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Marjorie Drucker, 79; Wife of World War II Ace Richard Bong

October 10, 2003|Elaine Woo | Times Staff Writer

Marjorie Bong Drucker, a retired magazine publisher who was the widow of World War II "ace of aces" Maj. Richard I. Bong, died of cancer Sept. 27 in Superior, Wis. She was 79.

Drucker lived for 50 years in Los Angeles, where she was known to friends and associates as an accomplished painter, devoted mother and the editor and publisher of the Boxer Review, an award-winning magazine read around the world by owners and breeders of boxers.

Few knew she was once married to a legendary Army Air Forces war hero, whose unusual display of affection had made her nearly as famous as he was.

Drucker became a national celebrity in 1944 when Bong, a Wisconsin farm boy who had broken World War I pilot Eddie Rickenbacker's record of 26 air victories, proclaimed his love by plastering her picture on the nose of his P-38.

The fighter plane subsequently gained worldwide fame as the "Marge," and his wife became what Bong teasingly referred to as "the most shot-after girl in the South Pacific."

Drucker was born Marjorie Vattendahl in Grand Forks, N.D., and grew up in Superior. She was teaching art at her alma mater -- Superior Teachers College -- in late 1943 when she met Bong, who had been drafted while on home leave to crown the college's new homecoming king. As the past year's homecoming queen, Drucker joined him on stage. She and Bong had their first date a few days later.

When Bong returned to the battlefront, he glued a blow-up of Drucker's college graduation photo to his plane. She soon found herself being pursued by newsreel cameras.

The pilot explained at the time that his girlfriend, a tall, dark-haired beauty, "looks swell, and a hell of a lot better than these naked women painted on most of the airplanes."

For the quiet and reserved Bong to so publicly advertise his feelings "really astonished everybody," said Christabel Grant, executive director of the Richard I. Bong World War II Heritage Center in Superior.

In late 1944, Bong earned the ace-of-aces moniker after shooting down his 40th enemy plane. He won the Medal of Honor and was sent home to marry Drucker in a ceremony attended by 1,200 guests and the international press.

Shortly after their marriage on Feb. 10, 1945, they moved to Burbank, where Bong had been assigned to test the P-80, the Army Air Forces' first jet. Hollywood stars such as Lucille Ball and Bing Crosby treated the newlyweds like royalty.

But on Aug. 6, 1945, the same day that the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, the P-80 that Bong was testing stalled on takeoff. He was killed when he was forced to bail out at a low altitude.

Drucker, then 21, learned of her husband's death while listening to a radio at their Burbank apartment.

"It was such a traumatic experience for her," Grant said. "It was something she had a very difficult time talking about, even as an elderly woman in her 70s."

Although devastated, Drucker was determined to build a new life for herself. She found success as a model and later as a teacher of models. When she married James Baird, a Beverly Hills executive, in 1946, society columnist Hedda Hopper announced the nuptials. She and Baird eventually divorced.

She met Murray Drucker when she posed for California Girl, a fashion trade magazine he published, and she eventually wrote a column for it. They were married in the 1950s.

Drucker and her husband, who died in 1991, had two daughters, Karen of Mill Valley and Kristina of Irvine, who survive her. She also leaves a brother, William Vattendahl of Longville, Minn.

In 1956, Drucker became the publisher of one of her husband's magazines, the Boxer Review. For the next 46 years she was, her daughter said, "the complete working mom."

"My sister and I had an inkling about her other life," Karen Drucker said, "but there was such a vibe from her [not to ask about it]. She was honoring my father and our lives together by not bringing up this other part of her life."

Drucker did not renew ties to her past until the mid-1980s, when a Bong family member invited her to the dedication of the Richard I. Bong Memorial Bridge connecting Duluth, Minn., and Superior. She began to accept invitations to speak at aviation and veterans conventions, where people lined up to meet her "like she was a rock star," her daughter recalled.

Some years ago she was delighted to learn that a P-38 model plane kit complete with a sticker bearing her likeness had become a collector's item.

She eventually devoted herself to building what became the Richard I. Bong World War II Heritage Center. It prominently displays an original P-38 painted to resemble the one flown by Bong. The other exhibits reflect Drucker's wish that the center honor all World War II veterans and Americans, particularly women, who contributed to the war effort at home.

Two years ago, after struggling with breast cancer for several years, Drucker sold her longtime home in the Hollywood Hills and moved to the Bong family farm in Poplar, Wis. Her ashes were buried last week in a Poplar cemetery, next to those of Richard Bong.

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