Remembering Audre Rapoport, 1923-2016
“Golda Meir and I hit it off when we realized we both smoked the same brand of cigarettes.”
All journalists are plagiarists, and that’s a line I would have stolen in a heartbeat, and now I have.
Audre Rapoport, who shared cigarettes with Golda Meir, dined with (and adored) the Clintons, and scoured close-out clothing outlets in Waco and Austin, died April 4 in her own bed in the home she shared with Bernard Rapoport until his death in 2012.
Stories about sharing smokes with the prime minister of Israel you might expect to hear in New York or London, but rarely over Canadian Club and water at the Outback in Waco. Unless it was your great good fortune to be sharing a meal with Audre, who could toss off a line like that without a whiff of self-importance. Or irony.
“It is what it is,” is a cliché I never quite got. But Audre, well, “she was what she was.”
Intuitive, smart, opinionated (really opinionated), witty, elegant and blessed and burdened with a career choice she made after one blind date in January 1942: to be the wife (and business advisor) of Bernard Rapoport.
In 1942, Audre Newman was Jewish aristocracy, daughter of a physician from Chicago and a prominent family in Waco; Bernard a Jewish merchant prince, working in a jewelry store in Wichita Falls.
Seventy years later, Audre still derived a certain puckish pleasure in telling the story of their first date: “I wasn’t impressed with him,” she would say, although she accepted his proposal to marry over breakfast the following morning, after Bernard sent her flowers.
A lifetime later, Bernard’s sister Idel McLanathan would tell his biographer Don Carleton that she understood why her brother was swept off his feet. She had seen Audre at a University of Texas party: “I just thought she was sheer glamour.”
Marrying Bernard Rapoport must have been like dancing with a tornado. He worked as a jewelry salesman but was a classic liberal intellectual better suited for the professoriate (or the rabbinate).
Or politics, where the couple would go on to invest their time, passion and money.
As a student, Bernard had been involved in the campaign to defend University of Texas President Homer Rainey against the corporate putschists on the Board of Regents who eventually ousted him.
When Bernard joined Rainey’s quixotic campaign for governor in 1945, Audre was all in. Many great relationships are a marriage of prudence and passion, and theirs was one. B. was a young man with big ideas, Audre a petite woman whose immersion in the practical side of politics recalls the Ann Richards quote, “The rooster crows but the hen delivers.”
She ran the Rainey campaign office, knocked on doors, and spent their grocery money to buy stamps for the campaign.
“Bernard didn’t know anything about political fundraising,” Audre would tell Don Carleton 50 years and 50 political campaigns later.
They would figure it out, working together on the campaigns of Ralph Yarborough, Ted Kennedy, George McGovern, Ann Richards, Bill and Hillary Clinton, et al. They had met Bill Clinton when he showed up in Texas to work on George McGovern’s presidential campaign in 1972.
Their commitment to liberal politics and causes led them to Texas Observer founding editor and publisher Ronnie Dugger, who asked them for financial support in 1962. The Audre and Bernard Rapoport Foundation continues to support the Observer.
Along the way, Bernard built an insurance company he would ultimately sell for half a billion dollars after starting out in business with Audre’s uncle. When he was close to losing the company to a rogue board of directors, Audre’s mother talked him into returning from New York to Waco, lending them money and reassuring Bernard that she could find 12 people in Waco to put up $25,000 each to purchase a controlling interest in the company. Audre brokered the deal between Bernard and her mother.
As a philanthropist, Audre’s passion was a woman’s right to choose, memorialized by Planned Parenthood’s Audre Rapoport Women’s Health Center in Waco.
“You know what courage is,” former Observer editor Molly Ivins would often say. “Courage is putting your name on a Planned Parenthood building in Waco, Texas.”
And putting yourself out there:
“Planned Parenthood is something I believe in. I believe a woman has the right to plan childbearing. A woman is more than a female who exists to reproduce. A woman is a person first, and she needs somewhere to go to help her be that person,” Audre told Don Carleton.
In private conversation, she was frank and unforgiving in her criticism of elected officials who would get between a woman and that right.
After Bernard’s death in 2012, the presence of his absence must have been enormous.
Audre responded by showing up for work each day at the foundation office, remaining involved in the philanthropic work that had defined the two of them even before they set up a foundation to give away their money.
I would have bet on her to hang on until a Hillary Clinton presidency, but in a phone call from Waco, her granddaughter Abby told me her grandmother appeared to have concluded it was her time.
Audre Rapoport is survived by her son Ronald and his wife Patricia, granddaughters Abby and Emily (whom she worshiped and could discuss endlessly) and two great-grandchildren, Lewis, age 11, and nine-month-old Bina.
If Bernard was the sun, Audre was one spectacular moon, capable of putting the sun in its proper place with two words: “Oh, Bernard!”
“Sheer glamour” in designer jeans and stunning shoes right into her 90s, Audre was as cool as an April breeze.
She made Waco — and the world — a better place.