WHEN I was a teenage anarchist sitting around my suburban bedroom plotting how to subvert the patriarchy without chipping my nail polish, I had a fabulous role model.
Sylvia did exactly what I wanted to do when I grew up: She spent her days clacking out opinionated missives at her desk and snacking on donuts in the bathtub with a cigarette dangling from her mouth.
She wore lipstick and a feather boa but rarely dealt with her hair. Her cats were smarter than most people, and she was not in the least bit afraid of Rush Limbaugh.
Let’s just say I saw more to emulate in Sylvia than I ever could in Farrah Fawcett.
It hardly mattered that she was a cartoon; Sylvia represented a woman who did and said and ate whatever she wanted, dominant paradigm be damned. As the kids say these days, she gave no fucks.
In spite of such bodacious outrageousness, Sylvia managed to infiltrate the masses. Her socially-conscious comic strip enjoyed a 40 year-run in the funny pages of over 60 daily newspapers across the country, causing subversive chuckles in big cities as well as unlikely places such as my suburban Arizona town and Savannah, GA. (Maybe you remember her trans fashion advice for Gernif the Venusian?)
My mother, a fan of both feminism and feather boas, also kept a pile of Sylvia’s bestselling compilation books in her bathroom, including Everything Here is Mine: An Unhelpful Guide to Cat Behavior and You Can’t Take It With You, So Eat It Now. I spent a lot of time sitting on the bidet and giggling.
Obviously, when another of my favorite sardonic sages, Jane Fishman, slipped the word that Sylvia creator Nicole Hollander was in Savannah, I plotzed. (Think a Jewish version of the Scarlett O’Hara faint.)
Jane and Nicole have been conspiratorial rabblerousers for over 48 years, ever since they lived across the hall from each other in late-1960s Chicago. Nicole and another mutual friend, painter Janice Elkins, have come to our sunnier clime for a month to escape the brutal Chi-Town winter and were delighted to take the short walk from their Airbnb’d Victorian to meet me at the Sentient Bean.
“By the time February rolls around, we’re just angry at everything and sit around wondering, ‘where we can go?’” explains Nicole of their sojourn, shucking her down jacket to reveal a bright red sweater that complements a very cool pair of purple suede boots.
“It’s cold, and we’re old,” Janice sums up briskly, leaving Nicole and I to tuck ourselves into the Bean’s green couch.
The first thing I notice is that Nicole looks nothing like Sylvia. This tiny, twinkly-eyed lady may have channeled the loud lady in the turban, but in person, she’s shyer and more bohemian than her brassy, sassy alter ego. She’s never smoked and admits to only having one cat.
Still, I spot a resemblance in the wry arch of her eyebrow as she relays what it was like to cover four decades of history and happenings in three-inch frames, beginning with the feminist newsletter, The Spokeswoman. One of the first women to draw a syndicated daily comic strip, she reached millions of readers between the Chicago Tribune, the Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Times, though not everyone was a fan.
“The character I created caused a lot of discussion, my humor and politics were on the fringe. People were often angry at me,” she recalls, adding drolly, “I was no ‘Cathy.’”
Sylvia retired permanently to the tub in 2012, but Nicole continues to blog daily at BadGirlChats.com and is working on a graphic memoir. She’s a hilarious speaker and storyteller and will be reading next Wednesday, Feb. 24 at The Book Lady, where I can fully imagine Sylvia lounging in one of the wingbacked chairs with a fur stole around her shoulders.
At 76, Nicole has surely earned her freedom from six-day-a-week deadlines, though sometimes she gets restless.
“I kind of miss having to know everything,” she shrugs.
Janice approaches the couch. “I need to buy a pipe for this pot I bought earlier. Do you know of any smoke shops around here?”
Sylvia would not bat an eyelash to such a request so neither shall I. I suggest we continue our interview in the car.
“Are you sure you don’t mind schlepping us around?” asks Nicole.
“It is an honor,” I say, holding open the door of Champagne Carl, my mid-80s Mercedes which we all agree may be one of the best things to come out of the Reagan era.
We roll to Planet 3, where Janice peruses the paraphernalia. I giddily introduce them to proprietor Michelle Mcrorie, showing off one of our many woman-owned, independent businesses.
“You can get your nose pierced here, too,” I offer.
“I’ll keep that in mind,” murmurs Nicole.
After Janice selects a little blue glass number, we head over to Starlandia so that Nicole can print up a few doodled business cards to hand out during her stay. They’re enchanted by the Starland district’s transitional charms, comparing it to pre-yuppie Hyde Park and lamenting how artists get priced out of eclectic neighborhoods once everyone else discovers them.
“We’ve seen it happen so many times,” sighs Nicole.
“It sucks,” sniffs Janice.
I drive them back down Bull Street, and we talk about how through multiple recessions, a sea change of social issues, and second and third wave feminism, these defiant doyennes remain true to the same values that burned in their bellies back in the 60s.
“What moves me are people who are not acknowledged, who are treated differently because of their gender, their color or their ability,” answers Nicole when I ask why she continues to attend rallies and marches for a cornucopia of causes, from supporting #BlackLivesMatter to protesting big banks.
Later, I drop them back at the rented Victorian where Janice withdraws for an afternoon nap, or so she says, *wink wink*. In the living room, the conversation drifts, as it sometimes does with feminists of different generations, to the topic of career and family and how the choice of either/or/both/neither is rather the point. Nicole for the most part has flown happily solo, though she was married briefly after college.
“He was Hungarian. Well, as far as I know, he’s still Hungarian,” giggles Nicole before turning more thoughtful.
“I didn’t choose family. I wanted life to be made up of friendships and art, and doing Sylvia and meeting the people I’ve met has been very big and complete for me.”
I confess that I sometimes feel the teeniest bit conflicted about not following in Sylvia’s high-heeled footsteps and sidelining my glammy anarchist dreams for soccer carpool and a mortgage. That maybe I’ve let my mother’s feminists down by folding laundry and packing lunches instead of changing the world.
Nicole laughs, a ceiling-bounce of a cackle like Sylvia might let out if Gernif showed up wearing a leopard jumpsuit or if she heard, say, Donald Trump defending Planned Parenthood. She leans over and pats my hand with a bemused gleam in her eye.
“Don’t worry, dear, we’ve still got plenty of time.”