Written by: Jennifer Kathleen Gibbons
“Mary Tyler Moore died.”
My professor Jensen Beach announced the news in my grad school class.
At first I didn’t understand.
“Wait, what?” I asked.
“Mary Tyler Moore died,” he repeated.
My friend Breanne then said, “I just read that and I thought of you.”
We went on to discuss Lucia Berlin’s wonderful collection of short stories A Manual for Cleaning Women. I joined the conversation, talking about what I loved in the title story, how Berlin’s settings of Oakland buses and Montclair houses was so well done. But all I could think was, Mary is dead Mary is dead Mary is dead. Oh, Mary.
I was too young to appreciate The Dick Van Dyke Show’s Laura Petrie, the Capri pants-wearing wife of Rob, with her flipped up hair and trademark way of saying, “Oh Rob!” while exasperated. No, that wasn’t Mary to me. To me she was Mary Richards, the main character of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Mary Richards was the girl who wasn’t sure if she was going to make it out on her own. But she had to get out, had to start living.
And start living she did.
In the opening titles we saw Mary wearing a politically incorrect fur coat, walking around her new town.
In the next clip, she changed into a cloth coat, wearing a tam. In slow motion, we watch her twirl around, in the background Sonny Curtis sings, “You’re going to make it after all.” We then see her laugh, throwing her hat in the air. And for generations of women, that hat in the air was a symbol of independence. This was a woman who was in a new town. She was nobody’s wife and nobody’s girlfriend and she was going to make it on her own.
It was 1970! Women could work! And they could wear pantsuits!
Mary only knew one person–her friend Phyllis (Cloris Leachman) who had a perfect studio apartment for her, but that awful Rhoda (Valerie Harper) had her eye on it first. Mary then had to deal with an interview with the crusty old Lou Grant (Edward Asner) who says, “You know what? You’ve got spunk!” Mary smiles, why yes, she does have spunk, then Mr. Grant declares, “I hate spunk!”
But he gave her the job at WJM Newsroom anyway.
MTM was on after school, then on various cable channels through the years. I wanted Mary’s life. I wanted a group of friends at work, always having something funny to say or giving wise advice. In every episode, Mary was telling me and countless girls and women, Hey! I’m on my own here. Sometimes it’s not easy. But I’m living my life on my own terms. I’m happy. I don’t have to be cruel or mean to people to get ahead. I work hard and get by. And you can, too. A young Oprah Winfrey watched the show and thought, I could do that, go into television like Mary. Andrea Mitchell thought the same thing. Rosie O’Donnell wanted to be like Mary, but was told by a drama teacher that she was more Rhoda. Countless women followed her lead.
The real life of Mary Tyler Moore however, was more complicated.
Growing up with an alcoholic mother, Moore became a perfectionist. Right after high school, she married and had a baby boy named after his father, Ritchie. The marriage didn’t last, but she kept on auditioning for dancing and acting roles before landing the part of Laura Petrie. As she did, she met a producer named Grant Tinker. They married in 1962, then they went on to form MTM Productions, which produced and created The Mary Tyler Moore Show. MTM would also produce and help create Rhoda, Phyllis, The Bob Newhart Show, Lou Grant, Hill Street Blues, WKRP, Remington Steel, and St. Elsewhere, which even had a tribute to Moore’s show with an amnesiac patient thinking he was Mary.
The show took over her life.
She later expressed regret that she missed her son’s high school graduation because of taping a show. Often at odds with each other, Richie went to live with his father after developing a drug problem, however he did seek treatment and stopped using. Mother and son were starting to have a better relationship in 1980 when Richie accidentally killed himself with a shotgun that had a hair trigger. President Carter called with his condolences.
Ironically, Moore was doing promotions for her biggest film role to date for Ordinary People, where she played Beth Jarrett, the cold mother who can’t reach out to her son (Timothy Hutton) after his brother dies in a boating accident. This was a Mary we never saw before, because it wasn’t our Mary. It was Beth, a woman who loved her son yet didn’t know how to respond to a good night hug. She was someone you could play golf with, but don’t expect an intimate conversation. She was brittle and hard to like. It was a powerhouse of a performance and she was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar.
Moore tried several TV projects after the show ended in 1977. She did a variety show that lasted several weeks but was responsible for launching the careers of David Letterman and Michael Keaton. She tried several sitcoms but they were soon canceled. She had some better luck with movies, especially playing Ben Stiller’s adoptive mother in the film Flirting with Disaster where she praised the virtues of a good support bra to daughter-in-law Patricia Arquette.
However, she would always be known as Mary Richards, the woman who turned the world on with a smile. She had been sick in recent years due to diabetes and a brain tumor. Her death wasn’t a surprise, yet I found myself fighting tears.
In fact, in class I was so teary, wanting to tell people, You have to understand. She was so funny, so kind. Did you ever see the episode when she tells off a woman who wouldn’t let Rhoda play at a country club because Rhoda’s jewish? Or when she went to jail rather than reveal a story’s source? Or when she started laughing at Chuckles the Clown’s funeral then started crying?
Yes, I know Mary Richards was a television character, but she was so real to me because she was a symbol to women everywhere that we could make it.
Right now where everything feels uncertain and scary, just watching her throw the hat in the air reminds me that somehow, we need to keep fighting.
Throw that hat.
Love is all around.