Warren’s origin story, her mother and THE dress, comes home
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — 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.
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.
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 lived in a 1,400-square foot, white-brick home on NW 25th Street. When Warren was 12, her father, Donald Herring, suffered a heart attack and couldn’t work for months.
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 has told campaign crowds for nearly a year.
“It’s the one that only comes out for weddings, funerals and graduations. And at the foot of the bed is my mother,” Warren said. “And she’s got her head down, and she’s saying, ’We will not lose this house.”
Her voice cracks.
“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.”
The federal minimum wage in 1962 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.
Sears, though, offered pay increases based on seniority, which Warren’s mother likely would have accrued when she became a multiyear employee. Warren’s campaign says it doesn’t know if she got raises.
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.
Skipping sixth grade made Warren a high school senior at age 16 in 1966. By then, less than four years after “the dress” story, the family also had Warren’s sports car, a white 1958 MG roadster that Warren remembers as having been bought used from a friend of her brother David.
As a presidential candidate, Warren doesn’t mention the MG -- or that her family’s financial situation greatly improved. Her father had gone back to work. In “The Two-Income Trap,” Warren wrote, “Life had settled back down.” In fact, her mother talked about quitting her job at Sears then but didn’t.
Warren’s mother eventually left Sears around the time her daughter graduated from college in 1970. Her parents moved to an apartment building where her father was a maintenance man and, in 1972, signed the home over to the senator’s brother David and his wife for $10 and a promise to take over the remaining mortgage.