Women and Daring
by Grace Lichtenstein
Doubleday & Co., Inc.
Marcy Sigler combined entrepreneurial acumen with a bent for adventure. She sought her thrills from eclipse-chasing. It was also her business.
With her husband as part-time partner, Marcy Sigler invented the highly publicized Voyage to Darkness expeditions. Since 1972, the Siglers have searched out the best area be it a Montana wheatfield or the middle of the Atlantic Ocean to view the most spectacular of astronomical events, the total eclipse of the sun. A vivacious thirty-nine-year-old former schoolteacher, Marcy made eclipse-chasing profitable enough to install Phil and herself in a Fifth Avenue apartment with a magnificent view of the canopy of stars over Central Park. In the process, she grew from an immigrant grocer's daughter into a sparkling, ambitions New Yorker.
Her maiden name was Mercina Efstathios Tsimpidis (Marcy Pedas) and her Greek parents were as traditional as they come. Marcy was the classic rebel from the first time she ran away at the age of seven (she got as far as the railroad tracks in her small western Pennsylvania hometown) to the numerous times she defied her father's attempts at arranging a typical Greek marriage for her, to the time when she broke temporarily with her family by attending college in Ohio, to her supreme moment of rebellion when she married a Jewish sociology teacher. She climbed trees as a child, hid contraband Charles Atlas body-building books in the attic, and sometimes wished she were a boy, since her brothers were permitted so much more freedom.
Once Marcy burst through the barriers of Greek male domination, however, not even Charles Atlas could stop her from striving for new horizons. She was egged on quietly and persistently by Phil Sigler, the sociology teacher who recognized her potential and fell in love with her. He helped her move to Youngstown State University, where she got a bachelor's degree in philosophy while holding down a job at the telephone company. She, in turn, coaxed him into widening his professorial ambitions.
They married in 1964. Marcy, working as a public school-teacher, followed Phil to Boston, then New York, where he was a professor at the City University. The two of them followed Marcy's brother, a planetarium education specialist, to Canada in 1963 to watch their first total eclipse. It changed their lives.
Marcy expected to be uninterested; she came away a convert. "It sent chills up my spine," she later recalled. "There's no comparison between a partial eclipse and totality. Daylight gives way to an unearthly night, the temperature drop, animals go to sleep. You find yourself thinking, "I hope the sun comes back!" Now I understood why wars were started and people beheaded during a total eclipse."
Another total eclipse visible from the United States was coming up in 1970. Marcy, whose zest for new experiences was matched by her delight in sharing them with others, schemed with Phil to hold a rock festival that day in Eclipse Virginia. The town fathers demurred, so the novice entrepreneurs next approached officials on Nantucket Island. There, too, they were rejected. On the ferry back to mainland Massachusetts, Marcy joked about renting the ferry for their eclipse party. The Siglers watched the 1970 eclipse on television, but directly afterward, Marcy started approaching steamship lines about an educational cruise in July, 1972 to the mid-Atlantic off Nova Scotia to view and photograph the next total eclipse.
She bargained, wheedled and plotted nonstop for two years. The Hayden Planetarium, looking down its official nose, refused to help sponsor it. The Cunard Line thought she was crazy. But rebuffs only strengthened her resolve. "It was the challenge, the utter gall of doing something no one else had ever done," she said in retrospect. Finally, she convinced the financially ailing Greek Line to let her charter the Olympia for her kooky eclipse chase. She and Phil gambled their life savings on advertisements in astronomy magazines, then his paycheck, then hers.
The Siglers were as startled as the shipping company when deposits poured in. The very first ones set the tone: a check for a party of three - two old women and their cat. Within a month, the entire ship was booked and there was a waiting list. Marcy did have her problems dealing with the macho Greek Line hierarchy, but at least it was a familiar adversary.
In July, 1972, the Olympia sailed with Scott Carpenter, the former astronaut, and other specialists aboard to give lectures. A meteorologist plotted the ship's course to maximize its maneuverability and minimize chances of a "cloud-out" during the precious one hundred and fifteen seconds of totality for which clients had paid up to $1,500.
The meticulous planning paid off; despite anxious hours of zigzagging through the waves, the eight hundred passengers on the Olympia were the largest group in the world to see that eclipse, which was clouded out nearly everywhere.
Before 1972 was over, the Siglers were spending frantic weekends to arrange their next Voyage to Darkness. The 1973 eclipse would be the longest in modern history, the longest for 177 more years. With Marcy now a full-time organizer, they hit the financial and adventuring jackpot. So many "eclipse freaks" signed up that they sent two ships, one to the Caribbean, the other off the coast of Senegal, with such luminaries on board as Carpenter, moon-walker Neil Armstrong, writer Isaac Asimov, and New York Times science correspondent Walter Sullivan. Hundreds of scientists clambered aboard as well, loaded with a million dollars worth of telescopes and cameras. The deck of the ship Canberra was dubbed "Tripod National Forest" and Sullivan's account of the eclipse made page one of the Times.
Phil continued to teach sociology; Marcy enrolled in graduate business courses at Columbia University to learn what she was doing right. She was proving herself to be the Sol Hurok of eclipses, " the brains and the business sense" of the family, in Phil's proud words. Each eclipse, meanwhile provided its own suspense. The two ships on their 1977 Voyage to Darkness, one with Margaret Mead among the lecturers, had to suddenly turn in their tracks and back away from a storm. For their 1979 land-based eclipse watch, they raced in buses to a clear opening among clouds in Roundup, Montana, guided by Carpenter's directions radioed from a small plane. By 1980, Marcy was preparing a true extravaganza, launching a fleet of ships for June, 1981, when a total eclipse would be visible from a number of locations.
The Siglers are as affectionate with one another as if they were about to go on their own honeymoon cruise. They intend to celebrate the April 8, 2024 eclipse for the special reason that it will pass over the Ohio church in which they were wed. Marcy, still with a bit of the Greek grocer's daughter in her, insists she could not have left her father's house, much less accomplished the rest, if it had not been for the calm prodding of Phil: "There are few males who are confident enough to encourage a woman. He found goals for me I never would have dreamed of."
One evening at dinner in their Fifth Avenue apartment, Marcy turned to Phil inquiringly. "Do you think I would have been successful if you hadn't been my husband?"
"You were already there," he said softly. "I just happened to go along."
E-mail: Marcy Pedas Sigler email@example.com