“We are a group of about 20 women, and we call ourselves ‘the Firebreathers,’” says Betsy Kallop, a former banker and now resident of Palm Beach, Florida. Kallop is also the leader of the Palm Beach chapter of Independent Women’s Network.
When an embattled Palm Beach school board candidate who supported parental rights was facing a particularly rough patch, Kallop recalls, “I stood up at a meeting and introduced the Firebreathers, and I said ‘We’re here to help.’”
School board races hadn’t been recognized as very important since most of the Firebreathers are now grandmothers. Kallop says. “We’ve always voted in general elections of course, but getting involved at the grassroots of local elections has been fascinating. Parents and grandparents of children are the most involved voters. I don’t care if you’re Left or Right! When it comes to our children, everybody’s on board.
“Mask and vaccine mandates, lockdowns, politics, race, sexual preference, and gender identity issues have cluttered up our kids’ lives when all we want is A GOOD EDUCATION for our children. Our children are, above all, AMERICANS! Brown, black, white, male, female, LBGTQ, or trans, they need to read, write, learn history, math, and civics. We need educated, articulate leaders and we’re not going to have them if everyone is fighting over pronouns and bathrooms.”
Betsy Kallop and the Firebreathers are part of a movement of American women who seek to find kindred spirits to unite and renew the cultural and political life of the country they love. Betsy heard about IWN when she met Independent Women’s Forum’s Chairman Heather R. Higgins. The two women bonded in part because both had Marine sons and also because both were excited about what women can do to reverse negative trends in our country.
“Our core group started about five years ago,” Kallop says. “But we became really active this past year…. Who even thought about primaries or school board races before?”
The Palm Beach County School Board candidate whom the Firebreathers stepped up to help was Angelique Contreras, whose platform included the plank “Educate, Don’t Indoctrinate.” Contreras had joined the protests of parents against the school board’s decision that students be masked at all times while in school. After Contreras jokingly posted on Facebook a suggestion that parents should collect used masks and dump them in an official’s yard, the police showed up banging on her front door at 11 PM. Kallop says the post might have been “silly”, but she was shocked that police officers would swarm a candidate’s house. It was a mudslinging race overall.
“I got a phone call from Angelique’s mother saying that some terrible things had been happening,” says Kallop. “The Police Benevolent Association had withdrawn their endorsement of her daughter’s candidacy for the school board. She said that Angelique had been photographed on January 6th, standing on a curb in Washington D.C. She was not engaged in what was going on at the Capitol Building. She was just there. And apparently, she had also been attending school board meetings and being pretty vocal about masking. She was known as the ‘Mask Lady.’ For those reasons as well as her Facebook post, she had been identified as a ‘domestic terrorist,’ and her support from the Police Benevolent Association was withdrawn.”
“I stood up at a meeting and introduced the Firebreathers, and said ‘We’re here to help.’”
Although Contreras lost to the incumbent, her campaign helped energize the already energetic Firebreathers and showed them just what they were up against—even in a school board race. “The only conservative running for school board was being harassed by the other side and that is really awful,” says Kallop. “Our group was on board to support her. In the past, somebody might have said—school board? Who cares? But not any longer.” Kallop goes on to note that many conservatives were elected to school boards in Florida this year, a recognition that school board elections are assuming more importance and that change is already underway.
Talking to Betsy Kallop, you meet a woman who is motivated to reclaim her country but also one who is a fount of funny stories and just plain fun. She’s mistress of the anecdote and not averse to a little lighthearted gossip.
Betsy graduated from Scarsdale High School and went to New York University, where she majored in French and earned a master’s degree in French language and literature. “When I was a student in NYC in 1966” Betsy recalls, “I thought I was a groovy hippie or something. But then I went to Paris, and I got over that pretty quickly. While everybody else was going to San Francisco and taking acid, I was working my head off reading Proust in French. So, I wasn’t involved in anything political, but by the time I got back to the U.S. and began work at Citibank and paying taxes, I realized that I was a Republican.”
“I started my career in banking at Citibank in 1969,” Kallop recalls, “when women didn’t have careers in finance. In fact, they didn’t have careers at all unless they were teachers, nurses, or secretaries. That was about the time that Walter Wriston, who was chairman of Citibank at the time, decided to educate some women in ‘The Bank’. They recruited a few of us ‘Service Assistants’ ( e.g. marriage material bait for male lending officers) to go through the account management training program, which was sort of a mini-MBA program created by a well-known bank instructor called John Strobel. It consisted of a year of accounting, corporate finance, and credit analysis that had traditionally been taught to all entering male BA’s and MBA’s. We were the first women to become corporate lending officers in commercial banking.”
“I worked in the real estate industry division and financed real estate developers, and I have a funny story to tell you about one of them.” We’re off on a typical Betsy story about one of her clients, the notorious Buddy Jacobson, a horse trainer who ended his days in prison after murdering an interloper who stole his model girlfriend. It took a manhunt to bring him in after his son, with the help of a friend’s helicopter, airlifted his father out of the exercise yard at Rikers Island— and it’s clear that Betsy got a kick out of her dealings with the colorful Jacobson.
“Buddy had somehow coaxed Citibank into lending him $750,000 (a LOT of money in 1970!) in a construction loan to renovate a tenement building on East 83rd Street and turn it into apartments, giving himself a penthouse with a small swimming pool where he entertained ‘models’,” Kallop says. “I called him up and said, ‘Mr. Jacobson this is your account officer. We need to have a meeting!’ He comes in, and he has Gene Shalit hair and a Gene Shalit mustache with food in it. He’s wearing head-to-toe denim covered in plaster dust, and he has these dirty Frye boots. He throws the boots up on my desk, and he says, ‘So what the [bleep] do you want?’ ‘Well, okay, Mr. Jacobson’ I say, ‘You have borrowed 100% of your loan, but only 70% of the building is complete, and our takeout lender is the Travelers Insurance Company. Before they pay us out with the permanent loan, they require that the building be 100% complete and 20% leased out.’ He says, ‘So give me some more [bleeping] money!’ After some chatter with my boss, we decided to lend him an extra $250,000 to finish the building. With each advance, I would go over and check to see the progress. For instance, when the Portuguese tiles that Buddy wanted to install in the entry arrived, I went to check the bills of lading and then the installation of said tiles. This went on and on until finally the building was finished.”
When Betsy made her final trip to check on Jacobson’s building, taking along a friend named Nancy, Buddy insisted that most of the attractive women renting these fabulous apartments were stewardesses. “And I’m thinking, ‘my friend Pamela who flies for Pan-Am doesn’t make that kind of money. Really? Stewardesses?’ And so, we go back down the elevator, and there were all these really gorgeous girls in the lobby saying ‘hey Buddy,’ ‘hi Buddy,’ and Nancy and I walk out, and Nancy says ‘Betsy, it’s a whorehouse.’ I said, ‘Yeah, yeah. I just figured that out too.'” The next day, Betsy said to her boss” I’d like to tell you what you just financed! A CAT HOUSE!,” adding that there were no worries that that loan wouldn’t pay off! It was not Betsy’s last trip to Buddy’s cat house, however.
Years later, after job changes, marriage, and children, Betsy’s son was enrolled in an exclusive nursery school in Manhattan. He became friends with another little boy whose mother was different from the Colony Clubber, Chanel-clad Park Avenue princesses who sent their children to the school. The little boy, whose mother owned a bar, invited little Will Kallop for a playdate. “And they gave me the address on the Upper East Side, and I took Will by the hand to the address, and I walked into the lobby, and I see the Portuguese tile. And I go, oh my GOD!” Betsy, it must be noted, was more amused than appalled.
Before children, Kallop’s French came in handy when she took a job working at American Express’ international bank in New York. She flew to Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco and met with central bankers and commercial bankers in those countries. As a lending officer, it was Betsy’s job to lend money with the goal of repayment. “The one thing that I did agree to finance for Morocco was a 747 for Royal Air Maroc because a jet has to fly,” she says. “Algeria wanted loans for dams and infrastructure. It’s not like you can repossess a dam and take it home with you. I could go and get the jet if I needed to. And certainly, it’s not the job of commercial banks to lend money to infrastructure such as dams and underwater pipelines. That’s more the province of the World Bank.”
She is married to George Kallop, whom she met at Citibank in 1971. He was a Harvard MBA and she thought he was stuck up. He sat right behind her and was always going into fancy meetings with the senior officers while she sat at a typewriter she didn’t know how to use answering phones. Somebody in the office was placing flyers and fortune cookies on everybody’s desks. Betsy commandeered one of the cookies, typed a racy message, substituted it for the original fortune, and put it on George’s desk.
For all her humor and the pleasure afforded by her company, Betsy Kallop is serious about the peril her country faces.
“George came out of his meeting, and I’m laughing so hard I can hardly stand it because, not only does it say ‘bleep you’, it’s very personal—’bleep you, comma, George’. And that is how we became friends.” Well, it’s not how every great romance starts, but they have been married for 47 years. The Kallops have a son and daughter. In addition to her rewarding second career as a mother, she was a docent at the Metropolitan Museum for 20 years. She spent years in training, and then lecturing tour groups in the MMA Costume Institute and also in the American Wing for adults as well as Elementary and Junior High School programs.
For all her humor and the pleasure afforded by her company, Betsy Kallop is serious about the peril her country faces and the part she wants to play in bringing about a better future through the Firebreathers and IWN. Betsy Kallop and her Palm Beach Firebreathers are on the case advancing change and showing others how to get the job done.