Warren’s origin story, her mother and THE dress, comes home

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren tells campaign audiences a story of an Oklahoma upbringing so plagued by financial hardship that her mother had to pull on her best dress and join the workforce at 50 to save her family's house

ByWILL WEISSERT Associated Press
December 20, 2019, 8:02 AM

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Elizabeth Warren lets the dramatic tension build as she begins the foundational story of her biography, the one about her mother and the black dress.

It was 1962, and her father had suffered a heart attack. Her mother had no choice. She pulled on her best dress and got her first job at age 50 in a Sears catalog department for minimum wage so her family wouldn't lose its house.

The story that Warren has told hundreds of times has inherent power: A woman from the World War II generation rising up to save the ones she loves from financial ruin. It also helps propel a personal narrative that has made Warren a leading Democratic presidential candidate, portraying her not merely as the well-to-do senator from Massachusetts and former Harvard law professor, but also as a relatable everywoman who has known the depths of life’s struggles.

On Sunday, Warren will return to Oklahoma City, the origin of her origin story.

Like most presidential candidates, Warren has trimmed and polished her account over the years, in books, interviews, and now, relentlessly, as a presidential candidate. It's no longer simply a professor's case study on minimum wage, but a candidate's way of connecting with the voters she needs to win the Democratic nomination and ultimately the White House.

“Her most recent job was being a Harvard professor,” said Elaine Kamarck, a scholar at the Brookings Institution who worked in President Bill Clinton's White House, referring to Warrren’s job before becoming senator in 2012. “There’s a lot of elitism attached to that. She needed to make sure people understood that she was not a child of privilege.”

Interviews with Warren's childhood friends and documents reviewed by The Associated Press add new texture to what the candidate describes as her family's time “on the ragged edge of the middle class.” They also reveal that the worst of times for her family were relatively brief — by age 16, Warren was driving a two-door British roadster, her father had gone back to work and her mother was talking about quitting the job that had once been necessary to keep a roof over their heads.

To Warren, that's the point. She argues that the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour can't support a family and is calling for an increase to $15 per hour. She's also proposed a hefty tax on the wealthiest Americans that she wants to spend on initiatives like universal child care and wiping out student loan debt.

Born in Oklahoma City, Warren lived in the college town of Norman, about 20 miles away, until she was 11. Her three older brothers are 16, 12 and eight years her senior and had all left home by the time Warren’s mother facilitated moving back to the state capital so her daughter could attend better schools.

The family bought a 1,400-square foot, white-brick, two-story home on NW 25th Street, featuring black shutters and a pair of columns by the front door -- obtaining a 25-year, $13,900 mortgage to be paid off in monthly installments worth $87.57, public records show.

Dedicated as the Shepard District neighborhood in the 1930s, the 300-plus homes could cost no less than $4,000 when they were built, and the area was deliberately designed without through streets.

When Warren was 12, her father, Donald Herring, suffered a heart attack and couldn’t work at his sales job at Montgomery Ward for months. Warren's campaign says it doesn't know if the family had health or disability insurance, but the senator suggests that wasn't the case, telling campaign audiences that was when she learned words like “foreclosure” while describing how her mother would cry at night, after tucking her into bed.

It was a time of despair that led her mother, Pauline Herring, to put on the dress.

“One day I walked into my folks’ bedroom. It was in the morning, and laying out on the bed was THE dress,” Warren told nearly every campaign crowd, nearly every day for nearly the past year — including a recent one in Dubuque, Iowa.

“It’s the one that only comes out for weddings, funerals and graduations. And at the foot of the bed is my mother. And she’s in her slip and stocking feet, and she’s pacing. And she’s got her head down, and she’s saying, ‘We will not lose this house. We will not lose this house. We will not lose this house,’” Warren said in Dubuque.

Her voice cracks.

“She didn’t say anything. She looks at me. She looks at that dress. She looks at me,” Warren continued. “She’s 50 years old. She has never worked outside the home, and she’s terrified. And finally, without saying a word, she walks over, she dries her face, she pulls on that dress. She puts on her high heels, and she walks to the Sears, and she gets a full-time, minimum-wage job answering phones. And that minimum-wage job saved our house, and it saved our family.”

Warren did not always mention the dress when talking about her family struggles. In 2003’s “The Two-Income Trap,” which Warren co-wrote with her daughter, Amelia Warren Tyagi, she writes simply of her mother’s position: “After a few weeks of searching, she took a job in the catalog order department of Sears.”

By her 2014 memoir, “A Fighting Chance,” the dress became central. “Finally, she lifted her head and looked straight at me: ‘How do I look? Is it too tight?'" Warren wrote that her mother asked her. “The dress was too tight — way too tight. It pulled and puckered. I thought it might explode if she moved. But I knew there wasn’t another nice dress in her closet.”

Warren writes that she “looked her right in the eye and said: ‘You look great. Really.' I stood on the front porch and watched her walk down the street. It was quiet at that time of day. The sun was hot and she was wobbly in her high heels, but she walked straight ahead.”

The family lived around the corner from a three-story, brick Sears, Roebuck & Co. store at NW 23rd Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. It had opened in 1954 as the area’s first retail location with escalators.

Oklahoma did not have a state-mandated minimum wage in 1962, but the federal one was $1.15. That would mean a monthly paycheck of about $180, though when deducting for taxes and other household expenses, the mortgage would gobble up most of the rest. Warren's campaign says the senator doesn't know exactly how her parents made ends meet, but that they might have been able to get credit or help from relatives.

Sears offered pay increases based on seniority, which Warren’s mother likely would have accrued when she became a multiyear employee, former Sears employees say.

The average hourly pay for store employees in Oklahoma was about $1.50. Warren's campaign says it doesn't know if her mother got raises, but says the crucial point is that the initial, minimum-wage salary was enough to stave off poverty at the most critical moment.

“Sears was a good company to work for,” said Sandra Wheeler, who was a 30-year employee. “Years would go by, and you didn’t want to leave. You had your seniority.”

Warren’s mother did want to leave, though -- and resented being pressed back into the workforce.

“My mother made it clear that he had failed. She was not hesitant about saying any part of this at full throat,” Warren told The Boston Globe in 2012, referring to her father. “She would really hammer him about this.” In “A Fighting Chance,” Warren wrote: “I knew that my mother blamed my daddy for not doing ‘what a man is supposed to do’ and taking care of us.”

While giving her presidential campaign speech for months, Warren has added a layer to the “dress” story by saying the family had recently “lost" its car — a 1958 Oldsmobile with leather seats and air conditioning. She has used similar language in her books.

It's unclear whether the car was repossessed or sold; the campaign said it doesn’t have the family's detailed financial records. In July 1961 — before her father’s heart attack that November — the car was for sale, according to classified ads in the “Daily Oklahoman.” One on July 22 read “MUST SELL -- Slick ‘58 Oldsmobile Fiesta Wagon. Air, all power. GM Loaded. $1,750,” followed by the Warren family’s address and phone number. That price is worth about $15,000 today.

The family also had a second car, a more utilitarian white Studebaker. Her campaign says Warren remembers her parents “could no longer afford to have both cars."

Warren attended Northwest Classen High School, where she plans to be on Sunday. It was Oklahoma City’s most competitive and prestigious school, where students were known as “Silkies” because many were from well-to-do families — and the future senator has written about being embarrassed enough by the Studebaker that she had her dad drop her off a block away.

Katrina Cochran, Warren’s close friend growing up, said it was common knowledge among Warren’s friends that her family didn’t have much money: “The phrase that we would use is her mother HAS TO work.”

Joe Mallonee, who lived two streets away from Warren, said she wasn’t the only one trying to hide financial woes at home.

“There were a lot of people who had a lot of money, and then some of us who were trying to look like we might have had some,” Mallonee said.

Skipping sixth grade made Warren a high school senior at age 16 in 1966. And by then, her family's financial situation had improved.

Her father had gone back to Montgomery Ward in a commission-only sales job. Warren also had her own car: a white 1958 MG roadster that she remembers as having been bought used from a friend of her brother, David, with a $200 bank loan her father secured. That loan would have been worth around $1,700 today.

“It was a little two-seater. We tooled around all over the place in that thing,” Cochran said, recalling that the pair would drive from school to lunch “almost every day” at places like the Charcoal Oven, which was known for its Chick-a-Doodle-Doo sandwich and where a hamburger, fries and a Coke cost a quarter.

With her husband back at work, Warren's mother talked about quitting her job at Sears, Warren wrote in “The Two-Income Trap," but decided to keep working so that “she and my father could help with the cost of my college tuition.”

In her most recent book, 2017’s “This Fight is Our Fight,” Warren wrote that by her last year in high school, “life felt steadier again,” while also noting that “it was still tough. There was no extra money, no breathing room.”

“I was sixteen -- sixteen and watching the world slip away,” she wrote.

Warren's world was about to get bigger, though, thanks to her debating skills. She was the star of Northwest Classen’s highly competitive debate team, and her family had to pay expenses associated with travel around the region for competitions.

“I think, by that time, things had changed just a bit because there was an expense involved” with being on the debate team, Joe Pryor, Warren’s fellow debater, said of their senior year.

Warren eventually left for George Washington University in Washington on a debate scholarship, but dropped out to marry her high school sweetheart, Jim Warren, who lived a few doors down from Cochran and was also on the debate team. The couple divorced in 1978, and he died of lung cancer in 2003.

Warren’s mother quit Sears around the time her daughter graduated from college. She later worked at Mayridge, an apartment building where Warren's father also eventually landed a job, becoming a maintenance man, which allowed them to live rent free.

In August 1972, Warren’s parents signed their home over to the senator’s brother David and his wife, Carol, for $10 and a promise to take over the remaining mortgage. They paid off the home in full by 1976.

“My daddy, he ended up as a janitor,” Warren says on the campaign trail. “His baby daughter got the opportunity to be a college professor, the opportunity to be a United States senator and the opportunity to be a candidate for president of the United States.”

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