Stories from readers about unforgettable
encounters with women of renown
Issue: Fall 2004
Kevin Fleming / Corbis
Marjory Stoneman Douglas
1890–1998; author, environmentalist
As a budding journalist in 1991, I interviewed Marjory Stoneman Douglas, known as the “Grandmother of the Glades,” at her Coconut Grove bungalow.
I was honored to meet the 101-year-old, having admired her 1947 book The Everglades: River of Grass and her decades of activism on behalf of the Florida ecosystem.
“What’s your secret?” I asked, meaning the key to her longevity.
She looked at her watch.
“Time for my 5 o’clock scotch and soda on ice. That’s my secret. You’ll find everything in the kitchen.”
I fixed her drink and brought it to her. She scowled.
“There’s a taller tumbler on the counter … but never mind.”
“I hope you’re active for more years to come,” I said.
“So far so good,” she replied. “Like the man falling from the fifth-story window — so far so good.”
The scotch-loving Ms. Douglas lived to be 108.
— S. A. Snyder, travel writer, Herndon, Va.
- Visit Friends of the Everglades, founded by Marjory Stone Douglas in 1969. The National Park Service provides a concise biography. More on her books and articles can be found here.
|Clinton Presidential Materials Project
Born 1947; U.S. Senator, former First Lady, lawyer
A few years ago Hillary Clinton was in San Francisco supporting Kathleen Brown, who was running for governor. I heard there was a photo opportunity, and I talked my way into it so that a friend of mine who ordinarily wouldn’t have the opportunity could get her photo taken with Hillary.
I didn’t intend to be photographed myself, but after standing at the back of the line for over 45 minutes, I started to think maybe I would. How best to take advantage of the opportunity to have 15 seconds with the First Lady — should I talk about health insurance, child care, welfare reform?
I surprised myself and everyone else when my turn came: I said, “If you two let me stand in the middle and you both stand a little in front of me, then I’ll look thinner in the photo.” They woke right up and started laughing.
The next week, I wrote the First Lady a long letter stating my concerns about health insurance, child care and welfare reform, starting out with the sentence, “I was the fat lady in San Francisco last week who asked to stand in the middle.”
—Marta Drury, donor/activist, San Francisco
- Visit Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton's website.
|Khue Bui / AP Photo
Mamie “Peanut” Johnson
Born 1935; pro baseball player, nurse
Five years ago I met Mamie “Peanut” Johnson. An unsure 22, I was fresh out of college, scared of the world. When my boss told me he would be profiling the first female pitcher of the men’s Negro Leagues for a television show on careers, I had no idea what to expect.
She walked into the office and grinned at me, a huge grin that seemed larger than her face. I hadn’t known who she was until days before, when I had set up the interview, but listening to her talk, I was captivated.
She was fearless, graceful, comfortable in herself. I wanted to be her, not because I would ever throw a curveball, but because she’d carved out her own path and made it sound so easy, so … possible .
— Molly E. McCluskey, writer/environmental cause marketer, San Francisco
- Visit the Nego League Baseball Players Association for Mamie "Peanut" Johnson's biography. You can read about women who played in the Negro Leagues here and even purchase Johnson's signed baseball card.
Issue: Summer 2004
|photo / Sherry Barnett
Nina Simone 1933-2003; musician
When I learned of Nina Simone’s death last April, my first response was aching sorrow at the loss of an artist whose 1960s protest song, “Mississippi Goddam,” had energized the black power movement.
But then, smiling, I retrieved from my files a treasured keepsake — a handwritten letter I’d received from Simone more than 20 years ago.
In 1982, I was to spend the summer of at a dairyfarming enclave in Denmark. I knew that Simone — devastated by the assassinations of civil rights leaders — had sought sanctuary in Europe. Shortly before my departure, I contacted her record company.
To my astonishment, a publicity agent blithely recited an address for her in Switzerland.
I fired off a letter in which I apprised the High Priestess of Soul (as Simone was known) of my admiration for her courageous political stands. I told her of my passion for her masterful renditions of such songs as “Suzanne” and “I Loves You Porgy.”
Flush with indignation at a music scene that gushed over pop ditties, I vowed to set the world straight — if only Simone would grant me an interview.
I soon received a letter.
“Can you TYPE?” Simone wrote. “Are you available NOW to come and DO some writing?”
Simone then detailed the failings of the many writers who had attempted to chronicle her career. While welcoming me to come to Geneva (“come quickly”), Simone ventured that she was doubtful I had the skills to bring her story to the page.
“Your contribution would be temporary,” she wrote. “I know. Because your convictions about me aren’t strong enough. But I mean NO offense.”
I immediately dispatched a telegram. I told her that my flaws notwithstanding, I’d happily jet to Geneva, but first needed her to confirm our meeting by calling me (collect) in Denmark.
The phone never rang.
Truth be told, I was relieved. In 1991, Simone published her autobiography, I Put a Spell on You, a memoir that charted the journey of a poor black girl born in North Carolina to international stardom.
Shortly after it was released, she gave a rare concert at Lincoln Center. I quickly got an orchestra seat. The energy was electric.
With the audience on its feet and screaming for an encore, the Priestess returned to the Steinway. Mouth to microphone, fingers tinkling the keyboard, she gazed out somberly at the adoring crowd and began to sing: “Buy my book. Buy my book. Buy my book.”
Then, beaming, and trailing a full-length ermine, she walked off the stage.
— Evelyn C. White is the author of Alice Walker: A Life (W.W. Norton).
- Visit Nina Simone's website
|photo / Judy Bankhead
legendary inventor of the margarita
In 1991, I was hired by an ad agency to photograph Margarita Sames. I had never heard of her, but they told me she was participating in a promotional campaign for Cointreau because she used the liqueur in a cocktail that she had invented.
In the 1940s, socialite Sames and her husband entertained international guests at their home in Acapulco. Frequently, she served a drink made with tequila, fresh lime juice and Cointreau.
They all began calling it the margarita and thus, the word went out.
During our photo session, Ms. Sames made her margaritas: so tempting, with lime slices floating in the clear pitcher and properly poured over rocks in a large stemmed glass.
Unimpressed by the modern margarita machine and ever the charming hostess, she insisted that I have one of hers. It was truly incomparable — also potent. She, and it, were the real Margarita.
— Judy Bankhead, artist; Arp, Texas
- Read more about Margaret Sames and her famous drink
Wally McName / Corbis
In 1970, I went to Washington, D.C. to meet Alice Paul, leader of the militant suffrage movement.
She was 85, living at the National Woman’s Party Headquarters on Capitol Hill. I was 41, a housewife from Akron, Ohio, and a budding, bristling feminist who wanted to write about the suffragists.
Was I ever excited when I phoned for an appointment and Paul said, “Come early, we have a great deal of work to do.”
When I arrived, her first question was, “Who is your Congressman?”
Within the hour, I was at the House of Representatives lobbying for the Equal Rights Amendment, which Paul conceived in 1923.
She invited me to work with her and the National Woman’s Party, saying, “Why do you want to write about history? The point is to make it!”
— Marjory Nelson, hypnotherapist; San Francisco
- For more on Alice Paul's role in the suffrage movement, visit the Library of Congress.
- The Alice Paul Institute seeks to educate and empower women to serve as catalysts for people to recognize and acknowledge the relationship between their lives and the larger social, economic and philosophical movement toward women's equality.