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A Lesson from Betty
A Review of a 1949 Pageant Article
March 14, 2007
scan of magazine page; small scale.
In 1949, Betty MacDonald appeared before the reading public by way of popular magazines. In June, she wrote an original article for Cosmopolitan, called “Money and I.” A month later, Betty appeared in the July issue of Reader’s Digest as a guest writer of the regular feature called, “The Most Unforgettable Character I’ve Met.” Three months later, Pageant magazine printed an article called, “Take a Lesson from Betty MacDonald.” This was part of a series of interviews in which well-known Americans were asked to tell about a lesson learned from a memorable experience.

Betty told this story in an interview to Mary Cremmen and Diana Mowrer. Even though the story is charming, I wish that Betty had written the article instead of Cremmen and Mowrer.

As told to Mary Cremmen and Diana Mowrer

Another in the PAGEANT series of interviews in which a well-known American tells of a lesson learned from a memorable experience.

"POOR, POOR COUSIN Sarah. She has never had anything."

On my first visit to South Carolina I soon learned this was the favorite topic of conversation among my relatives. And to all outward appearances they were certainly right.

Cousin Sarah, a middle-aged spinster, lived alone in the old run-down family mansion. She was a quiet, cheerful little woman. With short, quick steps she almost skipped through the large shabby rooms, straightening a portrait here, a statuette there. These were her only tangible evidence that great names and times had once belonged to her ancestors. Cousin May explained to me that they were also Sarah’s only chance for a really good meal or new dress or even a part time maid. But had Sarah ever tried to sell them? "Never," sniffed May.

Hardly a day passed during my visit in South Carolina when I didn’t find myself feeling sorry for Sarah. What an empty, disappointing life she must be leading surrounded with nothing but dusty reminders of the past. She was a brave old girl, though. Always a smile, a kind word. Certainly anyone as poor as Sarah had to be a good actress to pretend such contentment.

And then an astounding thing happened. At first I thought it was a gift from heaven. Then Sarah spoke and I learned a lesson I’ll never forget.

One morning during my visit Cousin May had been leafing through a magazine when she saw the picture of a vase that exactly duplicated the one on Sarah’s mantelpiece. The caption under the photograph said the Metropolitan Museum of New York had bought the vase for $3,000.

It further stated that the vase was believed to be one of a pair and that the museum was most anxious to find the missing one.

I am sure Cousin May ran all the way to Sarah’s house. I was there in the living room when she came in panting.

At first she tried to camouflage her excitement. She spoke of the weather. She made small talk about the rest of the family. And slowly she worked her way around the room to the mantel where the vase stood.

"Sarah," she asked in a voice that fairly trembled with restraint, "wasn’t there a mate to this vase on the mantel?"

"Oh, yes indeed," replied Sarah while she arranged a bouquet of flowers, "but you know how things disappeared during the Civil War."

By this time May was almost bursting. Unable to hold in the news another second she rushed over and threw her arms around Sarah.

"Oh, Cousin," she exclaimed. "I read the most wonderful thing in a magazine. The Metropolitan Museum of New York has bought the mate to your vase for $3,000."

Cousin Sarah stopped arranging the flowers and thought for several moments. Finally she turned to May.

"That’s most interesting, dear," she answered sadly, "but the way my finances are now I don’t see how I could possibly buy it back."

Printed in: Pageant Magazine, October 1949, Vol. 5 No. 4, page 125.

Names, location, and events were most likely altered to protect the family’s privacy. My best guess is that Betty is referring to maternal relatives living in the state of New York. “Sarah” and “May” could have been cousins from the Sanderson, Cox, Thalimer, or Ten Eyck side of the family.

Betty traveled to New York for promotional tours in the Spring of 1946 and the Fall of 1948. The first tour in 1946 was a road trip in which Don and Betty spent several months traveling around the country by car.

Again, my best guess is that the visit took place in 1946. If any reader knows the rest of the story, please post a message in the Forum.

For perspective, three thousand 1949 dollars were worth $25,000 to $70,000 in 2005, depending on whose analytic tools one accepts. Per's very cool calculator. -Ed.
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