Remembering my holidays spent with Aunt Marge in Miami Beach

Aunt Marge — who took the author to Pompano Park at least 50 times and insisted harness racing and fly fishing were the world’s only civilized sports — was a larger-than-life figure during his formative years, particularly during the holidays.

by David Mattia

Editor’s note: For the fifth year in a row, HRU is delighted to feature not-the-usual holiday story from trainer and screenwriter David Mattia (IMDB page here). His previous yuletide stories can be found here:

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“I feel sorry for people who don’t drink. They wake up and that’s the best they’re going to feel for the rest of the day.” — Aunt Marge quoting Dean Martin

When I think of the happiest times of my life, I always include the five consecutive New Year’s Eve celebrations I spent as an adolescent visiting my Aunt and Uncle at a small hotel in Miami Beach called The Grotto DiBari.

From Dec. 27 through Jan. 2 – beginning when I was barely 11 years old — you’d usually find me crouching behind the hotel’s pastel pink and green tiki bar. That’s where I’d quietly shake up a tray of whiskey sours or put together the ingredients for a half-dozen boilermakers.

I didn’t drink the booze because it tasted yucky. But I was great at mixing up various cocktails and carrying them up the hotel’s outdoor staircase that led to my Aunt Marge’s upstairs apartment. Aunt Marge was the secretly tipsy lady who owned the place and taught me how to be discreet about her drinking and personally private about almost everything else.

Before her first sip, a very ladylike sampling, she would look me in the eye and say, “It’s okay to be a chatterbox, so long as you don’t actually tell anyone about anything.”

Later in the afternoon, she’d send down for another tray. As I climbed the staircase, Aunt Marge would peek from her window and say, “Here comes my beautiful baby Saint Bernard with my anti-freeze.”

Aunt Marge never once seemed even slightly drunk, but usually, around sundown, as her hotel guests gathered on the patio for cocktails and finger foods, she’d say funny drunk things like, “Who took the cork out of my lunch,” or “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.” Guests would laugh because there was always a swanky air of cocktail party earthiness afoot. Because she always looked and sounded so fashionably fabulous, no one had a clue that Aunt Marge would fail a breathalyzer test even when she was sober.

Anyway, this is the story of my annual Christmas/New Year’s Eve vacation in Miami as far as I remember it. Usually, when I write about events from long ago, I rely on information, anecdotal or otherwise, told to me by people both living and dead, but this time I remember it all by myself.

When I was a toddler, before going on to be an underaged bartender, my father’s Uncle Al married a woman named Marge. Hence, she became my Aunt Marge. At the time, both were at the tipping point of retirement age. People referred to it as a later-in-life marriage, and it was assumed that they would live out their newly wedded Golden Years in one of those small South Jersey towns designated for retirees.

You know the place. It’s always near an all-you-can-eat buffet restaurant with early-bird specials, a lot of doctors, a third-rate hospital, and a funeral parlor. It’s like a Bermuda shorts triangle of death and resignation. There are thousands of these communities scattered throughout North America. Each year, a new bunch of recruits will look to the heavens, shrug their shoulders, and sign up to live in these places where they can talk to new friends about their prescriptions.

Uncle Al and Aunt Marge, however, didn’t fall for that routine. I should emphasize that it was Aunt Marge who didn’t fall for it. Uncle Al was basically a piece of furniture that got moved around within the various rooms of Aunt Marge’s life. She had no intention of being set adrift atop an ice floe of old folks. Rather than sit and watch the golden years passing by the outer fringe of the New Jersey Pine Barrens, Aunt Marge, with Uncle Al in tow, went and bought herself a small hotel in Miami Beach.

Everyone thought they were making a mistake because neither had a lick of experience in the hotel business, but Aunt Marge had never failed at anything. Moreover, she had an incentive that no one knew about. Don’t tell anyone, but she was way older than her presumed age of 62.

Picture Mrs. Howell from the TV show “Gilligan’s Island.” Take away any trace of stuffy silliness, but add, instead, a case of Cutty Sark and a carton of Camel cigarettes, and you’ve got the general idea.

Marge was tall, slim, and still beautiful despite her secret antiquity, but she could out-drink any frat boy, and she could smoke a pack of Camels faster than any off-target drone strike.

She owned a ton of expensive jewelry, bet heavily on the ponies via a bookie who eventually went missing in Pompano Beach, and she drank the hard stuff. One would assume that Aunt Marge knew that if death was going to reach out for anyone, she’d be on the short list. With that in mind, she high-tailed it down to Miami and started a new career.

I’m going to skip ahead here and make note that Aunt Marge had more than her fair share of provenance and historical importance. Sadly, her accomplishments seem to have been overlooked by the passage of time or perhaps forever hidden because of her intensely private nature. In fact, even when I was about 12 or 13, I was the only person she fully trusted. I know this to be true because, between my drink deliveries, she would tell me so. It’s not unusual for someone to spill their guts to their bartender – even if he’s a little kid.

I don’t know, maybe it was the boilermakers, but she told me a lot of things that no one else seemed to know. Everyone in my family – save for my mother who was not related to her in any way — just assumed she was an old career girl who drank too much. My mother called her, “A classy old broad.” Maybe you can’t say something like that now. I guess I’ll find out.

Each time she told me a personal story, it always started with the disclaimer, “Now remember, kiddo, this is strictly between you and me and the lamppost.” I guess I got the general idea because I now use that expression myself.

Way back, I guess when the Wright Brothers were still alive, Aunt Marge lived with her family in the southern portion of Idaho. Her father had a small airplane with which he delivered parts and parcels to farmers along the Snake River for a new freight company called Varney Airlines that had leased his services.

When she was about 14, she could fly the plane by herself. By the time she was 17, she started doing her father’s weekly run because both her mother and father were chronically ill, and her family needed the money. When an enraged Walter Varney, the man who owned the company, found out that a beautiful teenage girl was flying his route under his contract, he did what any smart businessman would do… he hired her.

I’m going to get some dates wrong because of Aunt Marge’s fudged age, but this would have been about 1925 when Varney Airlines was growing its own fleet and changing its business direction. It was rapidly expanding from a small company that carried mail via leased pilots and airplanes, to an actual airline that would fly passengers. The plan was to send Aunt Marge to a “woman’s college” and groom her for a career in something that didn’t even have a name yet. This story gets better, so hang in there.

Getting back to the hotel in Miami Beach…

When I was 10, and up until I was 21, I could fly pretty much anywhere for free. This had nothing to do with Aunt Marge’s youthful piloting skills, but there was a serendipitous connection that I will tell you about later.

My father’s company was connected to a major airline and flying for free was one of the perks. Better still, if I dressed up in a jacket and tie, I could fly in first class. In fact, I sat next to the late comedienne Phyllis Diller… twice. That’s a great story for another time.

Celebrity sightings aside, when summer came or I had time off from school, I would ask to go to the hotel in Miami. This made my mother happy because she liked for her kids to be exposed to Aunt Marge. The drinking notwithstanding, mom saw elements of taste, wit, and sophistication in Aunt Marge that could potentially enrich her own children. For that reason, from the age of 10 until about 16, it was decided that the annual Holiday trip to Miami was inscribed as an official pilgrimage.

Sometimes one of my brothers would come along, but mostly I was on my own on the Christmas Holiday trips. I’d sit in first class with a little tag pinned to my jacket; being shepherded around by flight crew who mysteriously seemed to know that I was, “Marge’s nephew.”

The hotel in Miami had an established clientele of French-Canadian families who’d been wintering there for decades. Each snowbird season it was the same people, minus one elderly family member who didn’t last long enough to make the following year’s migration. But there’d always be a newly retired couple to fill the vacancy.

Keeping in mind that these Québécois folks had been coming to The Grotto DeBari for years, they naturally expected certain things to be a certain way. This didn’t sit well with Aunt Marge because she was definitely not the kind of hotelier who believed that the customer was always right. That’s where I came in. These tensions usually peaked during the hotel’s annual New Year’s Eve Party when all the guests were treated to patio festivities that had cost Aunt Marge far more money than any of these people were paying for their efficiency suites.

Unlike today, where I speak French like an imbecile, when I was a kid, I could speak the language very well. For that reason, fearing an all-out war between Aunt Marge and half of her customers, Uncle Al, using what little authority he had, elevated my visits to the hotel as semi-working vacations. I didn’t exactly have to sing for my supper, but aside from private bartending and occasional trips to the grocery store, I came into prominence as an unpaid emissary.

The old Canadian women were charmed by my language skills. Soon, trivial problems, like a simple request for decaf coffee were alleviated. Prior to my diplomacy, Aunt Marge couldn’t conceive of anyone drinking coffee without caffeine. She didn’t even know what decaf was, and why would she? She lived most of her life between revolving doses of caffeine and alcohol. When the coffee thing first became an issue, I remember my aunt saying, “Decaffeinated? How the hell do these ingrates wake up in the morning!” Yes, there was that kind of tension fomenting between an old WASP like Aunt Marge and a few demanding French-Canadian senior citizens.

My mother emphasized that Aunt Marge had an “urbane” sense of humor, and that it was rapidly becoming the rarest kind of wit left on earth. She told me that I should learn to recognize and appreciate my aunt’s brand of entertaining sophistication. It was my mom’s opinion that Aunt Marge could very well be the most elegant and intelligent person I’d ever know, and that I should take full advantage of her influence since she wasn’t going to live forever.

Saying that Aunt Marge, a boozy woman who owned a small hotel in Miami Beach, was the most interesting and most elegant person I would ever know, sounds like a stretch since some of you might remember that my childhood neighbor, from my birth until her death in the 1980s, was Madame Maria Jeritza. I was remarkably close to her, and yes, I had to call her “Madame Jeritza.”

Madame Jeritza, for those of you who don’t know, was one of the most famous operatic sopranos who ever lived. Being a world-renowned diva, her shoes were difficult to fill. When I knew Madame Jeritza, she’d already had over 60 years of international provenance, but then again, so did Aunt Marge. In a sense, both women were divas-in-decline, but Madame Jeritza’s acclaim would never be totally lost. Her devotees and opera aficionados have forever preserved her on record albums, photographs and movie film. Aunt Marge, however, would simply vanish from the face of the earth on the day she died because I was the only member of her fan club.

Despite her fame in the opera, Madame Jeritza was an invention – a crafted product of the Viennese Opera and European high society. In other words, she was trained to be a somebody. Aunt Marge, on the other hand, grew up on a vegetable farm in Idaho. Her kind of class came from the Good Earth itself. She told me fascinating and imaginative stories about having seen Sasquatch from the cockpit of her plane and about forced landings on frozen lakes in the middle of nowhere. Better yet, she took me to Pompano Park at least 50 times. Having grown up around gritty rodeos and slow quarter horses, Aunt Marge insisted that harness racing and fly fishing were the world’s only civilized sports.

Before I forget, Aunt Marge had a little teacup poodle named Peanut who she carried with her wherever she went. Evidently, peanut had a stroke or something when he was a puppy, and the veterinarian’s advice was to put him to sleep because he would forever be a “dummy.” Aunt Marge’s response to the veterinarian was, “He’s not a downed cow, dammit. He’s my dog!” Poor Peanut was indeed limited, almost like a human baby, but he managed to live a normal life, and woe to anyone who made a joke about Peanut – a tiny rust-colored dog who’d do absolutely nothing but sit on his owner’s lap and stare into nothingness.

I’d bonded with Aunt Marge over the years and had grown very protective of her because I knew things. I knew that the occasional scrape on her knee or her sprained wrist or the stitches in her forehead didn’t really happen because her heel got stuck in a crack in the sidewalk like she said, or that a restaurant valet had accidentally tripped her. I’d figured it all out without a wink or a nod. I didn’t want her to just fade away and fall into that imaginary crack in the sidewalk.

No, as much as I loved the eccentric Madame Jeritza and didn’t remember a life without her, I decided that Aunt Marge was far more valuable to me. Unconsciously, she had passed little pieces of herself onto my personality just as my mom had hoped she would.

Now, remember when I told you about Aunt Marge and the Varney Airlines thing? Remember how she was scooped up by Mr. Varney and groomed for a job that had no name? Well, guess what happened to Varney Airlines within a few years? Wouldn’t you know it. Varney became United Airlines, and Aunt Marge, at first a navigator, became one of the airline’s first female flight crew members. She didn’t fly the planes, not that anyone knew anyway, and she wasn’t one of the world’s first female flight attendants either. Instead, she was the newly formed, United Airlines’ Ambassador to Everything.

Wearing a uniform, she would sit with the world’s earliest civilian airline passengers to ease their fears or to answer their questions. Soon after, she was elevated to more important positions both on the ground and in the air. Just about everyone who became part of the United Airlines family had either been hired, assigned, or put into some area of training by Aunt Marge. That’s why so many of the crew knew who she was when I was that little kid with the name tag sitting in the first-class cabin. When she knew I was coming to Miami, she’d throw her weight around in a nice way to ensure my safe passage. Almost everyone who worked for the airline was connected, in one way or another, to Aunt Marge. She was a legend.

The last New Year’s Eve party with Aunt Marge was the most memorable. By this time, Aunt Marge had to be closing in on 85 and I was 16. In fact, I had just turned 16 a few days earlier. The hotel guests, by this time, a more culturally diverse group, were gathered on the patio and there were only 45 minutes left until midnight. Uncle Al pulled me aside and asked me to go up to the apartment and fetch Aunt Marge because the guests – preppy types – expected her to be there for the midnight festivities.

When I went into the apartment, Aunt Marge was a total train wreck. She’d obviously been sleeping one off. Her hair was a mess and she looked old and puffy and worn out. I delivered the message about the midnight hour. “Oh, that stupid thing,” she said. Then she poured herself a shot of something and mumbled that she’d be down in time and for me to tell Uncle Al to shut up. I didn’t see how she could possibly fix herself up in less than 40 minutes. I returned to the patio and told my Uncle that I didn’t think she would make it.

For over half an hour, I kept looking up at the door to the apartment and then to the clock. With only 12 minutes to go, the apartment door and Aunt Marge, wearing a bejeweled black satin evening gown and carrying the pitifully baffled Peanut in the crook of her arm, emerged looking like a Countess returning in glory to her kingdom. She looked like a million dollars and I would bet that the jewelry she was wearing was worth as much. She walked down her staircase slowly and carefully, taking what seemed like an eternity to descend the 16 steps. What was perceived by the guests as a magically graceful and elegant entrance was just a cautionary lesson in how to make a stylish entrance despite being old, tired, worn out and totally smashed. I can truthfully say that she never looked better. Whatever she did to herself, and as fast as she did it, this was nothing short of a miracle.

For about half an hour, Aunt Marge managed to mingle with the guests, laugh at their jokes, make a few jokes of her own, clink a few glasses at midnight, and make self-effacing and bawdy comments in the vein of Mae West when women admired her diamonds… and then she was done. She handed Peanut to me and took my arm and said, “Back to the apartment. For the love of God, get me back to the apartment.”

She held my hand tightly as she ascended the stairs. Midway up, she turned back to wave goodbye to the people below. I opened the door, she turned and waved one last time and then she stumbled into her apartment. I put Peanut down on his velvet pillow, and before I could turn back, Aunt Marge was passed out on her bed. No, she wasn’t dead, and I had seen this show before – the passing out thing – but this was one for the books. The following morning, she was fine and remembered nothing about the night before.

And that was the last time I saw Aunt Marge alive. For a few years I was told not to come to Miami because Aunt Marge wasn’t feeling well. She sat with Peanut all day and watched soap operas. She couldn’t drink because they said she would die if she did. Because she couldn’t drink, she lived out the last few years as a recluse. She died of liver failure and alcoholic dementia at the age of 93. Her merciful death certificate said that she was 78 and that she had died of natural causes. That doctor must have loved her as much as I did.

Some of you might read this and think that it’s really just the story of an over glorified old drunk that has been disingenuously crafted as a coming-of-age story, and you might be right. So, what if it is? My goal has always been to keep Aunt Marge from becoming less than a footnote and this was the only way I could do it.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.