As outspoken as they come, St. Paul City Council Member Rosalie Butler took on everyone from massage parlor owners to City Hall insiders in the 1960s and ’70s.
“Her gutsy voice sounds out in St. Paul like a fog horn on a misty night,” a 1977 profile began. “Her words and her name evoke both outrage and ovation.”
In a city known for colorful characters, Butler’s rags-to-riches tale still bedazzles 50 years after she finished second in the 1968 St. Paul mayor’s race. A thrice-divorced mother of four without a high school diploma, she grew up poor in Indianapolis during the Depression, only to wind up wearing fur while living in a Summit Avenue mansion.
She first stormed into the public eye, and the council chambers, in 1966. Wearing a white beaver fur coat, she handed a check for 25 cents to a public works commissioner who had accused her of using DFL connections to get a state-owned plow to clear snow from her walk.
Punching back, she said 30-year council veteran Milton Rosen spent the public’s money “like a drunken sailor” and was a “degenerate, rotten, dirty old man.” He, in turn, called her a “dirty little Commie” and “tramp” and “a two-bit whore” before losing his next re-election bid. She was voted into office a few years later.
When another bitter council foe, Ron Maddox, was hospitalized with chest pains in the late-’70s, she brought a flower to his hospital room.
“You can make enough new enemies without looking back on yesterday’s,” she said after telling Maddox: “Hey, listen, we’re both tough and want to survive.”
Maddox outlived Butler by more than 30 years, dying in 2010. She died at 57, while holding office in 1979, when a second kidney transplant failed.
“She was loved, respected, hated, loathed and feared,” one political activist said after her death. “There were no neutral observers of Rosalie Butler.”
Longtime Mayor George Latimer recently called her “strong, tough, tenacious and smarter than anyone ever gave her credit for — especially when diving into budget numbers.”
As outspoken as she was, the fiery Butler once found herself speechless. She was 13 when her mother walked into her room unannounced.
“I didn’t know what to say … I tried to hide a cigarette I was smoking,” she recalled, with a laugh, in 1977. “I put it under a [chair] cushion and it caught fire.”
Born in 1922 and reflecting the era’s hard times, she had “always been a headstrong girl,” her brother said.
When their father died, they spent a year in an orphanage while their mother worked in a dime store. They shopped for school clothes at the Salvation Army, received county relief and lived in a one-bedroom Indianapolis apartment until a stepdad entered the picture and landed a steel mill job.
“In life, it’s not what happens to you that counts,” she said. “It’s how you respond. I’ve learned never to look back; always look forward.”
She had her first child at 19, her first divorce at 23. She spent a decade in the New York fashion world, marrying again, giving birth again and divorcing again.
Moving to Miami, she worked as a model and was reportedly arrested there for drunk and disorderly conduct, according to police reports anonymously circulated by her political rivals.
“I went into politics with such a naive attitude, never imagining how vicious it could be,” she said. “But I survived … I’m too strong to keep down.”
By 1959, she married well-to-do Walter Butler, a prominent St. Paul engineer. They lived on the St. Croix River before moving next to the governor’s residence on Summit Avenue, raising two more kids before divorcing in 1972.
Walter Butler accused his wife of striking his hand with a meat fork, but they remained friendly after splitting up. “She’s a very interesting woman,” he said in 1977.
Neighbors sued when Rosalie and her sons moved into a coach house behind the Summit manse, which she sold to a group of middle-class professionals called the Castle Commune.
“It is malicious persecution and I intend to fight it all the way,” she said in a 1973 newspaper story with a photo of her painting the place with her boys.
Just a year earlier, she’d undergone a kidney transplant. The donor was her first son from her teenage marriage, Robert Barth, by then a Minneapolis lawyer.
While her health rebounded, she felt bad about the operation.
“It is not the role of a mother to be a taker,” she said. “Mothers are givers.”
But in her hospital bed, as she thought about the gift her son had given her, she said she began to embrace the power of positive thinking.
“It was as if all the adversity in my life prepared me for that test,” she said.
Her last crusade came against strip clubs and massage parlors. Banning nude dancing where liquor is served and removing cubicle doors in massage parlors were among her ordinances aimed at keeping St. Paul from becoming “a dirty little city.”
That prompted one nightclub owner to threaten to “get Rosalie Butler.”
Undaunted, she said: “No power on earth is going to intimidate me.”
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. His new book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: https://tinyurl.com/MN1918.