Skip to content

Posts from the ‘History is Our Story’ Category

10 Reasons to Remember: The Eighties

February 2, 2016

Susan Marg

Photo by: © lucidwaters

Photo by: © lucidwaters

Is it too soon to look back at the Eighties? I don’t think so. It was an interesting time, a period of ups and downs and ins and outs through thick and thin. And we survived. How did you survive? Why not write about it?

  1. Off to a good start. Minutes after Ronald Reagan was sworn in as President on January 20, 1981, Iran released the fifty-two Americans who had been held hostage for 444 days.
  1. But there was a recession. With the Federal Reserve tightening money to curb inflation, which had peaked in April 1980 at 14.76%, the U.S. recession began in July 1981. Unemployment was 7.6%, rising to 9.7% before the recession ended the following year. Still, we made money. The Dow Jones Industrial average began the decade at 838.74 and ended at 2,753.20, coming out way ahead of Black Monday in 1987, when the market lost 22.6% of its value, falling 508 points to 1,738.74.
  1. Dirty little secrets always come out. The decade had its share of scandals. The Iran-Contra affair reeled the Reagan Administration. The Gary Hart/Donna Rice affair shook politics. The ban of Pete Rose from baseball hit the sports world hard. Milli Vanilli’s lip synching rocked music fans. Coca Cola kept secret its recipe for the syrup that is the basis for its soda, but deigned to change it to “the new taste in Coke.” It fell flat. Pepsi had its own calamity when Michael Jackson’s hair caught fire while filming a Pepsi commercial.
  1. Moonwalk to the music. Of all the music videos we watched on MTV, and there were a lot of them from our favorite musicians, Michael Jackson moonwalking to “Billie Jean” from his Thriller album got into our heads. From the same album Jackson danced to “Beat It” and “Thriller.” The zombie sequence from the later has been reenacted from Times Square to Hollywood and Highland. We learned Jackson’s moves and recited his words, so we’d always be in step. While Frank Sinatra wore a hat with style, no one did more for a black fedora —  or one white glove —  than Michael Jackson.
  1. More stations, more of the time. We watched a lot of television in the Eighties, and not just MTV on cable. Dallas was the first of the primetime soap operas, spawning Knots Landing, Dynasty, and Falcon Crest – I watched them all. In the fall of 1980, the resolution of the Dallas cliffhanger that had ended the third season generated 83 million viewers, more than the number of voters in that year’s presidential election.  Just about everyone wanted to know who shot J.R.
  1. Talk a little. Talk a lot. In 1987, the National Association of Broadcasters bestowed the Peabody Award on Johnny Carson in honor of his 25th anniversary hosting The Tonight Show. Joan Rivers, David Letterman, and Jay Leno were favored guest hosts, going on to their own late night talk shows. Meanwhile, Oprah Winfrey’s show went into national syndication in 1986 and soared in the ratings during daytime.
  1. Tennis, everyone? It didn’t matter if baseliners were playing serve-and-vollyers on hard court, clay court, or grass court. We loved rooting for our favorite tennis player of the decade, of which there were many greats of the game, as they came out swinging, taking on their rivals, wooing crowds, and becoming household names. Leading the men, there was Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, and Ivan Lendl. The women were just as popular and included Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, and Steffi Graf. And then along came Monica Seles.
  1. Here come the brides. A lot of famous couples got married in the Eighties. Some of them are still together, including Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman, Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson, and Michael J. Fox and Tracy Pollan. Others didn’t make it, such as Madonna and Sea Penn, Maria Shriver and Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Bruce Willis and Demi Moore. And then there was Prince Charles and Diane Spencer. An estimated global television audience of 750 million watched their 1981 fairytale wedding. Yet for sheer spectacle, nothing was more remarkable than the mass wedding conducted by the Reverend Rev Sun Myung Moon of the Unification Church. The gathering of 2,075 couples, brides and grooms dressed in identical outfits at New York’s Madison Square Garden in 1982, was a sight to behold. Moon matched the couples himself, often pairing differing races and nationalities, in his belief that all of humanity should be united. A church spokesman puts the divorce rate for the blessed at a mere 25%, which, if true, is better than the national average.
  1. Women first. The Eighties saw a number of firsts for women. Sandra Day O’Connor was the first woman to sit on the Supreme Court. Sally Ride was the first American woman in space. Geraldine Ferraro, as Walter Mondale’s running mate, was the first woman on a national ticket. Aretha Franklin was the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
  1. The walls come crumbling down. “Tear down this wall,” President Reagan pronounced in 1987. And two years later the Berlin wall came down. Back at home, unemployment was at 5.3%, and inflation, too, had decreased dramatically, falling to 4.65%. And we cheered.

© 2015 Susan Marg – All Rights Reserved

A Year in the Life

December 31, 2015

Susan Marg

Stock Image: Depositphotos

Stock Image: Depositphotos


As we look forward to a new year, I thought it would be interesting to look back fifty years to 1966. There just might be something to include in a life or family history.

  1. Finished with the Fifties. 1966 was the last year for many of our favorite television shows, particularly those that started in the 1950s. These included: The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet (1952); The Donna Reed Show (1958); Perry Mason (1957); and, Rawhide (1959). The Dick Van Dyke Show, although it first aired in 1961, was finished, too.
  1. Justice is swift. Anyone who watches a lot of cop shows on television knows their Miranda rights derived from the self-incrimination clause of the Fifth Amendment: the right to remain silent and the right to consult with an attorney. The Supreme Court established the principle in June 1966 when it overturned the conviction of Ernesto Miranda, who had confessed to abducting and raping a young woman. Miranda was retried and convicted four months later.
  1. Viva Las Vegas. Just like an orgy in the glory days of ancient Rome, the opening party for Caesars Palace on August 5, 1966 cost $1 million and lasted three days. Over 1,800 invited guests consumed two tons of filet mignon, devoured 300 pounds of crabmeat, and quaffed 50,000 glasses of champagne. Attractive mini toga-attired waitresses greeted the attendees. “Welcome to Caesars,” they cooed. “I am your slave.” The public had never seen anything like Caesars, and they loved it. Caesars Palace is celebrating by throwing a year-long 50th birthday party.
  1. Short and sweet. Mary Quant, clothing designer and shop owner, made her skirts shorter and shorter through the Sixties. In 1966 when the hem reached the upper thigh, she named the trendy item” the miniskirt,” and it became the fashion of choice for young women everywhere. No doubt young men liked it, too.
  1. Mind-blowing. California was the first state to ban the manufacture and sale of LSD, and other states soon did the same. It became illegal throughout the country in 1968, and all scientific research on the drug was shut down.
  1. Float like a butterfly. Amidst growing anti-Vietnam protests throughout the country, heavyweight champion Mohammed Ali declared himself a conscientious objector. The following year he refused to be inducted into the armed forces, a federal offense, declaring, “No Viet Cong ever called me Nigger.” Found guilty of draft evasion, all fifty states denied him a boxing license and the Federal government stripped him of his passport. In 1971, the Supreme Court overturned his conviction, as the Appeals Board had given no reason to deny him an exemption as a conscientious objector.
  1. Sting like a bee. Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton created the Black Panthers as self-defense against police violence and the killing of blacks. Inspired by Malcolm X, who had been assassinated the year before, they adopted his slogan, “Freedom by any means necessary.” Focusing on militancy, the organization itself became associated with violence.
  1. Seems so far away. The Beatles had an interesting year. Protestors greeted them when they performed in Tokyo. When they declined a party invitation to the Presidential Palace in the Philippines, they unintentionally snubbed Imelda Marcos, the first lady, leaving them without police protection from angry crowds. In August, the group again toured the U.S., playing their last concert in San Francisco. Manager Brian Epstein had to walk back John Lennon’s statement that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus, explaining that it was taken out of context, and Capitol Records pasted a more conventional cover for their album Yesterday and Today over a photograph depicting the band as butchers surrounded by decapitated baby dolls and pieces of meat. Still, their album Revolver is considered the best of the year, as calculated from its rankings in over 21,000 greatest album charts, and the band began recording its critically acclaimed Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.  On a personal note, each grew a moustache while on hiatus pursuing individual interests. John Lennon also began wearing granny glasses, and he met Yoko Ono at a London gallery. (It’s not known whether the two events are related.)
  1. Hey, hey. It was a year of musical firsts. Janis Joplin gave her first live concert in San Francisco. Grace Slick first performed live with the Jefferson Airplane. Bob Dylan went electric. Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention recorded Freak Out!, the group’s debut album, and the Monkees’ television show premiered.
  1. ‘Tis the season. On Christmas Eve, a New York television station aired a three-hour film of burning logs in a fireplace. Receiving surprisingly good ratings, “The Yule Log” became an annual tradition until 1989, although you can now watch it streaming on Netflix.

A lot happens in a year. Here’s wishing you a 2016 filled with many memorable and happy events.

© 2015 Susan Marg – All Rights Reserved

Seeking the Sixties

December 15, 2015

Susan Marg

Photo by: © nejron

Photo by: © nejron

There’s an old hippie saying: “If you remember the Sixties you weren’t there.” Well, I disagree. I think we all remember the Sixties. There was the hope and excitement that President Kennedy brought to the country when he was inaugurated in 1961; our shared grief when he was assassinated in 1964. President Johnson fought the war on poverty, but greatly expanded our presence in Vietnam. Like-minded individuals marched for civil rights, burned their bras for women’s rights, and rioted for gay rights. Young people flocked to San Francisco in 1967, the Summer of Love, but fled the Hollywood Hills following the Manson murders in 1969.

If these events bring back memories, write about them. Here are some more suggestions to consider when thinking about your own personal or family history.

  1. By executive order. President John F. Kennedy established the Peace Corps to promote world peace and friendship in 1961. Although the volunteer organization had its critics, Congress formally authorized the program later that year. Since then, nearly 220,000 Americans have joined and served in 140 countries.
  2. Notorious for being banned. When first published in Paris in 1934, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer was banned here: it couldn’t be imported to the U.S. When Grove Press legally published it in 1961, the battle to read about the adventures of a young expatriate in Paris had just begun. Local authorities in twenty-one states filed sixty lawsuits against the book or those who sold it on grounds of obscenity. When one such case went to the Supreme Court in 1964, it overruled state court decisions and established a new, more liberal definition of obscenity. No longer could a book be banned because of its dirty parts, but rather it had to be without any socially redeeming value, as well as prurient throughout and offensive.
  3. Tell the people what she wore. The bikini first went on sale following an outdoor fashion event in France in 1946. The song “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polk Dot Bikini” was the number one song for one week in August, 1960. The sexy swimsuit did not become fashionable, or acceptable, however, until Annette Funicello wore one in the 1963 movie Beach Party. Hers neither had yellow polka dots nor showed her navel.
  4. The doctor is in. In Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Love the Bomb, a 1964 satire of the Cold War, the President and his advisors, including Dr. Strangelove, a nuclear war expert played by Peter Sellers, are trying to resolve a crisis brought about by a crazy Air Force general who unleashed a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. It did not end well for anyone. In Doctor Zhivago, an epic drama released the following year, a doctor/poet played by Omar Sharif survives World War I and the Russian Revolution. Both films were nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture and both lost to musical love stories, My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music, respectively, demonstrating the wisdom of making love, not war.
  5. The British are coming! The British Invasion refers to rock bands from across the pond, such as the Beatles, the Dave Clark Five, the Kinks, and the Rolling Stones, making a big splash in America in the mid-1960s. Few made it to Woodstock in 1969, however. The Who performed, and Joe Cocker’s performance of “With a Little Help from My Friends” earned accolades. John Lennon wanted to be there, but the U.S. government refused him an entry visa.
  6. A shot in the dark. While protesters marched for peace, we witnessed the assassination of John R. Kennedy in 1963, of Malcolm X in 1965, of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, and of Robert F. Kennedy in 1968.
  7. A space odyssey. American astronaut Neil Sheperd went into space in 1961, three weeks after Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin had orbited the earth. Still, Sheperd was the first person to have manual control of his spacecraft and was widely celebrated upon his safe return home. In July 1969, we went to the moon, landing in the Sea of Tranquility. “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind,” Neil Armstrong pronounced, stepping outside. Fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin joining him twenty minutes later described the surface as “magnificent desolation.” Their teammate Michael Collins stayed on board to man the controls, while Armstrong and Aldrin collected rocks that President Nixon gave as gifts to 135 countries and all fifty states.
  8. Kings of cool. Dean Martin, former partner of Jerry Lewis, member of the Rat Pack, nightclub entertainer, and movie star, began hosting The Dean Martin Show, a television variety program, in 1965. Always charming, he sang, danced, flirted, smoked, and drank his way through the hour program. In 1967 Tommy and Dick Smothers offered viewers an alternative point of view on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. In their opening act they sang folk songs, which usually led to an argument. There were also plenty of arguments with the censors, as their pointed humor was usually directed at racism, the President, and the Vietnam War. The show was cancelled in 1969, while Dean Martin continued to get good ratings through the 1973-1974 season.
  9. Thank you, Al Gore. Contrary to statements Gore made, possibly taken out of context, he did not invent the Internet. Rather the Internet grew out of the ARPANET. Scientists formulated the idea to enable general communications among computer users, particularly corporate, academic, and government researchers, in 1963 and developed a plan to implement the network in 1968. It was up and working in 1969, under the control of the military for two decades. Al Gore as a Senator, by the way, promoted legislation to fund the expansion of the ARPANET to allow greater public access.
  10. Close to home. The Cuyahoga River, dividing the East side from the West side of Cleveland, Ohio, my hometown, caught fire in 1969. Neither the first nor worst time this had occurred, the incident barely made the local news, but it created a national outcry, leading to the passage of the Clean Water Act and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.

The pendulum swings, and a lot happens in a decade.

© 2015 Susan Marg – All Rights Reserved

Looking Back to the Fifties

November 22, 2015

Susan Marg

When I work on client memoirs, I like to bring in as much social history as I can. After all, each and every one of us have a front seat to history, and that history makes us and shapes us, individually and collectively. It also resonates today. If you are thinking about your personal or family history, consider what past events influenced the way you think and feel.

Photo by: © retroartist

Photo by: © retroartist

Here are some suggestions pertaining to the Fifties for you to consider.

  1. Bond and Brown. That’s James Bond in Spectre and Charlie Brown in Peanuts, who, earlier this month, were numbers one and two at the box office, respectively. The iconic Secret Service agent first showed up in novelist Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale in 1953. Sean Connery played the first James Bond on the big screen in Dr. No in 1962. Peanuts, a 3D computer-animated movie, commemorates the 65th anniversary of the popular comic strip.
  1. Polio take down. Jonas Salk developed a vaccine to immunize children against polio in 1952. After extensive testing and the subsequent licensing of the product, it became universally available in 1955. Although polio has been eradicated in the U.S., it is still recommended that babies receive three dosages starting at two months of age and a booster shot when four to six years old.
  1. City or suburbs. Taking a cue from Levittown be it in New York, New Jersey, or Pennsylvania, the suburbs boomed in the Fifties. But where will Millennials chose to live? Right now, they seem to enjoy urban areas, close to work and play. Census data and survey results, however, suggests that many still yearn for the single-family houses where they grew up.
  1. In the matter of. The Supreme Court handed down its landmark decision in Brown versus Board of Education  in 1953. Unanimously, the court declared that “separate educational facilities” for black children were “inherently illegal.”
  1. Baby, it’s cold outside. Tensions ran high during the Cold War, when the West grew anxious over the Soviet Union’s push to advance communism around the globe. Here at home, Senator Joseph McCarthy fueled the fear in 1950 by declaring, “The State Department is infested with communists,” and he went after them furiously and recklessly. In 1954 the Senate voted to condemn him for his behavior to “obstruct the constitutional processes of the Senate, and to impair its dignity.” The House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), which tracked down Communist sympathizers in Hollywood, thrived in part due to McCarthy’s actions. The recently released movie, Trumbo, tells the story of screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, one of hundreds who were blacklisted, that is, denied employment for their suspected political beliefs.
  1. Hasta luego. The Cuban Revolution took place from 1953 – 1959, when the rebels overthrew the Batista regime and Fidel Castro established a communist government. Two years later President Eisenhower shuttered the American embassy in Havana. After months of negotiations to restore diplomatic relations, Cuba reopened its embassy in Washington D.C. in July of this year and we reopened our embassy on the island in August. Tensions between the two nations still exist, but travel restrictions have been relaxed. It’s possible that U.S. airlines will begin offering regularly scheduled flights to Cuba in the not too distant future. See you soon.
  1. Work hard; play hard. Hugh Hefner first published Playboy magazine in 1953, putting actress Marilyn Monroe on its cover. Known for decades for its scantily dressed, if dressed at all, centerfolds, it announced last month that it will no longer feature full nudity, as it can’t compete with pornography on the Internet, only a click away.
  1. In living color. The New Year’s Day Tournament of Roses Parade in 1954 was the first national television broadcast in color. Bonanza, the television program chronicling the adventures of the Cartwright family on the Ponderosa ranch, was one of the first series to be filmed and broadcast in color. First airing in 1958, it lasted fourteen years. You can still catch the show in syndication.
  1. United we stand. In 1959 Alaska and Hawaii became the 49th and 50th states, respectively.
  1. It’s now or never. I can’t write about the Fifties without mentioning Elvis. In August 1953, Elvis first walked into the offices of Sam Phillips’ Sun Records. In an evening session in July, 1954 with Scotty Moore and Bill Black, he recorded “That’s All Right” which Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips played to great reception. In 1956 Elvis’ “Heartbreak Hotel” became a number one hit in the U.S. Later that year he appeared on The Milton Berle Show, The Steve Allen Show, and The Ed Sullivan Show. He also made his first movie, Love Me Tender. In 1958 he was drafted. In March, 1960 he was honorably discharged and returned home.

A lot happens in a decade. What music were you dancing to?

© 2015 Susan Marg – All Rights Reserved

A Year in Our Lives

June 21, 2015

Susan Marg

The Association of Personal Historians, to which I belong, was formed twenty years ago. Its members are dedicated to helping preserve life stories, experiences, and memories. The organization will celebrate at its annual meeting this October in Sacramento. In honor of the occasion I thought I’d take a look at what else happened in 1995. It’s what I do.

In many ways, it was like any other year. Couples got married, divorced, and remarried. After a long, tumultuous, yet profitable, relationship, both Roseanne Barr and Tom Arnold, who had divorced the previous year, took new spouses. People celebrated birthdays, graduated from school, and landed their first jobs. Many of us made money. In February the Dow Jones Industrial Average first climbed about 4,000. By the end of the year it was over 5,000. And eBay was a new way to shop.

Illustration by: © venimo

Illustration by: © venimo

For the first time we had easy access to the World Wide Web. Yahoo offered its search engine service. CompuServe, America Online, and Prodigy provided online dial-up systems. Netscape went public. And the FBI arrested Kevin Mitnick for hacking into some of the United States’ most secure computer systems.

Still, we felt protected and in control – until the Oklahoma City bombing. The blast, carried out by domestic terrorists Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, killed 168 people, including nineteen children at a day-care center, and injured 680 others. Property damage was extensive, too. The following month President Clinton ordered the closing of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House to all vehicular traffic. It remains closed to this day.

We continued watching daytime soap operas. All My Children had its 25th anniversary, and As the World Turns broadcast its 10,000th episode. Yet many soaps were often preempted during the nine-month real-life, high-profile murder trial of OJ Simpson. More than 150 million people tuned in to watch when the verdict was announced. OJ was acquitted, and the lawyers became celebrities.

For entertainment we went to the movies and listened to music. At the 1995 Academy Awards, Forest Gump took the grand prize. At the 1995 Grammy Awards, Sheryl Crow was named Best New Artist and Bruce Springsteen’s “Streets of Philadelphia” was Song of the Year. We mourned the passing of illustrious icons, including Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia, yet we kept on truckin’.

What were you doing twenty years ago? What events made a difference in your life? How have you changed? It’s something to write about.

© 2015 Susan Marg – All Rights Reserved

Best Wishes and Happy Shopping

November 26, 2014

Susan Marg

Before 1880 over half the population of the United States lived on the farm, and, yes, life was difficult. People woke up at the crack of dawn and after sunset read by candlelight. It’s hard to believe, but there was no electricity, no refrigeration or air conditioning, no radio or television, no computers or cell phones.

For entertainment, well, there wasn’t much in the way of entertainment. There wasn’t much shopping, either, except at the general store. Even there merchandise was limited and practical, and the head of the family did most of the shopping, bartering butter, cheese, eggs, vegetables and other staples that the merchant would resell. Thank goodness, Sears and Roebuck came along when they did.

For the 1925 woman who.... From: HA! Designs - Art - by Heather.

For the 1925 woman who… From: HA! Designs – Art – by Heather.

Richard Sears produced his first catalog in 1893. The following year he expanded his self-declared “Book of Bargains” from jewelry and watches to include sewing machines, sporting goods, musical instruments, saddles, firearms, buggies, bicycles, baby carriages, furniture, china, glassware, and clothing for the whole family. The 1895 edition consisted of 532 pages. In 1896 he published in the spring and fall and added specialty catalogs, which two years later included photographic goods and talking machines.

Early on Sears added color. Buggies were presented in red, green, brown, and black with gold or silver trim on buggies. In 1897, shoes were advertised in black, red and brown. In 1899 carpets, furniture, and china were shown in various shades.

Although Mr. Sears retired in 1908, the company he started has always kept up with the times. In 1909 Sears carried a motor buggy. This item was replaced in 1913 with a specialty catalog for automobiles. In subsequent decades it carried television sets, dishwashers, electronic garage door openers, and microwave ovens.

The Christmas catalog first appeared in 1933. Its 87 pages were filled with presents for the entire family. There were dolls and toy trains, fruitcakes and chocolates, and live singing canaries, the latter being an accompaniment for budding American Idol competitors, perhaps. The cover of the 1937 catalog showed a photo of a brother and sister with the quote, “See the things that Santa brought, More’n what we thought he ought. Things for Mom and Daddy, too, N we hope there’s some for you.” In 1968 it was renamed the “Wish Book.”

If you long for the good old days, let your fingers do the walking through the Wish Book. It’s been online since 1998. In 2010 Sears went mobile, so customers can access the catalog with their smartphones. Earlier this year the company added another convenience: if you buy online and choose to pick up your purchase, a store associate will bring your shopping cart out to you. You won’t even have to leave your car.

© 2014 Susan Marg – All Rights Reserved

A Family Tree

November 8, 2014

Susan Marg

Sometimes advertisers get it right.

A current Subaru commercial, which I think is charming, taps into the feeling that comes when generations relate to each other.

A grandmother, son, daughter-in-law, and granddaughter are on a family drive in the country.   The grandmother, who has that aging hippie look about her, is intent on connecting with her granddaughter. She shows her her crystal collection. At a flower stand, where they are petting a cat, the granddaughter asks her, “Can you really talk to cats?” The grandmother nods and smiles.

When they reach their destination, a tree in the middle of a field, the grandmother says, “This is where I met your grandpa, Right under this tree.”

The little girl runs over and hugs the tree.

Tree Hugger

In the next frame, they’re all hugging the tree, then the grandmother has second thoughts: “Or was it that tree?” she wonders out loud.

The commercial closes with the tagline: Love. It’s what makes a Subaru a Subaru.

Love also makes a family, and knowing your family history gives you roots. You better understand who you are in the world. You know you belong to something bigger.

Quoting Tommy Lee Jones, he’s an actor, but he also went to Harvard: “There are things, points of view, uses of the language, habits of dress, ways of thought and believing that came to me from my grandparents and came to them from theirs. Things that are of good use in any situation, no matter what the future may hold.”

© 2014 Susan Marg – All Rights Reserved

Illustration by: Malchev

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

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