The amendment may be in trouble but Polly’s career is thriving
Polly Bergen at 50 still has the look of an ingenue: The beauty seems fragile, the widely spaced blue eyes shine with innocence. The appearance is deceptive. Only a durable woman could have prospered in the multiple lives Bergen has led. She started in show business as a country singer (with Tennessee Ernie Ford, no less), turned to pop music and the movies and then branched out into TV. In the late ’60s she promoted a cosmetics line that bore her name and grossed $6 million annually. After that she starred only on the party-and-charity circuit. That is, until three months ago when she opened in the Chicago production of Plaza Suite—her first stage performance in 20 years. Meanwhile Polly has thrown herself into an offstage role that has increasingly occupied her time and talent.
She is an outspoken advocate of the Equal Rights Amendment, and the scene of her theatrical comeback—hailed by the critics—is the home state of ERA’s most vociferous opponent, Phyllis Schlafly. Afraid of complacency among Democratic women after their pro-ERA platform victory, Bergen said, “We’re all sitting here patting ourselves on the back, but there’s only one well-organized, informed, aggressively successful woman’s group in this country, and the woman’s name is Phyllis Schlafly.” The reason ERA is having a tough time, Bergen says, is that the public is convinced it “is anti-religion, anti-home, pro-abortion and pro-gay rights. Phyllis Schlafly has done one of the most incredible jobs of misinforming the American public I’ve ever known.”
Before the embattled measure can become part of the Constitution, it must be passed by three more states. To help accomplish that difficult task, Bergen last November helped the League of Women Voters form the National Business Council for the ERA, a group of some 150 executives who are trying to influence legislators in key states. Among those recruited to the cause are advertising whiz Mary Wells Lawrence, Seagram heir Edgar Bronfman, PepsiCo chairman Donald Kendall and Norton Simon chief David Mahoney. (“When Polly called,” says Mahoney, “I didn’t hesitate giving my support. ERA ratification is just too vital.”) So far the group’s impact has been marginal, but meanwhile Polly is giving the campaign the facelift she thinks it needs. “I’m selling the feminist movement in a way that is digestible and understandable so that women in Fargo, N. Dak., will know what I’m saying. I want to make people realize they can be as sexy as Raquel Welch or as housewifely as Erma Bombeck and still be for ERA. I know how those women feel because I was one of them.”
The daughter of a construction man and a housewife mother who often worked to help the budget, Bergen was born “not on Long Island in a station wagon on the way to the country club,” as she jokes, “but on a kitchen table near Knoxville, Tenn.” Nellie Paulina Burgin “grew up in one-room apartments” as the family moved around the country to road and bridge construction sites.
A professional singer by 13, she won an Emmy in 1958 as the lead in The Helen Morgan Story, saw the breakup of her first marriage, to actor Jerome Courtland, then wed agent Freddie Fields. Polly retired briefly to raise their three children—Fields’ daughter by a previous marriage and two the couple adopted on their own. (She divorced Fields in 1975 after a four-year separation.) Starting in 1965, she and a partner marketed a line of turtle oil cosmetics, and eight years later she sold out to Faberge and was a director for three years. (She is also the first woman appointed to the board of the Singer Company.)
Since 1967 she has been on the lecture circuit at $5,000 per, talking mostly about “The Psychology of Being a Woman.” She swung behind ERA five years ago when approached by a representative of the movement in California. At lavish fund raisers in her Beverly Hills mansion, Polly helped educate such stars as Valerie Harper—now an activist herself—Cheryl Ladd and Ed Asner. “The more I got involved,” she says, “the more committed I was, but I also felt sure that we needed to re-market the ERA from hard- to soft-sell.”
Owner of a Park Avenue co-op, Bergen remains close to ex-husband Fields, who lives in L.A. “They speak on the phone nearly every day,” says her eldest daughter, Pamela Kerry, 23, an aspiring actress, “and they play poker Friday afternoons when she’s out on the Coast. Mother wins, father loses.” A roller-skating instructor in her youth, Polly often turns up at roller discos. As a result of the Chicago reviews, she may be headed for Broadway next season if she finds the right property. Until then she’s committed to making speeches and phone calls at her own expense to boost ERA. “She is,” says daughter P.K. proudly, “a terrific role model.”