23 February 2010

Fran Lee

Explaining why poop in the parks is a bad thing

I must have met the consumer activist Fran Lee on some occasion, for in addition to her other accomplishments, she was my beloved Madeline Lee Gilford’s big sister. But because I didn’t grow up in the Northeast, I wasn’t really aware of her work, and it’s only now that she has died, at the age of 99, that I begin to grasp how fully she embraced the Lederman family ethos — which is to take absolutely nothing without putting up a good fight.

Calling herself “Mrs. Fix-It,” “Mrs. Consumer” and “Granny Franny,” Fran Lee was a pioneer in consumer advocacy on radio and television, beginning in the 1940s. Clips on YouTube show a woman whose physical resemblance to Madeline is strong — and whose voice is even stronger, a booming bass-baritone where Madeline’s was a light alto. (Except when she was angry, and then Madeline could really plumb the depths of her vocal range. Maybe Fran was angry more often than her sister.)

The progressive spirit that informed so many of Madeline’s political crusades is recognizable in Fran’s drive to compel industry and government to protect people from bad things, including defective manufacture and toxic ingredients.

According to her obituary in The New York Times, Fran’s best- remembered campaign was against dog poop, not merely an aesthetic issue in her estimation but a health hazard. She’d done her research and discovered that poop often contains a tiny roundworm that’s especially menacing to small children. Once she’d raised the public consciousness, New York’s famous pooper-scooper laws were proposed and passed in the 1970s.*

Realizing that anybody who’d been a “television personality” for such a long time must be the subject of some YouTube clips, I looked them up. In this one, quite long, Fran begins by warning manufacturers to stop trying to intimidate her and the stations on which she appears. She then declares, most persuasively, that she will not back down.

I’m not sure that any of the Lederman sisters** ever did back down on any matter of importance — and I’m equally unsure that, before knowing Madeline, I’d ever met anybody like that. And I worry that there aren’t enough latter-day Ledermans to carry forward their spirit, which dreamed of a better world, and fought so jubilantly for it.

*NOTE: Obviously France has no such person as Fran Lee, since dogs shit freely all over the country. We are resigned to dog shit — so much so that we tell ourselves it’s good luck to step in it, almost as if we look forward to it.

**A third sister, the actress Thelma Lee, survives. And it must be said that I’ve seen the Lederman spirit abundantly in Madeline’s daughter, Lisa Gilford, and granddaughter, Molly. It’s a privilege to know them.

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