15 Trailblazing Facts About Gloria Steinem

Gloria Steinem is the face of feminism and the reason it's cool to put your glasses on over your hair.
Gloria Steinem is the face of feminism and the reason it's cool to put your glasses on over your hair.
Jay Godwin, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

After more than half a century advocating for women’s rights and other civil liberties, Gloria Steinem has become one of the most famous feminists of all time. While you might know her best as the face of the women’s liberation movement or the founder of Ms. magazine, the Ohio-born activist has quite a few other accomplishments to her name. From going undercover as a Playboy Bunny to being Christian Bale’s stepmother, here are 15 incredible pieces of Steinem’s past (and present).

1. Gloria Steinem had an unconventional upbringing.

Gloria Marie Steinem, born March 25, 1934, in Toledo, Ohio, didn’t see the inside of a classroom very consistently until middle school. She and her parents spent the summers in Clarklake, Michigan, where touring bands came to perform at her father’s dance pavilion. Each year when the weather got colder, the Steinems would pack their belongings into a trailer and head south to Florida or California, dealing antiques along the way to fund their journey until the following summer. After Steinem’s parents divorced when she was 10 years old, she moved back to Toledo with her mother and eventually enrolled in school full-time.

2. Reading Little Women changed Gloria Steinem’s life.

A young Gloria Steinem, ready for a long march for equality but not long division.Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Though Steinem’s unofficial home-schooling skipped over certain key subjects—“I'm not sure I've ever learned to do basic math, to be frank,” she confessed on NPR’s Fresh Air—she remembers learning to read from “ketchup bottles and labels and billboards along the highway,” as well as the many books her parents kept around. Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women made an especially significant impression on her as a kid, she told The Guardian, “because it was the first time I realized women could be a whole human world.”

3. Gloria Steinem’s mother was also a writer.

Before Steinem was born, her mother, Ruth, had been a newspaper reporter and editor, sometimes even using a male pseudonym so that her work would be published. The nomadic, penniless lifestyle that her husband had chosen for the family didn’t suit Ruth, and she struggled with her decision to divorce him. Afterwards, she suffered from depression and developed a dependence on tranquilizers, and a young Gloria became her de facto caretaker—a responsibility that left her disinclined to start a family of her own. “I’d already been the very small parent of a very big child,” she later told People. “I didn’t want to end up taking care of someone else.”

4. Gloria Steinem's early activism was inspired by her time living in India.

Gloria Steinem at a peaceful protest in 1995.Evan Agostini/Liaison

After graduating from Smith College in 1956, Steinem was awarded the Chester Bowles Fellowship and spent two years in India, partaking in non-violent protests, contributing to Indian publications, and learning about Gandhian activism. The experience opened her eyes to the issues created by such a stark divide between a society’s richest and poorest members, and she returned to the U.S. with a newfound passion for civil rights.

5. Gloria Steinem went undercover as a Playboy Bunny.

While freelancing for high-profile outlets like Esquire and Vogue in the early 1960s, Steinem took on an unforgettable assignment: an exposé for Show magazine on the life of a waitress, or “Bunny,” at the Playboy Club in Midtown Manhattan. To write it, the 28-year-old journalist came up with a fictional identity—a 24-year-old named Marie Catherine Ochs [PDF]—and worked undercover as a Bunny for an entire month. Her two-part story, titled “A Bunny’s Tale” and published in spring 1963, revealed the abysmally low pay and rampant sexual harassment that Hugh Hefner’s Bunnies endured at the club. “To this day when people don’t like me they introduce me as a former Bunny, as a put-down,” she told The New York Times in 2016. “On the other hand, I did improve the working conditions for those women.”

6. Gloria Steinem used to write for a sketch comedy television show.

"See? Politics can be funny!" Steinem seems to be saying with her eyes.Susan Wood/Getty Images

Steinem took a short break from print journalism in 1964 to become a regular contributor for That Was the Week That Was, NBC’s short-lived version of the BBC sketch comedy program of the same name. The 30-minute live episodes, hosted by David Frost, comprised satirical sketches about each week’s political news and featured celebrities like Henry Fonda, Gene Hackman, and Alan Alda. It was, in Steinem’s words, “the parent of Saturday Night Live.”

7. Gloria Steinem once caused controversy by collaborating with the CIA.

As a leader of the Independent Research Service, an organization founded in 1958 to promote political involvement among young Americans abroad, Steinem accompanied a delegation of students to two World Youth Festivals: one in Vienna in 1959, and another in Helsinki in 1962. Then, in 1967, she told the press that the organization had been funded largely by the CIA. Because the World Youth Festivals were widely known as an outlet for the Soviet Union to disseminate communist propaganda on an international stage during the Cold War, some people interpreted the CIA’s involvement in sending Americans to the events as a political maneuver—a way for the U.S. government to gather intel and also combat the spread of radical Soviet ideology by presenting a nice, democratic alternative. Steinem insisted that the CIA’s financial support had no strings attached, and she was never asked to report back about the festivals, but that didn’t stop people from labeling her a CIA agent or operative after the fact.

8. Gloria Steinem helped found two prominent magazines.

A different kind of Octomom on the cover of the first issue of Ms. magazine in spring 1972.Liberty Media for Women, LLC, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

In 1968, Steinem helped launch New York magazine, where she wrote a political column and the occasional long-form story. For the December 1971 issue of the magazine, she spearheaded the development of an insert titled Ms., which featured women-centric articles on subjects like abortion, “de-sexing” the English language, and the housewife’s experience. What began as a one-time insert quickly snowballed into its own magazine, and the first issue of Ms., with Steinem at the helm, hit newsstands in July 1972. She continued to work as an editor for the publication for 15 years, and is still considered a consulting editor today.

9. Gloria Steinem also helped found a slew of civil rights, media, and charity organizations.

Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzug, a co-founder of the National Women's Political Caucus, at a New York event in 1980.Diana Walker/Liaison

Steinem self-identifies first and foremost as a writer, but she also happens to be the founder or co-founder of countless organizations in a variety of other spheres. To name just a few, there’s the National Women’s Political Caucus, which supports women running for political office; the Women’s Media Center, launched with Jane Fonda and Robin Morgan in 2005 to provide resources and opportunities for women working in media; and Direct Impact Africa, which provides small communities across Africa with the resources and education needed to achieve economic self-sufficiency.

10. Gloria Steinem enlisted Stephen Sondheim to write crossword puzzles for New York.

In the early days of New York, the founders were on the hunt for wordsmiths to create crossword puzzles for their fledgling publication. So Steinem asked Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim, whom she happened to know had a special passion for British-style crosswords. Though Sondheim hardly needed the work—his credits at that point already included West Side Story (1957), Gypsy (1959), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962), and more—he accepted, and devised a puzzle for every third issue of the magazine for its first year.

11. Gloria Steinem’s dream casting for a biopic includes Natalie Wood and Meryl Streep.

Julianne Moore looking groovy in 2020's The Glorias.FilmNation Entertainment

When asked who would play her in a biopic in 2017, Steinem didn’t limit her imagination to living actors. She chose Natalie Wood to portray her as a child, and suggested Audrey Hepburn and Cicely Tyson to tackle various stages of her adulthood. She also threw out Marisa Tomei and Meryl Streep, adding, “Of course, Streep could play anything, human or animal.”

A biopic is on its way to the silver screen right now, and although it doesn’t include any of Steinem’s dream cast, it does feature plenty of A-listers: Julia Taymor’s The Glorias, scheduled for a fall 2020 release, stars Julianne Moore, Alicia Vikander, Lulu Wilson, and Ryan Keira Armstrong as Steinem at different ages.

12. Gloria Steinem has lived in the same building for more than half a century.

Gloria Steinem, a couch, and a cat pictured in her apartment in 1992.Michael Brennan/Getty Images

In 1966, Steinem started renting an apartment between Park and Lexington Avenues on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, and she’s been living there ever since. She finally bought the apartment in the 1990s, and purchased another one soon after. In 2017, she bought the third of five apartments in the brownstone building, with tentative plans to use it as a meeting place for traveling feminists. After more than 50 years in the city, the native Midwesterner is every bit a true New Yorker as those who were born there—she’s never even learned to drive. “I couldn’t live anywhere else,” she told The New York Times.

13. Gloria Steinem doesn’t dwell on her status as one of the world’s most famous feminists.

Throughout Steinem’s storied, varied career, the through line has always been her commitment to women’s issues. She’s worked tirelessly to legalize abortion, secure congressional votes in favor of the Equal Rights Amendment, create outlets for women in politics and media, and so much more. But she doesn’t necessarily think of herself as the feminist icon that so many see her as.

“You know, I get up every morning and try to remember to do what I’m supposed to do and get my dry cleaning, and so I don’t see myself that way,” she said in an interview with Feminist.com. “I just do the best I can, and try to make some balance between what needs doing and what I can uniquely do.”

14. Gloria Steinem is Christian Bale’s stepmother.

David Bale and Gloria Steinem in 2003.Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Steinem has never been shy about rejecting the idea of settling down and starting a family, so her decision to get married in 2000, at age 66, came as quite a surprise to many people. Not only did she become the wife of British businessman and animal rights activist David Bale, but she also became a stepmother to his son, Oscar-winning actor (and former Batman) Christian Bale.

Steinem’s marriage was tragically cut short when David Bale passed away from brain cancer in 2003. “He had the greatest heart of anyone I’ve ever known,” she said in a statement.

15. Gloria Steinem has no plans to retire.

Gloria Steinem laughs it up with fellow feminist Jameela Jamil at Diane Von Furstenberg's InCharge Conversations conference in March 2020.Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for DVF

Steinem’s relentless work ethic hasn’t slowed at all with age. She’s continued to give talks, champion new organizations, and publish works well into her eighties (her most recent book, The Truth Will Set You Free, But First It Will Piss You Off!, was released in October 2019), and she probably won’t ever retire. “The idea of retiring is as foreign to me as the idea of hunting,” she told Ms. magazine in 2018.

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12 Festive Facts About White Christmas

Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, and Danny Kaye in White Christmas (1954).
Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, and Danny Kaye in White Christmas (1954).
Paramount Home Entertainment

In 1953, Paramount Pictures set out to make a musical built around and named after the most popular Christmas pop song of all time. At that point “White Christmas” had already become a holiday classic thanks in no small part to Bing Crosby’s hit recording of the song, but would it translate to the same success on the big screen?

With Crosby’s star power leading the way and Michael Curtiz in the director’s chair, White Christmas overcame some early development struggles and even some anxiety from composer Irving Berlin to become one of the most celebrated holiday movies of all time. Here are 12 facts about its production and reception.

1. The song "White Christmas" was already a hit.

Though the film didn’t come along until 1954, the story of White Christmas actually began more than a decade earlier, when Irving Berlin composed the future holiday classic that would become the title track. Berlin wrote the song in 1940, and the next year Bing Crosby—the singer still most identified with the song, despite many cover versions—sang it on his Christmas radio show.

By 1942, Crosby had recorded the song, and over that same year it made its first film appearance in Holiday Inn, starring Crosby and Fred Astaire. The film helped earn “White Christmas” the Oscar for Best Song in 1943, and over the course of the 1940s the song climbed to #1 on the charts several times. It would go on to hold the title of bestselling single of all time for decades, until it was finally eclipsed by Elton John’s rewritten 1997 version of “Candle in the Wind.” Because of the song’s enduring popularity, particularly during the World War II years, it was only natural that Hollywood would want to capitalize, and by 1949 what would eventually become White Christmas began to take shape at Paramount Pictures.

2. White Christmas was originally set to co-star Fred Astaire.

By the late 1940s, Irving Berlin and executives at Paramount Pictures were working on piecing together White Christmas as a movie musical with the title song as its centerpiece, and they had big plans for the film’s stars. The project was originally envisioned as the third installment of an unofficial trilogy of buddy musicals starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. The duo had already teamed up for Holiday Inn in 1942 (which also featured “White Christmas”) and Blue Skies in 1946, and White Christmas was supposed to mark a triumphant reunion. Unfortunately, Astaire ultimately turned the project down, reportedly due to lack of interest and a concern that he might be getting too old for such a film.

3. Bing Crosby almost passed on White Christmas.

While most of the casting drama surrounding the film was tied to the Phil Davis character, there was also a point during pre-production on White Christmas that the film almost had to go searching for a new Bob Wallace. In January of 1953, when Astaire decided to back out of the project, Crosby also decided he wasn’t sure the film was right for him, and initially planned to take time off to be with his son following the death of Crosby’s wife, actress Dixie Lee. Later that some month, though, Crosby decided to stick with the project, and White Christmas moved ahead.

4. Danny Kaye was cast at the last-minute.

Danny Kaye and Vera-Ellen in White Christmas (1954).Paramount Home Entertainment

With Fred Astaire out of the picture, Paramount had to search for a new star to play Phil Davis to Bing Crosby’s Bob Wallace, and settled on Donald O’Connor, who was fresh off the success of Singin’ in the Rain. O’Connor was all set to play Davis in the film, but became ill shortly before production was set to begin. Now anxious to find a new co-star in time, the studio offered the role to Danny Kaye, who decided to go for broke and request a salary of $200,000 plus a percentage of the film’s gross. Kaye was apparently certain the studio would say no, but they agreed to his terms rather than attempting to wait it out for O’Connor’s health to improve. Kaye was cast as Phil Davis, and O’Connor would later go on to work with Crosby on Anything Goes.

5. Rosemary Clooney couldn’t dance.

Rosemary Clooney was one of the most acclaimed and beloved singers of her generation, and with White Christmas she became a co-star of one of the most acclaimed and beloved musical films of all time. Clooney was able to do this despite one particular shortcoming, which she was always honest about in both interviews and in her eventual autobiography: She was not a dancer. Clooney’s character, Betty Haynes, only has two real moments of dance in the film—in “Sisters” and in the “Minstrel Show” medley—and both times the choreography is rather simple and (in the case of “Sisters”) makes use of a prop to help make the scene visually interesting without too much actual dancing involved.

6. Vera-Ellen couldn’t sing.

Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen in White Christmas (1954).Paramount Home Entertainment

To complete the duo of the Haynes sisters, Rosemary Clooney was paired with Vera-Ellen, who was already an experienced and acclaimed movie musical performer considered by many to be one of the best dancers in Hollywood at the time. Clooney recalled feeling “inadequate” when paired with her new co-star in terms of learning her limited White Christmas choreography, but also noted that their dynamic was rather evened out by both Vera-Ellen’s patience and the fact that she couldn’t sing. Vera-Ellen’s vocals were dubbed in White Christmas, largely by an uncredited Trudy Stevens, but by Clooney herself for the song “Sisters.”

“If they could have dubbed my dancing, now, we would have had a perfect picture,” Clooney later joked.

7. Bing Crosby improvised a lot of his White Christmas dialogue.

By the time White Christmas came along, Bing Crosby was one of the biggest movie stars in the world, a veteran singer and actor who could pack audiences in and commanded respect on the Paramount Pictures lot. This meant his job came with a lot of perks, including the opportunity to embellish and flat-out improvise much of his dialogue on the fly. As co-star Rosemary Clooney recalled later on a commentary track for the film, when Bob Wallace used phrases like “slam-bang finish,” it was often because the phrases were favorites of Crosby’s. Clooney also recalled that the little monologue Crosby’s character goes on when they meet in the Columbia Inn lounge for sandwiches and buttermilk was largely made up by Crosby on the spot, faux German accent and all.

8. Bing Crosby didn’t like shooting White Christmas's "Sisters" scene.

One of the most famous scenes in White Christmas involves Bob Wallace and Phil Davis rolling up their pant legs and lip-syncing to Judy and Betty Haynes’s song “Sisters” in an effort to cause a diversion so the sisters could escape a vengeful landlord and hop on a train to Vermont. It’s an instantly memorable, and very funny movie moment, but apparently Bing Crosby was actually somewhat uncomfortable about the scene. In an effort to liven the performance up and get a rise out of his co-star, Danny Kaye improvised the moment when he begins to slap Crosby with his feathered fan. If you watch the scene closely, you can see Crosby caught off guard by this, and by the end of the scene the two men are cracking up on camera for real. According to Rosemary Clooney, Crosby was convinced that the take was unusable, but director Michael Curtiz liked the spontaneity of it, and used it in the finished film.

9. White Christmas features an Our Gang cameo.

Early in the film, as Bob and Phil get to know the Haynes sister, they discuss the sisters’ brother Benny, who Bob and Phil knew from the army and who ostensibly connected them for their meeting at the club. Judy Haynes then offers to share a recent photo of Benny, who Phil had already referred to as “Freckle-faced Haynes, the dog-faced boy.” The photo appears only briefly, but fans of the Our Gang series of comedy shorts might recognize Benny Haynes. He’s played in the photo by Carl Switzer, who was Our Gang’s Alfalfa.

10. White Christmas was the first movie released in a new format.

A scene from White Christmas (1954).Paramount Home Entertainment

At the time White Christmas was produced, film was having to increasingly compete with television for the attention of the American public, and this meant numerous gimmicks were deployed to get people to go to the movies. This included even more prevalent use of color on the movie screen (at a time when television was still a black and white medium), as well as a more ambitious use of aspect ratios to emphasize the “big” in big-screen. White Christmas was envisioned as a Technicolor showcase, but it also became the first film to be released in Paramount’s new widescreen format, VistaVision.

The format featured special film magazines that were mounted to the side of the camera lens, which fed the film negative through the camera horizontally rather than vertically. This created a more detailed widescreen exposure that was then printed vertically just like any other film. The result was a format that could play on virtually any movie screen and offer an increase in quality, unlike other contemporary large format options like CinemaScope, which required an adapter.

11. Irving Berlin was nervous about White Christmas.

By the time White Christmas was in production, the title song was one of the bestselling and most beloved songs in the world, and had already been in heavy circulation for more than a decade. Still, that didn’t stop Irving Berlin from being nervous about how the film would be received. Though he wasn’t always on the soundstage during shooting, Rosemary Clooney later recalled that Berlin showed up every day at the cast’s recording sessions for the soundtrack, and as Crosby and company recorded the finale version of “White Christmas” the legendary composer couldn’t stop nervously pacing around the studio. Eventually, Berlin’s worried look proved so distracting that Crosby went over to him and said: “There’s nothing we can do to hurt this song, Irving. It’s already a hit!"

12. White Christmas was the biggest movie of 1954.

White Christmas was released in the fall of 1954 and, on the strength of Berlin’s songs and the Technicolor and VistaVision production values, quickly became a hit for Paramount. The film was the highest-grossing movie of 1954 with a box office take of $12 million. It was also the biggest hit of director Michael Curtiz’s career, which was impressive considering his resume already included classics like Yankee Doodle Dandy and Casablanca.

Additional Sources:
White Christmas: A Look Back with Rosemary Clooney (2000)
White Christmas commentary track by Rosemary Clooney (2000)
Backstage Stories from White Christmas (2009)
Christmas in the Movies by Jeremy Arnold (2018)