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Margie Petersen
Living Life in the Fast Line of Publishing

by Courtney Caldwell

Alice Huyler Ramsey, 22, changes a tire on her car while traveling across the country in 1909.

On June 6, 1909, Mrs. Alice Huyler Ramsey, president of the first "Women's Motoring Club" in the United States, boarded a 30-horsepower automobile and began a 3,800-mile cross-country trip from New York to San Francisco, making her the first woman to cross the United States in a car by herself.

The Vassar College graduate's trip was not uneventful. She was bogged down for 12 rainy days in Iowa; the front wheels of her Maxwell-Briscoe-sponsored open car collapsed when she hit a prairie dog hole in Utah and 11 sets of fabric were worn out. But she made it.

In 1916, Adeline and Augusta Van Buren, sisters who were descendants of President Van Buren, became the first women to cross the United States on two Indian Power Plus motorcycles. It took them only three months to find their way from New York to San Francisco on the unpaved and unmarked dirt roads of America. Theirs, too, was an adventure. The 24-year-old school teacher and 22-year-old librarian knocked on stranger's doors for shelter or camped out whenever they got tired. Since padded seats and rear shock absorbers had not yet been invented to absorb the rough ride over bumps and potholes, poor Augusta was bucked off into a ditch one day where she lay unconscious for several hours. When Adeline finally revived her, they continued on their way.

Adeline and Augusta Van Buren.

Little did Alice, Adeline or Augusta know then that their courage, perseverance and indomitable spirit would set the wheels in motion on the highway of harmony for future generations of women. One of those women, ironically another New Yorker, hit the trail on a remarkable automotive journey of her own that would span into the 21st Century and touch the lives of millions along the way. Her name was Margie McNally. The year was 1963.

The'60s were a turbulent time for most Americans. The Beatles invaded American soil, Americans invaded Vietnam soil, women were burning bras, men were running to Canada, drugs were an insidious fad, President Kennedy was assassinated, Martin Luther King, Jr., had a dream, Laugh-In and Goldie Hawn were in, Jane Fonda was out, miniskirts were hot and muscle cars were cool.

And, while most young Americans were still trying to figure out the meaning of life, one young woman was already blazing the trail, leaving the rest of a restless generation in the proverbial dust.

Margie McNally knew right from the start what she wanted from life. Even as a little girl in Queens, NY, she had already set her sights on a modeling, singing and acting career, at a time when her competition would become nothing less than Marilyn Monroe, Jane Russell and Judy Garland.

After being spotted by a scout in a school play at age 12, McNally blossomed into one of the industry's top professional models of her time, appearing in hundreds of television commercials and print ads for a variety of national advertisers like Coca-Cola and Ivory Soap. Her biggest break, however, would come a few years later in 1961, when, after an extensive national search, McNally landed the Miss Rheingold title — a shot in the arm that catapulted her already successful modeling career over the top.

After her exciting one-year reign on the road, McNally was ready to roll. One of the first to catch the popular Irish beauty was the American auto industry, which signed her immediately for dozens of TV commercials and print ads. No hood ornament for this lady, the in-demand and well-respected spokeswoman energetically pitched new model vehicles and all their latest and greatest features. McNally became America's most American auto makers.

As a young woman in her 20s who traveled globally for her modeling career, she was warned that she would be "bothered by a lot of unwanted attention." But instead, she says, laughing, "I had met so many wonderful people. I began to wonder if there was something wrong with me when people didn't bother me."

In 1962, after completing an assignment in Arizona, McNally and her model friend, Betty Johnson, decided to go to California for a three-day break. McNally called a young man she knew there to see if he wanted to get together. But Charlie had a date.

No shrinking violet, the outspoken McNally asked if he or his date would mind if McNally and Johnson joined them. Charlie's date, yet another model, didn't seem to mind that McNally, a flaming redhead, and her bodacious blonde friend were about to become an ensemble.

Walking into a party with three beautiful women at his side certainly didn't make Charlie feel uneasy, even when most of the 250 guests stopped and stared. Among those in the crowded, smoke-filled room was one special guest whose heart McNally captured immediately. It wasn't long before the tall, dark and handsome stranger inquired, "Who's that girl?"

After the three-day adventure was over, McNally returned to New York, where she received a phone call from a friend who had been at the California party.

"You met a guy named Bob Petersen at the party, do you remember him?" her friend asked.

After McNally responded in the affirmative, her friend continued, "Well, he really liked you. If he calls and asks you out, I'd go out with him if I were you."

Petersen did call and McNally did go out with him. "He proposed on the first date!" she remembers with an impish grin. "I had never been engaged or anything, but I just knew this was the guy for me. It just felt right."

"Bob lived in California and I lived in New York, which made it tough dating, But I knew he dated a lot of other girls out there, so I told him that was fine with me. I don't think anyone's ever told him that before," she muses.

Soon after, Margie was called to California by MGM, with whom she had a seven-year contract, to screen test for a dramatic role on a popular TV show called The Eleventh Hour. A natural for the series, she landed the part, forcing her to move from New York in October 1962. Like Alice and the Van Buren sisters before her, McNally went West.

In McNally, Petersen found the woman of his dreams, and yes, they did marry three months later in January 1963, but not before McNally became Motor Trend's first Miss Riverside 500 for the first NASCAR race of the circuit held at the beginning of each year. There, McNally's life changed forever from her role as a model to her new life as a role model.

One week later, on the day the Petersen's finally married, the new Mrs. Petersen would begin her journey into a world of wheels that no other woman in our lifetime would ever see again. She was, in essence, about to become the First Lady of the Fast Lane.

Margie Petersen in 1995.

Petersen's husband emerged as an entrepreneurial magnate whose empire started from the top of a table in his modest apartment in January 1948. His first magazine, Hot Rod, which wasn't more than a niche newsletter for rodding enthusiasts, had a press run of only 5,000 copies. Started on a shoestring and a prayer, Bob Petersen penned all the stories, shot all the photos, sold all the advertising and distributed all the copies.

A passionate hot rod enthusiast, the 19-year-old Petersen wasn't deterred by his humble beginnings, nor was he discouraged in those early days when a safe containing his entire subscriber list and all his cash were stolen. In their feeble attempt to crack it open, the thieves hurled it over the side of a canyon. It exploded into thousands of pieces of paper that flew into a hundred different directions.

He and his friends discarded their suit jackets, hiked up their trousers, loosened their ties and scoured the debris-ridden canyon for hours amidst thick wild brush, poison ivy, muck, insects and other critters, looking for any remaining morsel of what used to be his entire business. Nearly all the scraps of paper containing the subscriber names were salvaged, as well as some of the cash that the thieves had left behind in their quick getaway.

Bob Petersen was back in business. He then went on to become one of the most successful men in the publishing industry. Here is a man who believes "to limit your interests is to limit your life" — a man with absolutely no limitations.

By the time Bob and Margie had met in 1962, Motor Trend and Car Craft magazines had already reached the top of the automotive enthusiast food chain. Many more enthusiast publications would follow, keeping the steady momentum moving in the fast lane.

As Mrs. Petersen, Margie immediately threw her tireless energy into becoming Bob's partner in life as well as in business. "We've always worked as a team," Margie exudes proudly.

Before long, she became vice president of the Petersen Publishing empire and a fashion and beauty consultant for Petersen's 'Teen magazine. And who better? With Margie's vast experience and professional training as a model, she was a natural to help teach young girls about skin care and fashion, especially at a time in their lives when raging hormones can ravage the skin and new body parts can make a young woman feel awkward.

Her influence didn't end there. Driven by a strong passion to learn interior design and at Bob's encouragement, Margie entered design school, inspiring her long-time personal assistant, GiGi Carleton, to attend with her. Subsequently, Margie formed Petersen Interiors & Design, and in-house interior design firm for all of Petersen Publishing Company offices nationwide.

Together, the dynamic duo attended all meetings on the development of the new Petersen Publishing headquarters in Los Angeles, a massive 20-story, 200,000-square foot building on the famous Miracle Mile Strip of Wilshire Boulevard. After a year of intense labor to meet the demanding and ensuing deadline for the new building's opening, Margie performed her interior design magic and easily met the deadline. The building was a smashing success inside and out!

Margie Petersen in 1995.

While interior design may be one of her favorite careers, Margie has dedicated most of her time to the automotive world. Some of her adventures including attending the Petersen car shows, which she and Bob have produced as a team, to the Geneva Auto Show, where she me Enzo Ferrari; to riding in 'Big Foot' over a bunch of junk cars to the open pits of the Monte Carlo Race Track where there are no fences separating the crew from the crowd.

Margie Petersen is a people person. She enjoys networking in the automotive world and all that it encompasses. As the premier party planner for Petersen Publishing events, she tends to myriad painstaking details to ensure that all guests are happy, whether they're ale drinkers from New England or champagne drinkers from New York. "I think part of Petersen's success has been due to networking parties where auto industry people and our editors and publishers can meet and mingle," Margie says. "Everyone seems to look forward to them."

By any standards, Margie Petersen is a remarkable woman who dispels the myth that the rich sit idle, sip champagne, do lunch and shop Rodeo. If anything, Petersen is a true testament to hard work, long hours and unwavering dedication and commitment to making our world a better place, including the automotive world for women.

In her spare time she participates or is personally involved in over a dozen charitable organizations, many of which involve children. Margie and Bob are contributors to the Music Center of Los Angeles and the L.A. County Museum of Art. Margie has been an eight-time chairwoman of the Thalian's Annual Ball, a million-dollar fundraiser for Thalian's Mental Health Center at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

And not without sacrifice, Petersen's contributions and accomplishments in the real world, including the automotive industry, have fanned the flame of opportunity for future generations of women to come, just as it did in 1909 when Alice Huyler Ramsey got behind the wheel of an automobile, and against all odds, drove gallantly and successfully across the United States.

NOTE: Margie Petersen passed away on November 25, 2011 after a long and valiant battle with breast cancer. She will be remembered by all for her years of dedication in helping others.