Tom Ford said it years ago: We never leave high school. He referred to the adolescent yearning for entrée into the cool crowd. Most people never get past it, though it may be suppressed with time and success.
Secretary of the Treasury Jacob Lew should know a thing or two about that longing. How else to explain last week’s monetary flip-flop that pulled a woman off of the face of the new $10 bill before she’d made it there in the first place?
This story first appeared in the April 27, 2016 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Critics likened the compromise, a contingent of women’s rights activists on the back of the bill, to Rosa Parks being directed to the back of the bus. Not so. Those women aren’t being sent to the back of the bus, they are the bus, or a variation thereof — replacing a thing, the stone-and-mortar Treasury building. Good move.
When Lew announced last year that, in the next design round, a woman would replace Alexander Hamilton, the Founding Father’s defenders galvanized. I’m in no position to take on academics who have made Hamilton their life’s work. However, one would think that Lew would have done his due diligence first, either soliciting private, informed input on the pros and cons of dumping Hamilton or going public with the query. Instead, he asked the public to weigh in, not on whether a woman should be considered but which women should have their hats tossed into the ring, the clear inference that the first-level decision, to celebrate a woman, had been made. He must have anticipated some backlash.
But when was the last time academics stormed Washington and came away with a swift, definitive victory? Enter Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose brilliant Hamilton has made him and the musical’s subject the toasts of Broadway and beyond. How to resist the power of the coolest guy in theater, the guy who’s brought people of color to the stage and young people — yes, young people! — to the seats, while fueling serious interest in American history among the otherwise Kardashian-obsessed masses? He lobbied, that cool guy himself, to keep Hamilton right where he is on the Ten — and then he won a Pulitzer! How could a Secretary of the Treasury (who must be a card-carrying geek, or else how did he get that job?) resist the pull of such intelligent cool? Tenth grade all over again.
Whether accurate or not, Lew seems to have committed to one course and constituency and then caved to the other. But for the musical, would there have been deep grassroots allegiance to a man whose politics veered far from populist and who had judgment issues beyond his ability to keep his hanky-panky out of the scandal sheets du jour? That duel of honor? Surely even in 1804 there were more prudent ways for two guys to prove who had the bigger set. (Cokie Roberts wrote a terrific op-ed piece in The New York Times.)
When assigning symbolic imagery, government consideration of current cultural tides is essential. But we all know well that in a pluralistic society, the interests of various factions collide. Imagine Lew’s dilemma: Hamilton’s new, multicultural, cross-generational cool versus a promise made in recognition of half of the country’s population. What’s a pop culture-cognizant Secretary to do (besides wisely proclaim Harriet Tubman the next $20 portrait, to replace the now-skewing-toxic Andrew Jackson, even if not for a decade or more)?
Think out of the box — further out than that sisterhood-of-the-back-of-the-bill thing. My proposal may not keep the Hamiltonians happy, but it will recognize Broadway’s new political clout: Bette Midler as Dolly Levi on the Ten.
It makes sense. Midler’s Hello, Dolly!, opening next spring, will feel marginally fresher than Hamilton when the new Tens roll into circulation in 2020. Granted, neither the show’s music, its matchmaking schtick nor Midler herself plays particularly to the youth market. In Bette’s case, that’s because Millennials have had little exposure to her. But let’s give them credit for being the savvy, open-minded trend-drivers they are. Surely once exposed, they’ll embrace Bette for the superstar she is. In terms of message, Midler is a sassy, brassy do-gooder, champion of numerous causes including beautifying New York. While her gusto for Gotham may not garner her Hamilton-like support in the heartland, you can’t please all the people all the time. (But no need to confuse the issue with reference to Lincoln, whose money portrait seems secure for now.)
Alas, Bette herself isn’t eligible to grace a Ten-spot, or any other denomination of U.S. currency. Unlike our British forebears, who feature the reigning monarch on their cash, in the U.S., the honor must be posthumous. But here’s the thing. The bill wouldn’t feature Bette herself, but Bette as Dolly. Middle-aged at least (Barbra Streisand’s twentysomething movie turn notwithstanding) in Gilded Age New York, Dolly is surely now enjoying the eternal good life with her multiple husbands. Then, there’s the essential multicultural element, albeit an old-school one. Bette’s Jewish. So is Dolly — or is she? Her maiden name is Gallagher and in a New Jersey production, Tovah Feldshuh played the widow Levi as Irish. Finally, as a pretend person, Dolly has no unseemly closeted skeletons of the Hamiltonian sort, no torrid affairs or duel-to-the-death judgment issues.
Dolly has her own darkness. Her whole story is an uplifting tale of resilience, her decision to return to life after the death of her beloved husband before the parade passes by — a lesson for all, and a spin on the American dream.
So, with Broadway now sanctioned to impact Treasury decisions, who better than Bette-as-Dolly on a dollar — make that a Ten? Theirs is a candidacy the industry can embrace. Fashion loves Bette. Dolly loves hats. Accessories fuel fashion.