SI Vault
E.M. Swift
February 21, 2011
Fifty years ago, a fiery plane crash destroyed an entire generation of U.S. figure skaters and some of the sport's most celebrated coaches, including a grande dame whose influence is still felt today
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February 21, 2011

"the Day The Music Stopped"

Fifty years ago, a fiery plane crash destroyed an entire generation of U.S. figure skaters and some of the sport's most celebrated coaches, including a grande dame whose influence is still felt today

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They had their battles. The night before Ludington was to take one of his figure skating tests, Maribel arranged to give him a lesson at the Boston Arena at 2 a.m. He fell asleep beforehand, and she had to call his home, waking his parents, to roust him. "She had her fur coat on and her feet up on the boards when I finally came in, and of course everything I did went wrong," Ludington recalls. "She was yanking me around by the belt to get me into proper position, telling me I was going too slow, and I cursed her under my breath. I didn't think she'd heard me. But she went over to the side of the rink and grabbed one of the arena's wooden folding chairs and hit me over the back of the head with it as hard as she could. Never saw it coming. I was cursing, she was crying, and I stormed out of there yelling. I had to go back the next night for my test, and there she was. She called me over and said, 'We're going to Crusher Casey's, and we're going to have a talk.' Crusher Casey was a professional wrestler who had a bar in the South End. We had it out over a couple of beers, and that was the end of it."

Dudley Richards was one of Ludington's best friends. One Christmas Eve they were having a beer when Ludington said, "We ought to go put a tree up at Maribel's." They knew she wouldn't have had the time to get one. They bought a tree and drove it to Winchester, then watched as Laurence, Little Maribel, Big Maribel and Grammy decorated it in delight.

Fast forward to April. Ludington and Richards were having another beer. Ludington said, "We'd better go take down that Christmas tree. It's a fire hazard." They drove out to Winchester, and sure enough the tree was still in the faded living room, its needles brown and branches sagging so low that the ornaments had fallen to the floor. "Maribel didn't have time for housekeeping," Ludington says. Skating, culture and education—that's what she cared about. The rest was just trappings.

"Most of Maribel's clothes were secondhand, sent to her by a wealthy friend from New York," says Allan-Piper. "I don't think she ever looked in the mirror." Owen drove the same station wagon that had spirited her east from California in 1952, a car so unkempt that it had fungus growing out of its interior wood panels. "I always sat in the back, since I was the smallest," recalls Ronna Goldblatt Gladstone, who took lessons from Owen between the ages of seven and 15. "The girls would say, 'Be careful of the mushrooms!' Then we'd drive to the rink and have a spelling bee or vocab lessons on the way."

No one felt the pressure of Big Maribel's expectations more than Laurence, who was both more talented than her sister and more driven, a self-described perfectionist in all her pursuits, from poetry to the piano to ballet. "Young Maribel was very sweet and laid back," says Ludington. "Laurence was like her mother, very bright and outgoing. That's why those two fought so."

Of all the skaters who died on Flight 548, Laurence was the surest bet to go on to Olympic stardom. She was tall, willowy and graceful. "To watch her skate was like watching a flower blossoming," says Noyes. "There are skaters who skate for themselves and skaters who skate for the audience. Laurence did both. And she competed to win."

McGinnis, the choreographer, says, "Laurence was more of a show person than her mom, who had no real flair but was a good, consistent, proud athlete. No question, Laurence could have been world champion. Her most outstanding feature was her personality. She'd throw her head back during her layback spin and bring everyone in the audience in."

"She had such freedom and speed and freshness to her skating," says Fleming, who was four years younger than Laurence. "She was like Tenley: very athletic yet feminine too."

Whether Laurence would have been as steely under pressure as Albright, Heiss and Fleming is a question that will never be answered. But from birth she was raised to be a champion. "Maribel wanted that ladies' title so much," says McGinnis. "She treated Laurence like a commodity."

But Owen was tough on both her girls, says Ludington. "They'd argue quite a bit. She'd make them cry, then she'd start to cry. I used to tell her, 'You can't be a mother and a coach too.'"

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