‘Pelosi,’ by Molly Ball: An Excerpt

From an early age, Nancy D’Alesandro realized her mother never had much chance to be a person.

Annunciata Lombardi had always wanted more out of life. After high school, she found work as an auctioneer, but she gave it up to get married at nineteen. As a young mother, she started law school, but her three young sons all got whooping cough at the same time and she had to drop out. That was fine with her husband, Thomas D’Alesandro Jr., a traditional man who wanted his wife at home.

D’Alesandro was already in politics when she met him. A twenty-five-year-old member of the Maryland House of Delegates, he was a strapping and ambitious glad-hander who wooed her by asking her grandmother’s permission to take her on a date. Baltimore at the time was a thriving industrial city, its air thick with smoke from the factories, its streets teeming with dockworkers and immigrants. Tommy was the picture of an old-school urban pol, with a pencil-thin mustache and an eighth-grade education. He wore bow ties and three-piece suits and straw boater hats, and not one but two gold pinky rings—one monogrammed, one with diamonds.

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Urban politics was a game of tribes and factions. The Jews, the blacks, the Poles, the Irish—all had their own tightly segregated neighborhoods, with political bosses who could deliver their votes. The Italians had their own political machine. But after helping Tommy get elected to the State House, the machine’s leaders began to see him as a threat to their dominance. In 1938, when he set his sights on a seat in Congress, he ran against an Italian American neighbor. Campaigning on helping President Franklin Roosevelt enact the New Deal, which his rival opposed, Tommy won by a narrow margin.

The family eventually became well off enough to leave Baltimore’s Little Italy for more upscale digs if they wanted to, but they never did. Their cultural home and political base was one of the oldest parts of the city—the only neighborhood spared by a 1904 fire that ravaged the rest of downtown Baltimore—a cramped and densely populated twelve-block corridor. “I’m a paisano,” Tommy said. “These are my people. This is where I belong.” While he was climbing the political ladder, Annunciata bore three sons, only to see the middle one die of pneumonia at age three. The grief nearly tore her apart. She prayed, ceaselessly, for solace. Then she bore three more boys, and her husband began commuting to Washington, an hour away by train. And then, in 1940, her last child and only daughter was born. Annunciata named her Nancy, the Anglicized version of her own name.

Tommy might have run against the city machine, but he quickly built a machine of his own. Once, according to family lore, a candidate he supported won Little Italy by 450 votes to 1. “We’re going to find out who that one is,” Tommy said. While in his fifth term in Congress, when Nancy was seven, he sought and won the mayoralty—the first Italian-American to do so. During his three terms as mayor, he built schools and firehouses, converted the city from gas to electric streetlights and paved hundreds of miles of cobblestone roads. He brought professional baseball and football teams to the city and opened a new airport—although he himself was deathly afraid of flying—while presiding over a patronage system that allowed him to reward political allies with government jobs. He was the king of Baltimore, and he grew, quite literally, into the role, gaining more than a hundred pounds.

Annunciata dutifully kept the house while her husband pursued his political career, but she kept trying to do her own thing. She thought she might get into business, but again she was thwarted. She had ideas for investments, but women weren’t allowed to invest without a man’ssignature, and Tommy wouldn’t give his to her. She invented a beauty product, the first-ever device for applying steam to the face, and patented it. She called it Velvex: Beauty by Vapor. Customers around the country clamored to buy it, but Tommy wouldn’t let her expand her business.

Instead, he entrusted her with much of his political operation. They lived in a three-story brick row house on Albemarle Street, on the same block where both of them had grown up. She organized campaign rallies, managed fund-raising and ran the Baltimore Democratic Women’s Club out of the family’s basement. At election time the women were crucial to turning out the vote, house by house, street by street, precinct by precinct. This was politics at the most fundamental, ground level—“human nature in the raw,” as her oldest child, Thomas III, used to call it. Annunciata, or “Big Nancy,” as she was later called, was the mayor’s chief strategist and political enforcer. She knew where all the bodies were buried, and she never forgot anyone who crossed her.

She was also a sort of one-woman social service agency. In the family’s downstairs parlor, decorated with large portraits of Presidents Roosevelt and Truman, people were constantly coming and going, seeking the D’Alesandros’ help. It was Big Nancy who sat at the parlor desk and maintained Tommy’s “favor file,” writing on a piece of yellow paper the services people sought and keeping it in a folder. Her husband’s name was the one on the campaign signs, but she knew whom to call at the Housing Authority, the public hospital, or the city courthouse. During the Depression, she kept a giant pot of stew always simmering on the stove, and if someone looked hungry she’d invite them to stay for dinner.

Big Nancy had a fiery temper. Once, when a precinct worker tried to push her around, she punched him. She wasn’t intimidated by high office, either. When then-President Lyndon Johnson referred to her husband by the nickname he customarily gave Italian men, “Tony,” she fixed LBJ with her coldest glare and informed him, “My husband’s name is Thomas John D’Alesandro.” Years later, when then-President Ronald Reagan planned to visit Baltimore, his staff telephoned the D’Alesandro house to see if the former mayor would join him for a ceremonial event. But it was Big Nancy who answered the phone, and she made clear her feelings about the Republican president: “After what he has done to poor people,” she said,“he should not come near our house.” She proceeded to put up campaign signs for Reagan’s Democratic opponent, Walter Mondale, in every window of the house.

D’Alesandro’s reign as mayor was not untarnished by scandal. In 1953, his twenty-year-old son Franklin D. Roosevelt D’Alesandro, known as “Roosie,” was one of fourteen young men arrested for allegedly molesting two young girls, ages eleven and thirteen. Roosie was charged with statutory rape but acquitted of that charge as well as a subsequent perjury charge. The following year, Tommy’s friend Dominic Piracci was convicted of fraud and obstruction of justice for his activities in the construction business. Piracci’s daughter was married to D’Alesandro’s son Tommy III— and Big Nancy’s was one of the names he’d tried to erase from his business records. While testifying at his trial, she admitted he’d written her six checks for a total of about eleven thousand dollars but insisted it was not a bribe: the money, she said, was a wedding gift for her children and a loan to pay off her business debts.

D’Alesandro was running for governor of Maryland when the double whammy of these scandals hit, forcing him to pull out of the race. Failure hit the ambitious politician hard. He had a nervous breakdown, lost sixty pounds and was briefly hospitalized. But he soon recovered and sought a third term as mayor, which he won. In 1958, he decided to try for statewide office again, this time U.S. senator. His wife advised him against it: he’d be taking on the Republican incumbent, and he had no base outside the city. D’Alesandro dismissed her qualms; he had won twenty-three elections straight, and he was sure the Democratic machine would deliver for him. But she was right, and he lost. In 1959, he lost the mayoralty, too, and left politics for good. Later, when President John F. Kennedy appointed him to a federal board, investigators looked into long-standing rumors that D’Alesandro was tied to various Mafia figures, but they didn’t find anything significant enough to stop his appointment.

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As Nancy grew up, watching her mother clash with her father as she struggled to make a life of her own, she decided that Big Nancy had been born fifty years too soon. Behind every great man, people always said, was a great woman, and that was Big Nancy’s place: behind. For the rest of her life, whenever Big Nancy heard about a young woman getting married, she’d say, “I don’t know why she’s rushing into this. She has all this talent, all this spirit and intelligence. Why does anyone have to get married so young?”


“It’s a Girl for the D’Alesandros,” proclaimed the Baltimore News-Post the day after Nancy was born. That day, March 26, 1940, her father was supposed to be on the floor of the House of Representatives, whipping (i.e., rounding up) votes for a job-training bill being pushed by President Roosevelt. The congressman made a deal to swap votes with a colleague so he could skip the vote and be with his wife in labor. The black-and-white newspaper photo showed Big Nancy lying in bed holding baby Nancy, swaddled in white, as the infant’s father and five brothers looked on.

Nancy was the princess of the family—endlessly indulged and endlessly scrutinized. Her room was on the second floor of the row house, where her mother and youngest brother slept, while D’Alesandro and the other four boys slept upstairs on the top level. During the years he spent in Congress, D’Alesandro stored copies of the Congressional Record under her bed.

When her father was elected mayor of Baltimore, seven-year-old Nancy held the Bible to swear him in—she would always remember the image of him in his dark suit, the flashbulbs popping in her face, the lectern ringed with microphones. It was there that Nancy, her dark hair parted in the middle and topped with a white hat, gave what she considered her first public speech, which the nuns at her school had helped her write. “Dear Daddy,” she said, “I hope this holy book will guide you to be a good man.” Nancy’s parents were indeed raising her to be holy—they thought she might become a nun—but she kept telling people something different: “I’m going to be a priest,” she’d say. After hearing this a few times, her embarrassed mother finally corrected her and told her girls couldn’t be priests.

Very well, then—Nancy announced that she planned to go into politics instead.

In the 1950s, the chances that she would fulfill this ambition seemed scarcely more likely than the priesthood. If there were signs of political greatness in the youngest D’Alesandro child, no one was conditioned to perceive them in a girl. At the same inauguration where she swore in her father, she and two brothers were sent to color in a side room when a friendly man entered and tried to talk to her. Heeding her mother’s rule against talking to strangers, she ignored him, not realizing the man was the outgoing mayor, Theodore McKeldin. Her brother Joey, who was nine, made fun of her and said he’d tell their mother she had been rude to the mayor. “If you do,” she replied, “I will tell Mommy that you talked to a stranger.” As Pelosi recalled it later, she didn’t squeal on him, earning his respect and ensuring that he wouldn’t squeal on her. She had just built her first strategic alliance.

By the time Nancy was eleven, her parents trusted her to staff the living room constituent services organization and administer the favor file. Even as a little girl, she later recalled, she knew whom to call to get a needy person on welfare, or into City Hospital, or a place in a housing project. While her brothers all went to the neighborhood Catholic school, Nancy went across town to the Institute of Notre Dame, the same all-girls school her mother had once attended. A plaque in the school’s foyer summarized its ethos: “School Is Not a Prison, It Is Not a Playground, It Is Time, It Is Opportunity.” Her father the mayor had his city-employed driver ferry her back and forth. She found this embarrassing and would have the driver stop a few blocks away from the school, so she could walk up like everyone else.

The family spent summers in Ocean City, Maryland, a sleepy village with arcades and hotels along a boardwalk. Nancy had an early curfew that kept her from her friends’ beach parties; she was forbidden to ride her bike in the street or water-ski. She observed the curfew but ignored the other rules: out of her mother’s sight, she rode in the street, water-skied and joined her friends going out on the waves on “surf mats.” As a teenager in the 1950s, Nancy was less interested in her mother’s holy ambitions than dancing to Elvis and hanging out with her girlfriends, wearing charm bracelets and Peter Pan collars and cinch belts. In high school, she joined the debate team. At a tournament she attended her senior year, Nancy’s teammate drew the debate topic out of a fishbowl full of slips of paper. The topic to be debated was “Do women think?”

All she really wanted was to be in control of her life. She wasn’t rebellious or difficult, but she hated having anyone tell her what to do. Her brothers were staunchly protective, her mother held her close and her father didn’t even want to let her cut her hair. As much as Nancy loved her parents, she was different. Big Nancy was big and loud and rough around the edges, an immigrant who spoke with a Baltimore accent and suffered no fools. Nancy’s friends from school had a more refined sensibility, and she modeled herself on them—a proper American lady. Like so many second-generation immigrants, she yearned to transcend her parents’ ethnic enclave and be as American as everyone else.

She yearned, too, for a more elegant politics than the grubby, tribal favor-trading practiced by her father. Like so many American Catholics, she worshipped then-Senator John F. Kennedy. In 1957, when Kennedy came to Baltimore to speak at a dinner, Big Nancy pretended to be ill so her daughter could take her place at the head table. Kennedy’s appeal was lofty and ideological, rooted in patriotism and faith. It would become the model for Nancy’s evolving political orientation—Catholic social justice with a hint of noblesse oblige.

When Nancy finished high school, she decided she would finally break free. She set her sights on Trinity College, a Catholic women’s school in Washington, DC, just forty miles down the road. Her father, who was at the time in the middle of the Senate campaign he would eventually lose, opposed it: he wanted her to stay in Baltimore, where she’d be safe. But her mother took her side. “Nancy’s going to Trinity,” she said.

“Over my dead body,” her father said.

“That could be arranged,” her mother replied. So she went.


Her brother Nicky drove her down to DC, where she made her way to a dorm on the urban campus. She’d never been away from her big, tight-knit family before, and for two weeks she cried from homesickness. But she also looked around and thought of her mother, who’d never finished college. How much Big Nancy would have loved to be on her own like this.

Nancy made a group of girlfriends who would remain close for the rest of their lives. She majored in history, because a political science major wasn’t offered, and prepared to fulfill her mother’s dream—now her own—of attending law school. In 1960, she joined her father at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles—the first time either of them had ever been to California. Because of his fear of flying, her father took the train all the way across the country. Because he was an early Kennedy backer, they had front-row seats. Six months later, when JFK became president, Nancy attended his inauguration. “Ask not what your country can do for you,” Kennedy famously declared. “Ask what you can do for your country.” But it was the next line, far less famous, that moved her most deeply: “My fellow citizens of the world,” he said, “ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.”

Nancy stayed in DC that summer of 1961 and took a class on African culture and languages at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service. After class, she would sit in the living room of one of her friends’ houses, having heady college kid discussions of history and current events. It was on one of those days when a handsome Georgetown senior named Paul Pelosi happened to walk by the open windows and hear her discussing the Korean War with her friend Rita and Rita’s fiancé, Denny.

Just as Nancy was leaving to pick up her clothes from the cleaner’s, Paul invited himself in. He said, “While you’re there, will you pick up my shirts?” and handed her a laundry ticket. When she got back, he was still there, but she hadn’t brought his shirts. She said she’d forgotten them, which was true—but also, she was not about to pick up a man’s shirts for him. (“After we were married, he once asked me to iron a shirt,” she recalled in telling this story later. “That didn’t happen, either.”)

Paul began sitting in on her Africa course, and after class one day he asked her out for a beer, which she refused because she didn’t drink. He asked her out for dessert instead, and their relationship, not yet a romance, began. Tall and ruggedly handsome, Paul, like Nancy, was a child of Italian immigrants striving to assimilate more fully into white-bread American culture. After his childhood in San Francisco, he’d attended prep school in Philadelphia before heading to Georgetown.

Nancy stayed in DC after she graduated and worked for U.S. senator Daniel Brewster, Democrat of Maryland. Brewster was a progressive and a civil rights advocate. He was also a drunk. It was Nancy’s job to answer the phones in the front office. Everyone knew who she was—the D’Alesandro name was political royalty—but she never acted as if she thought she was better than anybody else. In the next room, separated from her by only a thin wall, sat another earnest young staffer, a working-class kid from the Baltimore suburbs named Steny Hoyer, who was going to law school and had previously worked nights at the CIA. Whether because he had nominal seniority or because of the gender norms of the time, Hoyer got to work on policy while Nancy was a receptionist. Nobody in that office could ever have imagined that, four decades down the road, Nancy and Steny would be the number one and two Democrats in the House of Representatives.

Paul Pelosi wasn’t Nancy’s only suitor, and she didn’t really understand that he was in love with her until one day, after Mass, they were walking through a Jesuit cemetery talking about philosophy. “What are you going to do when you grow up?” she asked teasingly. He turned to her, deadly serious, and said, “I’m going to come looking for you.” When Paul came to Baltimore to ask Nancy’s parents for her hand, this time it was her mother who didn’t want to let her go. “Oh my,” she said, through tears. “I thought you’d always be with us.” You also thought I was going to be a nun, Nancy thought to herself.

It was 1963, the publication year of The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan’s culture-shattering depiction of the dissatisfactions of the educated American housewife. The book captured and stoked a wave of discontent among the women of America, who were realizing that their colleges were glorified finishing schools—they filled the women up with worldly knowledge and then sent them off to be little more than household pets, demure and domesticated and utterly limited and subordinate. What good would be their knowledge of Kant and Milton, or the languages and culture of sub-Saharan Africa, when they were stuck keeping house for the men who got to do the real work of the world? Friedan quoted Adlai Stevenson’s advice to the 1955 graduates of Smith College: “This assignment for you, as wives and mothers, has great advantages,” he insisted. “If you’re really clever, maybe you can even practice your saving arts on that unsuspecting man while he’s watching television!” To more and more American women, these expectations were no longer enough.

But Nancy D’Alesandro had missed the revolution. Shortly after she took the LSAT, she was Nancy Pelosi, she was pregnant with the first of five children she would bear in the space of six years, and she had moved to New York City to accommodate her husband’s career in finance. For all her determination not to end up like her mother—dreams thwarted, relegated to the role of invisible caretaker of her husband’s public career—she had fallen into exactly the same trap.

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