Josna Rege

395. “Oh, Rob!”

In people, United States, women & gender on January 26, 2017 at 4:26 am

54fa8e7403fadb657f1b508a3d658d1aI know I’m not alone in the pang I felt this morning when I learned of the death of Mary Tyler Moore, age eighty. For me she will always be Laura Petrie, the lovely, lithe, funny, frustrated young wife in The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1966). I was introduced to the show when I met Andrew in 1970, the same year we immigrated to the United States. It was already in re-runs by then, but it was brand-new to me, like everything else in America. Andrew’s family watched television while eating dinner, starting with the CBS Evening News. Walter Cronkite signed off sometime over dessert with his “and that’s the way it is,” followed without fail by half an hour of Dick Van Dyke. On our trips to New York City, Andrew could never drive past the New Rochelle sign on the highway without murmuring, “Home of Rob and Laura Petrie.”

Looking back now, I see how young she was, still in her 20s. But I was 16 and the Women’s Movement was making her “Oh, Rob!” look terribly old-fashioned. I didn’t learn until years later how ground-breaking the show was, how subversive and controversial her tight black Capri pants had been. For Rob had married Laura right out of the army after the War (WWII, that is), and the successful dancer had become a suburban housewife. So much of the show’s comedy—and tension, and pathos—stemmed from Laura’s pent-up creative energy that burst out in the sparkling moments when she was allowed to perform on stage for part of an episode.

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Mary Tyler Moore was a New York actress and comedienne, progressive and public-spirited. She and the irrepressible Dick Van Dyke made a perfect TV couple. Just seeing them together made you smile. In the 1970s, she starred as Mary, the single “career-woman” in the man’s world of TV news in The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977), and again, as in the show’s theme song, she “turned the world on with her smile.”

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Behind that dazzling smile, Mary Tyler Moore the woman didn’t have an easy personal life. She was a victim of abuse as a child, was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in 1970, struggled with alcoholism, and, in 1980, following a divorce, lost her only son. Still, she overcame the alcoholism, was nominated for an Oscar for her devastating portrayal of the bereaved mother in the film Ordinary People, and raised awareness and funds for diabetes research.

5b5ba9a186af7f9c51763da3d74f6714I don’t want to get too maudlin, but coming at this particular moment when the entire American landscape is changing, Mary Tyler Moore’s death feels terribly sad, not just for me, but for everyone who grew up with her. See, for instance, this very personal tribute by Michael Buckley, and another that includes an interview with Dick Van Dyke. With her seems to go a whole era. For me it was the time when I was defining feminism for myself, meeting the person who was to become my husband, and struggling to find my feet in a new country. But there’s to be no moping; just thinking of her makes me want to get on my feet and move.

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Rest in Peace, Mary Tyler Moore.

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  1. Sorry to hear about this – I just heard through your post. I didn’t really know much about her but I knew she was well loved by many.

  2. I do remember watching both of those programs over the years, though not during dinner. We never watched TV during meals. I just don’t feel connected to public figures in a way that makes me feel sad when they die. I hadn’t thought of her in years and years and she could have died years ago, I wouldn’t have known. I hope this doesn’t sound callous. We can still watch her reruns if we want to.

    • My family didn’t watch TV during meals, either (well, we didn’t have TV, but even if we had, it wouldn’t have been allowed). It was another new custom we encountered after moving to the U.S.
      I don’t feel personally sad about the deaths of most TV personalities, actors, or pop stars–unless either I greatly admired/was influenced by them or I associate them with a particularly meaningful time in my own life. It was the latter case with MTM. I hadn’t followed her life or career, and so it surprised me that I felt such a sharp pang at the news that she had passed away. That’s why I felt moved to write about it. You’re right that we can watch reruns, and I have done that a little these past few days. They amply demonstrate how much things have changed but also, in some ways, how little they have changed, with regard to gender politics.

  3. I felt the same way when I heard she had died. She and Dick Van Dyke were part of the American culture which I started learning about when I arrived in this country. She represented some of the better sides of that “culture” and which seem to be gone with this new world we seem to be in now. Sadly, we seem to be having to fight for every little bit of our values as Americans. I am glad Mary doesn’t have to worry about it any longer.

    • Marianne, You have understood just as I meant and felt it. But I do find hope and encouragement in the millions of Americans rising up and speaking out and refusing to accept what is happening. I know this post was gloomy, but take heart! Love, J

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