Wednesday, January 14, 2009

From the Balcony

Elizabeth Anne Bloomer was born in Chicago in 1918, the daughter of a traveling salesman for a rubber company. An Episcopalian tomboy, Ms. Bloomer took a job teaching the fox trot to young girls when she was only 11 years old following the stock market crash. Four years later, her father died of carbon monoxide poisoning--an apocryphal occurrence that may have been a suicide. Later she studied dance with Martha Graham, actually appeared at Carnegie Hall, and following a disastrous first marriage and divorce in 1947, she met a veteran pilot and former Michigan football star named Gerald Ford and married the future President in October the following year.

Megan Ruth Marshack was born in Sherman Oaks, California in 1953. She had wanted to be on the boys football team, and kept her aggressive edge long after she completed her two year degree at Valley College and her journalism degree at California State University, Northridge. Tenacious, she took at job with Associated Press radio and worked her way into White House coverage, where she undoubtedly met First Lady Betty. Not long after presenting Vice President Nelson Rockefeller with a individually-wrapped supply of Oreo cookies, Megan came back to her apartment in Chevy Chase with his gift of the elegant sculpture of a Chinese jade horse.

I know, because I was staying there that week. I had been in college with Megan and admired her quick success. She was exceptionally talented, a voluptuous stunner with striking long hair and yummy lips...and the temperament of a bulldog on your cuff. She was brilliant, knew art of the Ancient Near East, and conversed with White House reporters on their own turf, on their own topics, mano a mano. She was great friends with Helen Thomas. And that summer, the summer of the Bicentennial, she had finagled a White House press pass so I could stand the following morning with the media on the White House lawn during the visit by Queen Elizabeth.

The next day, I put on my suit and caught a bus from Chevy Chase to Pennsylvania Avenue, NW. It was a stunning, sunny day with a light morning breeze. You stopped at the security kiosk on the side facing the Executive Office Building and presented your credentials, then walked the circular drive toward the press entry and the south lawn.

The entry to the south portico was roped off and the press corps crowded against the apron. Press Secretary Ron Nessen appeared on the balcony briefly, summarizing the schedule for the visit, then out came the Queen, Ford, and Betty into the brilliant sunshine. The Queen wore a blue suit, white gloves, and matching pillbox hat. As the cameras flashed, the Queen issued her stiff royal wave and plastic smile, then posed between the President and First Lady. Betty had a wide grin plastered to her face as she waved, her body uncomfortably stiff as they stood together.

After the photographers had sufficient opportunity, Ford put his hand at the Queen's elbow and steered her back toward the open door to the White House. The pair ducked inside and for a moment we were stunned. The First Lady, who apparently had no idea she had been abandoned at the rail, continued to wave and smile at the press corps. Reporters began to twitter. After a deadly odd moment passed, Ford reappeared, took his wife by the arm and escorted her off the porch.

Later in the White House press room, a reporter from the Detroit Free Press explained to me that Betty had a bad back, had been on a course of pain pills which, perhaps, accounted for her quirky trance. Later, of course, the nation learned the truth about Betty.

She had long been an anomaly among Republican First Ladies, speaking candidly about CB radios, mood rings, divorce, abortion, and drugs. Her breakthrough candor about her struggle with breast cancer and 1974 mastectomy made her a national heroine. But I am more impressed about her open struggle and victory over drugs and alcohol and her founding of the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, not far from where she and President Ford retired and lived up until his death in 2006. Renowned as a treatment center for Hollywood personalities and other wealthy people, Betty's center has flat out saved families, saved lives, and brought peace to countless others.

Here's sufficient irony if you need it: On February 8, 1940, financier John D. Rockefeller hosted a dinner for Bill Wilson, co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. The watershed event helped publicize the organization's new treatment for alcoholism while lending it credibility among New York's highest social circles. Unfortunately, Rockefeller fell ill that evening, so he sent son Nelson to host the event.

As for Megan Marshack, when I finished my Bicentennial Tour I lost touch with her forever. What I do know is that she was hired as a research assistant to Nelson Rockefeller and was the woman who called 911 as he lay dying from a heart attack. Her New York co-op was only two doors down from where the former Vice President was living, and she suddenly disappeared from public view shortly after his death, fueling suspicions in cities where suspicion is king.

It could not be as easy or simple for Megan to have escaped the limelight and achieve the peace that Betty found following that awful day on the balcony. Her name flickered briefly in the news during the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal. I'd rather associate her bravery, intellect, zest, and panache with the angels of Betty Ford's highest nature. After all, albeit briefly, Megan played tackle football with the big boys.


Mon-sewer Paul Regret said...

From day to day, there's no telling what's going to turn up next over here! You have led an interesting fucking life, that's all I've got to say. Kicking it with Megan Marshack!

Mari said...

Absolutely fascinating. Thanks!

Gabby said...

Thanks Steven,and I left out some goodies, too! Welcome to my blog, Mari!