“Bella!” a documentary produced by Re-Emerging Films about the life of NY Congresswoman Bella Abzug, will open in theaters on August 18, but the announcement came out on Monday, July 24, which would have been her 103rd birthday.
Bella Savitzky Abzug was born in 1920, in New York City, to two Russian Jewish immigrants. Her mother, Esther (née Tanklefsky), was a homemaker, and her father, Emanuel Savitzky, ran the Live and Let Live Meat Market on Ninth Avenue, where Bella ran the cash register as a young girl.
She wasn’t enamored with her Orthodox society growing up and got into a fight with her father’s synagogue after he died when she was 13, and they wouldn’t let her say Kaddish for him. She did anyway, went to shul every morning to recite the orphan’s kaddish.
In 1944, Bella married Martin Abzug, a novelist and stockbroker, and in 1945 she was admitted to the New York Bar when very few women practiced law. She started her career in New York City at the firm of Pressman, Witt & Cammer, working labor law cases. She later specialized in labor rights, tenants’ rights, and civil liberties. She appealed the case of Willie McGee, a black man convicted in 1945 of raping a white woman in Laurel, Mississippi, and sentenced to death by an all-white jury who deliberated for only two-and-a-half minutes. Abzug lost the appeal and the man was executed.
In 1971, Abzug joined other leading feminists such as Gloria Steinem, Shirley Chisholm, and Betty Friedan to found the National Women’s Political Caucus.
In 1970, “Battling Bella,” running with the catchy slogan, “This woman’s place is in the House—the House of Representatives,” defeated 14-year incumbent Leonard Farbstein in the Democratic primary for Congress on Manhattan’s West Side, and proceeded to defeat talk show host Barry Farber in the general election. In 1972, her district was redistricted, and she ran in the Democratic primaries against William Fitts Ryan in another West Side district and lost. But Ryan died before the general election and Abzug defeated his widow at the party’s convention. She was reelected easily in 1974.
Her career in Congress ended with a failed bid for the Democratic nomination for the US Senate in 1976, losing by less than one percent to Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
She battled breast cancer for years, and later developed heart disease and died at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center on March 31, 1998, from complications following open heart surgery. She was 77.
The film “Bella!” will open at New York’s Village East Cinema and Laemmle Cinemas in Los Angeles with more cities to follow.