In a Time of Tragedy and Growth, the Guardian Angels' Curtis Sliwa Relies on His New Wife, Lisa
updated 02/08/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST
•originally published 02/08/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST
Lisa stuck it out and eventually, she says, came to "understand the pressures he was under. Soon I was the only one who could." Last March she became Sliwa's second-in-command with the title National Director (his title: Founder and Director). Seven months later she became his girlfriend and last Christmas Eve, in a Unitarian ceremony, his wife. At their reception the couple, in formal wedding dress, cut a five-tiered wedding cake topped with two red-bereted Angels.
Sliwa, nicknamed "the Rock" for his toughness, now permits Lisa to call him "Pebbles," and acknowledges that they are full partners in crime prevention. "If it weren't for her," Sliwa says, "I'd still be running things from a phone booth in the 59th Street subway station." Instead, the Angels have used their publicity to advantage and now claim chapters in 33 U.S. cities. They rushed in (to the consternation of city officials) when others feared to tread the streets of Atlanta's black neighborhoods during the 1980-81 series of murders. Last month they made national headlines protesting the killing of a patrolling Guardian Angel by Newark, N.J. police. Officials termed it a tragic accident but Curtis insisted it was "a cold-blooded killing." Lisa warned, "This is not open season on Angels."
She drew public attention with round-the-clock interviews, while he pressed for federal and state inquiries. Their schedules often kept them apart. Once, after leading dozens of candle-holding Angels in a televised Manhattan vigil, Lisa caught sight of her husband for the first time that day in a cameraman's monitor, which was picking up a live "feed" from New Jersey.
Rebuffed at the statehouse in Trenton, Curtis set out on a march for Washington with 63 Angels, mostly ghetto youths in sneakers and without warm coats. Temperatures dropped below zero, and five Angels were hospitalized for frostbite along the 170-mile route. About half of the original group finally hobbled into Washington (Sliwa figures he did about 130 miles), while Lisa drove a van in from Manhattan with clothes and reinforcements. Assistant Attorney General William Bradford Reynolds hastily arranged a meeting with the group, but he hedged on the Angels' demands for a federal investigation.
The Sliwas returned to New York to establish a trust fund for the dead man's wife and three children. "Already," Curtis laments, "people are forgetting." Then the Sliwas set out on a five-day swing to Dallas, St. Louis and Miami. Curtis visited 103 cities last year. Lisa usually stayed home. "I'm Lewis and Clark, out exploring the country," says Curtis. "She holds the fort. She's the nuts and bolts of the organization and the only person who could take over my job. How many men have wives who are clearly their equals?"
To his credit, Curtis does make an effort to promote other female Angels (who now comprise one-sixth of the 2,200 members) because "men have this whole machismo trip." He explains the Angels' logo, which includes an all-seeing eye. "I chose it because you can't see if it's black or white, male or female." But Sliwa also betrays a streak of chauvinism. He insisted his wife take his last name, arguing that "people would relate to her faster. When people think of the Guardian Angels, they think of Curtis Sliwa. That's the way it is."
That may turn out to be the way it was. Lisa, a black belt in karate, long ago proved herself a match for Sliwa physically. When Curtis was her opponent in martial arts training sessions, she reports, "He spent a lot of time getting up off the floor."
Candidates for membership in the Angels must undergo three months of training—in defensive skills, legal codes and first-aid methods. They do not carry weapons. The first 50 recruits in any chapter must have no record of arrests. Otherwise, the chapters may be quite different. In New York, the vast majority of Angels are black and Hispanic. In Boston many are Jewish. "In L.A.," says Curtis, "the uniform seems to be Pierre Cardin suits. In San Francisco, we don't talk about it, but we must have some gay Angels." Increasingly, recruits are white and middle-class youngsters (the minimum age is 16) who patrol not subways but suburban malls. Sliwa makes at least two visits before "graduating" a new chapter; then he puts local leaders in charge, but he keeps in touch with weekly phone calls. The group is funded by donations, which last year totaled about $48,000.
Serious questions about the Angels' effectiveness are being raised. In some cities, Angels seem to arrive with a lot of hoopla, then all but disappear, unable to substantiate more than a handful of citizen's arrests. In places like New York and L.A., however, they have been lauded as a deterrent to crime. Chicago's police commissioner has castigated the Angels as "goon squads." Nonetheless, the Angels do provide a positive outlet for youths who might have become criminals themselves. Sliwa observes, "Joining the Savage Nomads would be just as easy."
A bigger problem is that the Angels' leadership lies so totally with the Sliwas that when they were in Washington together for the march, patrols in New York were suspended, nearly causing a mutiny among some Angels.
Both Sliwas came to their activism early. Born in Brooklyn, Curtis was made to take karate lessons by his father, a merchant seaman of Polish descent. (His mother, Fran, a retired dental technician, volunteers as the Angels' 18-hour-a-day bookkeeper-secretary.) Curtis, who was student government president at Brooklyn Prep, was thrown out of school in his senior year (he never finished) in a dispute over the dress code. Even before that he had attracted attention. At 16, he saved six people in a burning building on his newspaper delivery route and was honored by then President Nixon as "newsboy of the year." At age 23, while managing a McDonald's in the Bronx, he organized a neighborhood cleanup squad, the Rock Brigade, which evolved into the Guardian Angels.
Lisa, of Italian and German descent, grew up in a lower-middle-class suburb of Chicago. The oldest of six children of a machinery salesman (her mother, a nurse in a methadone clinic, died in 1978), she recalls that "I always had better rapport with guys." She got through exclusive Lake Forest College on a scholarship, then settled in a tiny apartment in one of the most dangerous sections of Manhattan, worked as a waitress and studied karate. She says, "All these guys would stand around flexing their muscles in the mirror, while people outside were getting mugged. It made me sick." A friend urged her to join the Guardian Angels, and soon she was "turning down dates to Studio 54 to ride the subways."
Curtis sent her to Atlanta last March to organize that chapter, and there she emerged as an eloquent spokeswoman for the group. It was she who stood in for Sliwa last summer when, he claims, he was beaten unconscious by men identifying themselves as policemen in Washington, D.C. (Officials claim an investigation turned up no departmental involvement in the incident.) Two weeks later, when he collapsed from exhaustion during a radio taping in California, she took over for him again. Still, Lisa says, "For a long time the only conversations we had were like, 'Take the A train to 59th, then change to the One.' "
When they met, Curtis had just broken up with a longstanding girlfriend and Lisa had ended a relationship with an artist. They did not start dating, Curtis explains, until they were absolutely sure, because "if we broke up, it would have hurt the organization."
Sliwa's income, he says, is around $12,500, mostly from speaking engagements. The Angels' plane tickets often are donated by travel agencies seeking tax deductions.
In New York, the Sliwas divide their time between their headquarters, a tiny room in the basement of a Greenwich Village church, and a cramped $157-a-month apartment, which Lisa has decorated with furniture she picked up on the street. Most nights dinner is a pizza that Curtis brings in (sometimes stopping to give a slice to a derelict outside the building). On their patrols (Angels average 12 hours a week), the Sliwas are obsessively businesslike because, Curtis says, "we have to set an example that there can't be any kissy-kissy in uniform. You can't imagine how many times I want to hold her.
"People think we're going to run for Congress or go to Hollywood and make a movie," he goes on. "It's foolish to argue. The proof of the pudding is where we'll be in 10 years." Lisa envisions "a multifaceted volunteer organization like what the Peace Corps and Vista should have been but weren't. For a long time volunteers were made to feel foolish in this society," she continues, "but we can change that."