In one of the more poignant passages about the wives’ friendships, one of Harriet and Donn Eisele’s four children, 4-year-old Matt, develops fatal leukemia. Donn stays overnight in the hospital with him just once, finding Matt’s pain too upsetting. During this time, Koppel writes, the astrowives kept Harriet’s “freezer full of Tupperware dishes, with no names so she wouldn’t have to write thank-you cards. One wife came over and mowed the lawn without saying a word.”
Koppel clearly admires her subjects, which makes it a shame that they are increasingly difficult to keep straight. Additionally, without citations, the sources of Koppel’s facts and quotations — be they firsthand interviews or articles from the ’60s — are not apparent. The initial seven Mercury wives receive the most attention and emerge with semi-distinct identities, but by 1963, with several “generations” of astrofamilies populating Togethersville, I had given up on trying to remember who was who.
To be fair, Koppel is chronicling a cultural moment more than any particular person, and in this she excels. The details are superb, from the ham loaves the women cooked to the Virginia Slims they chain-smoked, the fur hot pants and Pucci dresses they wore, the luaus and shrimp-boil parties they threw, and the Mercury-capsule-shaped community swimming pool they shared. In a moment that perfectly summarizes time and place, Koppel describes Sue Bean and her friends lining up before a party so that Sue’s astronaut husband, Alan, a perfectionist engineer, could “put on their fake eyelashes for them. He could align and glue the black wisps ever so precisely.”
If the astronauts’ salaries were relatively modest, the perks for the families were practically unlimited: Corvettes rented for a dollar a year, hotel rooms rented for a dollar a night, tickets to Broadway plays, gift certificates to Neiman Marcus and visits to the White House, where two astrowives borrowed evening dresses from Lady Bird Johnson and the first daughters babysat their children.
In spite or perhaps because of such adventures, most astromarriages didn’t last. “It had been a patriotic duty to keep one’s marriage together in Togethersville,” Koppel explains, but the first divorce in the late ’60s “opened the floodgates.” Ultimately, of the original 30 space couples, only seven stayed together.
At the book’s conclusion, Koppel catches up with several astrowives who remember their time in Togethersville as “golden years.” Perhaps. But a particularly convincing statement comes from astrowife Barbara Cernan, who remarked, “If you think going to the Moon is hard, try staying at home.”
Curtis Sittenfeld’s fourth novel, “Sisterland,” will be published this month.