by Dina Wein­stein

Forty years ago in books and in groups, women were doc­u­ment­ing, prod­ding, and exam­in­ing their world, their sta­tus, and their lot as they entered the work­force with gus­to, weigh­ing per­son­al ver­sus pro­fes­sion­al costs and duties. In 1973, as the move­ment came into full swing, women very seri­ous­ly asked provoca­tive ques­tions in print and in con­scious­ness-rais­ing groups.

Then Sadie Shapiro came along. She was a geri­atric, fem­i­nist hero­ine with old fash­ioned, if you love it, then you need to put a ring on it” val­ues dur­ing a time of free love. Her charm and straight talk made her beloved around the world. Robert Kim­mel Smith’s Sadie Shapiro’s Knit­ting Book (Simon and Schus­ter, 1973) came out ten years after Bet­ty Friedan’s rev­o­lu­tion­ary book doc­u­ment­ing the fem­i­nist strug­gle The Fem­i­nine Mys­tique, a year after Gail Parent’s des­per­ate, extend­ed sui­cide note from a con­fused swing­ing sin­gle Sheila Levine is Dead and Liv­ing in New York, the same year Eri­ca Jong’s fem­i­nist lib­er­a­tion nov­el Fear of Fly­ing was pub­lished, and three years after Judy Blume’s Mar­garet was writ­ing God about her period.

Smith offered a new geri­atric hero­ine with a tal­ent for knit­ting, indeed a Picas­so of the craft. She was appre­ci­at­ed for that skill. Smith’s spunky hero­ine of the fun­ny, warm nov­el was sev­en­ty-two years old, or per­haps, sev­en­ty-five (she wasn’t quite sure) and lived in the Mount Eden Senior Cit­i­zens Hotel. When she sub­mits fifty of her best knit­ting pat­terns to an ail­ing pub­lish­ing firm, the course of her life changes. Not only is her book pub­lished, but Sadie becomes the peo­ples’ dar­ling, the pure-gold TV talk show guest who knits her­self into the fab­ric of myth. Crit­ics called it a big-heart­ed, mov­ing, hilar­i­ous­ly irre­sistible book.

Shapiro is a char­ac­ter based on Smith’s aunts includ­ing one Yet­ta Moskowitz — first gen­er­a­tion Jew­ish women in Brook­lyn who, as Smith put it in a recent inter­view didn’t take crap from anyone.” 

Forty years lat­er Shapiro is still refresh­ing in an age of intense youth worship.

In a 1973 review in The New York Times, Mar­tin Levin wrote: 

The gold­en-age hero­ine of this lit­tle com­e­dy meets cure with a publisher’s edi­tor (while jog­ging). Before long, she is out of an old-people’s home and into the pub­lic eye — launched by her new friend on a lit­er­ary career. Sadie Shapiro is a mix­ture of Grand­ma Moses and Myron Cohen: high cre­ativ­i­ty and eth­nic one-lin­ers. Plus she has writ­ten some­thing that has the wattage of the Leg­endary Lincoln’s Doctor’s Dog. When she has been tak­en notice of by Howard Cosell, you know that Sadie is a bona-fide celebri­ty. (‘My face on a tee shirt,’ Sadie grinned. Who would buy such a thing?’) Robert Kim­mel Smith trans­lates the banal­i­ty of book pro­mo­tion into broad old-fash­ioned farce, in which every­thing for every­body works out ipsy-pipsy.”
Smith’s clear­est mes­sage is that peo­ple — women, the elder­ly — are val­ued and need to feel val­ued. I take Sadie Shapiro as a clear­ly fem­i­nist nov­el. Smith meant it to be that way.

Smith had toiled for years as a suc­cess­ful adver­tis­ing copy­writer. He knew from child­hood that he want­ed to be a writer. A bout with rheumat­ic fever at age eight kept him in bed for three months, read­ing and dream­ing. It was then that he had his first thoughts of becom­ing a writer. His par­ents pushed him to medicine.

At forty, Smith’s wife encour­aged him to final­ly focus on his pas­sion and he pro­duced an adult nov­el, Ran­som, in 1971 and then in 1972 the still-pop­u­lar, clas­sic children’s book of excess, Choco­late Fever.

Sadie Shapiro’s Knit­ting Book came about dur­ing the craft craze of the 1970s, when Smith was jok­ing with fam­i­ly about a what-if” sit­u­a­tion: What if the very tal­ent­ed Aunt Yet­ta Moskowitz who actu­al­ly did own a knit­ting store in Brook­lyn and kind­ly knit­ted amaz­ing items for the Smith chil­dren like alli­ga­tor-look­ing mit­tens, pom-pom hats and pon­chos, became a craft book author/​celebrity?”

Every­one laughed, but Smith took the idea to the type­writer and the Sadie Shapiro char­ac­ter was born as a charm­ing, straight-talk­ing, jog­ging, septe­ge­nar­i­an. A recent read­ing likened her to Amelia Bedelia who also wears a uni­form and twists language.

Sadie Shapiro’s pop­u­lar­i­ty and the adop­tion of the book by the Read­ers Digest Con­densed Books led to Sadie Shapiro in Mia­mi (1977) and Sadie Shapiro Match­mak­er (1979).

Smith is well-known as an author of wild­ly pop­u­lar mid­dle grades nov­els includ­ing The War With Grand­pa (1984), which Smith calls his best pure sto­ry.” In the pow­er­ful book, when Grand­pa moves into the house and takes Peter’s room, the grand­son has to fight back. But declar­ing war on Grand­pa may be too much. It is described as a fast and fun­ny read, but touch­ing and impor­tant in what it says.

Smith has an ardent fan base of third and fourth-grade boys. But his Sadie fans are the ones who come over and pinch his cheeks.

Smith’s Jew­ish back­ground seeps into his work. Sadie’s fan let­ters seek­ing advice harken to The Jew­ish Dai­ly For­ward newspaper’s advice col­umn A Bin­tel Brief.

I am now read­ing Smith’s 1981 Jel­ly Bel­ly (based on Smith’s own expe­ri­ence) to my sons. The fat hero, Ned Rob­bins has to shed weight. High calo­rie, rich, and deli­cious-as-cake chal­lah fig­ures promi­nent­ly in the book but Smith refers to it as egg bread. The protagonist’s par­ents send him to Camp Lean-Too to drop the pounds. After the unsuc­cess­ful sum­mer, Ned con­fronts his cod­dling grand­moth­er who lives with the fam­i­ly and over­feeds the boy all his favorite treats.

Smith imbues her with a Jew­ish cadence. Behind her steel-rimmed eye­glass­es she blinked at me. Like that you talk to a grand­ma?” she said in a hurt voice.

Smith’s skill lies in detail­ing char­ac­ters’ con­flict, chal­lenges, and strug­gles against over­whelm­ing odds to achieve a worth­while end. His books for chil­dren take on dif­fi­cult top­ics like divorce and the glo­ry and dis­as­ter of lit­tle league.

Smith’s last adult nov­el Jane’s House (1982) is about a wid­ow­er in Brook­lyn who must pick up the pieces for his two chil­dren. This year Smith cel­e­brat­ed his eighty-third birth­day. He stopped writ­ing after his first wife’s death. Remar­ried, Smith is now work­ing on a memoir.

Dina Wein­stein is a Mia­mi-based jour­nal­ist. She men­tors young jour­nal­ists as an advis­er at the Mia­mi Dade Col­lege stu­dent news­pa­per The Reporter.Weinstein has taught jour­nal­ism and mass com­mu­ni­ca­tions at a num­ber of col­leges includ­ing Mia­mi Dade Col­lege. She is a Boston native and a grad­u­ate of Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty Grad­u­ate School of Jour­nal­ism and Boston Uni­ver­si­ty School for the Arts.