Our Friend Martha

The Gulf of Mexico, outside Martha B. Apgar’s place, in North Redington Beach, Fla. (Jay Nordlinger)

A personal tribute to a great woman

Years ago, in print, I described her as “a daughter of Florida, America, and God.” True. She loved all three. And she was one of the best friends you could ever have.

She was Martha B. Apgar, who started life as Martha Lydia Brown. I would sing to her: “Lydia oh Lydia, say, have you met Lydia?” Those are the opening words to “Lydia, the Tattooed Lady,” the old Groucho Marx song. She hated it when I did that (while also liking it).

Miz Lydia, as I sometimes called her — she hated that too (while also . . .) — was born in 1928. Her hometown was DeLand, Fla. It is the seat of Volusia County. The seat is not the famous Daytona Beach, as Martha’s mother liked to point out. She was a proud DeLand woman. Rather, it is DeLand.

The town is about 25 miles west of Daytona Beach, and about 35 miles north of Orlando.

It is also the home of Stetson University, an elegant institution. The university is named after John B. Stetson, the hatmaker. He was known for placing a hat on the American West, but he was from Philadelphia (by way of New Jersey), and he endowed this Florida school — whose teams are “the Hatters.”

Once, Martha arranged for Bill Buckley and me to perform a little Q&A at Stetson. (He was the A, I was the Q.) The administration gave us Stetson hats, in accordance with their tradition.

As a girl, Martha went to the Wisconsin Avenue Elementary School, and she was taught by Miss Dempsie Brewster, who was also the principal of the school. I always pictured Miss Dempsie as a perfect lady and a perfect teacher — wearing white gloves, when she went downtown. Sometimes Martha disabused me, sometimes she didn’t.

In due course, Wisconsin Avenue Elementary was renamed for Miss Dempsie Brewster.

Did she teach Martha and other children the legendary fact about the St. Johns River? This is the river that runs near DeLand, and through a healthy stretch of Florida. “The St. Johns and the Nile are the only two rivers in the world that run north.” This is the legendary fact, or rather “fact.” It’s untrue, unfortunately — but it made for excellent teasing.

In any event, Martha once treated me and other friends to a beautiful boat ride on the St. Johns.

She and her siblings, Bob and Louise, grew up in the Hotel Putnam, which their parents owned and operated. It “catered to the carriage trade,” as Martha would say. I teased her that the staff would stoop over to lace her shoes every morning. Alternatively, I teased her that she was a savage out of the orange groves, shoeless.

Either line would do.

One December, Martha sent me a tin, saying, “Merry Christmas. Enjoy Jill’s shortbread.” Jill? She was a lady from Britain. During the war, Martha’s mother, Sarah, scooped up the leftover soap at the hotel and sent it to our British cousins. She did this through the Red Cross. The Brits were experiencing a severe soap shortage. Sarah’s contact, on the other side, was Jill.

After the war, they became fast friends, visiting each other. Jill made shortbread, which wowed one and all. She shared the recipe.

About ten years ago, on a National Review cruise, I met a lady from Lakeland, Fla. “I know Lakeland!” I said. The lady asked, “How?” “Because I’m from Michigan,” I said, “and that’s where the Detroit Tigers hold spring training.” She then told me that, when she was a little girl, her parents worked in a hotel. One year, Hank Greenberg — the great Tiger star of the 1930s — presented them with a pair of roller skates, to give to their daughter. His reasoning: “Every little girl ought to have a pair of roller skates.”

With excitement, I related this story to Martha, who was also on the cruise. She then dropped a bombshell on me: Lou Boudreau, the great shortstop of the Cleveland Indians, taught her to play ping-pong when he was staying at the Hotel Putnam.

I got the impression that all Florida ladies of a certain age had been benefited by baseball Hall of Famers.

One of the many admirable things about Martha’s parents is that they committed acts of racial liberalism. I know several stories, the most dramatic one involving a day at the beach.

Black employees of the hotel and their children had never seen the ocean — though they lived about 25 miles from it. Determined to remedy this, the Browns took them for a day at the beach. This involved a sheriff, a police helicopter, and other commotion. It involved racist resistance. But, dammit, the families got to experience the ocean, for the first time.

Martha, in her later life as a philanthropist, had a strong desire to help black youth. You could tell it came from deep in her background.

She went to Florida State, in Tallahassee. Word got around, somehow, that she was a Communist. (She was anything but.) I’d say, “Were you a Red Pepper?” (That’s what some antagonists called Claude Pepper, the longtime Florida Democrat.) She’d scoff and laugh.

At home in DeLand, she met a northern boy, Jack Apgar, from New Jersey. He marveled at how flat Florida was. “You can climb up a telephone pole and see from one end of the state to the other!” They were married in 1950. They had four children, three boys and a girl. Their eldest, called “John Boy,” was severely handicapped and died when he was 14.

This, too, drove Martha’s philanthropy.

She had a splendid life, but it was not all peaches and cream, far from it. She met her challenges with grit and prayer.

Martha, Jack, and their family had their life in New Jersey, where Jack founded STS, for “Somerset Tire Service.” An innovative company, it gave ownership to employees, who profited handsomely from it. The Apgars profited too.

Later, when she was practicing philanthropy — which does not come without headaches — Martha remarked, “Jack Apgar had no idea what he was doing to me when he made all that money.”

She loved New York City. Absolutely loved it. After Jack died, she bought an apartment on Central Park West, which she shared with her sister, Louise. It had a mirrored bathroom. One morning, their friend Suzie — than whom no one has ever been more charming or amusing — came out and said, “Now I understand what all the excitement is about.”

Suzie was amazed to see that Martha and Louise had box wine in the fridge. One night, they went to a good restaurant, and Suzie said to the sommelier, “Now, what do you have in a box wine?”

Eventually, Martha sold the apartment, which wound up occupied by Melanie Griffith and Antonio Banderas, who were married at the time. (They were movie stars.) Several years after that, Martha sold her house in New Jersey, to move back to Florida, into a senior-citizen facility in St. Petersburg.

“You mean, you’re going to the home?” I said. She got a huge kick out of this, and always referred to the facility as “the home” — even to the facility’s administrators, who were mortified.

Soon, she tired of the home, and moved full-time into her condo on the Gulf of Mexico. She couldn’t stand it when people called the Gulf “the ocean.” She would permit “sea,” but not “ocean.” As you might imagine, I said “ocean” every chance I got.

She also hated the pronunciation of “pecan” that rhymes with “began.” She insisted on “pecahn.” So I’d lay the first one on her — the “wrong” one — every now and then.

How she loved it when I was wrong! It provided fodder for both of us. One day, I had taken a walk on the beach, and she asked, “Did you go north or south?” I said, “How should I know? You’ve got to do ‘left’ or ‘right’ with me.” Her son Rob gave me a lesson on directions (one of my many deficiencies). Martha and I laughed about this ever after.

She was very generous with National Review, as with everyone else, and she was a bright presence on our cruises. So was Louise. “The movies have Thelma and Louise,” I would say, “and we have Martha and Louise.”

One afternoon, we had an audience Q&A, after a panel discussion. Baiting the sisters, I said, “You know, Martha and Louise have been cruising with us for many years, but I don’t think either one of them has ever asked a question.” Quick as a flash, Louise said, “That’s because we have all the answers.”

Martha loved Stetson University, in her hometown. She endowed scholarships, a lecture series, and other things there, and she did so in the name of LeRoy Lawson. He was an Episcopal priest and a philosophy professor — a tremendously learned and inspiring man. He meant a lot to Martha and many others, several of whom I met.

Martha, Louise, Suzie, and Marian would talk about Father Lawson often. What would Father Lawson think? What would Father Lawson say? Remember when Father Lawson . . .? One year, one of them (I forget which) said she was going to give up talking about Father Lawson for Lent. Not sure if it ever happened.

In 2009, Martha created the Apgar Foundation, whose main purpose was to bolster free-market economics and Western Civ, especially on campus. She was worried about the future of her country, which she loved so.

With Miz Martha, any number of adventures could be had. One day, we were at the Miami Biltmore Hotel, where I filmed an interview with Jeb Bush. It was a classic Florida day, a classic Florida experience. I had some very good key lime pie in that hotel.

Martha said it had to be white. If it wasn’t — if it was more green — it wasn’t real key lime pie.

I have many nuggets of wisdom from her. Somewhere along the way, I asked her whether she wanted to drop by the office (NR headquarters). She said, “Jack hated it when people dropped by the office. It just disrupted his day.” She once pointed out that telephone wires blighted the landscape. I had never noticed — but after she said so, I could see nothing but.

She would quote her mother: “Go ahead and walk in the rain. Enjoy it. Don’t worry about getting wet. Rain is part of life, and part of the outdoors.” One time, Martha was kind of lingering over a departure — a parting — and she said, “Mother didn’t like long goodbyes.” I would repeat that, in ensuing years. For instance, I might end a phone call with Martha that way: “Mother didn’t like long goodbyes.”

I loved the way she talked — not just what she said but how she said it. Of course, I teased her a bit. Where words ended with “o,” she tended to say “a.” Lots of ladies, from certain regions, do this. When driving through Orlanda, you might roll down the winda. Later, you might fluff up your pilla, or listen to Placida Dominga.

My favorite phrase she ever spoke — ever — was “my iPad.” It came out, “mah-ah-pad.”

What is a friend? Among other things, a friend is someone who will celebrate with you when you’re up, and console you when you’re down — and endeavor to bring you back up. That was Martha. A friend is someone who understands you, and, even when she doesn’t, loves you anyway — or all the more. That was Martha, too.

Also, when you were greeted by her, you were really greeted. She was truly happy to see you, which made you happy in turn.

She liked a good time — a good clean time — and liked others to have them. I remember something George Bush the Elder said, many years ago, before he became president. Asked why he was a conservative, he said, “For one thing, I don’t toss and turn nights, worrying that someone, somewhere, is having a good time.”

One evening, Martha and I were in a restaurant, next to a festive, somewhat rowdy table. She said, “I love the sound of Americans having a good time.”

I also heard her say — more than once — “I don’t think people should take pictures of old ladies.” She would say this if you asked to take her picture. (I did it anyway.) Martha was beautiful, inside and out. The only thing she’d concede was that she had good hair. “Yes, I have good hair,” she’d admit. “I don’t have to do anything to it.” It just looked right, naturally.

Last month, she was in hospice care, at her home on the Gulf. Her niece Sarah was there with her. “Tell Martha,” I said on the phone, “that I hope she’s enjoying the sound of the ocean — and that someone will give her a nice piece of pecan pie” (rhyming with “began,” of course). The report: She grimaced, happily.

Have I mentioned that she loved music? She did, mightily. Some years ago, she asked whether I would select music for her funeral. I waved her off, not wanting to deal with it. In years to follow, I felt a little guilty about it.

The other day, her granddaughter Sarah — there are Sarahs in this family — asked me to suggest some music. I was pleased to do it. I felt I was fulfilling Martha’s request, belatedly. I said to Sarah, “How about ‘Lydia, the Tattooed Lady’?” (In reality, it will be Bach et al.)

Mother didn’t like long goodbyes, so I’ll knock off now, but I could go on and on, because Martha was wonderful and unique, and a gift to all of us, straight from God.

Martha Apgar and Jay Nordlinger, the night before her grandson Jack’s wedding, November 2019 (Sarah McAskill)

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