A book tour in 1974 was a species of hell. In 2011, if you go on a book tour, you have a book escort. This person, usually a personable, book-loving, middle-aged woman, either meets you at the airport or waits for a call from you when you reach your hotel. After that, you are in her hands. She takes you to your bookings, introduces you to producers and talent, runs for a sandwich if you don’t have time for lunch, arranges for you to see any sights you want and have time to see, and then waves you good-bye as you set off for another city.
In 1974, there was no such person. The job hadn’t been invented yet, and authors were entirely on their own. Andra and I were entirely on our own. We were orphans and the media were the storm. It was not at all what we expected.
The first thing you have to understand is that both of us were absolutely broke. The book was selling well, but the advance had been small and royalties were months in the future. All we could think of in the days before we left for a fourteen-day, ten-city tour was that we were going to stay in fancy hotels and eat good food. Honest to God, that was our fantasy.
As for the actual work of the tour? Well, I had been on television from time to time over the years, for one thing or another. And frankly, if you give me a chance to talk, I’ll talk. Television, radio, the back porch at a noisy party–it doesn’t matter to me. For Andra, it was a little different. At twenty-one, she was a lot less shy than she’d been at seventeen, but all this media stuff was brand new to her. So we worked out a system. If she started to freeze, dry up, or have any other kind of problem, she’d adjust her glasses and I’d step in. With that, we figured we were set.
So all we were thinking about was food. Prime rib. Shrimp. Lobster. Wonderful desserts that we couldn’t name because we didn’t know enough about fancy restaurants. Our imaginations were limited, but our expectations boundless.
It was something of a comedown, then to begin the tour in Cleveland, but New York was just over the horizon. When we got there, we checked in to a hotel with a huge lobby, ornate enough to make us feel that our great adventure in luxury was well under way. The room we were shown to by an elderly bellhop, on the other hand, was considerably smaller than the average Holiday Inn accommodations, and the furnishings just what you’d find in any moderately priced motel. It was a little disappointing, but not enough to take any of the shine out of our starry eyes.
On the desk was our schedule. Farrar, Straus had told us that, like the reviews and the advance sales, the demand for our appearance on the media was gratifying. Clearly, someone was prone to understatement. We were booked solid, and our first interview was in about two hours. We had time to clean up and get across town, if we hurried.
We found every address, negotiated every subway transfer, showed up at every 17th floor radio station that was located three left turns and a right down the corridor. We were late once, and that time almost broke my heart. It was a radio interview, and the host was Arlene Francis. When we rushed in for our taping, I stammered out that I had been a devoted fan of What’s My Line? and that I respected and admired her very much. She fixed me with a steely eye and said, “You could have shown it by arriving on time.” The child I had been when I thought she was the wittiest and prettiest thing on television, ran weeping from the studio as Andra and I slipped into our chairs behind the mikes.
The message we were delivering into those microphones is conventional wisdom now. Then, it was unfamiliar and often unwelcome. We were saying that rapists were not sick, or at least not any sicker than the society they lived in. That rape was a crime of violence and power, not sex. That the standard issue Hollywood love scene in which the feisty heroine struggles in the arms of the big, strong hero until he subdues her was not the best model for male/female sexuality. A lot of people didn’t want to hear it, especially from two young Midwestern women no one had ever heard of.
One interviewer was a predecessor of the shock jocks. He was determined to have controversy, at any cost. He started out by challenging the title of the book. “Against Rape?” he demanded. “Who isn’t against rape?” As we explained that we were talking about working against rape, fighting against rape, he cut us off. “And you contradict yourselves. Right here you say rapists aren’t sick. Then over here,” he said, turning to a marked page in the book, “you say that if you see somebody trying to feel up a young woman on a bus, you should yell, ‘get away from her, you goddamned pervert!’ Which is it?” I explained that we didn’t think accuracy was particularly important when hurling epithets to embarrass a molester, but he was off on something else. He lost his stride only a little when he took phone calls and his listeners asked serious questions. When we left the studio, Andra and I got the giggles and started making up accurate bus molester insults on the way to our next appearance. “You goddamned product of American sexual customs and mores!”
Surprisingly, a great many more people listened to what we had to say as though it all made sense. (Hugh Downs was a striking example, but that story comes later.) There weren’t a lot of women hosting interview shows at the time, but some were sidekicks and producers. Those women had usually read the book cover to cover and were excited to talk about it. Sometimes, they confided off-air that a sister had been raped or a cousin or best friend. One followed me to the privacy of the backstage area after the show and hugged me. She didn’t say anything, but we had a pretty good idea what that was about.
Often, we dealt with simple ignorance and insensitivity. I will never forget wending our way through cables and around cameras towards the stage as an assistant producer called out, “The rape ladies are here!” and all eyes turned to stare.
Then there were the self-defense demonstrations. Andra had already begun developing Chimera, the self-defense system that would later save lives and build confidence for women around the country. It was compounded of street-fighting, Aikido, and Andra’s insights into the structures of conflict. The basic elements of it were in the book, and we agreed to demonstrate a few very simple moves on the air.
You can’t believe what television was ready to do with that.
To begin with, the host always wanted to be the attacker. Andra was patient and careful and nobody got hurt. But that wasn’t the problem. The jokes were the problem. The idea of a woman defending herself against a rapist seemed to be about the best material for comedy these guys had run into in years. So we started having little talks with the producer and the host off-air. “You see, we are dealing here with potentially life and death situations. If the viewers misunderstand what we’re demonstrating, they could get badly hurt or even die. So we think it’s important to make the demonstrations straight and clear.” It was such a problem that we insisted the publicist at Farrar, Straus give this little speech when she checked in with the producers of television shows and we brought it up whenever we talked to someone in advance.
When we checked in to the hotel in Washington, D. C., there was a message to call the producer of a morning show we would be on the next day. We called and she said something to this effect. “We know how concerned you are about the self-defense demonstration. We want to assure you that we’ll be treating it with the seriousness it deserves. Andra will be demonstrating the self-defense moves on Buddy Hackett.”
I’ve been trying to think of a contemporary equivalent to Buddy Hackett, a comedian whose trademark was a cartoon-like face that he used for incessant mugging. By 1974, he was mostly doing a nightclub act consisting of one dirty joke after another or appearing in guest spots on bad sitcoms. He was widely known to be willing to do anything for a laugh. Maybe Gilbert Gottfried if he hadn’t landed the Aflac duck gig.
Anyway, Andra did not do the self-defense demonstration with Buddy Hackett. From that time one, we insisted that Andra and I would do the demonstration together.
Something else happened at that D. C. show. When we arrived, Hackett and James Darren, who was appearing on the same bill with him, were being interviewed. We stood behind the cameras waiting our turn to go on. The host wound up their part of the show, announced that we would be on after the break and then went to a commercial. As they came off the set, the tall, dark and handsome former teen idol walked over to Andra and said, “You’re the self-defense lady right? Think you can take me?”
The male ego is a lovesome thing, God wot.
Andra told him she didn’t do play-fighting. She hurt people who were trying to hurt her and that’s all. And then she walked around him to take her place on the set.
Later, a maid in one of the hotels we stayed in stopped us in the hallway, said she’d seen us on television while she was cleaning, and wanted to show us what she learned. She demonstrated the moves correctly.
While all this was going on, there was one thing that wasn’t. We never got to eat. Most mornings, we left the hotel before they were serving breakfast to do some ungodly early morning show. If there are green rooms where they put out abundant spreads for interviewees, we never found ourselves in them. The best we could hope for would be a box of doughnuts, and, unfortunately, I’d been eating brown rice and vegetables for so long I just couldn’t face doughnuts. (I got over that while I was doing overnight radio. More on that later.) Dinner was usually out of the question, the time taken up by a five-minute appearance on the evening news or travel to a women’s club meeting. We managed on sandwiches, and lots of times they were out of vending machines.
We were looking at the same picture again in Philadelphia. When we took a taxi to our hotel, we found that the hotel was not actually in Philadelphia. It was one of those near-the-airport places, completely surrounded by freeways, houses, and other buildings that do not serve food. It was also a convention hotel. We made our way through hordes of men wearing strange hats and carrying drinks from room to room, at somewhere near noon. Philadelphia was the place where we had a day off. We decided that we were not going to spend that day in this hotel. We called Ralph. Because he traveled a lot for the Press, we figured he’d know a good hotel in Philadelphia, and he did. Then we called Farrar, Straus and told them to cancel our booking at the Home of the Lemmings (or Eagles or Elks or whatever they were) and book us in to the Bellevue-Stratford. We would have to spend that night where we were, but our day off would be spent in historic downtown Philadelphia.
We did appearances all afternoon and evening before heading to our hotel that night. As we closed the door against the Lemmings, I called room service. The kitchen was closed. We could get drinks, but not food.
We had absolutely no interest in drinks. We were exhausted and hungry and we wanted food. The room service person put us through to the bar and we negotiated. He didn’t have any peanuts or pretzels. Of course he didn’t. Until they closed the kitchen, they were trying to sell food. They weren’t going to have giveaway stuff. Finally, he agreed that, if we would order drinks that came with fruit on sticks, he would put in a couple of extra sticks. And he’d throw in a small bowl of olives. When the stuff arrived, we pulled our dinner out of our drinks and chowed down on pineapple cubes and maraschino cherries.
The next day we slept late and had continental breakfast in the lobby. Then we headed to our new hotel as fast as we could. Ralph had come through again. The Bellevue-Stratford was old and elegant in the lobby and, when we got upstairs, it was just as good. The room was huge, with white on white striped wallpaper and furniture that my grandmother would have had in her house. It was an early fall day, and a breeze ruffled pristine white sheers at the window. There were wingback armchairs for sitting at ease, reading, and a small writing desk that lacked only parchment and a quill pen. And we had this for two whole days.
Andra decided to go to the Rodin Museum, and I admired her cultural curiosity, but I was spending the day in that room. I went out long enough to find a couple of good mysteries in a used bookstore. Then I came back and settled in one of the armchairs, after calling room service and ordering a shrimp cocktail, a fruit plate–with rolls and butter–and two whiskey sours. My feast arrived in silver and crystal, the shrimp on a bed of shaved ice, which I had never seen before. I put a fine linen napkin on my lap, opened my book, and spent one of the loveliest afternoons of my life to that date. It was going to have to last me for awhile.