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Demystifying Mary Alice Gorman

The plot twists in the life of the Mystery Lovers Bookshop owner include victims advocate, director of Pittsburgh's ACLU, and imminent retirement

Sunday, April 23, 2000

By Suzanne Martinson, Food Editor, Post-Gazette

Mary Alice Gorman lost her father when she was 13. He was hit by a truck, had a heart attack as a result of the injuries, and died a year later.

  Mary Alice Gorman and her husband, Richard Gorman, in the Mystery Lovers Bookshop, which is up for sale after 10 years in Oakmont's Allegheny River Boulevard shopping district. (Joyce Mendelshon, Post-Gazette)

"That was the end of my childhood," says the owner of Mystery Lovers Bookshop in Oakmont. To help her mother and younger sister survive, she sold Avon beauty products after school in her Morningside neighborhood.

"I was probably the youngest Avon lady ever -- 14," she jokes. "People would buy stuff just to get rid of me.

"When your mother is the only widow at school, it can be empowering."

Gorman is deft, self-deprecating, funny -- and still empowered. She believes in fairness. "I'm intolerant of bigots," she says. She is quick with a quip and disarming with an occasional salty story. "And I really can't spend time with people without a sense of humor."

Humor came in handy when, as a liberal Democrat, she testified before state and federal Senate and House committees on legislation for women's and civil rights groups. "If you don't have a sense of humor when you give testimony, you're kind of cooked," Gorman says. "If you can turn hostility back on somebody, that's good."

She loves the bookstore that she and her husband opened 10 years ago, but now they have put it up for sale. She has lived a life of stages, and it is time to close another curtain.

Yet it is never as simple as that. Like the authors who pen the whodunits that line the walls, our conversation weaves around motives.

Consider first the measure of this woman. Born during World War II, she was reared in the "Ozzie and Harriet" '50s, came of age in the crucible of the '60s, then found her own direction as an activist for civil rights and crime victims in the '70s and '80s. In the '90s she became a businesswoman.

At 55, she embodies a generation of women born into roles often rigidly defined. She fought to throw out those rules and wonders, "Who will write our stories?"

It's not an idle question from a hometown girl educated in the Catholic schools, an instrument of change forged in the politics of gender, race and power, an entrepreneur who took to creating a business like a dog with a fresh bone.

Two years ago, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She experienced a second "cardiac incident" in January. She and her husband, Richard Goldman, decided it was time to take a step back.

"Three or four widows have told us, 'We were always going to travel, but he had his career, we had the business, then he got Parkinson's or Alzheimer's. In two years he was dead, and we never got to do anything,' " Goldman explains. "I don't want to overdramatize, but life is very uncertain."

Unlike mystery novels.

"In mysteries, the good always wins," Gorman says. "That's not always true in life."

Through the years, she tried to create a happy family life while she worked in a world beset by sexism and racism, its people victimized by rapists and abusers.

When stress stalked, Mary Alice Gorman made soup. At times she had a freezer full.

Nuns set example

Related article:

Culinary book group caters to those who love reading, cooking and eating

It is no longer a fashionable word, feminism. But it describes Gorman. She believes it was the nuns who gave her that foundation.

Born July 11, 1944, at Mercy Hospital, Gorman attended St. Raphael's elementary school, and then its all-girls Catholic high school.

The nuns made the schools work.

"They did everything -- fixed toilets, raised money, taught chemistry," she says.

Mary Ellen Tunney, Gorman's friend of 30 years, is a St. Paul's Cathedral High graduate and the director of Women's Health Services, Downtown. Surely, her friend's Catholic education had an effect, but "her instincts for the entire time I've known her have been as a feminist."

A feminist with a difference. "Unlike a lot of people in intense movements, Mary Alice never lost her sense of humor."

Gorman's mother sewed her two daughters dresses for the school picnic with a matching shirt for their father. (Her sister, Michele Boyd, is a high school counselor in Pottstown, Montgomery County.)

Though Gorman's mother made fine bourbon balls, her passion was never in the kitchen. Says Goldman wryly: "Her mother excelled in sewing and was an abysmal cook, but fortunately for me, Mary Alice's case is exactly the reverse."

She enrolled at Duquesne University in 1962, she says, "in no small part because Catholic schools wouldn't send your transcripts to colleges that weren't Catholic." During college Gorman cleaned offices at night and worked year-round at a drugstore.

If her father had lived, she might have become an architect, a profession that at the time was almost exclusively male. But she knew her Irish father would have helped -- he was a man who would stick stuck to his guns and who knew the value of education for women. He was 7 when his own father had died while working for the railroad, and his mother's only "death benefit" was a job cleaning railroad cars.

It was that paternal grandmother who gave Gorman an unforgettable piece of advice: "When something good happens to you, you have to give back."

Before Gorman had even graduated from Duquesne, she took a job teaching English at Peabody High School in 1965. She would soon marry Schenley High School teacher Roger Babusci, and "I wanted the fancy money -- under $4,000."

She was a good teacher, but was called into the principal's office because her earrings were "too dangly." She and female co-workers were threatened with suspension for wearing pantsuits.

Dr. Cynthia Mervis-Watson was a senior in Gorman's homeroom class. She remembers Gorman inviting her and other students over after school.

"You would call me somewhat of a troubled teen," Mervis-Watson says. "I cut school so many times, and she reached out to me and really helped me get on track again."

Mervis-Watson graduated with honors, went on to college and is a physician in Santa Monica, Calif. "Everybody loved Mary Alice -- she was just a great human being. She's such a happy person. She's had problems in her life, but she takes each thing as a challenge and deals with it."

Mervis-Watson remembers when Gorman learned she had breast cancer. "She attacked it head-on. 'Let's roll up our sleeves and do surgery and radiation.' She is such a vital life-force."

Gorman, who calls herself a cancer survivor, says simply, "I think I'm probably more resilient than most people."

The ACLU years

Eighth-graders from the Dorseyville Middle School gifted program - foreground, from left, Ryan Duffy, Ben Levitt and Melissa Keenan - listen to Gorman during a field trip to the Mystery Lovers shop. They stayed for an hour and were served cookies and hot chocolate. (Joyce Mendelsohn, Post-Gazette) 

When motherhood called, she answered.

Daughter Alison Babusci was born in 1970. Her parents separated when she was 4 and later divorced. Gorman lost her seniority at Peabody after taking maternity leave and working part time in curriculum at the Board of Education. She was laid off each summer, uncertain if she would be rehired. She says she "loved teaching, loved the kids," but as a single parent she needed a stable job.

While teaching, she had earned her master's degree in educational counseling in 1974 and then did postgraduate work in career counseling. In 1977, she gave herself some "career counseling" and decided she'd like management. She thought becoming director of a nonprofit would be equivalent in experience to an MBA -- and cheaper, too.

That same year, she became executive director of the Pittsburgh chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. "It gave me the freedom to be more available to my daughter," she says. "Teachers couldn't even make or take phone calls."

The ex-teacher went on to rebuild the ACLU "the year after Skokie," not an enviable job. The ACLU had supported the Ku Klux Klan's right to march through the Chicago suburb. Many Jewish supporters of the ACLU had withdrawn their financial support after that, says Jane Louik of Squirrel Hill, a friend who worked with Gorman in political causes over the years.

After three years of the experience she'd sought, Gorman left the ACLU to start Gorman & Coopersmith, a consulting firm in career planning and technical writing. One 1981 project was the successful reorganization of the Allegheny County Center for Victims of Violent Crimes, after which she was asked to be its director. She took the job. "I was making great money consulting, but I had to be with people," she says.

The people she worked to help were often at the lowest point of their lives, the victims of crime and rape. "It was stressful working with people in the eye of the hurricane, but they always get better," she says.

She straddled the fine line between being assertive and aggressive while working for victims. Her work was noticed. Gorman was elected president of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape in 1983.

"She is very sensitive. She will listen," says Louik.

Violence against women is often underreported by middle-class municipalities, Gorman says, because they want their town to be known as a "safe place."

She would tell reporters if they needed accurate statistics to call her anytime. During one 2 a.m. phone call she calmly recited child abuse death rates. "Richard woke up and said, 'This is sick!' " she recalls with a laugh.

She believes her biggest accomplishment was to draft and lobby for national and state legislation that funded services for victims of crime from the fines of the "bad guys," including white-collar criminals, such as Wall Street's Ivan Boesky and Michael Milken. "That has been millions of dollars for Pennsylvania," she says.

Before, women's and victims' groups had to go to the legislature begging. No longer.

Feminist mom

  In the fall of 1945, young Mary Alice Gorman, shown with her mother, left, and her aunt, Amy Berlinger Magidson, holds one of her life-long passions - a Hershey Bar - on the South Side Slopes. Today, one of her favorite treats is to melt a large Hershey Bar in a glass pie plate for 2 minutes and serve with strawberry or banana chunks.

Despite her high-pressure jobs, Gorman's focus was always on family.

"Is this where I come in and say what a great mother I have?" jokes daughter Alison, now 29. "This wasn't something I would have said when I was 14. Mom's way more cool now."

Growing up the daughter of a "feminist mom" seems to have suited Alison well. "It wasn't like I only had Tonka trucks. I had fashion dolls that my grandmother made clothes for, and she made me my first tutu -- red."

"You had hot pink leotards and rollers in your hair in my favorite picture," her mother adds.

Today, after study at American University and Arizona State, Alison is a professional storyteller and educator at the Carnegie Museum of Art. She also teaches yoga.

"Mom often slips me a fifty," she says with a grin. "We are supporters of the arts," Gorman counters.

It was feminism-by-example. "I knew Playboy Bunnies were bad," says Alison, who gave a 1999 one-woman dramatic show called "Deconstructing Barbie," as in Barbie doll.

Second marriage

Gorman and Goldman, a former Mellon executive, met "during the McGovern campaign." It is the second marriage for both, and he came to the relationship with two small sons. As she describes it, they've been "together for 27 years, married for 14."

Political activism remains a bond for the woman who was president of the 7-11 Democrat Club -- a coalition of liberal Democrats from Wards 7 and 11 -- and the man who was its treasurer. He had grown up in Miami Beach and moved to Pittsburgh in 1970. They married in 1986.

Alison grew up with Goldman's twin sons, Josh and Seth, now 30. They've known each other since they were 4, carpooling to Montessori school. "My brothers," Alison calls them. As for Goldman, "I call him Richard. I have a father."

The boys, who had moved to California with their mother, spend summers and Christmas vacations with Mary Alice and Richard. They were raised in the Jewish tradition, including bar mitzvahs.

"We celebrate all the holidays," says Gorman. All, save Thanksgiving, require the traditional cooking. On turkey day, they eat sandwiches in bed and watch the Macy's parade, a "blended" family's way to cope with the pressures of the holiday.

"I think she is a truly devoted mother, for not only Alison, but Josh and Seth, too," says Louik.

Advocate for victims

While the kids were growing up, "there was never a grown-ups' table and a kids' table," Alison recalls. "There was never adult grown-ups' opinions and children's silly ideas."

Conversation was learning and laughter, and the children were part of it.

It could get a little grim at times. At the victims assistance center, everyday conversation centered on rapes and mayhem, and sometimes the topic spilled over to family dinnertime. "Sometimes she would sort of lose track of the effect of these stories on ordinary people," Goldman recalls. "The kids were teen-agers, and we would have to pull her up short and say, 'I don't think we need to talk about the fish hooks right now. We'll have dessert and then go on.' "

She has remained unwavering in her belief that rape victims should not be identified. She once made her case at the Post-Gazette and The Pittsburgh Press when she argued that too many details about a victim could pinpoint her as surely as a name. "If the story said the victim was a 19-year-old in a certain apartment, and she was the only 19-year-old, if they described a woman as living on a particular street, which was only two blocks long, people could figure it out.

"I'm sure the daughter of an elderly victim doesn't want to go to church Sunday after everybody has heard all about the broom handle."

However, she is a firm believer in the First Amendment for a free press, though if there's to be any modification for the public's safety, it should come from the profession itself. "We don't need any more laws," she says.

Yet her support of individual rights can get complicated.

Around 1986, a man who came to be known as the "Homestead rapist" was preying on elderly women. Police had a profile of him and knew the violence was escalating and that the spree might end in murder.

"It was 92 degrees, and people were nailing the windows shut," she recalls.

To help the rape victims, the center took a commonsense approach. "If there was an advocate with the victim every time a new piece of information broke in the news, it would empower them, rather than diminish them," she says. "They walked tall into that courtroom a year later. They were some brave ladies."

The police had the assailant's fingerprints and description. As hysteria mounted, the police pulled in the black men of the community for fingerprinting in the police station, where a chance remark -- not fingerprinting -- led to the right suspect.

As a former ACLU director, Gorman deplored this infringement on civil rights. As a victims' advocate, she saw the other side, too.

Mystery Lovers

Gorman and Goldman had always dreamed of starting a business and working it together. A decade ago, they decided on a specialty bookstore.

"The first thing that stunned us, everybody says thank-you," Gorman says. "It's so wonderful to be around so many happy people."

When the bookstore opened, Gorman recalls, Joni Rabinowitz of Just Harvest asked Gorman if she missed her old job. She told her she didn't miss working so hard to build consensus among conflicting interests. "It was emotionally exhausting. Owning our own business, Richard and I talk, and we decide what to do."

Not that it's all high cotton there, either. "Your business mogul just says, 'Will you collate and distribute 40 copies of this?' When you own the business, you're licking the stamps," Goldman says.

Today, Gorman's teaching experience shines at the bookstore. Dressed in a Mystery Lovers sweatshirt, she engages Barbara Bernstein's visiting language arts students at Dorseyville Middle School with her eyes, her body language, her whole self.

The Fox Chapel District teacher says her classes' visits to Mystery Lovers are one of the highlights of their year. Gorman is a role model. In an era of bookstore chains, "some of them have never seen a business owner working in their business," Bernstein says.

Gorman continues to follow her grandmother's advice and "give back." One recent example was the store's Leap Year Day, when 10 percent of sales went to the Oakmont Library. All year customers may pick a name off the "angel tree" and buy a book for a child under the auspices of Beginning with Books, which also receives cafe tips and speaking honoraria. At the recent Diane Mott Davidson appearance for "Tough Cookie," the former Morningside Girl Scout gave her successors a spot to sell cookies.

The last few years haven't been easy for the Gorman-Goldman team. Within a two-year period, both sons married, and Gorman and Goldman buried both their mothers.

"Mary Alice was dealing with her own health problems, running a successful labor-intensive business, but she never shirked from her self-imposed responsibilities of dealing with a mother with a long-term illness," says Tunney. Goldman's mother spent her last year with them, too.

A shared sense of humor helped. "My advice to my sons' wives was to laugh at their husbands' jokes," says Goldman. "My advice to the boys was to do anything their wives told them because women are smarter than men."

Maybe he's being facetious but, he says, "In fundamental ways women are smarter than men. Who starts wars? Who commits murders? That's male thinking. Emotionally, women tend to be smarter. There's a place for male thinking, though -- putting together the bicycle on Christmas Eve."

Gorman had been relieved when she reached her 49th birthday, because her father's heart attack was at 48. Within a year she had her first cardiac incident, and the next day was rushed into open-heart surgery during a catheterization. Her husband says it was the longest day of his life.

"The children were gone, and they don't give you any progress reports. You just sit and wait for five hours. You do a lot of thinking about what you'll do if your wife dies."

He never returned to work at Mellon, taking family leave to join the bookstore full-time. During her last heart incident in January, Gorman was found to have diminished heart function. And Goldman is in remission from Krohn's, an inflammatory disease of the digestive system.

So they figure the time to sell is now, though they love their customers. "You can't imagine how many mystery book readers voted for George McGovern," Goldman claims.

They'd like to take more trips, like the recent one to Paris and Florence. "It was time for rethinking about my life," Gorman says. "We've saved our money. I was driving a used car all these years."

Meanwhile, she's redoing her kitchen and planning cooking classes for Alison and a couple of her friends.

"Most of my life has been really happy," she says. "Some things can diminish you and some build you up."

Friends say Pittsburgh hasn't seen the last of Mary Alice Gorman.

One thing is certain. She won't give up reading. "See that shelf of biographies? You can't make money with a store for biographies, but that's what I'll be reading."

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