A tale of three women
WASHINGTON — One got famous wearing mouse ears. One got famous wearing brightly colored shifts. And one got famous wearing down the opposition while carrying a handbag.
The trio of famous deaths this week seems incongruous. Yet these spirited women — two quintessential Americans known by their first names and one quintessential Brit known by her nickname — were all vivid emblems of their time.
Three very different worlds are conjured up when you think about Annette Funicello, Lilly Pulitzer and Margaret Thatcher.
As a tot, I spent every afternoon in my Mickey Mouse Club ears and underwear, clutching a red patent purse full of Milky Ways, glued to the television watching Annette and company. For my older brother and other boys on the brink of their teens, the blossoming Annette sparked the first frisson of hormones. The comely daughter of an auto mechanic, she grew up in the San Fernando Valley and came across as the unpretentious Italian girl-next-door who might actually be your friend, or date.
She was so shy she asked Walt Disney if she should see a shrink; he said no, that she might cure herself of the very quality that people loved.
Even later, donning two-piece bathing suits in her goofy beach party movies with Frankie Avalon, she seemed as innocent as Sally Field in her flying nun outfit. Mr. Disney, as she always called the man who discovered her at 12 in “Swan Lake” at the Burbank Starlite Bowl, implored her to cover her navel.
Annette was the avatar for carefree childhood and carefree summer. Maybe that’s why it was such a shock when she revealed in 1992 that she had MS. The merry Mouseketeer and mother of three handled that merciless illness with grace, becoming the face of MS, founding a fund to benefit research and serving as an ambassador for the Multiple Sclerosis Society. Years after using a walker to accept her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1993, Funicello lost the ability to walk or speak. But not before she shared how proud she was that MS sufferers had told her that because she went public, they were less embarrassed to go out with canes and wheelchairs.
“Like Cinderella, I believe a dream is a wish your heart makes,” she said, sweet-tempered even as the disease ravaged her. “I’ve had a dream life.”
Pulitzer, another ambassador of fun, fashioned her dream life by branding a sweet slice of the American dream. Like her fellow Palm Beach resident Jimmy Buffett, she cleverly patented Paradise Found. She made citrus-bright resort wear that was, as Vanity Fair put it, “shorthand for WASP wealth at play.” The clothes had down-to-earth snob appeal, as the magazine said in 2003, noting that Jackie Kennedy and her maid both wore Lillys.
Just as Annette did not give in to her disease, Lilly, the daughter of a Standard Oil heiress, did not give in to the dictates of her stuffy old-money background. After she married a Pulitzer heir and moved to Palm Beach, she wandered the town barefoot, threw wild parties, had three kids and suffered a nervous breakdown. A doctor told her, “You’re not happy because you’re not doing anything.”
Unconcerned about making a spectacle of herself, she opened a stand on Worth Avenue to sell the fruit from her husband’s orchards; then, she and a partner, wearing cheap, brightly patterned sheaths to hide fruit stains, had a eureka moment. Style is more than fashion, she said, and being happy “never goes out of style.”
While Lilly was known as “the ultimate party girl,” Maggie was “the ultimate conservative pinup.”
Margaret Thatcher, the grocer’s daughter and mother of modern conservatism, had her faults, heaven knows. The New Yorker’s John Cassidy called her a combination of Ronald Reagan, Ayn Rand and Dr. Strangelove. Francois Mitterrand said she had the eyes of Caligula and the mouth of Marilyn Monroe.
The Iron Lady could be harsh, but she was that rarest of creatures: a female leader who stayed womanly yet transcended gender. She “handbagged” opponents and offending underlings. She handled pols in the global boys’ club deftly — as little boys, when they needed it, or as swains, when she needed it. (A national security aide confirmed to me once that Reagan had a “sneaker” for her.)
I was in Aspen in 1990 when she told President George Bush not to go “wobbly” on Saddam, blithely drilling down on the most sensitive part of the Bush psyche, the fear of being labeled a wimp.
My favorite Thatcher moment came while covering a Group of 7 meeting in Paris in 1989. Mitterrand had given her bad placement twice compared with other world leaders: once at the opera and once on the reviewing stand for a parade marking the bicentennial of the French Revolution, held where King Louis XVI was guillotined. Also, Michel Rocard, the Socialist French prime minister, chastised her for “social cruelty.”
So as Maggie left Paris, she offered a pointed message about the excesses of the French Revolution, slyly presenting Mitterrand a book bound in red leather: “A Tale of Two Cities.”
Maureen Dowd is a columnist for The New York Times.