Under the Influence

I’m not from a writing dynasty, like Stephen King and Joe Hill, John and Susan Cheever, Joel and Ethan Coen, or Alexandre Dumas pere et fils. But my father’s cousin Marion Miller wrote a shopping column for the New Yorker called “On and Off the Avenue,” and she also contributed to “The Talk of the Town.” Marion, who was about forty years older than I, never sat down with me and discussed goal, motivation, or conflict. In fact, I never read a word she wrote when she wrote; we didn’t have a subscription to the magazine. Now, Google has filled in the blanks. Marion Miller | The New Yorker

A “spinster” with a murky romantic relationship in her past (Was he married? Did he die?), she’d come to our suburban house from the city for the occasional holiday dinner. She always wore pearls and a mink coat for the train trip, and was pretty glamorous to my eyes. She and my father and grandmother would talk about dead Miller relatives I never met and argue over which one I looked like. The implication was I didn’t resemble any of them, and was perhaps a changeling. It was rather disconcerting.

Nevertheless, I have come to realize the enormous effect Marion has had upon my life, if not my writing or self-esteem. Well before the days of the Internet, before Instagram and TikTok influencers and product branding, there was straightforward bribery. Marion received a massive mountain of makeup and fancy department store freebies in hopes she would write wittily about the latest must-have thing. A few times a year, she’d invite my father to collect most of it—one woman, no matter how glamorous, couldn’t possibly use it all.

When my father came home with the loot, it was like my birthday and Christmas all rolled into one expensive extravaganza. I was probably the only ten-year-old girl on Long Island who used Princess Borghese’s Fango Mud Mask and Estee Lauder’s Youth Dew. The seeds of my addiction were planted early, and I find myself virtually unable now to pass up a “Free gift with purchase” makeup promotion. Yes, I want all the samples, all the scents, all the soothing creams.

I may not be leaving the house, but you’ll find me moisturized and lipsticked. I feel somewhat put together when I wear it, even if I’m barefoot in a sweatshirt and yoga pants (my writing uniform). To my dismay, none of my three girls use lipstick except on the rarest occasions. I am attempting to corrupt my granddaughters; time will tell.

I wish now I could ask Marion about all the New Yorker’s amazing writers, cartoonists, and personalities—she worked there for decades and must have known a lot of them. Charles Addams, Robert Benchley, Shirley Jackson, Dorothy Parker, James Thurber, John Updike, E.B. White—she shared credit with him for a few articles—just to name a few. What stories! An opportunity missed for sure. But she and my father and grandmother are gone, and all I’ve got left is a whiff of Chanel No 5, Marion’s favorite perfume. Did she pay for it or get it for free? A mystery that will remain unsolved.

Who and what would you ask from your past?

Maqgie’s latest book is the fourth and final Lady Adelaide Mystery, Farewell Blues. She’s hard at work on a new 1920s-era series.



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3 Responses to Under the Influence

  1. Brenda Buchanan says:

    What a wonderful post to start the day, Maggie! Hilarious!

  2. John Clark says:

    Great look back. I’d ask my great uncle Leland more about togue fishing in Porter Lake. He always came home with a keeper.

  3. I’d ask my great grandfather, my namesake, to tell me about his work as a brick and stone mason contractor in Bangor before there were gasoline or diesel engines. He never learned to drive but he built his own home and put his son through college and medical school.

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