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Truth or Fiction?

September 29, 2014

Susan Marg

Memoirs continue to be popular. The best of the lot read like fiction. There’s a beginning, middle, and end, but events are not necessarily presented in chronological order. We learn about a life, while the facts, even if they’re simply emotional recollections, resonate with our lives.

Photo by: Urban Muser

Photo by: Urban Muser

Moss Hart’s Act One, first published in 1960, is now a Broadway musical. It’s been described as a “funny, heartbreaking, and suspenseful portrait of the artist as a young man.”

Jeanette Walls’ 2005 The Glass Castle has sold 2.5 million copies and was translated into twenty-two languages. It’s now in development in the capable hands of Jennifer Lawrence, who plans not only to star in the film version, but also to produce the movie.

Writers often get around to telling their own story. Most recently, Frances Mayes, known for her personal reflections on living in Italy, including Under the Tuscan Sun, penned her autobiography, detailing her coming of age in rural Georgia.

So, too, do actors, who continue to act. Andrew McCarthy actually became a writer who travels or a traveler who writes. I’m not sure which came first. Molly Ringwald wrote Getting the Pretty Back, half memoir and half guide to girl things. Rob Lowe’s two autobiographies have been well received. Yes, the 1980s Brat Pack have done all right in the writing department.

The cast members from Beverly Hills 90210, now in their forties, are a prolific bunch, too. Shannen Doherty put out a guide to being a badass, if not a bad girl, something she knows about all too well. Jenny Garth found time to share her triumphs and tribulations as a single working Mom, and Tori Spelling continues to spill her guts, both on television and in print. And, this just in: Jason Priestley: A Memoir was recently released.

As far as the stories Priestley tells of his costars in the 1990s drama series, Doherty notes, “I always say that everyone has their own version of the truth, and memories are very funny things.”

© 2014 Susan Marg – All Rights Reserved

Gold Nuggets Can Be Found in the Details

September 24, 2014

Susan Marg

A couple of weeks ago my husband and I watched Busby Berkley’s Gold Diggers of 1933. We thoroughly enjoyed the depression-era story: rich boy meets poor girl and saves the play. And then there’s the singing and dancing. Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler, who play the rich boy and poor girl, respectively, sing “Pettin’ in the Park.” Ginger Rogers sings “We’re in the Money,” while showgirls dance on gold coins.

Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell in Gold Diggers of 1933

Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell in Gold Diggers of 1933

It’s a rather buoyant affair, except that no one has any money, apart from the playboy/songwriter and his relatives who want to keep him from marrying an actress. Like any other thirties musical, it’s somewhat frothy and madcap. Love trumps all, until the end.

The mournful ballad, “Remember My Forgotten Man,” carries the finale. From a close-up of Joan Blondell singing the blues, the scene dissolves first to soldiers, some carrying the wounded, marching in the rain and then to men waiting in a bread line for some soup and coffee. The lyrics tell the story: “You put a rifle in his hand; You sent him far away; You shouted: ‘Hip-hooray;’ But look at him today.”

The scene is visually moving and dramatic, but rather startling to anyone watching the movie today. World War I ended fifteen years before Gold Diggers takes place. The war is not mentioned in the movie until that point. Veterans, despite what they had done for their country, were unemployed, just like everyone else.

Knowledge of history makes the ending more fitting, by providing a perspective similar to that of a thirties movie audience. Here are some facts.

The tragedy of the Bonus Army March was top-of-mind. In the spring and summer of 1932, 43,000 veterans and their families marched on Washington, D.C. for the much needed immediate cash payment of bonuses they had been promised. Although payment wasn’t due until 1945, who could wait? With little sympathy, the Hoover Administration ordered the protestors removed from all government property and their campsite burned. Several veterans were shot and later died.

A second, smaller march early in 1933 at the start of the Roosevelt Administration was more quietly resolved with an offer of jobs in the Civilian Conservation Corp. Transportation home was given to those who chose not to work. As the depression dragged on, by the way, Congress voted in 1936 to pay the veterans their bonus then, rather than later.

Gold Diggers of 1933 was one of the top grossing films of the year. To audiences of the era it offered escape from the glum reality of the Great Depression, yet it was still topical. To modern movie-goers it is emotionally satisfying, as well as entertaining, once the details are filled in. The same is true if you’re writing a life or family history.

© 2014 Susan Marg – All Rights Reserved

Research Puts Leaves on Family Tree

September 19, 2014

Susan Marg


A family portrait from Time Tales.

In an interview with John Wilkens of the San Diego Union-Tribune, author David Laskin talks about his book The Family: A Journey Through the Heart of the Twentieth Century. As a historian he traced several branches of his family tree, through tragedy and triumph, from the Holocaust to the modern state of Israel. A third branch formed Maidenform Brands here in the U.S. Laskin’s comments about his undertaking are relevant to everyone with an interest in the lives of their ancestors. I quote some of them here.

Why he writes historical non-fiction:

“To me, it’s the most vivid and exciting and accessible doorway into the past. When you read, let’s say, a history of immigration to the U.S. through Ellis Island or an account of the settlement of Israel, you get the facts, you get the atmosphere, you get the economic basis. When you read about people’s lives and their struggles and their dreams and their heartbreak, you really live the past.”

What he learned about himself:

“I learned that I have a lot more in common with my family than I ever thought… It’s funny in some ways that I’ve done this book because I was never very family-minded growing up. I found many family occasions quite excruciating.”

“I feel in many ways I am carrying on some of the family traditions… writing, recording, keeping the written word, keeping the family annals going.”

Why he admires his ancestors:

“I think everybody says this who looks back at their immigrant ancestors or their pioneer ancestors or their war hero or war grunt ancestors – my God, the courage, the stamina, the ability to withstand hardship.”

How he hopes to inspire others:

“My dream is that when people close my book, the next thing they do is go on or and start looking for their own family stories. Beyond that, to plumb and to research and to analyze their family ties to history.   To connect the dots for themselves.”

And if you’re a “mad, crazy researcher” like Laskin, “you can find out a lot.”

For more of David Laskin’s perspective, the complete interview is here.

For the book itself, described as beautifully written, densely textured, and at times heartbreaking, visit

A Fashionista Ages Well

September 16, 2014

Susan Marg

The other day I was leafing through the September issue of Vogue, the one called “Fall Fashion Blockbuster.” And, boy, it was.

Even before it went on sale, the magazine had received plenty of headlines for putting three celebrity models, instead of plain old celebrities, on its cover. The young women apparently did their job pulling in advertisers, as the issue consisted of an abundance of clunky heels, manly flats, pleated skirts, and blousy tops, as well as oversized bags. At least, that was my take.

Photo by: David Shankbone

Photo by: David Shankbone

Then on page 667 of the 856-page tome, there was an excerpt from Diane von Furstenberg’s, The Woman I Wanted to Be, a new memoir that will be released at the end of October. Finally, an article that caught my eye.

It’s not clear how this book differs from Diane: A Signature Life published in 2009, but it’s getting great reviews from other fashionistas who had an advance copy. Anna Wintour sings, “Diane’s book evokes everything she has lived through. It is honest, direct and fascinating — just like the author herself!” Sarah Jessica Parker trills, “What a thrill to be given an opportunity to peek even further into her life.”

Known for introducing the knitted jersey wrap dress in 1974, von Furstenberg has seen a lot and accomplished even more. At 67-years old, she looks fabulous. While I might seem crass for commenting on her appearance, her book excerpt appears in the “Beauty” column, and it contains many of her observations on aging.

Von Furstenberg notes that her thirties were her best years. Her forties were harder, but life got better when she hit fifty. She’s grateful she never thought of herself as beautiful as everyone fades as time goes by.   As far as taking advantage of plastic surgery, she continues, “My face carries all my memories. Why should I erase them?

Why, indeed? As a personal historian, I believe we should record our past, live the present, and plan for the future. We’re all getting older, and we all have something to say about getting on with it, whether we’re in vogue or not.

© 2014 Susan Marg – All Rights Reserved

Pickles Wisdom by Brian Crane

September 14, 2014

Susan Marg


Kindle Countdown for “Ask Me Anything”

September 13, 2014

Susan Marg

Marie Cover 5 EAsk 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 the deep South, 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

Not Too Small, But Just Right

September 12, 2014

Susan Marg

Getting started on your life history can be daunting. It’s potentially a big undertaking, but who has time and what about the expense?

One way to overcome this stumbling block is to think small.

“Think Small” was the advertising campaign for the Volkswagen Beetle when introduced to the U.S. in 1959. Print ads displayed an image of the car on a blank background with very little copy. It was so successful in its simplicity that many credit it with changing the nature of advertising.ThinkSmall_Banner_Nov13b

In 1973, a book titled “Small is Beautiful” took hold of our global imagination. The phrase always stuck with me, and I think you can apply it to writing your life history. Here are a small number of suggestions:

Instead of covering your entire life, choose a decade that is particularly meaningful to you. Perhaps it was the 1950s because you had a favorite poodle skirt or the 1980s, as you were a fan of the punk rock band The Ramones. Maybe it was your twenties, when you struck out on your own, or your forties, after starting your own company.

Concentrate on a few experiences that changed your life or accomplishments you’ve achieved. Do you believe good luck or hard work played a role in the outcome?

Limit your topics to your hobbies or interests. If you’re an avid reader, write about the books that had the greatest impact on you. Are you a master chef in the kitchen? Talk about some of your favorite recipes. Whether you’re a sports buff or film buff, who inspires you?

Write about your friends, the places you’ve gone together, the laughs you’ve shared.

Focus on your family, be it sibling relationships or a family feud that’s lasted a lifetime.

I was having lunch with my mother the other day, and she, reminiscing, told me a story I had never heard before. “Do you know what a radiator is?” “Yes,” I responded. A radiator heated my first college apartment. “Well, when I was a little girl,” she continued, “I once burned myself so badly by leaning against a hot radiator I couldn’t sit down for weeks.” Thinking about the incident, she concluded, “That’s what life is, I guess, all those little moments.”

I agree. Now start writing them down!

© 2014 Susan Marg – All Rights Reserved

Memoirs Make Beautiful Music

September 8, 2014

Susan Marg

In the Sunday morning edition of the San Diego Union-Tribune, there is still a page “Books” at the end of the Arts and Leisure section. It appears before “Style & Society.” I might look at the photos on the latter, but I always read “Books.”

This week’s article looked at memoirs. Several celebrity autobiographies will be released this fall.

Strike the right chord. Photo by: angelandspot

Strike the right chord. Photo by: angelandspot

The subtitle of Neil Patrick Harris’s book is Choose Your Own Autobiography. Not wanting to write a tell-all or pass on words of wisdom, he tells his story in the second person, that person being “you.” I’m not sure how his conceit works (I guess I have to buy the book), but the book is described as interactive, whereby you get to decide whether to try out for Doogie Howser, M.D. and determine what path to take to fame and success.

Lena Dunham penned Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s ‘Learned,’ a collection of personal essays on her struggles to have it all. The already successful 28-year old readily admits that she’s not a “sexpert, a psychologist, a mother of three or the owner of a successful hosiery franchise,” but the girl can write, as she’s proven on her HBO hit Girls.

Amy Poehler, another talented lady, is just getting around to writing her first book at 42-years-old. Yes, Please is sure to have funny bits on life and love and possibly some useful advice on the same.

Musicians have books coming out, too. Rolling Stone’s Keith Richards follows up Life, an account of running in the fast lane, with a look back at growing up under the influence of his grandfather, a jazz musician. Talent apparently runs in the family, as his daughter illustrated the children’s book.

Neil Young who wrote of pursing his musical dreams in Waging Heavy Peace is also back with Special Deluxe: A Memoir of Life & Cars.

Speaking of rock ‘n rollers, Jimmy Page, a member of The Yardbirds and founder of Led Zepplin, in Jimmy Page put captions on hundreds of photographs that illustrate his career.

So put on your reading glasses or turn on your iPad and have a look.

© 2014 Susan Marg – All Rights Reserved

What’s for Dinner?

September 7, 2014

Susan Marg

Today’s Parade magazine in the Sunday morning paper was all about “What America Eats.” It was loaded with statistics.

Fish tacos with mango salsa. We love to try something new.  Photo  by: jpellgen

Fish tacos with mango salsa. We love to try something new. Photo by: jpellgen

Sometimes I was with the majority and, other times, with the minority. For example, 71% of us take supplements. That’s my husband and me. He meticulously dishes them out to take with meals. If we’re eating out, he puts them in old film canisters to take with us.

However, only 12% have a sweet after dinner. We fall in this category, too – his influence. He saves room for dessert. As much as I like sweets, his portion is almost always larger than mine.

95% said they had started diets on either a Sunday or a Monday. Nope, that’s not me. I start diets every day of the week.

11% said they don’t have anything at all at breakfast. Nope, that’s not me either. I always have a cup or two of coffee.

The Parade article doesn’t go into how we eat. We’re all too aware that we don’t often sit down as a family at dinnertime anymore. Who has the time? As Marie Rudisill notes in her memoir Ask Me Anything:

“So much has changed since I was growing up or, even later, raising a family, and not necessarily for the better. That probably sounds like an old person’s point of view, but today, young or old, it’s rush, rush, rush. Go to school. Go to the office. Go to band practice or football practice or yoga. Go to the dentist. Cut the lawn. Wash the car. Do the laundry. Study, study, study. Pay bills. Pay attention. Meet that deadline. Work, work, work. And don’t forget to do your homework. Whew! Does that sound like a good way to live to you? Who has time to peel a carrot? Dice an onion? Chop up a melon? I guess no one, since everything now comes in little plastic containers already peeled, diced and chopped.”

Even as family rituals have changed, everyone has a favorite food or oft-visited restaurant. What are yours? They can be a meaningful part of a  life or family history.

© 2014 Susan Marg – All Rights Reserved

Is it Personal or Is it History?

September 5, 2014

Susan Marg

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