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Is it Personal or Is it History?

(Please note: This piece was originally posted on my new website: YourBiography2.com.)

I got into the “writing personal and family histories” business through my husband, James C. Simmons, who has been involved in such an enterprise for over fifteen years. He incorporates social, political, and cultural events into his work, bringing his client’s lives to life and putting them in context of the world at large.

Photo by: Joey Lax-Salinas

Photo by: Joey Lax-Salinas

My personal involvement in this line of work began when Jim suggested writing the Marg family history as a present to my parents on their 55th wedding anniversary. I thought that was a great idea, but I didn’t know how my parents would react. They’re both reticent people, not comfortable on being the center of attention, and, of course, we needed their cooperation, as the book we envisioned would center on them.

Well, my parents came through. For the one-hour telephone interviews Jim conducted, my Dad was a willing participant. For interviews with my Mom, I listened in. I was on the phone to prompt her, if she was at a loss for words. She was rarely at a loss for words.

One of the stories we incorporated in the Marg family history was one my Mom used to tell on my family’s twice-annual visit to New York City to see her parents. She was working in the offices of the United Services Organization (USO) in the Empire State Building one Saturday morning in 1945 when a plane crashed into the building. She knew something was wrong when she heard an elevator falling, not gliding, down the shaft not far from her desk.

As a social historian Jim filled in the details of the oft-told tale. There was a heavy fog that day. Planes were not equipped with radar. The plane was a B-25 bomber, and it had gotten lost. When it went into the 79th floor, the wings sheared off and the fuel tanks exploded. One engine landed atop a building across the street, and the second engine slammed through an elevator shaft, cutting the cables. Fourteen people died, and twenty-six were gravely injured.

From my mother’s perspective, it was a harrowing experience. She and a friend walked down from the 56th floor to safety. The first thing she did was to find a pay phone to call her mother who had not yet heard the news, news that became the number one story in the country for days.

Next, the two young women used their tickets to see Roger and Hammerstein’s Carousel. Having recently opened the Broadway musical was receiving rave reviews, but they really didn’t enjoy themselves, having come so close to death. They returned to the theater several months later to see it again.

And, yes, she returned to work that Monday, as the Empire State Building was open for business.

Is it history or is it personal? I think it’s both.

© 2014 Susan Marg – All Rights Reserved

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Kindle Countdown for “Ask Me Anything: A Memoir”

  • Marie Book CoverAsk Me Anything, the memoir I wrote with Marie Rudisill, is available as an ebook. A Kindle Countdown is underway, starting at $.99 today. Then the price goes up each day. On Wednesday, it will be $8.99, its list price.

Why wait? See what Marie has to say – about her upbringing in Monroeville, Alabama, her nephew Truman Capote,  taking on the Big Apple, giving the Big Orange a squeeze when she appeared on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.” Well into her nineties she became a television celebrity, going mouth to mouth with anyone who asked her a question or sought help with a problem. She always had an answer on the tip of her tongue.

Here are a few of Marie’s many bon mots about the places she’s been and the people she’s met:

“I was certainly never one to play it safe. If I had wanted to play it safe, I would have stayed in Alabama.”

“In New York City where are the flowers? Where are the trees? If you open the window to get some fresh air, your apartment is filled with soot. You think you don’t have soot? Well, just run your finger over the windowsill and see what happens. That grimy, black stuff is soot.”

“I have met the most wonderful people in the world in the [publishing] business. Some of them have even lived in New York City.”

“I never got to experience the traffic for which Los Angeles is so famous. It was just as well, as I have a feeling that the stop and go pace would have driven me right up the wall.”

“Celebrities are people, too. They might live in big houses by the ocean and have more money than God, but they don’t deserve special attention in my book.”

“Florida is not a Southern state, not to me. It has no history, no civility, no gentility. It’s all flip flops, short shorts, and hairy legs.”

Ask “The Fruitcake Lady,” and get ready. You never know what she’ll say next.

© 2014 Susan Marg – All Rights Reserved

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A New Year with Old Traditions

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Happy 2013! Photo by: asterix611

One of the things I like about living on the West Coast is watching the ball drop in Times Square at 9 P.M. on television. For me, that’s when the new year begins, and it’s still early in the evening.  But joining the crowd at the Crossroads of the World, suffering in the cold without a restroom in sight, is on many people’s bucket list.

This past New Year’s Eve an estimated one million folks donned their warmest jackets and most comfortable shoes with a heavy pair of socks, fashion be damned, to come together to watch the illuminated Waterford crystal ball make its descent.  At the last minute, they made their voices heard:  sixty, forty, twenty, ten, nine, eight….

The gathering at what is now called One Times Square first took place in 1904. When the new headquarters of The New York Times was built, Alfred Ochs, the newspaper’s owner, threw a New Year’s Eve celebration there sparing no expense.  Over 200,000 noisy, cheering revelers attended an all-day street festival that culminated in a fireworks display set off from the Times Tower. It was a much different ceremony than the ones that had been held at Trinity Church in lower Manhattan for years before.

When the city banned the fireworks display a few years later, Ochs kept the party going.  He arranged to have an iron and wood ball illuminated with one hundred 25-watt light bulbs lowered from the tower flagpole precisely at midnight to welcome 1908. And a tradition was born.

Seven different versions of the ball have been used, including transforming it into an apple with a green stem as part of the “I l Love New York” marketing campaign in the eighties.

This year the triangles comprising the crystal ball, which can display more than millions of colors and patterns, were imprinted with designs denoting peace, friendship, love, courage, joy, and light. In addition to the hale and hearty (and presumably youthful) on site, another billion people around the world partook in the ritual via satellite technology.  We all apparently want the same thing.

Could this be our year?

© 2013 Susan Marg – All Rights Reserved

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The Rockettes: Kicking Up Their Heels

Photo by: pennstatelive

Photo by: pennstatelive

When I was a young girl I wanted to be a Rockette.  I wasn’t taking tap dance lessons for nothing.  Little did I know that the dancers, proficient in ballet and jazz, as well, were skilled athletes who practiced six hours a day six days a week.

My dreams were embedded in my family’s trips to New York to visit my grandparents.  These usually occurred over winter and spring breaks, when school was closed for the holidays and my father took time off from his business.  As a special treat we went to Radio City Music Hall to see a movie and watch the Christmas Spectacular.

The only movie I remember seeing there is The World of Henry Orient starring Peter Sellers.  I watched it again recently, and it is a delightful coming of age story of two fourteen-year old girls on their adventures following a concert pianist around the city.  I can understand why it has stayed with me all these years.

But the Rockettes.  Oh, my.  They were always mesmerizing: the precision of the kick line; the beauty of the performers; and, the dazzling stage settings.

This year is the 85th anniversary of the Rockettes in New York City.  Inspired by an English dance act called the Tiller Girls, Russell Markert, a choreographer, formed the Missouri Rockets in St. Louis, before relocating the troupe to Manhattan’s Roxy Theater in 1927, and hence calling them the Roxyettes.  With practice, practice, practice, they became headliners at the Music Hall in 1933.

The women from across the United States were required to be 5’3” to 5’6” inches tall.   Today they stand 5’6” to 5’10.5”.  That’s progress, but then as now, the shortest dancers among the thirty-six on stage at any one time were at the ends of the line creating the illusion that they were all the same height.

As always the program this season brings happiness and cheer to the audience.  The dancers appear as reindeer, candy canes, and wooden soldiers in The Parade of the Wooden Soldiers, a favorite for decades.  And if that’s not enough, Santa Claus shows up, in 3-D, no less, to take the audience on a magical mystery tour through Manhattan.

The show ends with “Living Nativity,” a routine, which close to twenty minutes long, has always been way too long in my opinion, but the dancers mix it up with live camels, sheep, and donkeys, much to everyone’s delight.

Kick up your heels with the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall through December 30th and create joyful memories this holiday season.

My prayers go to the children of Newtown, Connecticut, whose dreams will never materialize, the adults who tried to protect them, and their families who loved them.  May happier memories help mend their broken hearts.

© 2012 Susan Marg – All Rights Reserved

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The Empire State Building: You Light Up My Life

What a sight at night. Photo by: Photo Gallery

It’s St. Patrick’s Day!  Think green, like leprechauns and shamrocks or green beer and t-shirts, many of which reference drinking too much Irish stout or other alcoholic beverages.

Consider the Chicago River.  It turns green, really bright green, Emerald Isle green.

And the Empire State Building.  The top floors glow green to commemorate the holiday.

Since 1964 when floodlights were added to the iconic skyscraper, appropriate colors emanate from the structure throughout the year in honor of special people, places, organizations, and events.

When the New York Giants won the Super Bowl, the building went blue.  Blue was also used to call attention to the 20th anniversary of the Blue Man Group and to mourn the passing of Ol’ Blue Eyes, when Frank Sinatra died.

For World AIDS Day the tower turns red.

For the U.S Open in Flushing Meadows, it shines yellow, as bright as a new tennis ball.

It’s red, white, and blue for the Fourth of July, and red, white, and pink for Valentine’s Day.  Tribute is paid to Thanksgiving in red, orange, and yellow, a reminder of the fall season just past.

To celebrate gay pride, the building radiates a veritable rainbow: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and lilac.

The lights are turned off to respect Earth Hour, organized by the World Wildlife Fund.  The tower went dark for fifteen minutes when actress Fay Wray died.

Building policy dictates against lighting for religious figures, which created a fuss when it denied honoring the newly created Cardinal Timothy Dolan.  Only Easter, Eid Al Fitr, marking the end of Ramadan, Hanukah, and Christmas are observed with illumination.

To take part in this custom, submit an application to the Empire State Building Company selection committee, although approval is not guaranteed.  It’s considered a privilege, not an entitlement.

Alternatively, go to the Top of the Rock at 30 Rockefeller Center for a great view unobstructed by other skyscrapers.  The sight is worth seeing from New Jersey, too.

© 2012 Susan Marg – All Rights Reserved

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For anyone who likes their Guinness with chocolate, check out this recipe:

http://simplyrecipes.com/recipes/chocolate_guinness_cake/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+elise%2Fsimplyrecipes+%28Simply+Recipes%29&utm_content=Google+Feedfetcher

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The Empire State Building: A View from the Top

Wonder of wonders: Photo by: Stew Dean

Approximately four million people visit the Empire State Building each year, making it one of  New York’s top tourist attractions.  It opened as an office building in 1931 during the Great Depression.  It was deemed the Eighth Wonder of the World, but companies couldn’t afford the rent.  It didn’t become profitable until 1950.

Regardless of the interior space people have always been drawn by the view, no matter what the cost.  For $1.10 way back when and up to $55 currently, visitors ride to the public observatories on the 86th and 102nd floors.  They are open day or night (until 2 AM), come rain or come shine.

The bustling streets of Manhattan below draw one in.  The panoramic vistas sweep one away.   It couldn’t be more romantic.  It’s the stuff of which dreams are made.

By one count some 250 flicks feature the iconic skyscraper.  They are not all memorable, but some are noteworthy.  Andy Warhol’s 1964 silent black and white film Empire consists of eight hours and five minutes of continuous slow motion footage of the building.  If you’re wondering, it never moves, although its floodlights flicker on and off for most of the marathon.

More action takes place in An Affair to Remember, considered one of the greatest love stories of all time.  After a paralyzing car accident, Deborah Kerr is unable to keep her rendezvous with Cary Grant on the upper deck.  He believes she stood him up, but fortuitously, they reunite months later.

Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan have better luck meeting up in Sleepless in Seattle, although she arrives after hours.  When she explains her situation to the guard, he gives her access to the elevator because An Affair to Remember is his wife’s favorite movie.

Looking up and up and up. Photo by: auchard

Then there’s King Kong.  Released during the Great Depression, the great ape is billed, like the Empire State Building itself, as the Eighth Wonder of the World.  He’s on display on Broadway where he escapes his chains, scoops up Ann Darrow, and hightails it to the top of the tower.  He loses his fight with airplanes sent to bring him down, and he falls to his death.

Fay Wray, the original out-of-work chorus girl to whom King Kong takes a shine, will forever be associated with the movie.

“When I’m in New York, I look at the Empire State Building and feel as though it belongs to me,” she once mused, “or is it vice versa?”

Currently, the owners, the Malkin family, are buffing and polishing the Art Deco edifice, planning to make it the centerpiece of a $5 billion public offering.  Start thinking now about getting in on the ground floor.  It’s a way of securing your place in the castle in the sky.

© 2012 Susan Marg – All Rights Reserved

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Watch and wonder – the last five minutes of Sleepless in Seattlehttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rbPUfy9dWG8

And some great views of and from the Empire State Building: http://21livingabroad.com/2012/03/06/weekly-travel-photo-update-3-empire-state-building/

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Feeling Hot Hot Hot in Chicago

That platinum blond hair.  Those red-lacquered toenails and bright lipstick.  A white halter dress… and matching panties.

Yep, that’s Marilyn Monroe looming over passersby in Chicago’s Pioneer Court.  The 26’ tall statue by artist Seward Johnson was revealed  last week as the sweltering day gave way to a more comfortable summer evening.  It received both criticism and acclaim.  Is it sexy or sexist?  Public art or a tourist ploy?  And why Chicago?

Photo by: Joshua Melin

“Forever Marilyn” captures the iconic moment in Billy Wilder’s 1955 The Seven Year Itch in which Monroe stands over a New York subway grate, enjoying the breeze created by passing trains below.

While the scene was actually filmed on a soundstage in Hollywood, movie stills were taken at Lexington and 52nd Street creating a great deal of publicity.  Stories about Marilyn had dominated the news for days.

When she arrived in town to begin filming, one paper ran the headline, “Marilyn Wiggles In.”

Another announced, “There won’t be any admission charge when Marilyn appears for the shooting of street sequences for her new film… Miss Monroe’s costume is expected to be more revealing than the one she wore yesterday to stop traffic.”

Not surprisingly, fifteen hundred fans showed up, including her husband, Joe DiMaggio.  He had followed her from Los Angeles to the Big Apple, concerned about her welfare, as well as being disturbed by the commotion she was causing.  He was the jealous type.

Dropping by Toots Shor’s, a hangout for celebrities of the day, he met up with columnist Walter Winchell who induced him to check out the scene.  And what a scene!

The crowd was whooping and hollering, cheering and shouting.  “More, more, Marilyn,” they chanted. “We want to see more.”  With the aid of a wind-blowing machine, her skirt whipped around and flew up and down, exposing not only her bare legs but also her dark pubic hair through two pairs of panties.  The spectacle continued for  five long hours.

The media hype disgusted DiMaggio, as did his belief in his wife’s willing participation in the promotion.  “I’ve had it,” he shouted and left.  There were reports that he knocked her around later that night.

Two months later Monroe filed for divorce.  The marriage of the movie star and the Yankee Clipper had lasted less than ten months.  The lustful leering goes on forever.

© 2011 Susan Marg – All Rights Reserved