I cried when Valerie Harper died. It felt like losing a mother, a sister, a mentor, a friend. I met her just once – I had an on-air gig on Pure Oxygen, a show on the then-new channel. In the make-up chair I was telling some of the crew how much she’d meant to me growing up, how much of my life was due to the inspiration and permission Rhoda Morgenstern gave me. The show’s producers surprised me by bringing me out during her segment. Valerie Harper pulled me on to her lap. She smelled so wonderful; I’ve never smelt anything so wonderful. She was so beautiful, loving and patient with this slobbering 40-year-old fangirl. I was overcome and practically speechless. (For those of you who’ve met me, you know what a big deal speechlessness is.)
And if you know me, you know I am adopted, and a little weird. (I think nowadays the PC term is Eccentric-American.) Growing up I felt like an outsider. Not the popularity-seeking cheerleader type, not the rule-embracing Mary Richards type. “Always a bridesmaid, never a bride” was aspirational. A smart-alecky girl dressed in 1930s nightgowns, I was somehow both too cynical and too innocent for my age. I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up; movies made “madcap heiress” look good, but that seemed unrealistic. But there was Rhoda.
I looked up to Claudette Colbert and Myrna Loy, but in addition to my admiration I felt a kinship with Rhoda Morgenstern. Supposedly Mary Richards’ sidekick, the show came to life when Rhoda came on. Her filter-free authenticity, boho clothes, cool studio apartment and self-effacing humor: Finally a shoe to fit my anti-Cinderella foot! Mr. Grant said Mary had spunk, but, uh, NO. Rhoda had spunk. Mary sputtered where Rhoda spoke up. Mary wondered where Rhoda cut through the B.S. Mary was a well-behaved WASP where Rhoda was a savvy Jew who knew how to hondel. The fact that her feisty fun and deadpan self-deprecation belied her vulnerability seemed to me an accessible courage. Rhoda Morgenstern, c’est moi.
“Maybe it’s those with cheek who inherit the Earth.”
In 1974 Rhoda left the Minneapolis mothership for her own spin-off in Manhattan. The Rhoda TV show (1974-1978) had the unseen “Carleton, the doorman” and Rhoda’s sister Brenda (Julie Kavner aka Marge Simpson) taking over the woe-is-me schlub role Valerie Harper had occupied on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. (Brenda Morgenstern, though adorable, makes for a more believable schlub than Rhoda, who always seemed the beautiful one to Mary’s pretty one. Valerie Harper had cheek bones as well as cheek, and was never the overweight loser the show kept saying she was.) Unfortunately, the show also had Joe Gerard, square-jawed “Mr. Rhoda”. Joe always seemed slightly annoyed in his tight Nik Nik shirts, and his character never seemed to expand beyond “Look at this handsome Jewish guy our Rhoda scored!” Her real prize was not a husband but the fact she was so beloved that fifty million people tuned in to watch her wedding. Her fete and her feat felt like ours, but it’s the fact we all cared so much that was the real triumph. (You had the power all along, Dorothy.)
That’s the lesson I’d like to take from both Rhoda’s and Valerie Harper’s example. Though comic and comfortable, Rhoda was needlessly hard on herself. Relegated to the sidekick role, Rhoda was always less uptight, braver and cooler than Mary. She called Mary “Kid” because she’s the savvy one, the one who “gets it”. She has the originality, creativity and, frankly, the confidence that comes from moving through the world unconventionally. I was a blue, insecure teen, but it never occurred to me not to wear my 30s nightgowns and 40s frocks. I knew they were cool and couldn’t help it if others didn’t. While Mary frets over what to wear (Gee, will it be a sweater? Maybe a skirt?!?), Rhoda doesn’t give a F if you like her headscarf or not. Valerie, you’ve helped me realize “sidekicks” kick ass. It may just be us second bananas, the “Best Man” women – the Eve Ardens, Glenda Farrells, Willow Rosenbergs – who ultimately feel most comfortable in our skins. We with less to lose may actually be the winners. Maybe it’s those with cheek who inherit the Earth.
Rhoda Morgenstern was a smart ass, a wise woman, and a kind and loyal friend. She had a closet Anna Sui would covet, and a studio apartment I’d hanker after. (Rhoda, I followed in your footsteps, moved to New York City and got myself an apartment not too unlike yours – though I’m missing the “etc.” plaque.) The woman who so expertly brought Rhoda to life was a beautiful, multi-talented actress and author with a long, successful career. And she really, really smelled good.
Valerie Harper, you are loved and you are missed. And thank you so much.