Remembering My Mother, Polly Cowan

When my mother died, now more than twenty-six years ago, my eldest brother Paul said that she was the only woman he’d ever known who had an equal passion for social justice and fashion. It was true. She held close her commitment to making the world a better place, and she loved clothes and dressing her tall, thin, and very elegant body.

My mother’s family was one of wealthy German Jewish merchants. Both of her parents’ ancestors had arrived in the United States around 1850, like so many Germans of that era. They had moved to the mid-west, opened a furniture store, and when my mother was still young converted that into a mail-order catalog business. She grew up the only Jew in a gentile suburb of Chicago, whose parents, no matter how attenuated their religious affiliation (and they were very attenuated indeed) passed on to her the Reform Judaism belief in “Prophetic Judaism.” Put simply, it was the obligation to feed the widow and care for the orphan. As a young woman in college she became interested in socialism. She dreamed of going to Spain during the Spanish Civil War to serve as a nurse to the Republican Army of Spain. Instead she remained at home, went to Sarah Lawrence College, majored in sociology, and in 1939 married my father, Louis G. Cowan.

My father introduced her to the world of media and show business. They moved to New York during World War II, and never returned to Chicago. The life they lived in New York was very glamorous and often exciting. They knew the television and radio world, where my father was first a producer and then a network executive, but their friends included academics and intellectuals, writers, politicians, and Broadway composers and producers. In 1952 my father conducted Adlai Stevenson’s media campaign when Stevenson ran for President of the United States against Dwight D. Eisenhower, and my mother took charge of women volunteers for Stevenson.

I remember my mother loving the glamour of that world. I can recall watching her dress for the evening, especially one special black gown, a Balenciaga I believe, with beautiful pearl earrings, necklace, and bracelet. Every New Year’s Eve they hosted a large and elegant party, and she reigned over the event in some glorious outfit or another.

Yet for all that, my mother was not a society woman. Among my classmates I was one of the few who had a working mother. For years she was a radio and television producer. When my father moved from his own production company to CBS, my mother volunteered for the Citizens Committee for Children. From there she shifted to the National Council of Negro Women.

It was working with Dorothy Height and the Council that my mother finally found her spiritual home. In some ways I think she finally felt she was fulfilling her dream of herself that she would be a nurse in the Spanish Civil War. She was doing her part to bring about the world the biblical Prophets had preached. She made a commitment to Civil Rights, and she kept that commitment for the rest of her life. She served the Council and Dr. Height, eventually joining the Board of Directors. But she was also a close personal friend of Dorothy Height’s. Indeed, the two women talked to each other every day from the beginning of WIMS until my mother died. One summer I myself worked for the Council. Dr. Height was often at our apartment, close not only to my mother, but to my father as well, who in his years of retirement did whatever he could to support the work of Polly Cowan and Dorothy Height.

My mother had energy and commitment and intelligence and focus. She never felt she had to be prominent or publicized. She simply wanted to do what she wanted to do: create a world where there would be racial justice and social equity. And she had a wonderful time doing it.

My parents died together in a fire on November 24, 1976. That is more than a quarter century ago now. For me they remain vital and in their sixties. I can see my mother walking on the beach in Martha’s Vineyard, while my father stayed home, talking on the telephone, putting together people and projects. For all of their children their commitments and beliefs remain alive today as well. My mother left quite a legacy. It is my hope that with this project I can help to carry her dream forward to another generation.

Holly Shulman