There was sheer joy in that hat toss: her tam flying high as if to say the sky’s the limit. The sky might have been in Minneapolis, but the toss was utterly universal.
And for a girl still in grade school when “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” began its seven-year run in the 1970s, the possibility of that joy seeped into the bloodstream.
So, you could be this? Do this? Be single and self-sufficient, with a newsroom job and a cool apartment where you lived alone but with friends all around?
A generation of journalists credits The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for drawing them into the news business. I’m in that number.
But maybe just as important, if far less credited, was Mary Tyler Moore — not the mistake-prone wife from “The Dick Van Dyke Show” or the troubled mother from “Ordinary People,” but Mary Richards: the solitary, shoulders-squared gal showing up for that first TV job after a bad breakup. Not just showing up, of course, but showing up sporting white go-go boots and a suede jacket and a can-do attitude.
And total cool — heading home to that third floor of a Victorian house in a beat-up white Mustang.
NBC’s Savannah Guthrie captured it in a tweet: “I throw my hat up in the air for you, Mary Tyler Moore. Loved her and her spirit.”
Men felt it, too.
“ ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’ is what made me want to go into journalism,” my former Buffalo News colleague Carl Herko told me. “Everyone else my age wanted to be just like Woodward and Bernstein, but I aspired to be Murray Slaughter,” a writer at fictional WJM-TV, “just sitting there in a newsroom, typing and wisecracking as all this mayhem swirled around me.”
The show’s whole premise broke barriers, as it “laid to rest the myth that audiences would not accept a situation comedy involving a woman, unless she was married and burned dinner at least one night a week,” the New York Times wrote as the show finished its run in 1977.
Of course, it didn’t hurt that Mary was beautiful, had great clothes, and could “turn the world on with her smile.” There’s that effervescent joy again.
But there was a serious side, too. Just a few years after Newsweek’s women took the magazine to court for sexual discrimination (a tale told in Lynn Povich’s book “The Good Girls Revolt” and the TV series inspired by it), Moore’s show was exploring questions of equal pay, workplace sexism and birth control.
So when Mary’s soon-to-be boss, Lou Grant, considered her for the role of associate producer, she didn’t much like the questions he was asking about her age and marital status and religion, but she answered under protest. (Lou, the ultimate newsroom curmudgeon, would get his own show, all in good time.)
“I had lots of working women role models in my life, but they were nurses, hairdressers and department store saleswomen,” wrote Kelly McBride, the author and journalist. “But when I saw Mary Tyler Moore I saw someone who had a job that didn’t require you to have it all figured out. Instead, the job was actually figuring things out. . . . I was confident I could always think my way out of a problem.”
Not that the path was always smooth.
Povich remembers the scene where Mary forces herself to ask Lou for a raise. Denied once, she pushes herself back in to argue her case.
“There was a vulnerability there that we could all identify with, but she persevered,” Povich said.
“She managed to get her way in the office using her many talents, including laughs,” said Jura Koncius of The Washington Post, who remembers watching the show as she lived alone in New York in a studio apartment.
Strong and vulnerable, funny and beautiful, Mary made us feel the power and the promise of her theme song’s lyrics: You might just make it after all.
For more by Margaret Sullivan visit wapo.st/sullivan