Tuesday, November 6, 2012

I asked Michael Segers to Remember Marguerite Young and he did - beautifully

a beautiful guest post by Michael Segers @msegers

The first night, as I sat in the classroom of the New School, I wondered what I had gotten myself in for. The hallways and classrooms were sterile, institutional, like so many classrooms in which I have tried to teach and tried to learn, but not at all like my Village. Once Marguerite entered, everything changed.
Marguerite was even shorter than I am. But, she could fill a room just by being in it. She stood at the door, giving us a sweeping glance, then entered, and sat, not at the desk but on it, her feet dangling. Although I had seen her several times, this was my first chance to look at her closely.
Her hair hung straight, and to me, it always seemed the color of tobacco stains, perhaps an effect of her heavy smoking. The hair framed her face, which was not the face of a beauty, but it was beautiful. If we ever have a mountain honoring women, along the lines of Mt. Rushmore, Marguerite's face should be on it, if not because she wrote the great American novel, then because her face looks as if it should be there.
Her body was swathed in layers of scarves, shawls, capes, necklaces, bringing together a wide range of colors and designs. I think she always wore at least one thing with a paisley. And her feet were usually shod in boots that looked as if a fairy tale character should don them before heading off on a quest.
But, once she opened her mouth, the impression changed. She spoke with a flat, Midwestern twang; she was a Hoosier, a proud native of Indiana. It was as if when she spoke, she admitted that her elegant name Marguerite is just a French variant of Daisy.
I cannot remember much advice that she gave about writing. Perhaps most memorably, she said that fiction-writers should not read the fussy and fusty New York Times but instead the rollicking, down and dirty New York Daily News.
What I remember vividly are the fictions that she spun -- or, perhaps, they weren't fictions -- as if she were spinning us into her dreamlike novel. One bitterly cold night, she arrived late, complaining that every clock in the Village had frozen at a different time. She was always reporting about famous people she had shared the sidewalks with. There was a cigar store across the street from Sheridan Square, where she was always seeing Edgar Allan Poe. But she also was interested in more recent people. She seemed to have a special fondness for Amy Carter, Jimmy Carter's daughter. (These were the heady days of the 1976 presidential campaign, when people would buy me drinks to hear me talk my "honeysuckle talk.")
I took her writing class for two semesters, but she has never left my life. I would often see her and chat with her at Pennyfeathers, a little coffee shop which was her second home. Since she did not even have a kitchen in her large apartment with red floors, she had to go out to eat, and as she sat at the counter, she not only took advantage of willing audiences, she also practiced her almost psycho-therapeutic conversational skills in which she, for all her talk, would draw out sometimes unexpected words from the people around her.
After I left New York, whenever I returned, I would stop by Pennyfathers, sit a few seats from her, and wait until she scanned the room, as she had that first night at the New School. She would see me, wave, and call me by name. I do not believe that there was anything all that memorable about me, but she had a capacity to embrace multitudes... and to remember their names as well.
One year, since I was in New York across my birthday, a friend offered to give me a party and asked whom I would like to invite. Of course, I invited Marguerite, and she came, sat in the center of the room, and to the discomfort of my hostess had all eyes and ears drawn to her. The next year, I was back in the city for my birthday. My friend -- old Village nobility herself -- again offered me a party, but when I mentioned inviting Marguerite, she said, "I think not."
I quit returning to New York, settling back in to my native Georgia, but I would occasionally swap a note with her, and I would hear bits of news (analogous to The New York Times) or gossip (think of The New York Daily News). In 1995, she died, and a few years later, a painfully truncated version of her masterpiece of nonfiction, a biography of Eugene V. Debs, Harp Song for a Radical, came out.
By then, I was writing some online essays, and I felt compelled to write an essay on two great but neglected authors: Georgia's own Caroline Miller and my own Marguerite Young. I was fortunate to get a niece of Caroline Miller to contribute an essay on her aunt, and I had the sheer pleasure of not so much writing about Marguerite as trying to evoke her presence with my words.
A few years later, I received an email from a woman from India who had found my online essay about Marguerite. She wrote me about spending a rainy season when she was a child reading Miss MacIntosh, My Darling, but never getting the book from the library again. I could imagine how Marguerite would have cherished that story.
And then came Twitter. When I first signed up for Twitter, I began searching for topics that people had referred to that might mean that I would like to follow them. I entered Marguerite's name into the Twitter search box, and I found...
Well, Wayne, as you know, I found you, and I am so glad that Marguerite found a new way to be a part of my life.
Whenever I think about Marguerite, it seems as if she somehow shows up, as Edgar Allan Poe did at the cigar shop. Even though the suburban Florida cul-de-sac on which I live would be at least as unlikely a fit for her as it is for me, I think I just saw a little woman with tobacco-colored hair, wrapped in layers of clouds or clothes, marching with her familiar, determined gait past, of all things, a palm tree.


  1. Wayne, thanks for giving me a chance to talk about our great American novelist. May I add a link to a longer piece I wrote about her -

  2. I always love reading Michael's stories about his days in NYC. His writings make me scan my memories while I ask myself, "Wait, do I have any stories about my life as beautiful and sincere as that?"

    Great post.

  3. Thank you for this memory of author Marguerite Young and your time with her in NYC Michael. It is wonderful to think of her this way, I discovered her through Wayne's great blog here. Thanks Wayne!