He was a rising young Wall Street stockbroker, fresh out of Columbia with a degree in economics. She was a well-born young woman from Philadelphia, willowy and beautiful, and they set off on life together united by boundless faith in an America steady on course for enduring prosperity.
They were married in 1928, and before the year was out, young stockbrokers were among the despairing army of unemployed that roamed the land during the Great Depression. But my parents had one stroke of good fortune in the misery that gripped the country. Mother was teaching ballroom dancing in an enterprise launched three years earlier by Arthur and Kathryn Murray. Mother's job is what kept the family afloat during the next decade. Her job also marked the beginning of a warm and durable friendship that lasted throughout the long lives of my parents and the Murrays. Kathryn Murray, the last link to a world long gone, died Friday at 92.
Music and dancing were grace notes in my family long after Mother left the Murrays in 1943 to join my father in Washington. When we gathered around the family piano during the next 45 years, we thought of them because the piano had been a gift from them.
The Murrays brought the waltz, the tango, the fox trot, the Charleston, the rumba, the Big Apple, the Castle Walk and many other dances into the popular culture -- teaching millions. Ballroom dancing can be demanding, sensual, romantic and liberating. And the Murrays understood better than anybody that dancing should be fun. They were both superb dancers and teachers. When Mother first went to work for them after graduating from Barnard, their studio on 43rd Street was new, Wall Street was booming and people had money and wanted a good time.
Mother was one of their first teachers, and she later managed the 43rd Street studio. After the crash of 1929, the studio cut back from six floors to two, but it survived, when just about everything else that depended on disposable income went under. I once asked my mother how on earth the studio had made it through the '30s, and her answer revealed a lot about human nature: When times are that grim, she said, people have to find some outlet, something to do for fun. The Murrays bet on that, and they were right.
When my Mother, Margaretta, died in 1989, I wrote a column about her, which Dad sent to the Murrays. Kathryn Murray wrote back a lovely note, remembering one of the many Sunday visits my parents had made to their home in Harrison, N.Y. Mother and Mrs. Murray got it in their heads that they could do yoga, "the newest fad. We found that muscles are not worked through willpower," she remembered. "We loved Margaretta dearly and admired her many abilities."
Later that year, my nephew Mark wrote a poem commemorating what would have been my parents' 60th anniversary. Early in the poem, my father is writing to the Murrays, telling them of Mother's death. "It's a letter of gratitude," he tells Mark. My parents never forgot how they made it through the Depression. Mark ended the poem with this: "I still think of them as married/I even wished him a happy anniversary/He and his wife of sixty years/dead three months/Still there at his side/But not dancing anymore."
My dad sent the Murrays a copy of the poem, and Kathryn wrote to Mark, whom she had never met. "It is heart-touching but, also, heart-warming. My husband and I have both read it and, of course, that made us talk about your grandmother, as we knew her.
"She was tall and slender and such a graceful dancer. When my husband held teachers' meetings and dance sessions, he always asked Margaretta to dance with him as an example to the girl teachers and as a goal for the men to teach their women pupils.
"We were young in those days, and there was just the one studio. This was long before the organization became national, later international. The New York studio was an attractive place, and the staff members were all young and eager to be beautiful dancers."
The Murrays introduced ballroom dancing to the nation with a television show that ran through the 1950s. We watched it as a family.
Mother was a wonderful dancer, and she used it to teach all of us to dance. Mother and Dad's dinner parties frequently ended up with the living room rug rolled up and people dancing.
Ballroom dancing, with its elegance, became passe soon after Chubby Checker hit the scene in 1961 with "The Twist," arguably the beginning of the vulgarization of popular dance. It was blatantly sexual and required no talent. It was a howling success.
The Murrays retired from active management of their franchise studio company in 1964, but they remain the icons of ballroom dancing. Today, ballroom dancing is experiencing an explosive renaissance on university campuses. Colleges can't schedule enough classes to meet demand. Graham Spanier, president of Pennsylvania State University and a student of interpersonal relations, offered this explanation to the New York Times: "We are in a society that is increasingly impersonal, and there is a need for a way to meet one another, to touch without immediate sex. Ballroom dancing offers that."
The Murrays moved to Honolulu in 1968. Arthur Murray died in 1991. Kathryn Murray's death marks the end of an era for ballroom dancing, but the need for that kind of human contact -- with its music, its grace, its ritual and, yes, its romance -- endures. It is part of the champagne of life.
Mrs. Murray always ended TV's "The Arthur Murray Party" by telling her audience: "Put a little fun into your life. Try dancing." Then she would turn, hold up her arms, and her husband would waltz her away, and you knew you had just seen a very lovely lady.