MARVELLA BAYH WAS my friend. It is always a risk to review a friend's book. Neither you yourself nor your reader can be sure of your objectivity. I take that risk willingly, however, because there is something I think it important to say about this book. It is first and foremost what the subtitle calls it, the story of a personal journey. Marvella Bayh was not the prototypical political wife and emerging feminist, nor was she the exemplary cancer victim, or one more born-again Christian. She was Marvella a unique human being, a mystery defying categorization -- as any fully sentient human being must be to any other.
This is not to say that this story of a bright, beautiful, striving person (who died too young) does not illuminate some of the most pressing human problems of our time as they affected her, her husband, Senator Birch Bayh (D-Ind.), and their son, Evan. What is the cost of American mobility? How are we conditioned by the interplay of generations? How can a woman and a man reconcile their personal drives for self-fulfillment and achievement, their love for each other and their child? Can the political and the personal ever be balanced? How does one make sense of life in the face of overwhelming tragedy? How face death? Marvella Bayh was confronted with all these questions in her short life and lived with them -- in the end -- affirmatively.
There was always something artless, young and uncomplicated about Marvella Bayh. It is a tribute to writer Mary Lynn Kotz that that quality comes through so well in this book. It is, I suppose, difficult for the sophisticated Easterner -- one born, say, to the paved landscape and plural culture of Manhattan -- to accept the simplicity of belief, expression, and purpose natural to the children of plains pioneers. Marvella Bayh was confronted with all these questions in her short life and lived with them -- in the end -- affirmatively.
There was always something artless, young and uncomplicated about Marvella Bayh. It is a tribute to writer Mary Lynn Kotz that that quality comes through so well in this book. It is, I suppose, difficult for the sophisticated Easterner -- one born, say, to the paved landscape and plural culture of Manhattan -- to accept the simplicity of belief, expression, and purpose natural to the children of plains pioneers. Marvella Bayh was the child of an Oklahoma dirt farmer. Her grandmother had staked her own claim in the last Oklahoma land rush into the Cherokee strip. Oklahoma, she said, was in her soul. "The wind does come sweepin' down the plain . . . Everybody worked hard. Everybody knew life at its most basic. Everybody had a touch of manure on his boots and laughed about it . . . 'Yes, you can, you know you can' fills your mind because people support and encourage each other."
She was shaped by the plains "can-do" spirit, and by her parents' belief and joy in her and their conviction that there was no limit to the achievement possible to her. The fact that she was their only child and that all their hopes hung on her was certainly behind her lifelong drive and perfectionism. She loved to win -- to be the first girl to become this or that. She dreamed of being governor of the state. And yet, at 19, a young bride, she left her father's house for that of her husband on a farm in Indiana.
She had matured in the '50s. Society told her that marriage was her destiny, and she was "weary, bone-tired from driving, driving, driving, being an over-achiever." She told one of her teachers that she was ready to "find a good man and help him get ahead." She had found him in Birch Bayh, "intelligent, ambitious, warm and witty, poetic and charming, corny and wonderful. Magnetic. Imaginative . . . Honest. Energetic. Kind. Handsome. Loving. He adored me." Only 10 years later, on the last day of her twenties, she was to sit at the right hand of the president at a White House dinner, the admired wife of a favored young senator of promise. Everyone agreed that they were there as much because of her efforts as his.
All this must be kept in perspective, because there has been a tendency in some advance reviews to see Marvella Bayh only as a woman whose aspirations for personal achievement were thwarted by the exigencies of her husband's political career. It is true that much is made in the book of the fact that she was persuaded to give up the prospect of a job she very much wanted -- that of vice-chairman of the Democratic National Committee -- by her husband's staff advisors who felt that she was needed in his 1968 Senate campaign. Afterward, when she once again thought of herself as a full partner in his work, she found herself excluded from plans and decisions. "I was needed, all right -- like a Barbie-doll who makes speeches; send me out on a campaign for a year, then fold me up and file me in a drawer until the next campaign." But this hurt and the increasing strains of politics on their personal life did not deter her from working hard in Birch Bayh's early presidential bid in 1972. "He's really going for it," she wrote in her diary.
In the end it was the discovery of her breast cancer and surgery which brought her efforts, and his campaign, to an end. Her subsequent decision to live through her own work, in television and for the Cancer Society, rather than through his political career must be seen in its full context. The times had changed for women, and she was young enough to change with them. Her abstention from her husband's 1976 presidential effort was with the understanding consent, however reluctant, of a Birch Bayh, who had, with her help and perhaps because of her, progressed from that young farmer who thought a woman's place was in the home to a chief supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment. Her decisions must also be measured in the light of the rage to live and the need to leave an impress which is the mark of any person brushed too early with the threat of death.
Psycho-historians and biographers will be tempted by many aspects of the Bayh story -- by motives unclear but suspected, by the incalculable effect of accident and tragedy -- of the murder and suicide deaths of Marvella's step-mother and her adored father, whose inexplicable deterioration had begun soon after she married. The only fair assessment is that of the Lord in whom Marvella Bayh put her final trust, "By their fruits ye shall know them." And the fruits, as this book bears testimony, were very good.