“So, what have you done since you retired?” I asked my customer, Margaret McVie, a short and slim elderly woman with gray hair and blue, intelligent eyes.
Margaret scoffed at my premise. “What makes you think I’m retired? I still do some work! Have you heard of Beau Ties of Vermont?”
“I believe I have,” I replied. “I’ve seen their ads in the New Yorker magazine.”
“Yes, that would be the company. Well, I write the copy for their catalogs.”
Moonlight bathed the road and passing fields as we motored south on Route 7 on our way to Margaret’s East Middlebury home. She was returning from a family visit to Park City, Utah.
From the moment she walked through her gate at the airport, I felt simpatico with this woman. How is this possible — to experience an immediate sense of connection with a person you’ve only just met and never spoken with? I have no explanation. I do recall a study that found that 85 percent of human communication is nonverbal. I buy that, and it may help explain this phenomenon of instantaneous affinity.
Eager to continue the verbal communication, I asked, “So writing — has this been a lifelong pursuit?”
“It has been. At different times, I wrote for Esquire magazine, NBC and TV Guide.”
“And this would have been in New York City in, what — the ’50s and ’60s?”
“Yes, I used to live in Greenwich Village. For a brief spell in the early ’60s, I worked for a short-lived magazine started by Hugh Hefner. It was called Show Business Illustrated, if I’m recalling correctly. So for that year and a half, I lived in Chicago.”
“Wow, I never heard of that magazine. Hefner has been so phenomenally successful in the publishing world. What went wrong with this project?”
“Well, it wasn’t for lack of good writers. He poached a stable of the best writers of the day from other publications, luring them by paying about double the normal rates. That convinced me to make the move! I think the problem was being based in Chicago. The movie industry was in LA, and TV was produced mostly in New York, so it was hard to land interviews. Mostly, I think Hef was just ahead of his time. Now there are dozens of magazine titles doing what he tried to pull off back then.”
I tapped the brakes as we came into Vergennes. The town boasts its own police force, and at night, they like to hide out on Route 7, nabbing speeders. While keeping a lookout, I was enjoying my chat with Margaret. It appeared that her mind had hardly slowed down with age; she was as sharp as a teenager.
“What kind of stuff were you writing?” I asked. “Did you do interviews with, like, celebrities?”
“Oh, I sure did. I remember interviewing Danny Kaye. I loved that man. And Ingrid Bergman was so unpretentious and genuine. She arrived without any makeup, and unaccompanied by a press agent. And this was an actress! I was stunned.
“My fondest memory was speaking with one of my heroes, Eleanor Roosevelt. It was for TV Guide, and Mrs. Roosevelt was publicizing a TV project for advancing childhood literacy. What a groundbreaker she was. She could have been president if not for the gender politics of the time.”
“It seems to me, Margaret, that you were a groundbreaker, as well. I imagine the opportunities for female writers were limited back then.”
She grinned and said, “Do you want to hear a story about just that?”
I replied, “I’m all ears.”
“When I was working for NBC in the ’50s, a couple of us female copywriters found out that a new male hire was making $50 more a month than all of us for doing the same work. Well, I marched into the manager’s office to protest. He said, ‘You have to keep in mind that the men are supporting wives and children, so they need to make more.’ I brought up one of my female coworkers who was supporting two elderly parents. ‘What about her?’ I asked. He leaned back in his chair and said, ‘Margaret, I don’t think you understand how the system works.’ I said, ‘With all due respect, sir, I understand exactly how the system works.’”
As we approached Middlebury, Margaret said, “Do you know how to get to East Middlebury? I don’t know if I told you, but I live just before the Waybury Inn.”
“Yeah, I know exactly where that is. The Waybury is where they filmed the beginning of that TV series ‘Newhart.’ Do I got that right?”
“Yes, you do,” she said. “Want to hear a coincidence? Do you remember the actor who played the bumbling handyman on the show? Tom Poston?”
“Yeah, I do,” I replied. “He was hilarious. He didn’t strike me as very Vermont-like, but anyway.”
“I used to go out with him when I worked for NBC. There was a bunch of us up-and-comers who hung out together. I remember Harvey Korman was one of the gang, too.”
“What a time that must have been. I can only imagine.”
“It was that,” Margaret said. “I remember a group of us younger writers had a weekly get-together at this bar. We called ourselves ‘The Wonderful Club.’ Oh, my — we thought we were as cute as canned beer.”
“The Wonderful Club?” I repeated, chuckling. “Margaret, I’ve got to say that sounds a tad conceited.”
“Oh, no — you have it wrong. All of us were media writers, as I said, and every week we reviewed whether any of us had used the words ‘wonderful’ or ‘perfect’ in our copy. You see, we felt that those words were entirely devoid of meaning. So if you did, you had to buy a round for the group.”
“I love it!” I said. “That is perfect … oops! I owe you a beer.”
We were both still laughing as I eased up the driveway to the back door of her home. I toted her bags into the house, which was smallish but architecturally unusual. She explained that it was a converted church.
I placed her luggage on the coffee table in the living room. Paying the fare, she smiled and said, “I do believe we’ve become friends. Haven’t we?”
“Oh, yes, Margaret,” I agreed. “We most definitely have.”