May 1, 2005 If you had to sum up the character of Margot Bachman in one word, it likely would be generous. But that would hardly cover the many aspects of this transplanted New Yorker, who has made St. Thomas her home for most of the last 50 years.
Bachman is generous with her time she graciously gave this interviewer an entire morning without a second thought generous in her outlook on the world and generous in the use of her gracious home spread out on a hill overlooking Vessup Bay with a view to St. John.
In fact, a class in piano posture technique by a local instructor has just been concluded. A Steinway baby grand piano in mint condition sits in the living room. Does she play? "No, I was never very good," she says. "My husband was the piano player."
Earlier this year, Bachman hosted a performance by renowned Austrian pianist Anton Kuerti under the auspices of The Forum. "He was wonderful," she says, then indicates the spacious patio around the pool. "It was beautiful they set up tents out here for dinner. We did the same thing last year, too."
Bachman is curious. She has always had a desire to see how people live, and she has communicated that curiosity to her advantage in her 40 years of publishing St. Thomas This Week, the first island guide devoted to what to do, where to do it, where to buy things, what ships are in, and most anything else a visitor might want to know.
A framed document hangs on the wall of her sunny little office, a separate bungalow set on the far side of the swimming pool. It attests to her career. It is the yellow cover page of the guide, with a picture of Bachman over the caption: "First Lady of Publishing Founder Award."
"Oh, that was a joke," she says, waving a hand. "It was given to me last year at a party for someone else." She pauses a minute, "But, isn't it lovely?"
It is a lovely tribute, but it is a well-earned one.
Margot and Bill Bachman moved to St. Thomas from New York in 1957. "It was Bill's idea," she says. "Bill had been in advertising, but there was no advertising here in those days. He was familiar with surveying. He learned the basics in the Navy in World War II, and it was badly needed here then, so he bought some equipment and set up a business."
Bachman is an animated conversationalist. She laughs a lot. Her auburn hair and freckles still give her a youthful appearance. She has a knack for getting right to the heart of a subject, using her hands to emphasize things. However, she has had such a full life, and her interests are so varied, that one thing leads to another, and you may wind up somewhere other than where you started. And that is part of her charm.
She is petite, a little over five feet tall. In fact, she seems dwarfed by Sam and Dutch, her two German shepherds, who follow her steps. "Come on, Dutch, now lie down," she commands, to no avail. "He's 3 years old, and he shouldn't be doing this." Dutch seems much more likely to try to climb into Bachman's lap than lie down, but he finally follows orders and lies down next to Sam, who is a couple years older. The two dogs on the floor take up a good part of the tiny office. Though friendly, they keep an eye on the interviewer.
"When we first moved here, the island was so friendly, so relaxed," Bachman reminisces. "You knew everybody, or at least by sight. Everybody lived in town. There were no keys it was very safe."
The Bachmans first rented a little wooden house with a balcony on Palm Strade, overlooking the harbor. "It was 49 steps up. We rented from Erik Perkins, the barber. Everybody called him the 'American barber'. After I had the magazine, we would sit out on the gallery Leona Bryant, Reuben Wheatley, and an O'Bryan, I think and we'd put together the Carnival booklet. I loved living in town. We could look out over the valley, over Galleon House, the harbor. Such a view."
Bachman was born in Canada and moved to New York to start a career. "I had been trained in interior decorating," she says, 'but I hardly put that to use." At least not right away.
She went to an employment agency who hired her to work at the agency, and that led in a roundabout way to an editorial job on Seventeen magazine. "They were just starting "Seventeen" magazine, and they hired me as assistant fiction editor, and then I became the editor. I read a lot, and I loved to write. It was all a young staff, nobody over 30."
She thinks back, laughing, her brown eyes full of humor. "It was so different then. We didn't write about sleeping with someone. We hardly allowed ourselves to talk about kissing," she says.
After Seventeen, Bachman went to Woman's Day magazine, where she put her interior decorating background to use. "I supervised our workshops. We would take a room and show people how to give it a complete makeover for under $400, sort of like what Martha Stewart does now."
And how did she meet her husband? "Oh, in a bar," she says. "He said 'hello,' and I said 'hello,' and that was that."
Bachman's first St. Thomas job was at the V.I. Daily News, where she was hired by Ariel Melchior Sr. "I had applied as a reporter, but he said he needed somebody to sell advertising, so he trained me and put me to work.
"I went to sell an ad to an Arab merchant downtown," she relates, "and he wanted to advertise Hudson Bay blankets. I was startled and told him so, but he insisted. When Mr. Melchior saw the ad, he said, 'Which one of you has lost your mind?'"
Bachman said St. Thomas This Week wasn't her original idea. "After I left the 'Daily News,' Bob Lodge, a fellow on St. Croix who put out a small sheet, asked me if I'd like to do it on St. Thomas," Bachman says. "My husband, Bill, knew journalism, and he helped. We started off with eight pages," she says. The magazine took off seemingly on its own, growing to 76 pages. "We never sold advertising," Bachman says. "People just called we sold ourselves. We distributed the magazine on the airlines. When I would travel, I listened to what people were saying, what they expected of St. Thomas, what they wanted to see and do, and, later, I instructed my staff to do the same."
Bachman eventually bought the St. Croix publication. She retired and sold the magazines in "1998 or 1999," she says, adding, "But I still miss seeing all the people, knowing what's going on."
The Bachmans moved to their present house in 1963. "We were the only ones here. People said, 'Why are you moving out there?' It was so beautiful, this view. The first weekend we were here, we heard gunshots and reported it to the police. It was people hunting deer."
The house is gathered around a peaceful pool, with all manner of flora and fauna — bougainvillea, hibiscus. It never feels as if you are indoors. It is vibrant with art and color.
The walls are covered with pieces by local artists, including many by the late Dave Millard. "I studied with Dave for four or five years," Bachman says. A painter, too? She is modest. She doesn't have any of her oils displayed. She says with a laugh, "Somebody broke in the house and stole a stack of my paintings. Someone who worked for me then asked why anyone would steal my work when the walls held so much more."
Bachman has an artist's eye. Though modest about her own paintings, she notes that she has been asked "two or three times to judge the Caribbean Colour Art Show."
She points to a painting, a profile of three French ladies, side by side, in their straw hats. "That is by Chris Barringer. He gave it to me, and I love it," she says, adding that the Frenchtown Museum may be its eventual home.She indicates two unusual paintings abstracts full of color that look as though they could have been influenced by Jackson Pollock. "My friend Michele Evans did these," she says. "I have had two operations in my life, and each time before I went into surgery, Michele started painting and kept at it until I came out of surgery."
And now, the world traveler. "When my husband died, many years ago, I still wanted to travel, but I was a little timid about going alone," Bachman says. "So, I went to cooking schools in France and Italy. I met people, learned something and got over that shyness."
To get an inkling of the extent of her travels, Bachman says the only places left that still spark her curiosity are Estonia and Latvia, an observation most ordinary travelers could only aspire to. Which country stands out over all others? "Burma," she says with no hesitation. "It's called Myanmar now. It is beautiful, exquisite. The people are poor, but they are not aware of it. The people are wonderful. It's fascinating."
Bachman reaches for one of several photo albums, aptly titled, "Here and There." It has photos from the Outer Hebrides, where Bachman still has some distant family, to Cambodia, Yemen, Greece, Russia, Japan, Vietnam and Myanmar. And that is the tip of the iceberg.
Bachman says what she looks for in a new country is "mainly how the people live what they are thinking, what they are aware of, their reactions to America, particularly in recent times, and in countries so different from ours, how they dress and, of course, what they eat."
She has a keen interest in archeology, "Not the digging, but the history," she says. "I've been on archeological trips for three or four years in Greece and Turkey. I love reading the Greek authors."
An annual jaunt to London for a week of theater is on the tap for this fall, "and," she says, "maybe a trip to the Hebrides. It's kind of a back of beyond place."
Closer to home, Bachman recently visited the Plaza Hotel in New York, home to many treasured memories, some literary, many not. The hotel is facing a partial renovation into condos, much to the consternation of many New Yorkers and others. "I had afternoon tea with a friend at the Palm Court," she says, "I hope they will keep that."
Smiling a little wistfully, she adds, "I spent my wedding night at the Plaza."
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