In 1984, Rosalind Wiener Wyman became the first woman to chair the Democratic National Convention, which was held that year in San Francisco. “When I ran the convention in 1984, Dianne [Feinstein] was mayor and Nancy Pelosi was chair of my host committee,” recalls the still brilliant and charming Wyman in her holiday-festooned Bel Air home. “We were inseparable.”
These two women, who Wyman still counts among her best friends, are part of a long line of strong female forces in a life lived at the center of power politics. Since her election to the L.A. City Council in 1953, at the age of 22 (the youngest person ever elected), Wyman has been instrumental in bringing the Dodgers to Los Angeles, raised millions of dollars for Democratic politicians and causes, and just last week emailed advice to Rep. Adam Schiff after a day of watching the impeachment hearings (he wrote back that night).
“Some of the things I’ve done in my life,” she laughs. “Sometimes I really wonder!”
Wyman comes by her fearlessness honestly. A native Angeleno, Wyman was born in 1930 to Oscar and Sarah Wiener, who owned and operated a drugstore with a 22-seat lunch counter at Ninth and Western. Oscar was a Russian immigrant who came to America as a stowaway and put himself through pharmacy school. Sarah, originally from Chicago, was smart, brave and a staunch Democrat. “My mother was by far the domineering one,” Wyman recalls. “My poor little daddy. She loved baseball. She was really smart. Only had a high school education and became a pharmacist.”
Raised with an older brother by her loving and supportive parents, Wyman spent many hours working at the family drugstore, giving customers extra ice cream, learning how to add on the cash register and watching her mother’s every move.
“Once she sent Daddy home, as the story goes, to rest,” Wyman says. “And she said, ‘Well, don’t come back. It’s late. I’ll close up.’ And she had a plan that she wanted to put a Roosevelt and Garner sign inside the drugstore. Without telling my dad, she put the sign up. He came in in the morning. And in 1932, if you were a Democrat, you’re a communist. I mean, it was terrible, it was a terrible period. So, my dad came in and he said, ‘Sarah, what have you done?’ And she said, ‘Well, it’s important.’ And he said, ‘But not inside the store. We’ll lose customers!’ She said, ‘Oscar, it stays.’ And it stayed.”
Sarah’s involvement in politics didn’t end there. After the drugstore closed for the evening, Sarah would host campaign fundraisers in the store. These events were usually card parties, where she would charge 50 cents a head and serve the extra ice cream and pies she had convinced distributors to leave her. With the proceeds, Sarah ran the campaign to elect Democrat John M. Costello to represent California in the 74th U.S. Congress in 1935, during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency.
Along with the rest of her family, Wyman listened to every one of President Roosevelt’s fire side chats. She wrote the President so many letters that his office eventually wrote her back.
As a teenager, the precocious Wyman became fascinated with Congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas, the former movie actress and singer-turned-trailblazing progressive Democrat, who had been elected to represent California in the 79th U.S. Congress in 1945. “I just fell in love with Helen Douglas,” Wyman says. “I did a paper on her in high school, my senior year in high school. And I ran for office in school always. I was an officer at L.A. High School.”
As an undergraduate at the University of Southern California, Wyman continued to be active in politics, nearly getting expelled when she dared to invite a Russian communist to a campus debate. But she never forgot her hero Douglas and was thrilled when the Congresswoman mounted a campaign for Senate against Richard Nixon in 1950.
One day, Wyman went to see Douglas speak at a rally in an L.A. Union Hall. “She was late,” Wyman recalls. “I didn’t like that.” However, once Douglas arrived all was forgiven. “I was mesmerized. People wanted to touch her. It was a very strange feeling with her.”
“About two weeks later, she came to USC to speak,” Wyman says. “She was late. We were a smaller group and she spoke, and they said, ‘any questions?’ I said, ‘Mrs. Douglas, I know it’s hard for people sometimes to get places on time. I understand this. But we’ve been standing here 40, 45 minutes waiting. And most of us, maybe we’ll cut a class, but a lot won’t. And I was at a meeting with you a couple of weeks ago at a Union Hall, and people really became restless.’ I said, ‘don’t you think that your schedule could be fixed, that you don’t have to be late?’”
Douglas seemed shocked and shot the upstart Wyman a withering look. But her gutsiness had intrigued the pioneering Congresswoman.
“The meeting ended,” Wyman remembers. “She walked over to me and said, ‘Young lady, do you always ask questions like that?’ And I said, ‘Well, Mrs. Douglas, I really, really think you’re the most exciting thing, and as a young person I want to follow you. I just think it’s rude.’ I just didn’t back down. And she said, ‘That’s interesting that you feel so strongly.’”
Wyman tried her best to explain why Douglas’s tardiness was an affront to hard-working students and union members who wanted to hear her speak. “I gave it a whole to do. And she said, ‘Well do you want to be in my campaign?’ I said, ‘I can’t think of anything I would want to do more in this world.’”
And with that Wyman became a member of the Douglas campaign, driving the Congresswoman to events, no doubt making sure she was always on time.
By her early 20s, Wyman was not only volunteering for campaign work, she was also the statewide chairman of the Young Democrats. In 1953, she surprised everyone — including herself — when she decided to run for the District 5 seat of the Los Angeles City Council. “When I decided to run, I was really young and my father was a typical dad… and he said, ‘You shouldn’t do that. That’s a terrible business.’ He didn’t want me to do it one bit. And my mother said, ‘go get ‘em.’”
Sarah threw herself into helping her daughter’s campaign, using her old tactics from the 1930s. “My mother got anything she could get from the drug store free,” Wyman recalls. “She got unwrapped soap. We thought — I was going to go door-to-door, and I can’t just hold unwrapped soap. So, we got these little three-by-five cards and we made a little package and we put the soap in. And then I got a picture with [Adlai] Stevenson. And Stevenson was shaking my hand, and Mrs. Roosevelt, we got a picture of her as well. And I said, ‘Let’s clean up the city.’ And I did this door to door.”
Wyman and her campaign volunteers pounded the pavement night after night- particularly on Monday nights when “I Love Lucy” was on. “And I walked for seven hours,” Wyman says of one memorable day. “In fact, Life Magazine has a picture of shoes that I actually wore out.”
The hard work — and free soap — paid off. The day after Rosalind Wyman became the second woman ever elected to the L.A. City Council, the Los Angeles Times headline said it all:
“IT’S A GIRL!”