Shattering Glass Ceilings
How My Mother Became A Broadway Star
She escaped from an abusive husband and raised four kids on her own, even as she spent long hours building her career as one of the first female lyricists on Broadway.
While unpacking a house full of boxes recently I came across two old letters from my mother, in a drawer that had been painted shut for years. I picked one of them up and let my eyes linger on the postmark: August 4th, 1949, Los Angeles. Mom would have been 10 years old and visiting cousins in California.In penmanship startlingly assured for someone so young, she tells stories about swimming in the ocean and spotting Humphrey Bogart on a film set, all in the voice of a world-weary traveler twice her age. There are no aunts feeding her, no uncles driving her past movie stars. “I saw Humphrey Bogart,” “I decided to see the beach.”I recognized in her letter the Susan—the Mom—that I would know years later. The tone had the same "Hey look—no hands!" confidence that would characterize everything she did, and that I would one day watch her deploy in the service of saving her own life.The second letter was written by her to me at summer camp in the 1970’s. Hasty blue ballpoint on typing paper. Mom asks about food and sleep, poison ivy and heat.As I scanned the pages, a remembered sound hovered close behind my ear, one I hadn’t thought about it in years. The sharp clap of the typewriter that the paper in my hand had no doubt been pulled from, the firecracker pops of the electric behemoth that sat atop my mother’s bedroom desk when I was a teenager.An old sense of adolescent unease roused itself. I never had any affection for those noises. As far as I was concerned, the machine that made them was an unworthy rival for my chronically distracted mother’s attention. I had seen what happened to Mom when she typed on it, how her face had rearranged itself in response to some silent imperative, how she’d brimmed with an intensity that had gone missing from her interactions with us. I had been used to muffling the sound of my parent’s violent arguments with my own noises, and recognized the sound of my mother at work as the sound of dissatisfaction: with her abusive marriage, her life at home, and to my young ears, with me.What I did not recognize was the hope implied in the sound. As I reread the letter I realized that I now missed those typewriter noises. I missed the future they announced, the one I am living now. My mother was pecking out a career with her typing, as a lyricist for Broadway musicals, one that would rescue her and her children from her husband’s dismal rage, yet was devoted to conjuring happy endings, comic banter, love songs and lullabies.I was only dimly conscious at the time of the emotional incongruity of mom’s work and family lives, of the psychic agility it must have demanded of her, and was not at all aware of my own stake in her private struggle. She was fighting a battle whose terrain was limited to the precincts of her own mind, but whose potential spoils—the many inheritances of a free and fully-lived life—would be reaped by her children and grandchildren.I found myself wishing I could travel back in time to tell my younger self what the sound in the next room promised. That my mother would be all the father I would ever need. I wanted to tell my easily-discouraged former self to hear the sound of Mom working as an announcement of possibility, to listen to the future as if through a radio telescope, to know that time can fold like a letter.Or did I, really? Did I want to rob myself of the pratfalls and revelations of young adulthood? Or of the gradual realization in my twenties that the elegance of my mother’s work helped alert me to its presence elsewhere in the world? No, what I wanted was to watch my mother write.***As a teenager my mother cowered in a phone booth to escape a man who had groped her on the subway and followed her out of the station. As the man unzipped his pants and pressed himself against the glass booth, she called her mother and begged her to come get her. Her mother told her to stop telling stories and come right home.When she applied for a credit card in the ’70’s, my mother was told she couldn’t get one in her own name, even though she was earning more money than her husband by that time.The doctors, police officers and friends who saw my mother’s bruises in the days after she escaped the final beating she would endure from my father all asked her what she had done to provoke his rage.Again and again my mother was judged undeserving of the respect, credibility and sense of identity enjoyed by men, and yet was tacitly expected to assume many of the burdens usually associated with men.In order to forge a career from nothing she had to be as ambitious, dedicated, and tenacious as any man she knew. In order to build a life from ruins she had to be more so. Her children, like all children, wanted parenting that exemplified those qualities. We wanted a parent who, in addition to singing us to sleep and bandaging our wounds, could show us how to not let fatigue or injury keep us from engaging with the world.There was exactly one other woman writing lyrics for Broadway musicals when my mother began her career. There was exactly no time in her day, after working at an employment agency, helping four kids with their homework, doing laundry and withstanding whatever storm might be carried home by my father from his day teaching at a local college, for her to write. But write she did.The typewriter was both refuge and a grindstone. I caught glimpses of my mother, more than once, letting her hands drop from the keys as tears streamed down her face, no doubt praying her kids would be quiet for a one lousy minute. Or wondering if she should just give up.But she never did, and eventually, finally, people took notice, and she started making her way down a zig-zagging path to a less difficult life.She left my father and got remarried, to a gentle man who would quote her work to strangers. She wrote lyrics for the Broadway musicals Working, Triumph of Love, A My Name is Alice, Jelly’s Last Jam, High Society, and others, worked with musical-theater big shots like George C. Wolfe, Jule Styne, and Charles Strouse, and was nominated twice for the Tony Award. And she has only become more formidable and prolific with age. My mother has three new musicals expected to open on Broadway next year: Monsoon Wedding, a musical version of the great film by Mira Nair, who is also directing the Broadway production; The Secret Life of Bees, with composer Duncan Sheik; and a new take on the Max Fleischer cartoon Betty Boop.Reading those old letters reacquainted me with my mother's curiosity, her sense of wonder, her indefatigable determination to live a meaningful life—all the qualities that allowed her work to bloom. Her intrinsic, burning sense of self—the kind that, in my mother’s day was a secret kept by too many women—brought her work to fruition in the same way it helped her children move into adulthood.I’m a parent now myself, in a world only slightly less restrictive for women like my mother, and my wife. Although still underpaid, under-respected and over-scrutinized, they both do work they love and enjoy doing well. They are models for my children in a way that, back when people wrote letters to each other, only fathers were supposed to be. My eldest daughter is six and already knows how to email and text, but she does carry a notebook with her every where she goes, and sometimes I watch as she takes a moment to herself, finds a quiet corner, pulls out a pen, and writes.