable choice, but one that leaves some of us frustrated that the "juicier" parts of the story are covered in less detail.
Steinem offers her biographer a public and private world peopled with celebrities, set in the vibrant spheres of publishing and politics, laced with scandalous incidents, from the rescue of Linda Lovelace to an affair with millionaire Mort Zuckerman. This is a woman who went underground as a Playboy Bunny for an article in Show magazine, who staged a demonstration at her 25th class reunion at Smith College, who ran on a ticket with Norman Mailer and Jimmy Breslin for comptroller of the city of New York. She is known not only for her politics, but for her "look," her personal style and her wit, which has made its mark from the White House, where she helped Ted Sorenson add humor to JFK's speeches, to the newsstands of Manhattan, where readers devoured her '70s City Politic columns for New York magazine with titles such as "Kissing With Your Eyes Open: Women and the Democrats."
This seems to be the material for a pretty racy book, but that is clearly not the book Heilbrun wanted to write. In fact, she sees Steinem as a victim of prurient interest in her unconventionality, her looks and her private life on the part of both the shallow-minded, sensationalist dogs of the American media on the one hand and the jealous, relentlessly PC meanies of the feminist movement on the other. And she makes it her business to take Steinem's side in every one of these battles, to plead the case even where Steinem herself backed down, victim of her own relentlessly conciliatory nature. (This combination of, "I don't care what you think"/"Oops, don't be mad at me" is one Heilbrun rightly identified as a burden of our gender; a good object lesson for all of us.) But the resulting story is yet another one-dimensional portrait, this time not by way of media sensationalism but of revisionist goody-goodyism. "The Education of a Woman" reads like a biography written by the subject's feminist-academic-maiden-aunt--too careful, too dry and too doting.
Heilbrun is fascinated by the way Steinem's femininity is set at cross-purposes with her feminism, with her famous beauty causing trouble with everyone from egomaniac rivals, such as Betty Friedan, to sexist pigs, such as Screw magazine Publisher Al Goldstein, to patriarchal old farts at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a research institute affiliated with the Smithsonian. It was an ongoing disappointment for Steinem, one with which her biographer sympathizes, to have the press focus so relentless on her appearance. For example, Heilbrun tells us about a 1971 article in the Miami Herald that described Steinem as "blessed with a hard-to-beat combination of brains, beauty and charm." It further noted that she "believes her good looks have been more of a hindrance than a help in her success . . . and feels women are more interested than men in sex." Heilbrun's comment is that "reporters were still picking out the salacious bits [of their interviews with Steinem] to report."
Personally, I don't see the salaciousness, and wish only that Heilbrun would have seen fit to share these views about men, women and sex, which today are so respectable you can take courses on them in college. As Heilbrun acknowledges, one of the many interesting things about Steinem is her love life. She never married, but she did have a series of romances with well-known and/or interesting men such as film director Robert Benton; Tom Guinzberg, publisher and former editor of the Paris Review; director Mike Nichols; Franklin Thomas (president of the Ford Foundation), and Assistant Atty. Gen. Stan Pottinger, virtually all of whom claim to love her to this day. Unfortunately, for those who would like to know more about this astonishingly successful career in serial monogamy and who wouldn't mind a few prurient details along the way, the accounts of these relationships are disappointing, partly because they emphasize politics over feeling, partly because they tread so carefully around the privacy of this cast of living characters.
For example, Heilbrun notes that "Steinem met Rafer Johnson at the 1968 convention; this was the first of her 'romantic friendships' with a black man. Many of the activist black men she met were, she found, more sensitive to the dangers and oppression of sexism than their white male counterparts." Oh god, we're thinking, is this really all we're going to hear about this? Nor does this theory do much to explain her '68 affair with football-player-turned-actor Jim Brown, who, Heilbrun reports, included an account of his affair with Steinem in his "sex-stuffed" 1989 autobiography. For a moment, I wished I was reading that book.
In telling us about a widely reprinted photograph of Steinem and Henry Kissinger and her accompanying jest, "I am not now nor have I ever been a girlfriend of Henry Kissinger," Heilbrun tells us: "This picture and the rumors it produced would haunt Steinem forever." Oh, please. Is it really so haunting? Or if it was then, do we have to solemnly agree with that view today?
Steinem has suffered because, by being sexy, by being photographed with Kissinger, by having an interesting love life, by putting Wonder Woman on the cover of Ms. magazine--she violated the movement's idea and the media's idea of how a feminist should look and act in the '70s and '80s. She felt bad about this, tried to downplay it, and even retreated from it as her life went on. Her biographer continues this scramble for acceptability. One cannot help but feel that if Heilbrun would just get off the defensive, a more powerful Steinem would emerge. One finally is not sure whether Steinem was so battered by the forces of political correctness that she became boring in her attempt to placate critics, or whether Heilbrun is doing it to her out of an urge to respect her privacy. And one wishes, at least for a moment, that no matter how tough it was for Gloria to be a babe in the feminist movement, we would take a moment out to admit that it's really not so bad to have great legs.
Perhaps the most confusing thing about this book is the ending, where Heilbrun sums up Steinem's contribution to feminism in these words: "To the media and those who live in its light, Steinem is, to various degrees, an enigma, and, perhaps inevitably, a paradox. But to the many thousands she has helped or encouraged or rescued, she is, like the mythical Kilroy of World War II, essential and ubiquitous. Steinem was here."
Is it just me, or is that a pretty backhanded compliment?