“A as in able,” the appointments secretary announces to the puzzled telephone operator, “B; Z as in zoo; U; G as in go. Congresswoman Bella Abzug is on the line.” Within moments the cyclonic Bella embarks on a half-hour conversation with her show-business pal, Barbra Streisand. Streisand is in Washington for the gala Kennedy Center premiere of her new film, Funny Lady, and Bella warns she’ll attend. (She neither smokes nor drinks and rarely makes Washington parties.) “You didn’t know I was all over the media?” she booms. “You didn’t hear about the CIA and my trip to Cambodia? Never in my life have I seen such human misery! Half the Cambodians are refugees! Babies are starving! Bahhbraaaa, you’re unbelievable! You don’t help me, I help you! I call to tell you there’s a war going on in Cambodia!”
Blustery, dynamic, belligerent, Bella Abzug seems always to be at the center of a mini-maelstrom of assertion and clamor. Perhaps Congress’s most vocal representative—and certainly its most visible woman—the bulldozing New York City Democrat is currently deep in contention. Returning from a whirlwind tour of Cambodia, where she favors a cutoff of U.S. military aid, she learned that the CIA had been keeping a dossier on her for 20 years and had been surreptitiously reading her mail. Her outraged response was as swift—and as audible—as a thunderclap. But for Bella, a feverish workaholic, it was all in a day’s Sturm und Drang.
Abzug is already plotting her race for Conservative James Buckley’s U.S. Senate seat in 1976. “I don’t believe you!” she shrieks at a hapless staff worker. “The Democratic primary is won in the five boroughs of New York City, and we’re gonna be late for Queens!” On a Thursday night in Washington she sits still for local radio interviews. The next morning she drops in for some national exposure on NBC’s Today show. Afterward, on her way to New York, she is miffed when the network limousine won’t stop at her office, then take her on to National Airport. “How cheap can you be?” she complains. “I did you a big favor! I’m exhausted! I haven’t been home in two weeks!”
But if Bella is tiring, she conceals her fatigue. Through an entire weekend in New York she stays on the move. Chopping the air à la John F. Kennedy at a women’s rally, she bellows, “I read today that men are setting the table in Russia. Well, I say that the leaders of the Soviet Union, China and the U.S. had better begin setting the time for peace—not the dinner table!” Afterward, questioned about her JFK mannerisms, she snorts, “Kennedy cadences, hah! These are Bella originals!” Later, at a public discussion of the CIA, she ducks backstage to shrill at staffers who try to keep her on schedule. Her New York administrative assistant, Dora Friedman, shrinks into a self-protective crouch in the face of the fabled Abzug impatience. “You know why I take all this gaff?” the woman confides. “It’s because Bella is a wonderful, committed person.”
With the congresswoman about to return to Washington, her Capitol Hill staff is warned to expect her. The turnover rate on the Abzug staff is a matter of legend, but even assistants whose patience is threadbare give Bella credit for fierce dedication. “She can be horrible,” admits one staffer who’s planning on leaving. “She screams and yells. But you can’t fault her. She works so hard herself, she expects the same perfectionism in everybody else.” Another assistant agrees. “Underneath,” she says, “there is a sensitive person. And I think she really misses her husband in Washington. She’s used to him doing things for her.”
Now, with Bella lingering onstage, her husband Martin is doing a burn after waiting patiently in his tuxedo for more than two hours. “I’m not going,” he suddenly announces to his wife. “I’m not going to fly down to Washington for a movie.” Bella’s husky bark turns to sultry entreaty. “Oh, Martin,” she pleads, “I need you. I want you to come with me. I won’t go without you.”
Predictably Martin yields. A supremely tolerant husband who stays in Manhattan, the 58-year-old stockbroker-novelist says he realized from the very beginning that his marriage would be an adventure. “The last home-cooked meal we had was when we were living in a hotel room,” he recalls. “We gave that up because Bella was practicing law and coming in late, and the woman we hired to make the meals got fed up.” Married 30 years, the Abzugs have two daughters: Eve, 25, a sculptor, and Liz, 22, an administrative assistant to the Boston commissioner of corrections.
“I don’t know why I am doing all of this,” Bella says of her frenetic life. “I never have any time.” She rarely allows herself the leisure to enjoy classical music or play the mandolin and violin, or to swim, at which she is superb. Her reading is mostly legislation and periodicals. “I come from an intellectual background,” she claims. “No, you don’t,” says Martin. “Your father was a Bronx butcher.” Bella giggles and admits: “When I was first elected, people asked me what I was going to do with Martin—put him in a closet?”
Later that day, Martin sprinted along at Bella’s heels as they raced through La Guardia Airport for the next flight to Washington. Fortified with sandwiches picked up by her driver, Bella made the airplane her chrysalis, flopping down in her seat with a whoosh, then vaulting up for a dexterous change of clothes in the tiny toilet. Arriving in Washington, the Abzugs charged through the terminal—Bella lumbering along with a large tote bag, Martin peering around for their car. Finally they arrived at the Streisand spectacular, where they shared a table with Barbra. “Timing is everything,” explained Bella. “It’s not just being here. You have to make the timing.” What did Martin think? “I sleep well when Bella is in Washington,” he joked. “I sleep even better when she’s in Cambodia.”