THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“On the Day It Mattered”
Interviewed by Kathy Rand, April 2018 in Palm Springs, CA
KR: Hi, we are happy to have you here to be interviewed today for the Veteran Feminist of America Oral Pioneer Histories Project. Why don’t you start just by telling us your name for the record.
SW: OK, my name is Sydney Weisman. My full name is Sydney Myra Donna Penny Easy Little Miss Broadway God bless America Weisman.
KR: And, can you explain that?
SW: I can. My mother wanted to name me Sydney Myra and then my father and his friends went out drinking.
My birth was something of a celebration because I weighed a pound and a half and I was eight inches long. I was bald and I was about seven weeks early. And the nurses nicknamed me Penny. And so then my father and his friends went out drinking in celebration that I was alive and came up with these other names.
He was known as “Broadway Al” in the service. His service buddies called him Broadway Al and so that’s why I was named Little Miss Broadway. God Bless America was a very popular song the year I was born. So I was born 1942 and I think I was the smallest baby to survive in St. Louis that year.
So my life sort of started out differently and evolved from there. And I don’t want to go into my history too much but my mother died when I was nine, so my dad was my main parent and I think I’ve talked with a lot of women our age who were closer to their fathers. And it’s interesting to me that they had a better sense of the right to pursue what they wanted to pursue without any hesitation. Not that they thought they would succeed, but that they could do what they wanted to do and it would be OK.
He took me to ballgames and cocktail lounges. We stopped short of strip shows, but as some of the people from Chicago know he was quite a raconteur itself and it was an exciting life. So I grew up a little sophisticated as well…more sophisticated than my girlfriends. So I was just a little outside the mainstream to begin with and when I went to college most of my friends were there to find husbands and that never occurred to me. I mean I just was there to get a degree. And not that I didn’t get pinned.
I thought about getting married. But I also believed that truly after I graduated from college I would teach for a couple of years and then get married. That was my life plan. I mapped my life out when I was six and at 24 I was going to get married and when I was 24 and not married – I have to tell you [it was] something of a surprise or a shock to me that I hadn’t yet gotten married.
And so the years were going by and I wasn’t getting married and my family was going out of their minds because most of my girl cousins were on their second children and a lot of my girlfriends from high school were on their second husbands and I hadn’t even done it yet. And so that’s when I got serious about working – just because I had no choice.
I did a variety of jobs in PR and public relations. But my first love was broadcasting. I desperately wanted to be a news anchor. My husband said to me years later when I met him… “what were you thinking??? In the in the era of Doris Day you walk into a news room under five feet, dark hair, glasses, Semitic and you think the news director is going to say, “you’re the one I want.”
What were you thinking?!
And that never occurred to me, because I had been a weather girl at the college station where I went to school and Miss Kitty Clover on the children’s program. So I just thought I would naturally become the next Barbara Walters and that became a shock to me that I couldn’t do it.
KR: It sounds like you had a lot of self-confidence at that point.
SW: I wouldn’t go that far. I think I was blinded by the obstacles. And I just never thought there would be any. And it was also a sign of my immaturity that I didn’t understand the rigors of work. My father adored me and spoiled me. And so I was finding the real world pretty tough. But I had a plan that I could get into television if I got into radio – which I had never thought of doing in college.
I went to the University of Missouri School of Journalism and only the kind of nerdy guys were in radio so I never thought about radio. But I manipulated myself to figure out how to how to do this. And so I started out going to NAB conventions – National Association of Broadcaster Convention. Chicago, where I was, was convention city. And so every year I would go to the NAB and I would meet these old white guys with white hair who would begin a conversation by telling a dirty joke because they didn’t know how to relate to me any other way.
And so I would go, like “oh God that was really funny.”
And most of the time, thank God, I didn’t get [the jokes]. It’s often very hard for me to get a joke. And so it’s probably because I don’t know how to tell one. And so along the way I went to AP the AP Radio Bureau and they didn’t have anything but the guy who was there introduced me to Bob Benson who was the news director at WLS in Chicago. And WLS still is a 50000-watt clear channel station so after midnight you could hear it across the country. It was one of the top rock stations in the country.
And just to say that there was a full-blown news department in a top 40-rock station was an amazing concept. I mean young people wouldn’t even think about that today. It’s like having a little NPR bureau in a rock station. And so Bob didn’t have anything for me but I got a job as a producer for The Morning Show at WIND, which was Group W Westinghouse and also Nashville chain WLS is owned and operated by ABC. You know I’ll come back to that.
So I got the morning job as a producer for the Benson & Russell show, which was a very popular morning show, and I did all the weather. I didn’t do the weather report. I would hand them weather reports and traffic reports updates and anything was happening and we would come up with shtick and go out and do stuff in the afternoons and then air it in the morning and then that summer was the 68 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, which was a Revolutionary Convention.
And what had happened – I’m sort of doing this ass backwards – but I got to Chicago by going to Milwaukee and when I came back from being on television in Milwaukee as a news reporter, the first person to interview me was Jim Slade at Group W at WIND. He said the test I want to give you is I want you to interview me and I want to see how you do and then we’ll decide if there’s room for you in the news department, which is where I wanted to be.
And I blew him away in the interview – he became one of my biggest fans. But he didn’t have anything. So they put me in as the producer of the Benson & Russell Show. I’m sorry – I’m remembering this right now.
When the Convention Started, they Put Me in the Newsroom
And so when the convention started in June they put me in the newsroom. The convention would be in August. And one of the nights of the convention was very tumultuous.
Mayor Daley had set – Mayor Daley the 1st – had set a climate of contention between all the hippies and young people they knew were coming. Antiwar demonstrators they knew were coming.. between them and the police department. And so the first few nights of the convention all the young people were in the parks of Chicago. And I came home from WIND and got off my bus stop at Armitage, near Sedgwick and Lincoln – people in Chicago will know.
And there’s a park there at North Avenue and I was in that park with all these young people who were stoned and happy and singing and just commiserating and then a police helicopter flew over and it was very ominous and felt militaristic. And in that moment, in that one moment, I went from being a Daley democrat – brought up in a democratic house true to the Democratic Party. My grandfather got a job because of the Democratic Party. My dad worked with local ward healers. I mean – so it was very very regimented and he would always vote the straight ticket.
That moment in the park shifted me and it was very enlightening for me to begin to question the authority that I had grown up with. I didn’t really think that they were handling this correctly. This is not the way – these kids are not doing anything wrong at the moment. I mean I assumed they would. But at that moment there was no reason for this kind of action.
And what they did that night after I left, was the cops came in and swept the park clean and arrested people and threw them in jail – for being in a park. And the tension grew over that week. So the guys in the newsroom said to me the night of the nominations, they wanted me to go into the area around Grant Park where the National Guard, which had been called in, and the demonstrators and the Chicago police were all going to converge.
And my job was to be in the WIND mobile unit in the park so that when their reporters transmitted from the park it would hit the beam in the car and transfer it back to the station. And I was not to move from this bridge in Grant Park. So in my little Mary Quant outfit (Mary Quant was a very popular designer and made wonderful bold colorful dresses and coats) – so I had on my little Mary Quant outfit with my matching hat and my go-go boots and it was bright pink and yellow and very 60s psychedelic with this huge tape recorder.
And I go into the park and I didn’t have cushions. I didn’t have a pillow. I barely knew how to drive… I mean who needs a car in Chicago. And so I’m driving this huge mobile unit like this. It’s hard to drive and it’s hard to drive. I steer it out on this bridge and I park it and am so relieved that I have done this much and gotten through it.
When some Officer from the National Guard with a big brassy helmet and all kinds of ribbons comes up to me and says, “You got to move the car Ma’am.” And I basically said to him, “No: you have no idea what it took for me to get [here] in the first place. And secondly I’m a reporter. I must tell you that I look young for my age.” I looked like I was about 16 or 17; I was about 28 and I spoke with authority and I said, “I’m a reporter with Group W Westinghouse our national radio syndicate and I’m here for the convention and I’m here reporting!” And he said, “No, no, no, no, you have to move!”
And Really I was Terrified of Having to Back the Thing Up
And really what was going on…I was terrified of having to back the thing up. If I back this off the bridge where am I gonna….it was an old wooden bridge.
So he said, “Let me talk to your boss.”
Oh no. I’m sorry…I called the newsroom and the news director said let me talk to him and he talked him and all he said he said was.. “OK but I’m not responsible for her safety.” So everybody said OK and he said shut your windows up and just stay here. So I rolled the windows up and it’s pretty warm. It is not a good idea. This car for air conditioning has no air conditioning.
And so I roll up the windows and then… they fixed their bayonets. And I…I was utterly terrified. And then they all yell out command orders. Now the demonstrators are all out there somewhere on Michigan Avenue across from the Hilton where all the delegates were staying. And their thing was they were going to go from there and then march down to the convention center. And they were chanting and singing.
And the next thing that happens is about 10 or 15 minutes go by. The National Guard moves that way and in a few minutes there are clouds of tear gas everywhere. It looked like the heaviest fog you’ve ever seen in all kind of rainbow hues and in the dim light you see people running back and forth like this. I couldn’t make anything out.
Take Your Tape Recorder and Get Me Some Sound!
And I’m telling the guys back in the newsroom on my two-way what’s going on and the news director says well get out there and go. So take your tape recorder go out there get me some sound. So I grabbed the tape recorder and I run forward and by this time it was so fast – it happened so quickly. When I got there the entire plate glass window in front of the Conrad Hilton was blown in. They had pushed people through that glass and thrown lobbed tear gas.
So then they told me from the newsroom. “OK. The Governor of Colorado is in suite 710 we want you to go and interview him. He’s giving the Republican response to the Democratic convention.” At each convention they had opposing party people who would give their reaction to the ongoing events. So I go up to the room, I get in the elevator, go up a floor and there was a guy from Wyoming in a cowboy hat and boots. I’ve never seen anything like that before.
And then he got off the elevator and it went up another floor and the doors opened and there were Warren Beatty and Paul Newman… and the doors closed. So then I go up another floor and I get off and (…pardon me…my medication and age) I go down the hallway and I knock on the door for the Governor of Colorado. Governor Love his name was. And his assistant comes to the door …I said I’m here from Group W. They arranged for the reporter….the correspondent from Group W…
What happened was, Ed, the news director, said go meet the guys. They’re drinking in suite 405 and they’ll give you a tape or another tape recorder to go interview Governor Love. None of them wanted to do the interview. They wanted to drink and they didn’t care. Send the kid up, right? So I said I don’t even know what to do. They said just here’s the button on your tape recorder.
This Was a Great Lesson I Learned: Do Not Turn Off Your Tape Recorder!
This was a great lesson I learned that night. Here’s the bottom of your tape recorder: no matter what happens do not turn off your tape recorder. No matter what they say to you – if they tell you to turn it off you can look like you turned it off…. Don’t turn it off. So I go and so I said [to myself] OK.. just go up there tell them you’re with Group W and you are the correspondent.
And remember how I’m looking in my little Mary Quant outfit with my matching hat and my go-go boots – and I knock on the door and the assistant comes and I said, “Hello. I’m the correspondent from Group W to interview the governor.” And the governor comes to the door and he says, “You’re the corr…. What’s going on here?” I said, “Yes, I’m correspondent.”
And he got all huffy and his assistant said, “I’m so sorry. Come right in.” And the Governor was very pissed off about this. So we sit on the couch. He’s angry from the beginning and he starts. I said “Well Governor, let’s do the interview and you’ll…it will be fine and I’ll just ask you a few questions.” So I asked him a few questions – you know, why are you here? And what do you think?
He goes off on this thing about the Democrats having a riot at their convention. And I said, “Well, Governor, there was a riot in Miami where the Republicans held their convention. How do you equate the two? Why is it worse here?” And he said, “Do you want a statement or do you want to get out?” And I said, “Governor it’s up to you,” and out I went.
But I kept my tape recorder going through the whole thing. And I brought it back down to the guys and shaking and I was upset and I thought I’d blown it. And I played it for them and they said, “Wow…good…we’re playing the whole thing..we’re feeding the whole thing to the network.”
So that was my first experience and I felt emboldened then to pursue more news options but WIND had to let me go because at the end of the conventions there were staff cutbacks once the convention was over and I got swept up in that and my father who was very well-connected in Chicago got me a position on the Walker Commission.
The Walker Commission was part of the Kerner Commission which President Johnson had formed with former Illinois Governor Otto Kerner in the wake of the Detroit riots that had happened earlier in the spring after Senator Kennedy and Dr. King were assassinated. And the Detroit riots were a galvanizing moment in our history and he wanted to know what had happened and as part of that, [they wanted] a sub report would be in the Walker Commission report on what happened that August night in Chicago at the Democratic convention because what happened with that night I was out there on the bridge was truly horrible.
Many of the newsrooms had sent all their young reporters out to cover the young people and so much of the news crews many of the news crews much of the news entourage were whipped and beaten and thrown into paddy wagons as well and I was put on the news team of the Walker report because I had been in the news business for a minute. And so we interviewed a lot of the reporters a lot of the cameramen beaten bloody and the cops were just completely out of control.
And in every report we got back from the internal affairs department of the Chicago Police Department everything was redacted so you couldn’t see anything. And that was another moment that gave me pause about political control and power and how you hold on to it. So I was really becoming aware of all this and I don’t know if anyone remembers the Walker report.
But to our surprise Dan Walker whom we all know will be running for governor one day and was a former president of Montgomery Ward which is a huge corporation in Chicago. We didn’t think he would have the guts to really nail the mayor but he came out in the opening line of that committee report was The Chicago Police Rioted. And that set the whole tone for the report and put all the blame on the mayor and the city power structure.
KR: I was just going to ask how you got to WLS?
SW: So I’ve given you too much background. I’m so sorry.
So as a woman I apologize. Yes. So I’m sorry. I’m sorry and say so. After Walker – before while I was on the Walker report I kept looking for work in broadcasting and the Walker report ended and I was jobless again. And then I got a call from Bob Benson at WLS and he said I don’t know if you remember me. I said Bob I remember you very well. And he said well I’d like to take you to lunch, I might have something for you.
So we went to lunch. He said, “Look: I’m in a real quandary. My morning anchor Lyle Dean and our morning news writer Norm Snitovsky don’t like each other and they’re not speaking to each other. So I need someone to come in and write news copy in the morning and it’s not a good enough job for a man, but it’s too important a job for a student.
Not a Good Enough Job for a Man, but Too Important a Job for a Student
“And so I wondered – I thought maybe a woman…and you’re the first woman I thought of,” and that’s how I became the first woman to work the newsroom at WLS, where I eventually became a full time staff reporter and news writer and editor and covered.. I had a short but wonderful career there and then I went downstairs and since it’s owned by ABC…the ABC News Bureau was downstairs. So I became the first woman out of Chicago to ever say This is Sydney Weisman, ABC News Chicago. And I covered everything – mostly ambient sound of riots – but I got paid for it.
KR: What do you remember about covering the Women’s Movement in Chicago in the 70’s?
SW: Well my first memory was the launch of …one of my brightest memories is the launch of Ms. magazine. There was a junket with Gloria Steinem and Letty Pogrebin….she was very important and actually quite wise in the way that Gloria Steinem was not and I’ll tell you about that in moment.
This was during the ERA movement…to get the ERA passed and it was failing every year in Springfield Illinois capitol because of Phyllis Schlafly who was a cunning conservative Republican woman who every year with her minions would bake pies and take them to the legislators in Springfield to remind them of the real role of women. And every year the ERA failed. So when Gloria Steinem came to town to launch Ms. Magazine it was a big deal. And I went to the news conference and she was there as I say and we listened I listened to the whole thing. And then in the news business generally you cover the news conference, but after that news conferences when you get your sound bite you call them a side.
So I got my side with Gloria Steinem and I said…this is all wonderful and congratulations and it’s amazing what you are doing…or something. And then I said what I’ve been thinking for a long time… “What are you going to do to win over the women in Peoria?” And she said, “We don’t need them.”
And I thought we’re dead. And I thought we were, so I was in this even though I had to be objective. But I thought we’re dead and we’re dead for a long long time. And I asked the same thing of Letty Pogrebin and she said, “That’s an issue. And we’ll have to think about that,” which was the right answer in my book and I’m not sure we ever thought about that from that point forward but at that moment…wise as I am…I understood I understood that we were not going to get there without those other women.
KR: So you know the Illinois Senate passed the ERA this week?
SW: This week?
SW: That’s amazing.
KR: Yes, so now it still has to go back to the Illinois house.
SW: Oh well Phyllis isn’t there…but her minions may still be there and God knows we need more pie.
From the Helicopter in the Park to the Bras in the River
So that was a moment I remember. I also know there was a moment when you and I have discussed this and you think it’s urban myth, but I remember a day when women activists threw their bras in the Chicago River. And that was a galvanizing moment for me personally and politically. This is an evolution from that helicopter in the park to the bras in the river. And it wasn’t that long between events historically speaking and the moment they did that… the moment they that I felt liberated. I did…I felt like I wasn’t alone in being an independent career woman. It was OK that I wasn’t married and hadn’t found anybody.
And there were other women like me. I really didn’t know there were other women like me until that moment. And that day I wrote a commentary that they let me air on WLS. I don’t remember it verbatim and I haven’t been able to find it. But I do remember that the end of it was something like.. where would you be without the women who were here? And at the end I said something like, “ You’d have to make your own coffee.” And that was my button. I remember that moment.
KR: You know what I remember…and it’s an interesting question, because I know you considered yourself an objective journalist. But when I was doing public relations for Chicago NOW, I considered you a supportive journalist. There were a few, you know, so we knew who we wanted to go to try and get news coverage.
SW: Were there any men?
KR: No…not really…there was kind of a cute photographer for the Sun Times. I remember him.
SW: He was probably one of the ones who got whipped in 68.
KR: Yeah he could be. And maybe there isn’t a distinction between objective and supportive, but a lot of the media covered the women’s movement as kind of a joke and talked about women’s lib and what do these girls want and describe we..we did a lot of work about how we thought media should cover women, which is basically how they cover men, as opposed to a short blonde wearing a Mary Quant dress for example. You know you were on my list of media that I would go to if I had a story that I needed telling or an event that I needed covered and probably you were objective, but because you could be objective as opposed to negative, I considered you supportive.
SW: Thank you…well there’s more to that. The day that I…One of the days that I quit my job as a reporter was the day when I really felt I could no longer be objective; that I really became completely anti war and so a few years after that I knew I couldn’t do it. But I will tell you that we haven’t talked about the sexism I faced at WLS. And it was deep with some of the men. Lyle Dean who was the anchor remains a very dear friend and was not only supportive but educated me. He showed me how to change the paper in the wire machine and looked at me and said, “You went to journalism school and don’t know how to do this?” which was true – embarrassing.
He really helped me become a reporter. And I was a good reporter. I’m a terrific interviewer – Jim Slade picked up on that early and I pride myself [on that]. I became a freelance writer at one point and we can talk about that in a minute and the people I interviewed. But the sexism at WLS was deep in some ways and openly so. One [example of sexism] was a six foot five day anchor reporter named Chuck – I can’t remember Chuck’s last name probably with [good] cause…who reeked of sweet men’s cologne and the newsroom was not that big; and wore glittery Texas size jewelry and he really didn’t like me because I would often say, “No, I don’t think that’s a good idea.” Or, “No, I don’t think we should cover that.” I work with him collegially [and explain] why we’re putting this together. I’m not just following your orders.
So one day he comes into the office with like a velvet box, this big about this wide and he opens it up and inside are two pearl handled six shooters and he picks up one of the guns he leans across the table and he says to me, “I know how to use these and I want you to know that.”
And I said I said something to him that I don’t know if I can repeat here. I said… “Oh Chuck, why don’t you just go sit in a corner and play with yourself and make yourself really happy.” And he got up…and he was beet red and he put his fist through the wall as the news director was walking in. He said, “What’s going on here?” And I said, “He slipped,” or something. He never bothered me again. I liked that morning. That was pretty good. Empowering. Other sexism was subtler.
After my father died, I went and did some PR for the summer because the members of my union and I had been laid off in a labor dispute with ABC. So the news writers were put on leave. And that’s when I started to do PR.
And when I came back, there was a new news director and he gave me an opportunity to become an anchor, because there was an opening. [But] he didn’t like the timber in my voice and he said, “You know if you could lower your voice a little…” and so to get it down at one point I began to imitate Walter Cronkite.. I don’t even know how I did. I guess I sort of did his rhythm and I brought that in to the news director who said, “Well I really like that. I said, “I don’t know if I can sustain that.” I could barely breathe when I was doing it. And so I didn’t get the job as a news anchor and now I think that could [have been] my voice, because it was so young and lacked authority – I could understand. So I did think if I could talk down here maybe it would, that I would…
KR: Sound more like a man, which was the point.
SW: Exactly… but in the end I did voiceover work while I was in Chicago for commercials and one of the reasons I got used was because I do have a bubble gum voice. And so in some ways I made money on my youthful sound, but I could never become a radio anchor and I’m trying to think of some other moments.
KR: What about salary? Was it ever an issue?
SW: No. No. And my other my shop steward [was] Norman Snitovsky. We were, Lyle and I..we did a weekend documentary on school integration on the South Side of Chicago. There was a minister who didn’t want some school integrated and there were kind of riots and demonstrations and it was really really truly horrible and Lyle and I decided we should do a documentary – again, this is a rock and roll radio station.
I did some undercover work when I was there, another documentary on fad diets and they had me go and get a diet – wired – but I covered this. I went down to the south side and I covered this demonstration. Got back to the studio and Lyle and I edited all day and night. And Norman came in on Saturday while we were still editing for Sunday and he said, “When did you start work?” And I said, “Oh my usual shift – I probably started at 11:00 yesterday.” It was like 3:00 in the afternoon and he said, “If you continue the work, you’re on Golden overtime. And you be sure to put in for it.”
That was the last documentary we ever did. It was very expensive. So the salary was never an issue because of the union. The only thing that happened at the bureau, the reason I had the ABC Radio News was a union issue, because they moved me up in seniority in the bureau. I got into the slot before somebody else who’d been in the union longer, so I had to leave. So I stopped streaming for ABC.
But I left of my own accord and opened up my own little PR firm in my living room in my apartment at Lincoln and Sedgwick and Sydney Weismann Public Relations was born. But I also became a freelance writer and interviewed everybody from Mike Royko to Ann Landers, Eppie Lederer, to Phyllis Schlafly, which was an amazing interview in which I got her to acknowledge that the men in the Reagan administration overlooked her because she was a woman. I was shaking as I got her to say that. Come on Phyllis…come on…you can do this.
And Alan Page who was a wonderful football player for the Bears, a now retired Supreme Court Justice in Minnesota. And he was an amazing interview and because he hated to play football. Maybe I shouldn’t say that… he found it boring. That’s exactly…and I remember calling him to say, “My editor says you were an All-American,” and he said, “Really? I don’t remember that,” but I’m sure he was kidding me.
And in my PR work I don’t think I ever faced any sexism, but I have to be perfectly honest since this interview is about my life. I was very distressed that I hadn’t found anybody. And while I talk about all the work I did, I was an awful employee. I’m not saying that in any kind of self-abasement or I wouldn’t hire me on a prayer. Well.. I met a man who…. I look back on my 20s …my late 20s and my almost 30’s my nadir in social behavior and I met this man who was a womanizer and a drunk who I was going to reform and save. And he fooled around on me and he lived in Minnesota and he would come into Chicago and when he would come in I would take off work. And I’d make up these stupid excuses and everyone knew what was going on and it was really embarrassing.
And then my father died. And my father had said to me, “You know if he really loved you, he would never let you miss a day of work.” A very wise father…and I gave him some excuse…But then my dad basically dropped dead.
And it was a huge moment not just for my family but for the profession – my father was a legend. By then Dan Walker was Governor. He spoke at the funeral. There were memorial services at City Hall from Mayor Daley and Prince Philip even sent a condolence note.
Wonderful girlfriends of mine kept pushing me to go into therapy. And finally I went into therapy and I got my “stuff” together and got rid of the terrible guy. And at that moment I realized that it was really OK if I never got married and if I never met anyone till I was older. Maybe when I was older he’d have older children if like he was in his 40s. That would be OK. And honestly I was fine. I wasn’t really going to look for anybody.
And that moment was also when I went back to WLS after that summer off. My attitude at work had changed so much that one of my colleagues said to me, “If this is the result of therapy, you are a poster child.” Yeah, I said to one of my girlfriends who pushed me into therapy, “What was I doing with him for 3 years?” She said, “ Don’t do that to yourself. If you hadn’t been with him, you would have been with men like him for three years, because you were working something until you worked it out.”
I went back to well after that long summer. And I said to Bud Miller who was the news director, “I’m giving two weeks notice,” which meant I got a huge…not a buy out but I got a very comfortable package.
I Had to Leave the News Business Because My Political Feelings were Getting Stronger
I enjoyed doing the PR. I was pretty good at it. And so I left the news business. And also I felt I had to go because my political feelings were really getting stronger and stronger. And the first thing I did when I left WLS was to join the ACLU.
OK. So in my career as a publicist I don’t remember a moment, not a moment of sexism. Not one. I don’t know if things had changed so dramatically by then. It was 1976. But I wasn’t finding any issues at all.
But I worked by myself and I wasn’t in an agency working my way up and I was learning how to become…June Rosner and Don Rose both helped me set up my business. And engraved in my brain that I would get paid in advance – a month in advance. [It’s] the only protection you have, so that was my one rule, right. And one of my first campaigns was for Joanne Alter for lieutenant governor. I don’t recall any sexism there. I don’t.
I did Patrick Murphy I think for state treasurer and I don’t remember any sexism there and then I started to do restaurants and art galleries. Restaurants for me were like the scourge of PR because it’s so hard…Although I had a friend Dan Roberts who did restaurant openings and made a very good living doing [it]. And he did Named restaurants. I got the Rusty Scupper buy, but at the Rusty Scupper I got Forrest Tucker to do – Forrest Tucker was in The Music Man; Forrest Tucker was a TV and movie star – I got him to do some kind of interview that I set up at the Rusty Scupper for a clothing drive for Vietnamese refugees. Yeah, so that’s how I do it. That’s why I began to learn the link between charity and PR and how to use it.
And I got the cast of Happy Days to come and eat at the Rusty Scupper and the Fonz and I, Henry Winkler, he said [something] to me about being Jewish – I can’t remember what it was, but it was cute. And I thought for a moment…hmmmm..but nothing happened. So I was… I have a point to that…I’ll get into something eventually. So while I’m doing all of this I’m enjoying being single and for the first time in my life I decide to go to events by myself.
As I’m talking, I’m remembering horrible blind dates in between, you know, my family just set me up. I agreed to go with whomever they wanted me to go out with just to get them off my back.. my back… my one back. But it felt like backs because they kept telling me… I’ll go out with them… I go out there and they were all, oh my god, they were dreadful.
And I would sit and think, “OK I’ll get a doggy bag in three hours,” [I’d] been reading an Agatha Christie – I’m good with this. So I would get through the evening. So I thought I’m going to go [somewhere by myself]. There was a Columbia Pictures retrospective at the Biograph that summer and I went by myself. That was a very big statement for me. I know young women today wouldn’t even think about that. But in the olden days it was really something to go somewhere unescorted.
And then I went to all these ACLU events and one night was the opening of All the Presidents Men at the Esquire Theater and James Hogue was there. Now I knew him because I hung out at Ricardo’s which is where all the journalists and the Ad people [went] and Jim Hogue was the editor of The Chicago Sun Times. Oh my God the rock star …and just gorgeous. And he says, “Sydney, will you sit next to me?” and I thought I was going to melt into the upholstery. “Sure Jim, I’ll sit with you,” very blase. Nothing came of it of course – he was married and I had decided that this was…. I can’t remember…was he separated or married? I don’t know…But he was out and about.
And so I went to these ACLU events. Then the last one I went to was a fundraiser for the Black Panthers at the Playboy mansion and I met this attorney with the Lawyers Guild named Lance. At the time I was doing PR for Denny’s Den, a Greek restaurant. It was actually very good. And there’s a picture of me somewhere chugging Greek wine.
If You Have Anything Like Civil Rights, Women’s Rights, I Want to Do Advocacy PR for That
And I say, “Hey everybody, why don’t we go over to my restaurant and get dinner after the party?” So we all go over to get dinner and Lance and I are talking and this is April of ‘76. And I said, “I’m doing restaurants. If you have anything with something to it – civil rights, women’s rights, you name it – I want to do advocacy PR for that. So that was April and in late December he called and he said, “The ACLU Lawyers Guild and the American Friends Service Committee are putting on a national conference on police spying and they need some PR. Can you come to a meeting next week at David Hamlin’s office in downtown Chicago?”
And I said, “Well I can’t. I’m going to St. Louis to visit family but I’ll be back after the New Year.” And he said, “I’ll call you.” So he called me like December 31st or something and he said, “We put the meeting at January 5 – can you come?” And I said, “Sure. I would love to.” Oh I was so excited. Now in those days a lady didn’t wear slacks downtown to go to a business meeting. The day January 5 1977 dawned…and it was the coldest day in a hundred years in Chicago.
January 5 Was the Coldest Day in a Hundred Years in Chicago
The pipes in my apartment were frozen so I had to boil what little [water I could find]. I lived in a bachelor pad that had this kind of a refrigerator and I pulled out like the two little ice trays and boiled water so I could wash my face and tidy up and brush my teeth. And I put on about 25 layers of clothing under a blouse with a vest over it and under it and a skirt and I had this coat that was made out of Pea coat material and it was long and the collar came to here.. so the collar would go up like this…I put the collar up and then I wrapped a bright green scarf around it. I had a matching knit hat. So I was like this – two pairs of mittens right – you don’t wear gloves, you wear mittens and on a cold day you wear two pairs.
I ran. I put everything in two shopping bags …all my papers all my scrapbooks, everything [I have] to show and I get on the bus …and I sweat… and get off the bus and walk down to the Mallers Building. I get off the elevator and my glasses are all fogged up and I walk into the ACLU offices and I said, “I’m here to see David Hamlin.” And they said, “Just a moment,” and out he came wearing aviator glasses and white puka-puka beads and had a cigarette and a cup of coffee.
And he was so cheerful. And he said, “Can I get you a cup of coffee? And I’m grumpy from being cold and I said, “No thank you.” He said, “Well let’s go into my office.” So we go into his office and he interviews me for – and I wasn’t looking, I wasn’t on the look-out, but I was, my old instincts kicked in and I saw two pictures on the desk and he had a gold band on his finger – and I thought oh, he’s so cute. And he starts to interview me and he’s so smart. This is the smartest interview I’ve ever been in.
And after the interview he said, “OK, I’d really like you to come and do this conference for us.” I don’t know if people are aware of police spying – it’s still going on. These Red Squads inside police departments that spy on citizens in legitimate activities going to meetings. They act like they’re members. They record everything and they keep files on all of the people. And this was a conference on this issue and the legal ramifications and what these civil rights organizations were going to do and have been doing.
And so David and I talk and meet and he hires me and he says to me, “I know you work out of your apartment, which is fine. But we have a Xerox machine, so if you ever need to Xerox, don’t hesitate to come down here.” Fine. So the next say, I’m down at the ACLU offices and I’m typing and he comes up to the desk where I’m typing something for him and he puts his arm around me. And I…whoa…well OK, I don’t like that. And there are other meetings and other interactions and he’s flirting with me and flirting with me. And I’m intrigued and scared and I’m sure he’s married and he’s such a nice guy. And what’s this nice guy doing??
So, I’m still in therapy. And I tell my therapist and she says well we’ve got to find out what’s going on. And I said OK. So two weeks after I met him I went down [to his office]. I said I’ll go to lunch on Friday to Xerox something and I’ll go at lunchtime so he can take me to lunch. And I go to the office and he’s not there, but this little boy comes running out of his office with two trucks, 1 ½ teeth, a few freckles and big hazel eyes and he says, “HI…WHO ARE YOU?” And I said, “I’m Sydney, who are you?” and he said, “I’m Jason.” And I said, “Are you Mr. Hamlin’s son?” And he said, “Yes.”
And my heart sank. I mean I could physically feel it sink. And we talked a little bit more and he told me he was six and a half and that he’d be 7 in April, which was the same day as his babysitter. And then I said, “Well why are you here today?” And he said, “My baby sitter couldn’t come, so my dad brought me to the office,” and I said, “Where’s your mother?” And he said, “New Hampshire.” I said, “No kidding.”
David and I Have Been Together From that Day and He Is a Better Feminist than I
And David and I have been together from that day. And he is a better feminist than I, and opened my eyes even more to what needs to be done and what needed to be done and push, pushed and pushes me forward all the time, all the time to this day. All those events I went to by myself that summer? He was there by himself at all those events, and of course at the ACLU events where I never even saw him, and I say to people on the day that it mattered, I got lucky. That one day. And so…I don’t think I’d be sitting here talking to you without him. And I think I’m very, very lucky in that. And can I turn on the fan?