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- October 03, 1977
- Vol. 8
- No. 14
TV Reporter Betty Rollin Turned a Deadly Brush with Cancer into a Big Book and a New Life
"You're going to Albany," he tells her. "We're making arrangements about the chopper now. Get on it."
"What am I doing there?" she asks, bracing herself to take in the details.
"Some guy is holding two hostages on a highway. He has a rifle." He adds, "Whatever you do, don't fly low."
Rollin reaches under her desk for the extra shoes stashed there and stuffs them into a blue shoulder bag. She grabs her notebook and sharpens a pencil. Finally she checks her black pocketbook for her false eyelashes.
Now, as she breezes out of her office with the erect posture of a ballet prodigy, her mind races with on-the-spot rescheduling. She must call her friend Joanna to change their lunch date; her appointment for a haircut at Cinandre will have to be shifted. She pulls out her address book and notices the number of her window washer. "I have to find out why he keeps promising me but still doesn't show up. This is just the sort of thing I cannot stand." In fact, unreliability is the major sin in her book. But her thoughts move on to a more immediate problem.
She must call her mother and ask her to cash a check. NBC provides Rollin with an expense allowance while she's on an assignment, but she has no "serious money" for tomorrow. Before boarding the helicopter, she needs to call the superintendent of her building to find out if he has removed her bed. She plans to store it with a neighbor in order to make more room for her 43 closest relatives who have been invited to a birthday party she is throwing on Sunday for her mother.
Rollin climbs in a cab and then a sudden, awful realization strikes. If her bed is moved out today, "Where am I going to sleep the rest of the week?"
But she is almost at the heliport now and so she clicks off her private minicrisis. In the back seat of the dim taxi she pulls out a mirror and skillfully puts on her eyelashes. There, now. It's Betty Rollin, ace reporter for NBC-TV. Notebook in hand, she takes off with the crew to film and report on a reign of terror which will get a minute and 15 seconds on the nightly news. But when the copter reaches its destination, the team is ordered to return to New York. The gunman has surrendered. The spot has been dropped.
She peels off the eyelashes and changes her shoes, a limp ending to an arduous nonstory. What she needs, she announces wryly, is a good stiff drink. Instead, the moment the copter lands, she is into a taxi to her condominium, one block off Fifth Avenue, ready for her usual—a cold draft of tomato juice.
As she stumbles in the door, she drops her bags and lunges for the ringing telephone. "Hello," she says.
"Hello," a familiar voice echoes. "This is Betty Rollin."
She is puzzled only for an instant. Plopping down on the carpet, she kicks off her shoes and flips back, recognizing her alter ego, "Oh, it's you."
There is another Betty Rollin, on the opposite side of this country, who has purchased that name for a reported $75,000. This character in search of the Rollin identity is actress Mary Tyler Moore. This year, after doing a musical variety special, Mary Tyler Moore will start working on a dramatization of Rollin's autobiographical First, You Cry.
Moore said recently that a "friend of a friend" had suggested that her husband and chief adviser, Grant Tinker, read Rollin's book. He brought it home, and Moore says, "I knew I wanted to do it into the second or third chapter. Probably the biggest reason for me was that she was able to treat a very serious subject with humor."
Rollin's book also grabs readers because she wasn't afraid to tell about her mastectomy which she underwent two years ago. "I made one rule for myself," she confides. "I was going to tell the truth about my feelings. The patient would say, 'Do I really have to put that in?' Then the writer would reply, 'Put it in already.' So really the book embarrasses me sometimes. But at the time I kept thinking, 'Who cares what anybody thinks of me—I might be dying.' "
After publication the reviews were splendid, and First, You Cry sold nearly 100,000 in hard cover. Rollin continues to get letters. "Some women, when they have mastectomies, feel the need to prove themselves sexually, so they just go crazy. I mean, they have 10 affairs at once and then write to me for advice. Other women are examples of quiet desperation. Their husbands may have walked out on them after the operation. They look to me for consolation."
The book brought Rollin even more recognition than her TV job. Erica Jong walked up to her at a cocktail party and said, "You write like an angel." Senator Birch Bayh's wife, Marbella, who has undergone a mastectomy, wrote Rollin a note and asked her to dinner. For a while after the book came out, she was getting as many as 30 phone calls a day at the office. Has NBC minded all the fuss? Richard Wald, president of NBC News, says, "We expected her to become famous. That's why we hired her."
Betty Rollin was born Jan. 3, 1936 in Manhattan and grew up a Jewish princess and a fruit-juice fiend, the healthiest kid on the block.
Her mother, Ida, was a schoolteacher. On Saturdays Mrs. Rollin took Betty to a ballet class. From there Betty was whizzed to a drama class to learn to speak properly. After a quick lunch at a drugstore counter, Betty went to a painting class. Even on the bus ride home Mrs. Rollin would parse billboard signs. Then, once inside the house, Mrs. Rollin sat with her daughter during piano practice. "She just wanted me to be cultured, I guess. It sounds killing, but actually I rather liked it," Rollin says.
After public schools in Yonkers, N.Y., Betty was enrolled at Ethical Culture's Fieldston high. By the time she reached Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville in 1953, "I was getting to be kind of artsy. I went through phases of being quasibohemian, which meant that I had my ears pierced, didn't wear lipstick and had some friends who were not virgins—though I was."
Although Rollin majored in painting at first, she soon was drawn to acting. She was spotted by a talent agent during an on-campus performance and hired to play Mrs. Dainty Fidget in The Country Wife off-Broadway.
After graduation she moved into a three-bedroom West Side apartment with Joanna Simon and Carol Rossen (now Mrs. Hal Holbrook), paying a rent of $60 a month. "Betty was so thrifty at this time," recalls Simon, "that she used to leave my telephone messages on pieces of toilet paper rather than waste stationery."
The three roommates were then poised on the threshold of a burgeoning art scene. Simon sang mainly in churches and synagogues, but she was aiming for opera. Rossen was acting in auto commercials shot in Nebraska, and Rollin was touring the U.S. in plays "which none of us ever got to see," Simon recalls, "because they always closed in Columbus, Ohio."
Although she was serious in her career and taking classes with Lee Strasberg and Sanford Meisner (she once did a dramatic scene with Pat Boone), Rollin eventually gave it up for love. She sublet her room to Joanna's sister Lucy "just in case something went wrong and I had to return," and took off for Los Angeles to marry a young lawyer. When the romance fizzled, she returned to New York, brokenhearted—if not totally devastated. "I felt there was something really wrong with me," she confesses in retrospect.
Rollin temporarily converted to Christian Science, gave up acting as too boring and lined up a psychiatrist for four sessions a week. To pay him she became a journalist. In 1964 she was associate features editor of Vogue, then a year later moved to Look magazine where, as a senior editor, she wrote a column. During this period she published three books: I Thee Wed (made up of marriage vows), Mothers Are Funnier Than Children (a collection of quotations and epigrams) and The Non-Drinker's Drink Book of recipes.
When Look magazine died, Rollin decided to try TV. Wald remembers her in the beginning as "the single most nervous person on the air." But Rollin had a tact and delicacy in handling complicated stories.
While her career was on the upswing, so was her analysis. After four years "I got healthier and happier—particularly about men. I used to go out with Latin men who treated me badly. I think the analysis pulled me out of it."
At the age of 36, she married Arthur Herzog III, author of The Swarm, Earth-sound and The B.S. Factor, and "the most charming man I have ever known." He had been married three times previously, "but that didn't really bother me. I just figured he would work harder on this marriage. I used to say that I was the fourth Mrs. Arthur Herzog the third. He didn't really appreciate it."
It has been more than three years now since the dream life turned into nightmare. Her husband discovered the lump on her breast during an evening of lovemaking. Then a year later, in 1975, doctors removed her left breast and told her that she had an 80 percent chance of survival.
Rollin took a leave of absence, left her husband for another man and decided to write the book—largely as a means of preserving her sanity. While at her mother's one afternoon, she borrowed a typewriter from a neighbor and produced a four-page outline. She sent it to her agent, and J.B. Lippincott gave her an advance under $20,000. Rollin was living in a nearby city with a wealthy businessman whom she planned to marry as soon as she divorced Herzog. Then one evening, while entertaining, Rollin got a phone call from her agent. On the basis of the outline, New American Library was offering nearly $100,000 for paperback rights. "I just sold my book for $100,000," she told her guests dazedly, "and I haven't even written it."
Under the cloud of death, Rollin found herself with a new reason for living. Her live-in romance did not work out, and she returned to New York and TV. She decided to buy a condominium with "the serious money" she got from the book sale, and she furnished it with tasteful extravagance. "I even put a white carpet in the bathroom."
For the past six years she has also fought to get her kinds of stories on the air. "There is no such thing as soft news," she argues with her producers. "Anything can be made a hard news story." She once turned a story on the Miss America pageant into an insightful view of how the contestants are exploited. This fall she has been assigned to come up with three-minute TV stories on subjects of human interest. She did a thoughtful series on the emotional life of homosexuals, and a series on unnecessary hysterectomies will air soon. She'll do a segment on cancer next January during a three-and-a-half-hour NBC health documentary.
As a direct result of her own harrowing experience with cancer, her life continues to change, and she has thought the changes all through. "In a sense," she summarizes, "the trick is to live as if you're going to die—and then not die."
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