A Bunch Of Great Dames

In the movie "Sherrybaby," Maggie Gyllenhaal plays a recovering drug addict who is desperately trying to regain control of her life after serving a three-year prison sentence. It might have been the best performance of her career. No Oscar nod, though.
There are dames, and then there are great dames: Strong women of our mother's generation who believed that no matter what, you should dress up, put on your best face and deal with the world with civility and gaiety.

60 Minutes Correspondent Lesley Stahl reports for CBS News Sunday Morning.

Marie Brenner has been writing about great dames for 10 years for such magazines as Vanity Fair and The New Yorker. Now she has compiled those profiles in a new book.

In Great Dames: What I Learned From Older Women, Brenner profiles 10 movers and shakers who took a more indirect approach than their male contemporaries.

"A great dame is a soldier in high heels," says Brenner. "She is a wonderful, flamboyant, inspiring diva woman."

"They lived through the Depression," she says. "They lived through the war. They wore beautiful masks. They always hid behind that mask, kept that push, push, push."

She's talking about women like Jackie Kennedy Onassis, playwright and politician Clare Booth Luce, actress Kitty Carlisle Hart and courtesan-turned-diplomat Pamela Churchill Hayward Harriman.

If a woman of that generation had real talent and drive and big dreams, to get what she wanted, she couldn't just take the straight line, because there was serious sexism.

"They lived in a society of limited expectations," explains Brenner. "Every subterfuge they had to use really was the most beautiful disguise for their ambition and their toughness. They were tough, intelligent and brassy women."

The generic brassy great dame is Kitty Carlisle Hart. Brenner describes her as "a walking exclamation point. Kitty Carlisle Hart walks into a room, and the room lights up."

She started in the movies, mugging around with the Marx brothers. Then for years she lived in the shadow of her famous husband, playwright Moss Hart. But he died young, and she went on to have a career in television, including a regular spot on the panel of the game show To Tell the Truth.

Later in her life, in her 80s, she ran the New York State Council on the Arts.

"In the morning, Kitty Hart looks at herself in the mirror. No matter what's gone on in her life before, like all of us she thinks, 'Why did I say this? Why did I do that?' And she'll just put that smile on, and say, 'Kitty, I forgive you,'" says Brenner with a laugh.

Presented with the suggestion that discipline is one of the important characteristics of a great dame, Hart is quick to agree.

"I practice every day," says Hart. "I get on the floor, and I can do things a woman a fifth my age can't do. I do my exercises. I do 40 leg lifts without stopping. And then I take my legs, I put them over my head, and I touch the floor behind me with my toes, and then very slowly I let myself down, touching every vertebrae as I go."

Hart will turn 90 this year. And she never leaves the ouse without makeup, a nice dress and her hair done.

The motto of the great dames was: "Never give in and exercise discipline." Even with men. Clare Booth Luce had a character in her play The Women say, "A woman's best friend is the right man," a line she wrote a year after marrying millionaire Henry Luce of Time magazine.

Did great dames all marry their way into great damehood?

"Some did," says Brenner. "They rode men for a while. Absolutely. Pamela Harriman certainly did."

Talk about a woman rode men's coattails! That's how she started her life. Completely.

Pamela Harriman
"She was a desperately, desperately ambitious, sexy girl with creamy shoulders who arrived in London in 1940," says Brenner.

She married Randolph Churchill, the son of Prime Minister Winston Churchill. But the marriage fell apart, and she went on to become a serial lover, having affairs with some of the most famous and powerful men in the world, and eventually married millionaire statesman Averell Harriman.

In a 1983 interview, she said, "I don't mind living in the shadow of my famous husband. I wouldn't have married him if I didn't want to live in his shadow."

Brenner defends her, saying, "Oh, we've been so critical about her. Oh, we've had our noses up in the air, saying, 'Oh! This courtesan!' and 'Oh! We would never do that!" But, of course, she had so much fun. And then, in her middle years, she realized, 'It's time to get very serious.'"

Getting serious meant becoming a force in the Democratic Party as a major fund-raiser and in the '90s helping to elect Bill Clinton, who then appointed her U.S. ambassador to France.

"I think there comes a time in every woman's life - a great dame lesson is: They stop trying to please so many men, so many other people, and say, 'Now it's my turn. Now I'm going to please myself.'"

Jackie Onassis
That's an approach similar to the one taken by the late Jackie Kennedy Onassis.

"Jackie Kennedy is the embodiment of everything a great dame tries to be," says Brenner. "The serenity that is again hiding the roiling feelings, sadness, tragedies, underneath the surface."

Brenner says all the great dames had courage, perhaps none more than Constance Baker Motley, the civil rights lawyer who helped desegregate lunch counters, buses and schools.

Her first trial was in 1949. She was just 25 and anything but a welcome presence in Jackson, Miss.

They weren't accustomed to seeing African-Americans as lawyers.

"Or even white women" adds Motley. "There were no women lawyers - maybe one in Mississippi."

Was she scared? Was she angry? What was going on inside her?

"Well, I was certainly frightened because we knew it was Mississippi," she recalls. "No local black person offered to have us stay in their homes because they were frightened."

Motley went on to argue 10 cases before the Supreme Court. And now at 79, she is a federal court judge in New York City.

After interviewing one famous woman after the next, Brenner says a light bulb went off. "I thought, 'Oh my God! It's all a version of my mother!' I had been trying to tell my mother's story over and over again for the last 10 years."

In many ways, Marie Brenner's mother, Thelma, was the epitome of great dames. No matter the adversity, she put on her game face and moved forward.

For instance, when she learned that she had about six months to live, she made a dramatic entrance at New York Hospital, smiling and wearing a bright yellow dress. Then, Thelma Brenner reached into her purse and pulled out a piece of paper, saying, "I've made a list on the plane of women I want your father to go out with after I'm dead."

Recalls her daughter, "And she smiled, and everyone gasped, and she said, 'No. I'm perfectly serious.'"

Marie Brenner's book is a tribute to our mothers whose lessons so many of us once rejected. She quotes a line by the poet Adrienne Rich: "At 45, you put your arm into your sleeve, and your mother's hand comes out."

And she adds, "So now I see...what was lurking underneath that incredible self-discipline was ambition. It was bravery. It was 'Get out there and put your best foot forward.'"