Does Gloria Steinem look 50? What happens when you put archfeminists Alan Alda and Phil Donahue in the same room? How fat is Phyllis George Brown? Would Ralph Nader wear a brown suit to a black-tie dinner?
The answers to those and other questions about America’s pop culturati can be found right here in the ballroom of New York’s Waldorf-Astoria, where 750 of Steinem’s friends have gathered to help celebrate her arrival at the fabulous-50 mark. The $250-a-plate tribute cum Ms. Foundations benefit has drawn luminaries like Shirley MacLaine, Carol Burnett, Tom Brokaw, Sally Ride, Sherry Lansing and Stewart Mott, and they shower Steinem with the kind of encomiums usually reserved for the freshly deceased.
“Gloria,” says gossip columnist Liz Smith, “is a blue-jeaned Joan of Arc.”
“She brought the world together,” intones Bella Abzug.
“She’s made sisterhood a household word,” Donahue declares.
“She’s changed my life,” Alda avers.
All this—and the woman still has a body that defies the notion that females of a certain age should eschew slit skirts and bare shoulders. Fifty looks terrific on Gloria Steinem: Tan, bony, a trifle fragile-looking, she wears a dress of periwinkle silk set off by a rhinestone serpent coiled around her upper arm. Her smooth shoulders are dusted with glitter, and her hair is—as always—perfect. Not for nothing is she described as a “feminist fatale.” Or, as Mario Thomas observes, “Gloria is the only revolutionary leader in history who could be mistaken for a [Playboy] bunny.”
Women who are merely pretty are seldom afforded fetes as grand as this one. The gilded Waldorf ballroom is festooned with bouquets of pink and purple balloons, and an all-woman orchestra serenades the all-star crowd. The headliner in the postprandial show is Ms. Megavoltage herself, Bette Midler. At each place setting is a silver souvenir book chronicling “Fifty Years of Gloria,” with snaps of our heroine as a chubby child, as a Smith College student and as a founding mother of Ms.
Before the gala gets under way, Gloria and a host of her better-known chums convene in the tapestried pressroom. Gloria fields questions about where she bought her dress (a Seventh Avenue discount store), how she feels about being called a heroine (“It doesn’t bother me if you believe that heroines are people who break boundaries”). While she is held captive, the Major Names regroup and offer their pronouncements. Abzug explains that the evening is “a great explosion of meaning, caring, nurturing and becoming.” Helen Gurley Brown chats up Diane Sawyer. Ralph Nader wanders about in a frumpy but endearing brown suit, while Donahue (the evening’s emcee) and Alda confer in a corner. “Everybody,” Alda says cheerfully, “is going to talk too long. Including me.”
Stout, heavily sequined, Phyllis George sweeps into the room. Sailing toward Gloria, Kentucky’s erstwhile First Lady extends her hand and says breathlessly, “It makes me proud to look at you. You made it possible for me to make it in a man’s world.”
“I’m talking about all this, and you’re out doing it,” Steinem demurs. When the flattery has become absurdly ornate, Gloria smiles and extricates everyone. “Let’s put on our jeans and go home,” she says.
She does not: Instead, she weathers the evening with perfect grace, perfect equanimity, perfect aplomb. She works the room while everyone else is eating. She listens to heartfelt tributes from Rosa Parks, the 71-year-old black woman whose refusal to be seated at the rear of a Montgomery, Ala. bus made her an early heroine. She beams through a lyrical toast from longtime companion J. Stanley Pottinger, 44, a Republican lawyer. (Two nights later NBC Nightly News reported that Pottinger is under investigation for violating the arms embargo against Iran during the hostage crisis.) And when it is all over, she says happily, “Now you know what I’m going to be doing for the next half century: I’m going to be living up to tonight.”