Hey, this is Anna. I want to remind you that all this month, our episodes are about life after 60 in America right now. If you missed our last episode, check it out. Listeners from around the country shared very real stories about their relationships, friendships, what they value, and what they’ve let go. It’s guest-hosted by Jo Ann Allen—and if you are not over 60 yet, take a listen and then send that episode on to someone in your life who is over 60. We have a special link for you to do that at deathsexmoney.org/aging. And now, Marlo Thomas.
MARLO THOMAS: A lot of people wanted to marry me. And I really do believe that there's no, uh - more marriage catnip than a person who doesn't want to marry.
ANNA SALE: [Laughs] You were irresistible, huh?
MT: Yes. My girlfriends would say, "Oh, he won't marry me." And I thought, everybody's - not everybody, but - many men that I went out with asked me to marry them. And I really think it's because I didn't want to get married. I think if I had wanted to get married, nobody would have asked me.
This is Death, Sex & Money.
The show from WNYC about the things we think about a lot… and need to talk about more.
I’m Anna Sale.
Fifty years ago, Marlo Thomas was in her early 30s and very happily single.
MT: I had already been a bridesmaid literally about 17 times, and I was a godmother about a thousand times. And, um, and some of my girlfriends were already divorced. With one or two children. And I thought, what a mess. What a absolute mess.
[TV THEME: "That Girl"]
It was the early 1970s, and Marlo, at the time, was following in the footsteps of her famous actor father, Danny Thomas. She was starring in, and producing, the TV show That Girl, a sitcom about a single aspiring actress living in New York.
[FROM THE TV SERIES "THAT GIRL":
MARLO THOMAS AS ANN MARIE: Now Daddy, just a minute, before you go any further. Yes, Don and I are very fond of each other, but at the moment marriage is the furthest thing from our minds.
LEW PARKER AS LEW MARIE: It's time it got a little closer!]
MT: It was the first time on television that there was a girl who said she didn't want to get married. And she lived in her own apartment and she didn't have, you know, she wasn't with her mother or her brother or her, whatever. In fact, the network at one time said, we'd like to have an aunt move in with you. Or a six-year-old brother or something. I said, I'm not going to do that. And they were scared to death that the, that the American public wouldn't accept a girl who didn't have a family unit.
AS: At that point in your life, when you were thinking about marriage and what marriage meant in particular for women, how did you think about it?
MT: Oh, I thought it was a very bad institution for women. And it was nothing that I wanted to be a part of. I was very happily single. I was living the life I wanted to live. I was making my own money. I had my own house. I had my own china pattern and crystal and silver pattern, and I thought, boy, I'm doing it.
After That Girl came to an end, Marlo continued to build on that success in acting and activism, including co-founding the Ms. Foundation for Women. And then, in 1980, Marlo famously did get married… to TV host Phil Donahue. She was 42 years old.
Marlo and Phil are now both in their 80s. They celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary last year. I talked with Marlo while she sat in her office, in the apartment overlooking Central Park where she and Phil have spent most of their marriage, and a lot of alone time during the pandemic.
MT: Our housekeeper didn't come in because we were in quarantine. We were laughing. We couldn't figure out how to do certain things.
AS: What did you not know how to do?
MT: We didn't know which was at washer, which was the dryer. Because they're the kind that are stacked and they look exactly the same. They both have a round window. And I said to Phil whatever one says rinse has gotta be the washer.
AS: [Laughs] Who folds the laundry?
MT: We both did!
[MUSIC: "Free To Be You and Me"]
Anyone who’s surprised that Marlo Thomas splits the folding with her husband clearly did not grow up listening to her children’s album, Free to Be You and Me, which is, the best. When it came out in 1972, it was a real breakthrough in how adults talked to kids about gender and what was possible for them.
This poem from it, "Housework," was performed by Carol Channing…
CAROL CHANNING: Children, when you have a house of your own, make sure, when there's housework to do, that you don't have to do it alone. Little boys, little girls, when you're big husbands and wives, if you want all the days of your lives to seem sunny as summer weather, make sure, when there's housework to do, that you do it together!
When Marlo made Free To Be You and Me, she gathered together a lot of her famous friends to pass on some essential life lessons.
She did that again last year, in a book that she and Phil wrote called What Makes A Marriage Last, in which they interviewed 40 well-known married couples about their relationships. And they write about how they came to be married, after Marlo thought for years that marriage was not good for women.
MT: It wasn’t that I didn’t believe I could be faithful or I didn't believe I could love someone. I just didn’t believe marriage was a good place for a woman. I just thought it really was a place for one and a half persons. The one person could either be a man or a woman. And the other person would be the half person that would support the other person in their dream. And certainly in my family, my father had this very big career and my mother, uh, was in support of it and, and she did that and, and she was kind of happy. I mean, she had given up her own singing career to travel with my father around the country before he moved to Los Angeles and made it in television. So, I didn't see a good model and I think that's very important. 'Cause if you don't see it, you can't be it.
AS: Did you have the kind of relationship with your dad when you were an adult that you could say, you know, I don't really want to get married if it means marriage looks like what you and mom have had?
MT: Oh yeah. We had big discussions about that.
AS: And how did, how did those conversations, did he, did he feel insulted by that? What was that conversation like in your family?
MT: No, he wasn't insulted by it. He got it. You know, he knew that I was not my mother. He knew that wasn't going to be me. He didn't raise me to be, to be my mother. He raised me to, to be someone in the world. And my sister and my brother, not just me. He knew I wasn't headed there. I mean, my nickname as a little girl was Miss Independence. I was always independent. I just never, you know, my father kind of instilled in my sister and me that we could be anything we wanted to be. And his, his, um, his, uh, what should I say, his compliment, which I know sounds sexist now, but he used to say to us, "You're man-sized women. You're going to be man-sized women." I guess, to him being man-sized women meant we were as good as a man. He did want me to marry and have children and he would every now and then comment on that. But, uh, he was so proud of how hard I worked.
AS: When you thought of your mother as a young woman, did you feel, um, a sense of like, frustration on her behalf that she didn't have the same choices that you did? Or did you feel a sense of like, did you think look at her and think, you're not as, you're not as strong as I am? Like how, what was that relationship like?
MT: I was very protective of my mother. Uh, I just, I always felt that she needed a little tending to.
AS: Hmm. Tell me about that. In what way?
MT: Because she was, you know, um, she had her own radio show when she met my dad. So, uh, and then she gave it up to travel with him. It was, uh, a little radio show in Detroit where they both were, where I was born. And we were there about six months. I was out of Detroit, uh, quickly, and, um, as an infant. And then went to Chicago, my father wanted to go where the better nightclubs were. He was a nightclub comedian. So my mom loved him. I mean, she adored him. Her whole life, she adored him. And so she went with him. And my sister was born in Chicago. We moved to Los Angeles when I was around five, four or five. And then my father started to have a Hollywood career. So my mother, you know, she was going from city to city having babies in every city. Um, so that was her choice. And, and yet, you know, she would sometimes she'd say to me, "Boy, you're really doing it the right way, kiddo."
AS: Oh, she would.
MT: Yeah. She said, you're really doing it the right way. I said one time on a Johnny Carson show or someplace. I said, "I'm my mother's revenge." Oh, she loved that. She liked to think of me as her revenge, um, that I had done, uh, what she wanted to do. She was very, very, um, touchingly supportive of me. She really was. It was very, I remember when I first came to New York to audition for a play long, long, long time ago. And she drove me to the airport and she put her little rosary and a hundred dollars in my hand and she said, "Good luck, baby." Oh my gosh. It makes me cry to think of it.
AS: Yeah. Something about that just really hit me. That's just beautiful.
MT: Yeah, it was so touching, you know, she just, she wanted me to have my dream and I think it's because she didn't have hers. She had a regret about it, but she would put it in me.
Marlo did have her dream. She longed to be a comedic actor, and her career took off early. Marlo wasn’t yet 30 when That Girl became a hit, and ended up running for five years. But even before then, she got regular television work that helped her pay her own bills.
MT: I was living in a tiny little apartment, $200 a month apartment in the Hollywood Hills. And I loved it. It was a darling little apartment and I was completely independent and paying for my own rent. And I just, you know, very proud of myself. And, uh, then I got the series and I made a good amount of money. And so that was my dream to have a house of my own. Uh, and so I bought a beautiful house. Swimming pool, and a pond and very pretty house. And I was, I was happy as a lark.
AS: Can you tell me about when you decided to buy your own china? I mean, that's, that's usually a wedding gift. When did you say I'm buying my own and I'm picking out my pattern?
MT: Well, because I had been to all my girlfriends' weddings. And their showers, you know, with their china pattern and their crystal pattern and all of this. Uh, it was actually yellow. It was very pretty, it was a yellow, uh, border. I don't have them anymore. It was very fancy and I don't really like fancy stuff, but I did then, because I was trying to replicate what all my friends were doing, I think. And a beautiful silver pattern, which I still have. And, um, and I gave dinner parties and I entertained, uh, I gave a huge Thanksgiving because most of my friends at that time, Candy Bergen and David Geffen and Barry Diller and Warren Beatty, and a whole lot of people, nobody was married and nobody had children. Some of the people were gay. Uh, and some of them were just, they were unmarried like I was. We were all, uh, career oriented and independent and didn't really need, um, we didn't need the status of marriage and that's such a good thing. You know, it's so funny. I received so many letters from young women who would say, "I'm so glad you're not married. I can always point to you to my mother and say, well, Marlo's not married and she's not crazy." So that was, I was sort of a beacon for a lot of young girls, young women. So I was perfectly content. And, and I had lovely men in my life, actors and directors and, and mostly people in show business, 'cause that's who I was around. Um, but I didn't have the urge to marry. I was just sort of following my heart and my nose and my feet and going in the direction that I wanted to go in.
[TV THEME: PHIL DONAHUE SHOW]
[THE PHIL DONAHUE SHOW, 1977:
PHIL DONAHUE: Marlo Thomas is back, it's been a couple of years since she's visited us...
But then, in 1977, Marlo was booked on The Phil Donahue show.
PHIL DONAHUE: You are really fascinating.
MARLO THOMAS: No, but you are wonderful. I said it when we were off the air and I want to say, you are loving and generous, and you like women, and it's a pleasure. And whoever is the woman in your life is very lucky.]
Phil had gotten divorced in a few years prior, and he and Marlo hit it off. Within months, they started dating long distance. Marlo was in Los Angeles, and Phil was in Chicago, along with his four sons.
MT: He approached the subject of marriage within the first year. And I said, no, I really don't want to be married. He said, okay. And we didn't bring it up again. We dated for almost three years. We dated about three years. And then I don't know even how it happened. We started talking about it and putting our lives together, because our lives were crazy by this time. I mean, between, you know, he had these four boys and he's, you know, getting, he said, I just gotta get my boys through high school and then I could move my show to New York. And, so then I moved to New York from LA. So we'd have a shorter trip from New York to Chicago. So we were inching and inching and inching toward putting our lives together. But it wasn't an overnight thing that, oh boy, I want to be married. It was oh boy, I really love this guy. I really trust him. And he's a good, decent human being. And that was very impressive to me, and exciting to me that he was who he is and who he's always been. Um, but a lot had to happen. I mean, I had to understand that I could define my own marriage. I didn't have to have somebody else's model.
Coming up, Marlo and Phil get married. But first, they break up.
MT: We’re unhappy, we're crying all the time that we're alone and you know, all that stuff. So we decided that, you know what, let's be grown up about this. Let's let's just cool it and rethink it. And, you know, maybe this is just one of those things that can't work.
Last spring, we asked you to share your stories about missing touch during the pandemic. And we heard from a lot of you who were single, and having big feelings about it.
I have been pretty steadfast in being single and being content until now.
Maybe if I had dated more, maybe if I had been less picky.
All the times when I didn't go out with friends when I didn't go to that event because I didn't want to go alone. I'm really kicking myself.
And although I'm an introvert, I desperately have been seeking out flirtations, even unsolicited ones that I should know better.
And I don't know. It just makes me think. What I'm looking for, is that going to change? Because deep down, I'm by myself. If this happens again, is this what I want for me?
If you are single right now, and don’t want to be, how would you describe your approach to dating right now? Have you tried dating during Covid? Have you noticed that what you’re looking for has changed? We’re collecting stories about what it’s like to be single and looking. Record a voice memo or write a note and send it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
On the next episode, our series of conversations about life after 60 continues, when I talk to Beverly Glenn Copeland. He’s spent his entire life making music. And the financial realities of pursuing his art have shifted as he’s aged.
BEVERLY GLENN COPELAND: I feel that, you know, one has to have the means by which to live your dream. It's easier to do on peanut butter when you're 21 or 20, or whatever I was. That's very different from being, you know, in your seventies.
This is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC. I’m Anna Sale.
In 1980, three years into their increasingly serious relationship, Marlo Thomas and Phil Donahue decided being long-distance was not going to work.
MT: It was getting really hard mostly because of the children, his children, you know, he couldn't just take off every single weekend. And I couldn't because of my work, I think I was doing a play at that time, so I couldn't get there. I was working on the weekend, so it was becoming really difficult. And I think we both said, this is too hard. It's just too hard. It's hard for you. It's hard for the boys. It's hard for me. So we did break up. And in those three months, I know he started dating people that he dated before. I went back to an old boyfriend, which is what you always do.
MT: Actually, he was like a vulture. He heard that I broke it off with Phil and he called me from LA. He said, you broke up with Phil, and he said, okay, I'm coming to New York to see you. So we hung out for awhile and it was good. It was a very good thing to do. Because we were able to look at it, say, you know what, it's truly worth it. This is the person I want.
AS: How did that conversation happen? What happened after three months?
MT: He called me. He called me and said, uh, I never thought anybody could be this irreplaceable.
AS: I didn't think anybody could be this irreplaceable.
AS: And did you feel that way?
MT: Oh, for sure. I was miserable. I was miserable, but I was trying to be like, okay, you know, I have my work and he has his work and he's got his kids and this is life. And I, you know, I'm not some little, sorry-eyed kid, I gotta trudge along here and, you know, but I, I was, I was miserable. And then the boyfriend that I had gone back to, I had stopped that because it wasn't making me happy. And I was thinking in the back of my mind, somehow this has to work out. I mean, how could we do this? How could I never see him again? And, um, we didn't speak for those three months.
AS: Oh really?
MT: Yeah. It was a real break, but it was, it was good. And I say that to a lot of people, um, who are not sure. And having troubles over it, I'd say, you know - I mean, unmarried people - I'd say, you know, just get away for awhile. It doesn't have to be three months. Maybe it's a month. Maybe it's two weeks, whatever, just get away from it. And, you know, walk away and see.
Marlo and Phil married in a secret ceremony at her parents’ house, and were able to get off to their honeymoon without the paparazzi finding out. But pretty quickly, word got out about their marriage.
MT: There were a lot of women who were unhappy that I got married. Um, they, you know, they felt that I was a symbol of something, but I didn't feel a responsibility to that. You know, when, uh, when we were on our honeymoon, we were on a plane. And, uh, and Phil had gone to the bathroom, and I had on my wedding band and my diamond ring and all that stuff. And this woman sitting across from me, she said, "You're Marlo Thomas!" And I said, "Yes, I am." And she said, "Are you married?" And I was like - I felt like a blushing bride and I went, "Yes, I'm married," you know? And she said, "Oh my God, why would you be married? I'm so disappointed!" I thought, oh my God, what have I done? I've let all these women down. So I did have some of that. I did have people who wrote to me and said, you know, I always look to you as a beacon, uh, of, you know, being an independent woman. And I thought, well, I was independent and I'm still independent, but I'm married now, but I'm still independent.
AS: Yeah. I think of that as a time when, in some ways the feminist movement and the women's movement, uh, could be quite rigid, during that time. Like, did you have friends from doing political organizing around women's rights that, that, um, you felt like you had to explain your choice?
MT: Oh, no, uh uh. That's kind of a, a myth to tell you the truth. You know, Ms. Magazine, which is about as feminine as you can get - there were a lot of married women who were editors and writers for Ms. Magazine, uh, and were married and had children. And there were several who didn't marry and are still not married. So I don't - no, I never felt uncomfortable. I mean, Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzug gave me my bridal shower.
AS: Oh really?
AS: Where was it? Tell me about it. I want to be able to picture it.
MT: It was my friend Carole Hart's apartment. And it was hilarious. It was after we came back from our honeymoon because we, nobody knew we were getting married. So when we came back, everybody was mad at me because I hadn't told them I was getting married. And, um, and of course they all bought me things like mops and Tide, you know, and all that, just to make fun of me.
AS: [Laughs] Oh they did! They - things to clean the house.
MT: Um, and they hung on, on the walls some of my earlier sayings about marriage, one of them was, uh, "Marriage is like living with a jailer you have to please."
AS: [Laughs] That was the decoration at your bridal shower.
MT: Right. And another one was, uh, "Marriage is like a vacuum cleaner. You stick it to your ear and it sucks out all your energy and ambition." So there's no doubt why I'd never married with that attitude, right?
AS: How did you think about what your role would be as a stepmother? How did you think, how did you understand that when you were marrying?
MT: I didn't understand it at all. I, um, again, that was my rosy glasses. You know, I love this guy, he's got four kids. What's the problem? You know, I just didn't see it. Um, I had no idea about it. And it wasn't until like about a year in, um, there was a crisis with one of the kids and I, um, I went and I didn't really feel comfortable, you know, you know, getting into the fray in crisis situation, except to comfort Phil, or talk to Phil. And I, um, I went back to a therapist that I had seen years before, and I told him, you know, this is really hard and I'm not sure, you know how to do this, what my place is and so forth. And he said to me, you have to become a part of, um, uh, an entity. An adult decision-making entity, you are not as a bystander. This is your life too. So you and Phil have to understand that you're team as a decision-making entity. And once he gave me that, it really, again, it just unleashed my own reticence to step where maybe I shouldn't be stepping. And, but then I realized it was important to our marriage as well as making a family unit.
AS: Mm hm. How did you - did you, when you figured out how to be involved in the decision-making, did you communicate with their mom or was that still Phil's job?
MT: No, I did it mostly. And I made a decision about that. I thought, I am not going to be a feminist in one corner and be one of these women who's got a bad relationship with, uh, my husband's ex-wife. So, uh, I made peace with her early on and I liked very much and she liked me and we still do like each other. You know, that doesn't say there wasn't, there weren't complications and there wasn't pain and there wasn't, you know, negotiations and all that, but, um, it was pretty good because he, he has very good kids.
AS: Speaking of negotiation, I'm curious, I've seen that you, you and Phil decided not to sign a prenuptial agreement when you married. Did you, did you choose to combine your money when you got married, when you had both been sort of financially independent?
MT: We did eventually. We didn't at first. But we did eventually.
AS: How did that feel for you as someone with your own house and your own china?
MT: Yeah, well I still have my own house. I also have my own husband. Um, we just decided to do it. We didn't at first. I was, I wanted to have my little pot and he had his pot and he was raising his kids and I had my pot and all this stuff. But then as you know, we're married 40 years. As the time goes by, you know, you own everything together. We own our house together. Own our boat together, we own everything together. So, you know, it, it doesn't matter, you know, what's mine is his and what's his is mine.
AS: I do want to ask, you've had a long marriage, 40 years is a long time. And I imagine you've had, um, some difficult moments during that time. Like, looking back was there ever a time where you, you know, thought I'm not sure this is going to work?
MT: No, never, not ever.
AS: Is that, is that kind of astonishing to you? That's pretty amazing.
MT: I don't know. I don't know. You know, I don't really think there's a gigantic mystery to marriage. I think you have to do a lot of accommodating and figure out, you know, what you need from the other person to do for you or stop doing for you or whatever. But basically it's like other than lust and love, it's about liking somebody, you know, and listening to them. You know, I think that's, that's a very big thing. Most people don't listen to each other. I, I really, um, and sometimes because of time, if you don't have enough time, uh, because you're focused on, on a project or something, you're not listening, you're not hearing and that's, that's dangerous. And that, that I really, we both work on that. My dad used to always say that noticing was the most important thing we can do as human beings. And when you don't notice them, that's when you get into trouble.
AS: Do you and Phil talk about what it's been like to age? Like how much do you talk about aging and how that's affecting the way you?
MT: Oh, we talk about it a lot, you know, with every little creak and groan, you know, but, uh, you know, his eyes aren't as good as they used to be. And I'm not as flexible as I was, even though I work out four times a week. Um, yeah. I mean, you notice that, uh, that you're different than, than you were 20 years ago. 30 years ago, certainly 40 years ago, but we don't - thank god we're healthy. So we're not really, you know what we're talking about the things like you know, eyesight, glasses, hearing aids, uh, upset stomachs, you know, that kind of stuff. But, um, you know, when everybody said, well, you know, we're the elderly, you can't go, you know, go get COVID, I said well, god, we're the elderly, you know. I hadn't thought about that. Um, I was very excited when we became seniors, got half price at the movie theater. I thought that was hilarious. Um, but I don't think, I don't think we think a lot about it. In fact, I have, uh, another friend who's, uh, around my age and we we're saying, I don't really feel that different. I don't think myself that differently. I shouldn't say I don't feel that different. I don't think of myself any differently. I don't think, oh my goodness. I may have only 10 years left. I don't think like that. I never have, I don't have a great concept of time.
AS: Yeah, I do want to ask one last question. And that is I, I was struck in the book that you write about how the flip side of love is loss.
AS: And, you know, you've just in this project where you've interviewed all of these people who've spent so many years together. You've had the experience of, of losing parents. Like what - are you scared of, are you scared of losing each other?
MT: Yes. Sure. Of course. Yeah. How could you not be? You know, you're together all the time. You love each other, you're completely interdependent. And yes, of course, you know, we don't, we don't dwell on it, but. And Phil doesn't talk about that kind of thing at all.
AS: Really? That surprises me.
MT: Uh, he he's Irish.
MT: The Irish just take it as it lays, you know. He doesn't talk about it much. We do, like if somebody dies, or a friend will lose their spouse and we'll say, wow, that's hard. That's really sad. And then we'll talk about, wow, that's, that's rough. But we don't say, oh my gosh, I don't want you to die before me. We don't do that. I know there are people who talk about that. We don't talk about that. I don't see any reason to. Because it’d be horrible if I lost him. It'd be horrible for him if he lost me, but we don't need to talk about it a lot. We know that.
That’s Marlo Thomas. Her latest book, that she wrote with her husband Phil Donahue, is called What Makes a Marriage Last.
Death, Sex & Money is a listener-supported production of WNYC Studios in New York. This episode was produced by Katie Bishop. The rest of our team includes Anabel Bacon, Afi Yellow-Duke, Emily Botein, and Andrew Dunn.
The Reverend John Delore and Steve Lewis wrote our theme music.
I’m on Twitter @annasale, the show is @deathsexmoney on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. And if you missed our last episode check it out. It's all about getting real about getting older right now. It’s called “Just Ask Us: Your Stories About Life After 60.” You can find it in your podcast feed, or at deathsexmoney.org/aging.
AS: I have really enjoyed talking with you. Um, thank you for your openness.
MT: Thank you. Well, my life's kind of an open book, so it's a little late to become mysterious.
I’m Anna Sale, and this is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC.