Mary Tyler Moore was certainly old enough to be my mother, but when I was a preteen, I looked at her as the big sister I always wanted.
How could I not identify with her character in The Dick Van Dyke Show, Laura Petrie, who shared my first name? I only saw the series in reruns, since it began before I was born, but she was my favorite character in the whole show–only Millie Helper even came close. I loved that Laura was dark-haired and slender like my mom. I loved that she would sometimes break out in a dance–how lovely and mysterious it was that she had been a professional dancer. At seventeen! She was pretty and well-dressed and occasionally goofy and always approachable. As patronizing as her husband, Rob, was, she would always make things right for herself–or for him if he was in a pickle.
I know it was part of the schtick, but I remember disliking how patronising her husband was. How he would roll his eyes, or be cranky about dinner or tease her about her projects. He was the dorky dad with the important job, and imagined that he was the boss of home and castle. But we all knew who was in charge at home. I couldn’t abide their whiny son, Ritchie, either. I’m pretty sure he spent the entire run of the show being sent to his room by Laura with the words, “Wait till your father gets home!” (But I did love that he could never keep a straight face when delivering his lines when he first started.)
Laura, who ran and hid if someone came to the door if she was in her bathrobe. Laura, who didn’t dress like any mom I knew–but then I lived in Ohio and Kentucky, not Connecticut. Laura, who had perfect diction, and perfect poise, yet could make fun of herself in the most delightful way. I wanted to be like her so badly.
Like every other preteen girl I knew, when Mary Tyler Moore became Mary Richards, I saw myself eventually having a job in an office, and living in a studio apartment, and having quirky friends, and adorable clothes. She was such a grownup! She was patient, competent, attractive, and she had parties–her parties, of course, were a running joke because there was always some disaster, and everyone knew it. My favorite episode was when she handed the meat around and Mr. Grant took almost all of it for himself, and left almost none for everyone else, and she had to graciously get him to put some back. Awkward. But she did awkward so well.
When I was an early teen, most of what I heard about changing women’s roles came from television sitcoms and, to some extent, the nightly news. All I knew in my real life was that about half of the mothers and women in our townhouse development worked, and many were divorced. It was expected that I would go to college and get a job soon after. I didn’t have thoughts about being married and figured that would happen or it wouldn’t. My point is that Mary Richards’ independent life completely validated everything I wanted and thought I would have.
But Mary made it look easy. Like her Laura Petrie, her Mary Richards was poised and talented, fashionable and patient. It seemed funny to me that she seemed to be surrounded by stereotypes and caricatures: the irascible boss, the obnoxious dolt of a weather man, the ditzy blond, the Jewish free spirit with the annoying mother, the conservative stick-in-the-mud (played gloriously by the brilliant Cloris Leachman). Mary treated every one of these people with generosity and tolerance. She often rolled her eyes and sometimes teased, and was always honest, or at least kind. But the actors surrounding her were a brilliant ensemble, incredible professionals in their own rights. Even though her name was on the show, she let them shine.
Mary Richards always made it clear how she expected to be treated: fairly and equally. There was plenty of ideology, but it was treated straightforwardly, as a part of the plot. Characters changed during the seven years the show ran, even as the country grew and changed. We all became modern together.
I gather Mary Tyler Moore had a pretty rough personal life. With both Type I diabetes, and a long addiction to alcohol, she endured enormous challenges that were both mental and physical. She was married three times (the last time for 33 years, I believe). Her son by her first marriage died at the age of twenty-four. She had brain surgery in 2011. Throughout it all, she persevered and helped shape a generation of women. She died on Wednesday, January 25th, of cancer.
What are your memories of Mary?
Here are some links. There’s already a ton of slideshows out there, but these have some great photographs. On is her onscreen fashion style, and one is a reprise of a 1991 Architectural Digest interview and profile of her and her newly-renovated country house.
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