Make sure you keep a daily diary of the amazing things that could, may, or will happen to you so that eventually when it comes time to write your memoir AND do accompanying interviews for it, they will be right at your fingertips and easily accessible!
As part of my series about “authors who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Charlotte Schiff Booker.
Starting out as singular poster child of the “feminine mystique” era and a mother of three living in the suburbs, Charlotte Schiff had but a hint that a larger ambition was lurking. From a speed writing ad in the NY subway to executive vice president and director of Manhattan Cable Television, to associate publisher of PEOPLE magazine, to producer of the PEOPLE series, founder of CBS Cable, cultural, performing arts network, and executive vice president of Sheila Kelley’s S Factor, a female empowering body movement, Schiff rose to the top of the New York publishing industry in its heyday and her sons flourished as she did. David Schiff is one of Hollywood’s top talent managers, Paul is a leading producer and Richard Schiff is a household name from his many years on iconic tv series, West Wing (opposite Martin Sheen) all of whom she raised as a single mother in NYC!
At a time when men went home each evening to a docile woman, when women weren’t aware there were limitations in the workplace nor how high they can climb against all odds, some were able to maneuver through though few at the pace of then-single mom, dynamo Schiff-Booker who lived by four simple words…Get Outta My Way (ISBN 978–1–6624–7212–1, Page Publishing, Nov. 2023)!
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I grew up in Brooklyn before it was cool but special nonetheless. There was a janitor who was black who was very kind and friendly. And smart! Fun, nice guy and a lovely wife who lived near the boiler where it was always warm and welcoming. I was maybe 5 or 6 when I became fascinated by the African-American experience. I did everything possible to immerse myself in learning more about others who were not like me. And this was the beginning of a whole new world and growing my activist muscle. Fast forward a few years later when I was in college in Red Hook (also not as cool as now!) and a Petrie dish of race battles, and as luck would have it, a very old lady took notice of me and expressed such intolerance of the “other” that my activist life was a Herculean boost and I never looked back diving into a life of fighting for civil rights, women’s equality and freedom for all no matter the color of your skin, religious persuasion or whom you love.
When you were younger, was there a book that you read that inspired you to take action or changed your life? Can you share a story about that?
When I was young, I was unable to read during an awful illness that lasted for months. When finally able to, I chose The Diary of Anne Frank
I was taken aback by her high spirits hiding from Nazis in a cramped space afraid for her life. To be safe, they were not to speak or make a noise during the day and quiet in the dark at night. I couldn’t put the book down until the end. It made me cry. It made me angry. It made me ashamed. How did I dare have feelings of deprivation from being under the weather for just a few months? The higher her spirits, the harder for me. I felt a bond with Anne. I was a Jewish teenager about her age. Her diary reads as if she was talking to me. She became my friend. In the reading, I wanted her to live, amazed that in abject fear, she never lost her emotional power. She wrote that “people are really good at heart.” Her bravery empowered my WW II efforts by selling bonds, knitting sweaters for the soldiers — — and rolling bandages.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
In 1964 I was interviewed by the president of Screen Gems. My dad joined Columbia Pictures the day I was born. Burns waved me away from the chair I walked up to and said, “Don’t sit down. I don’t want to waste your time or mine. I’ll ask one question. Your answer will tell me if we have anything to talk about.” I waited, shifting, left foot, right foot, like a racehorse at the starting gate.
“Do you cry easily?” he asked. I replied, “Only at basketball games.” He sat down laughing. It was a mystery where that answer had come from, but it was as much his mistake as mine. He had rank, and I had a lot to learn. His wry sense of humor taught me how to be clever and funny in my dialogue and whetted my appetite to explore books that expanded my worldview. That mistake accelerated my career like no other!
Can you describe how you aim to make a significant social impact with your book?
My passion for free speech from the very beginning had me focused on civil rights, women’s rights, the senseless death of heroes, and wars that need not be fought: that was my real beginning. Girlish fantasies evaporated like beads of water on a sunny day. My book speaks of the civil rights struggle, the women’s movement, and the Vietnam War. I also fought for higher teacher salaries and social justice at home and abroad. My sons, when they were young, marched with me against racism in Central Park and the awful treatment of women and all people of color. This provided the moral compass they and I have lived by all our lives.
Can you share with us the most interesting story that you shared in your book?
My passion for the First Amendment has affected every aspect of my life since I started out until now. Before it was ever “a thing,” I insisted on cable systems wiring cable far & wide especially in & around marginal communities so that they could provide appropriate programming correcting the absence of accessible media. I convinced cable television magistrates to wire their region’s Asian, Hispanic, Italian, and European neighborhoods which had marginal populations and were outside of then-major metropolitan communities with a wide range of entertainment, news, and children’s programs that could truly make a difference. Broadening cable television’s “footprint,” albeit the bigger picture of its early stages of expanding coast-to-coast, was one of my great professional achievements and laid part of the foundation of my diverse career shared in the book. I was enthusiastic about providing special television programming around the country and the book shows how one person’s passion can bring positive change.
Soon, corporate access opened doors everywhere as the industry got wind of the difference I was making. The arc of this memoir was for me, an American Jewish woman trying to pierce the veils of male mythologies, become a power player in the communications sphere, and raise three boys as a single working parent that provided further impetus to bring the message shared in my memoir to the world.
What was the “aha moment” or series of events that made you decide to bring your message to the greater world? Can you share a story about that?
My memoir is about growing up, raising a family, and ultimately building a career I hadn’t dared to dream about. My “aha moment” was a conglomerate of everything I experienced as a young girl, teenager, college coed, and ultimately, career woman and mother. Virginia Woolf may have talked to all of us when she wrote: “Arrange whatever pieces come your way.” It’s important to know that courage is no lack of fear. It’s moving ahead even if you are afraid, winning some battles, and getting smarter with each step no matter the challenge and outcome. This mindset has taken me from dancing alongside Congo to breaking barriers in corporate America while advocating for equal justice, campaigning for presidential candidates — -and persuading the community/society/ politicians to urgently address the problems of racism, fraud, and dishonesty. Life is chronological, of course, but my memoir is an unraveled riddle. Memories mostly true can sometimes be imagined and I can remember well my years as a cable television pioneer. That resulted in workable relationships with effective and reliable politicians committed to making impossible missions possible and unimaginable goals realized.
Without sharing specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
When I was at ABC early in my career, I landed an entry-level job in the marketing division. Harvey Jacobs, head of the #1 network’s Marketing Dept. was my boss and an aspiring writer on the side which few, but I, knew. He went off on a business trip so I tiptoed into his office and read one of his short stories. It was amazing with a surprise ending one never would have imagined in those days with a prescient, salient, and show-stopping. I found out that Jacobs was on the verge of selling the story to a tiny paper for $25! So, I immediately got in touch with Playboy Magazine, and not only did they accept the piece for consideration, but, young me got Harvey Jacobs’ debut byline published in the #1 magazine in the world at that time! The rest is history.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
The only place to start in trying to restore a semblance of unity is “crossing the aisle” in any/everything each one of us is involved in to solve the humanistic issues with which I have been involved since I was very young. At the forefront of my concerns is Civil Rights for all, whether racial issues, women’s freedoms, or health care and food insecurity. We are a great nation and it is incumbent on each one of us — especially lawmakers in DC — who may “agree to disagree” on some issues and work together for the greater good.
One of the pivotal moments in my life as an activist early in the Civil Rights movement was when I met Dr. King (MLK) on Fire Island I took it upon myself, though I had never met him but was fully aware of the movement he was at the forefront of, organized and hosted a party for him in 1961. As I watched him come in with a very young Andrew Young I immediately went over to him unabashedly and introduced myself. I still have shivers to this day recalling the sheer magnetism, calmness, power, and love he exuded simultaneously for not just me but everyone there.
Women’s reproductive health is the most important domestic issue facing us again today. As one of the first activists who did the hard, daily footwork leading the effort to change the rape laws in New York which other states eventually followed, overturning Roe v. Wade which had worked so well for the past 50 years, must be reinstated and the only way to do that is by casting the correct vote at the ballot box, both in the primary and general election so that Congress passes a law restoring the protections of Roe V. Wade.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
My definition of “leadership” is best told with a corresponding story in my book of when I was setting out on my career. The executive vice president of Manhattan Cable Television I collaborated with, Nick Nickolas, was praised for what had been his financial genius on a private assignment. But the only way he got there was by building his management style by stepping over to each desk, no matter the level of employee, shaking hands, and introducing himself. If you asked a question that mattered to you, he listened and spent thoughtful time and energy answering each minute’s inquiry. His friendly attention was appreciated, productive, and intended to encourage successful interaction. His style, an early example to me, became mine for the rest of my management life. Leadership is best achieved with intentional collaboration reached by being involved in all aligned areas in the workplace.
All one needs to succeed in this life is ignorance and confidence — — Mark Twain said, “Then success is sure.” Doing the best at the moment puts them in the best place for the next moment. Life is one long training session. To succeed one needs three things: a wishbone, a backbone, and a funny bone — — all of which are my favorite muscles.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
“Make sure you keep a daily diary of the amazing things that could, may, or will happen to you so that eventually when it comes time to write your memoir AND do accompanying interviews for it, they will be right at your fingertips and easily accessible!”
“Rising up a ‘down’ escalator is the only way to inch toward breaking the glass ceiling.” It never occurred to me that “you can’t have it all.” I raised three terrific sons by myself in New York City at a time when corporate women were few and far between, made it to work each day bringing something special to each position, and was able to keep my activist capacity at its apex. The combination is exactly what fueled “having it all” for me and going above & beyond anything in my wildest dreams. My successful sons — David, Paul & Richard — are the best embodiment of not just “breaking the glass ceiling” but rising up way beyond it with grace, efficiency, and success.
“The good news is you will face a bunch of ‘tests’ as a career-ascending woman in a man’s niche and what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger.”
“Steel yourself for disappointment as it pertains to your social activism; even those pinnacle achievements you were at the forefront of which were ensconced into law may reversed or altered in the future. The journey, then, is to get back on the horse because you did the hard work all those years ago and learned what works.”
“It’s never too late to learn new skill sets. Technology will come in handy one day so even if your assistants and under-staff are doing what may seem like menial chores now, it is incumbent you master their prowess too.”
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite important Life Lesson Quote “is “Never dream of success.” I dreamed of a magazine that broke any and all barriers as well as became a huge financial success, and it happened because I made it a priority in my life. Dreams can be a fantasy or an inspiration. The process is to realize them one step at a time, one achievement at any given intersection, and use the synergy to fuel oneself toward the finish line.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I would run to breakfast and lunch to spend quality time with Gloria Steinem, the emancipator of women, As Time Inc.’s chosen publisher for a planned woman’s magazine, I spent time with the great lady in her edit sessions for MS Magazine to inspire women of all ages to fight for their rights. She and Betty Friedan had me host the first monthly discussion about the oldest crime — Rape. It thrilled me to experience a beyond thorough edit session in the early days of MS Magazine’s fully democratic female journalism. Unfortunately, Time Inc., which I was one of the top execs at during that era, was not open to operating from a feminist base, so the test run was a pass. The large conference audience was so moved by the symposium, it translated to the revision of New York State’s rape law which was followed with a sensitivity tour at hospitals, police stations, nurses, and family. Gloria has always been an extremely busy activist, so a private repast with her would be fabulous, and otherwise hard to come by.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
All readers can go to my website: https://www.getouttamyway.com/
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This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success in your great work!
Social Impact Authors: How & Why Author Charlotte Schiff-Booker Is Helping To Change Our World was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.