Interviewed by Jessica Siegel
Podcast by Leah Shaw
Myrna Gordon Skurnick never planned to come to America. Growing up in London during World War II, living through the Nazi bombing during the Blitz and her father’s loss of his job, by the end of the war, she wanted to get out.
“I was ready to do something and change my life a little,” she said sitting in her spacious apartment overlooking Lake Boca in Boca Raton, Florida. A friend who decided to fly to New York instead of sailing on the Queen Mary offered to sell her a ticket on the ship. Skurnick took her up on it. Even though she already had a job offer as secretary for the World Health Organization in Rome, she decided to go with serendipity instead, bought the ticket and made her way to New York City.
The widow of Sam Skurnick, a 1938 graduate of Brooklyn College and benefactor of the Sam Skurnick Lecture Hall in the newly refurbished Ingersoll, Skurnick sat down to share her life story—and Sam’s—with the Brooklyn College Listening Project.
Myrna Skurnick, a petite, vivacious woman (and great storyteller), still carries her British inflections with her now decades later as she relates her first experiences in New York City and how she met her Brooklyn-born husband. Sharing an apartment in the Bronx with an Englishwoman who rented out rooms to English young women, she needed to augment her wages as a secretary so that she could move into an apartment of her own. She took a job moonlighting at Arthur Murray Dance Studios on Fifth Avenue, is what we now refer to as a telemarketer. Skurnick, was and continues to be, an inveterate ballroom dancer so what better place to find a job?
“They told us we had to speak with a smile on our face and give ourselves a name. I called myself Miss Rose after my favorite auntie in England,” she said. They gave her a page from the telephone book for Madison and Fifth Avenues with the instructions to talk to the first person who answered the phone and “to be careful—they might want to date you.”
“The first night I started there a man answered the phone and I said, ‘This is Miss Rose from Arthur Murray Dance Studios and if you answer these three questions correctly, you’ll win three free dance lessons.’
“Before I could say another word, he said, ‘Are you from Canada?’
“I said, ‘No, I’m English.’
“And he said, ‘I don’ t know what you look like, if you are tall or short, pretty or plain, but you sound so nice that I would like to meet you.’ That’s how I met my husband, Sam Skurnick.”
At that point Sam Skurnick was working as a stockbroker but had done a number of other jobs before he had gotten to that, including being a meteorologist for the Signal Corps. He was raised in a strict Orthodox Jewish family in East New York. “He grew up during the Depression and things were really rough,” related Myrna. He was always interested in math and science, though his father didn’t approve. “He collected leaves and put them in a book,” she said. “His father said, ‘what are you doing this for?’ Sam submitted it to a competition and won a $5 gold piece.” But his father still wasn’t impressed. He even threw Sam’s stamp collection down the incinerator.
When Sam was 16 or 17, he took his microscope down to Battery Park. He dipped a slide into some pond water and charged people 5 cents to look at the living organisms in the water. The New Yorker wrote up a story about the aspiring teenage scientist/entrepreneur in the Talk of the Town column. He turned all the money he made over to his parents.
Myrna’s life in England during World War II was rough as well. She grew up in Jewish family in the East End of London, which was continually bombed by the Germans, forcing them to hide in bomb shelters. Her father lost his job at a factory that closed. The family struggled to put food on the table and her first fond memory of New York City is going into a coffee shop and seeing the catsup, mustard, salt and pepper, little packages of sugar and jelly arrayed on the table and a glass of water next to each plate. “I ordered a cantaloupe with cottage cheese or a sardine sandwich that consisted of a whole can of sardines, something that I never witnessed in London,” she said. “How fantastic it felt.”
Raised during the Depression. Sam didn’t have it easy either. It wasn’t until he was a couple of years out of high school that he enrolled at Brooklyn College and he took a while to graduate since he had to attend college at night while he worked during the day. He majored in physics and math. Myrna shared photographs from the Brooklyn College newspaper of Sam with a bunch of his fellow students, celebrating the college’s 5th anniversary in 1935. “He had such a love for Brooklyn College that he promised his niece a piano if she would go to Brooklyn College,” Myrna said with a laugh. “She took up the offer and since then his nieces and nephews have all gone there.”
After the Skurnicks were married, Myrna joined Sam in his stockbroking firm. At first she was hesitant. “I’m a writing person, a singing person, the arts. But he needed me to be his assistant. ‘Do the correspondence course,’ he said. ‘Any idiot can pass this exam.’ So I thought, in that case. . . .” she said.
Myrna, despite her qualms had a facility as a stockbroker, working closely with their clients. The two became the first married couple to have seats on the New York Stock Exchange. She was also the first foreign woman to have a seat.
Sam went on to write a book “The Stock Market for the Little Guy,” to help explain the intricacies of the stock market for those without a lot of money trying it for the first time. He began to be referred to in the press as “The Merlin of Wall St.” Very ethical, he gave back commissions to clients for whom he thought he didn’t make enough money, and according to Myrna, he referred to many other stockbrokers as “crooks and manipulators.”
The Skurnicks, who have one daughter, moved down to Florida as “snowbirds” in 1985 and later moved there full time. Sam died in 2006. They were married for over 40 years.
After Sam died, Myrna Skurnick decided to make a bequest to Brooklyn College in his name. The newly refurbished lecture hall in Ingersoll will be renamed the Sam Skurnick Lecture Hall. It will be inaugurated in a ceremony later this year. Even though her husband ended up as a stockbroker, she said, he was in his heart a scientist, and an extremely ethical one.
“I hope [when the students attend lectures in the hall] they get inspired and they ‘get’ his ethics,” said his widow. “Everything was on the up and up with him. Ethics played a big part of his life. That’s the way he treated his clients—like a doctor treats his patients. I’d like the students to be imbued with that—money is not always ethical. These are good insights on life.”
At 87, Myrna Gordon Skurnick, has the same vivacity that attracted Sam to her. She writes autobiographical fiction and still enjoys ballroom dancing, especially cha cha, rhumba and salsa.
She vividly remembers sailing into New York Harbor on the Queen Mary I. “When I saw the Statue of Liberty, I immediately became a New Yorker. I fell in love with the town first—and then fell in love with Sam.”