Chasing Mary Richards

Mary Richards and the gang. Image from CBS Archives.

As Mary Tyler Moore fans go, I’m a little on the young side. “The Dick Van Dyke Show”, the ‘60s TV series that catapulted her to household name status, began when my parents were in middle school, and her ’70s namesake series enjoyed its heyday when I was a baby. One of my earliest memories, in fact, is standing eye-level with the lower rung of a grocery store checkout line magazine rack, staring at a cover with Mary’s picture on it while the cacophony of prime time shopping swirled around me. “Why do all the grownups keep talking about this lady?” I remember wondering, not for the first time. This must have been right before her groundbreaking TV series, “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”, signed off for good. It was an ending for most, but not for me. My lifetime of chasing Mary Richards was just about to begin.

I’m an experienced woman; I’ve been around … well, alright, I might not’ve been around, but I’ve been … nearby.” — Mary Richards

There are lots of reasons to love Mary Tyler Moore. You can start with that unforgettable megawatt smile, or the endearing cracks of vulnerability that sometimes surfaced through her got-it-together, girl-next-door-vibe. There’s the top-shelf professionalism that her colleagues noted throughout her career, or her legendary — and in some ways improbable — gift for comedy. There’s her courage in facing the many off-screen challenges that life tossed her in the form of failed marriages, the death of her only child, a battle with alcohol, and her ultimate nemesis, diabetes. There’s “Oh, Rob!” and those charming song-and-dance numbers with Dick Van Dyke. And there’s the stunning about face she executed in her chilling, Oscar-nominated portrayal of a bereaved mother in Robert Redford’s “Ordinary People”, just when we thought we knew everything there was to know about Mary Tyler Moore.

Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore as Rob and Laura Petrie. Image via CBS/Getty.

Yes, there are dozens of reasons to dig “the girl with three names and great legs”, as Carl Reiner is said to have once called her, and there’s also just one reason: Mary Richards. The magnificent writers and creators of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” (many of whom were/are/became some of the giants of the industry — ever heard of James L. Brooks?) deserve the lion’s share of credit for bringing the spunky, trailblazing career girl to life, of course. But I think they all would agree that the show’s magic — and its staggering 67 Emmy nominations — and its enormous influence on just about every great TV comedy that’s aired since the lights went dark on the WJM newsroom —couldn’t have happened without the show’s pitch-perfect cast. And none of it could have happened without Mary Tyler Moore.

So I come now to the point of this essay, which is as much about paying homage to a beloved pop culture figure as it is about pulling back the curtain on my own life. As I grew up watching “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”, first in after-school reruns in the ’80s and then late nights in college on Nick at Nite, I eventually found myself bewitched by the Mary Richards universe, and in love with Mary herself. At some point along the way, she stamped a shape on a fundamental inner core that I don’t think will ever fade away.

Hell, who wouldn’t want to be Mary Richards? She was beautiful, kind, and funny. Impossibly, WASP-ishly perfect on some days, and adorably unlucky on others. She had a wise-cracking and warm Jewish best girlfriend conveniently situated upstairs, and a wise-cracking and warm work husband seated next to her every day in the office. There was her hard-drinking, hard-charging, hard-not-to-love boss, the acerbic father figure who drove her to equal fits of exasperation and devotion. That gorgeous wardrobe — unquestionably classic, yet full of fun ’70s groove. The seemingly endless parade of admiring men. A life filled with funny people, funny situations, and problems solved in 30 minutes or less each week. And that great theme song.

Yes, Mary Richards’ world was fun, but that’s not why she ended up being one of the key figures of my universe. That happened because Mary opened my mind to intriguing possibilities, and a vision of my adult life that looked a little different than the futures envisioned by many of my friends. You see, Mary was a feminist pioneer. She burned no bras, never saved the day while rolling her eyes at a hapless husband, and issued no fiery Julia Sugarbaker speeches. Like millions of women of her era, she was programmed to be “nice” at all costs, even when it meant suffering an avalanche of male nonsense.

But make no mistake about it, Mary was a revolutionary. She was a rebel. In an era where most working women were limited to careers as teachers and secretaries, she pushed her way into an executive job at a TV station and demanded equal wages for her work. She lived alone in a super cool apartment. She paid her own bills. She always had booze in the house, and she knew how to mix a drink. She repaired her own bicycle. She dated older men and she dated younger men. She had a sex life that she wasn’t ashamed of. She threw parties, even though most of them were semi-disasters. She was classy and dressed like a million bucks. And she was past 30, single, and didn’t have children— and yet she had still had a useful, interesting, and satisfying life that was filled with people she loved who loved her back. In the 21st century, it’s a notion for women that we’re still trying to completely wrap our brains around. In the ’70s, it was downright radical.

It’s too hard to pick just one favorite Mary moment, but here’s one that sort of sums things up for me. The scene: Mary, after screwing up the courage to ask her boss for more responsibility, is delighted when he immediately agrees— until she finds out what she’s getting herself into:

MR. GRANT: I don’t need to think about it. I’ve got some responsibility for you right now. Two things, as a matter of fact. First thing, I want you to hire a new sportscaster.

MARY: Oh, Mr. Grant. Thank you, that’s wonderful! But I didn’t know that Ed was leaving.

MR. GRANT: Neither does he. That’s the second thing you do. Fire Ed.

MARY: Mr. Grant, please, no. I’ve never fired anyone in my life! I had a cleaning lady once I couldn’t fire. So I moved!

MR. GRANT: Listen, when you’re an executive, you handle the bad jobs as well as the good.

MARY: Why are we firing Ed, anyway?

MR. GRANT: Well, at the last company party Ed made a pass at the station manager’s wife.

MARY: Oh, Mr. Grant. That has to happen a lot. You know, company parties, somebody has one drink too many.

MR. GRANT: This was a completed pass.

Now if this were a modern sitcom, the next scene would probably find our heroine disposing of Ed in a blaze of witty, girl-power dialogue, all without turning a hair. Well, that’s not exactly what happened with Mary. This heroine was very human — nervous, hesitant, and clearly uncomfortable about pulling the trigger on ol’ Ed — and far from doing it quickly, she gets coerced into a lunchtime drink with the idiotic Lothario, who thinks that her request to have a talk with him is a coded overture for a hookup. But you know what? The only thing that matters to me is what happened in the end. She fired his ass, and she made damn sure to remind him that he was being fired by a woman. In a time when women in the workplace didn’t have much to say beyond “Do you take cream with your coffee?”, this was a pretty big deal. And when it was over, she didn’t go home to cry on a man’s shoulder about how awful everything was. Instead, she moved right to the next challenge, hiring Ed’s replacement. That didn’t go too well, either, but in the end I don’t think it bothered her very much. She lived and learned from the experience and went on to fight another day, and she did it on her own. And because I grew up watching Mary do these things, I grew up believing that I could do them, too.

I guess you could say I’ve been chasing after Mary ever since she strolled off through downtown Minneapolis after famously tossing her hat in the air in in the show’s classic opening sequence. There’s the giant “R” I use as my social media icon (a nod to the giant “M” she had on her wall in that cool apartment), the red beret I wore in my junior-in-high-school portrait (it’s super embarrassing, but still one of my favorite teenage pictures), my grownup hat collection I whip out each winter, the favorite episodes I still devour like late night comfort food, and the theme song I play whenever I need to shake some blues. I can’t say I’ll ever be as fabulous as she was, nor as pioneering. But once in a while, whenever I pull off an especially gratifying stretch of life lived as a single working woman, I know that’s me channeling the best of my inner Mary Richards, and that’s always been a good thing.

Mary Tyler Moore passed away on January 25, 2017, at the age of 80, surrounded by family and friends. A year or two ago, it occurred to me one day that I was going through a bit of a “Mary kick” — watching episodes I hadn’t seen in years, and generally thinking about her more than I typically would. Then I saw a headline about her giving up her beloved daily ballet workouts, due to declining health, and it hit me: We probably wouldn’t have her with us much longer, and the universe was preparing me by encouraging me to draw her a little closer for a while. I wasn’t shocked when I heard the news this week, but I was very sad. And grateful. I absolutely can’t imagine my life without Mary Richards, the same way I can’t imagine it without Tex-Mex, Janis Joplin, my favorite books, jazz music, or my friends and family. It just wouldn’t be the same.

Thanks for everything, Mary. Because of you I might just make it after all.