The Social Detective

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Before I was a suspense novelist with a cop series of my own, I just wanted to be Art Buchwald. Back in the day, Art hung around Vineyard Haven with a cigar in his mouth, and all he had to do was cough up a few words a week for the world to listen. Writing […]


Before I was a suspense novelist with a cop series of my own, I just wanted to be Art Buchwald. Back in the day, Art hung around Vineyard Haven with a cigar in his mouth, and all he had to do was cough up a few words a week for the world to listen. Writing satire about real life in very short takes was what I wanted to do. Failing that, I’d settle for writing news on TV for Walter Cronkite. I was working the Intelligencer column at New York Magazine when I hiked across town to talk with Cronkite about writing real news for CBS.

"You can’t do it," he said, swiveling in his leather chair and looking very serious. "Nice girls don’t hang out in the newsroom." There went my hopes, even though I never was much in the nice department.

A short time later I made a stab at being Art Buchwald for the New York Times. Punch Sulzberger, swiveling in his leather chair, told me girls are good at fashion, food and warm-hearted, Erma-Bombecky kind of columns. He offered me a chance to work obits, but only for minor people from New Jersey, Skokie, Ill., and places like that to start out. I do believe that was the birth of my homicidal impulse. I started writing satiric novels and then moved on to murder.

Girls just didn’t write important social commentary when I was coming up, especially not in the New York Times. So when Planned Parenthood had its gala in March and Anna Quindlen was the speaker, I had to go. Quindlen landed the New York Times job no girl before her got to do. She wrote a column about family and women and men and children and the deeply personal-not just generically political-issues that really matter. She wrote about human rights, civil rights and the most profound right of all: the right to freely share one’s point of view about ownership of one’s body. She won a Pulitzer Prize for being unstintingly herself-framing hot-button subjects in purely human terms.

But I would have gone to the event anyway, since it was the 40th anniversary of Planned Parenthood in Sarasota, and three of its founding mothers were honorees: Mary Lindsay Elmendorf, Anne ("Bunny") Bishopric Sager and Jean Stottlemyer Shoemaker. And nearly everybody else in town was there, too, if you count the protesters.

The only venue large enough for a sit-down dinner for the 623 guests was the Municipal Auditorium. The protesters marched stoically back and forth on U.S. 41 with their signs: "Women Need Love Not Abortions." Wait a minute, people were asking each other, how could women need love when love creates the need for abortion in the first place?

Inside, an equal number of men and women poured into the 1930s Deco space often used for flea markets. Tish Fitzgerald and Margarete Van Antwerpen‘s terrific decorations transformed the place. Red for ruby anniversary, white and black. With police at the door, protesters outside and the threat of a new court battle over Roe v. Wade looming in South Dakota, it felt like a wedding in a war zone.

Susan Buck said she was pleased that Planned Parenthood had chosen the auditorium. "So real, so wonderful and pretty, and we’re making money." Helene Noble was proud that she’d raised $2,100 by e-mailing friends asking for $10 each. Myrna Band also loved the barn-like setting. "It’s for the real people, blingless. And you can park your car."

Planned Parenthood supporters tend to think of themselves as the Real People, and they’re an amazing array. The 70- and 80-year-olds remember the old days when "loving women" meant babies and botched illegal abortions. The 50- and 60-year-olds remember the love generation when the Pill was born and changed the world. And some of the new generation of leaders, like Renee Richardson Kling, were in PP’s Teen Source Theater in high school and now have teenage girls of their own.

Planned Parenthood began in Sarasota when Dr. Vernon Fitch told the founding moms there was a need. Anne Bishopric Sager told me the three friends each pitched in $10 and started sending out action letters for doctors to start a clinic in the basement of Sarasota Memorial Hospital. Dr. Mary Lindsay Elmendorf was proud that she had been a guinea pig for testing the Pill in Mexico in the 1950s. But gaining support here in Sarasota was slow going at first. When Barbara Zdravecky, president and CEO of the Planned Parenthood Southwest and Central Florida affiliate, took the stage at the Municipal Auditorium, she said the group’s first fund raiser had fewer attendees than the number of committee names on this year’s event. Now this affiliate has over 25,000 Southwest and Central Florida supporters on its e-mail list.

The change occurred in 1997, when Cornelia Matson noticed that the annual report had a long list of anonymous donors. In her imperious manner (one can only imagine), Matson demanded to know who all those anonymous donors were. That year she pressured her friends to put their names on their beliefs and show their faces at High Tea. Three hundred of them did, and the closet door opened.

At the Ruby gala, big names were everywhere: Cornelia Matson in regal purple, Lee Peterson, Nancy Reinheimer, Betty Schoenbaum, Anita Holec, Caren Lobo, Flori Roberts, Leila Gompertz-too many to name. And husbands galore! Many politicos-Mayor Mary Ann Servian, former Mayor Mollie Cardamone, Commissioner Ken Shelin, School Board members John Lewis and Carol Todd, County Commissioner Nora Patterson and Betty Castor. Alex Sink, and other candidates for office were also there. Some candidates were absent; they might have been outside waving their "love women" banners in the dark. And that’s fine, too. Last I heard it’s still a free country.

The crowd inside rose in great swells of applause as Cecile Richards, the splendidly fiery daughter of former Texas Gov. Ann Richards and the new CEO of Planned Parenthood at the national level, made it very clear that Planned Parenthood is about prevention. I wish the protesters had been inside to hear her report that one in four American women have visited a Planned Parenthood clinic.

And then there was Anna Quindlen.

Quindlen doesn’t have a good sense of direction. She told me she got lost earlier in the day, wandering from the Hyatt to Marina Jack, thinking the bay and Gulf were the same body of water. (They aren’t?) But she got to the auditorium in time to wow the crowd. Turns out, Quindlen is one of that one-in-four number. She went to a Planned Parenthood clinic in her college years, so she knows firsthand that PP is about loving women.

Quindlen spoke as vividly as she writes. Deb Knowles and her niece Kyla Yaeger, sitting at a table of impeccably dressed and coiffed couples from Plymouth Harbor, were stunned when the proper white-haired ladies whistled and yelled, "You go, girl!" all the way through Quindlen’s talk. Jean Stottlemyer Shoemaker put it perfectly in her parting words on the stage: "I can’t believe our dream has become such a huge reality."