An essay Monday on the 1950s, part of the Style series "What It Felt Like, Living in the American Century," mistakenly referred to the ship Queen Elizabeth II. It should have said the Queen Elizabeth. The essay Tuesday on the 1960s gave an incorrect date for the race riots in Watts, which occurred in 1965. (Published 09/30/99)
YOU'D ASK YOUR MOTHER, "What was it like in the olden days?"
Not the cavalcade of treaties and earthquakes, the history book stuff, but what it felt like to be alive then.
How could she explain . . . the dusty heat of '50s television sets . . . men who whistled (with trills) and wore hats tipped to one side and got killed in wars . . . the champagne disenchantment of the '20s . . . what it felt like . . .
Sixth in a series
Smell it, smell it all, smell the sour cities you leave behind in bosomy cars that smell of dusty sunlight and thump over Eisenhower's concrete interstate highways whose joints ooze tar that smells like industrial licorice till you arrive in a suburb smelling of insecticide and freshly cut grass outside identical houses full of the scents of postwar America: baked air hovering over the TV set; the mucilage on stickers for your art-appreciation course--"Mona Lisa," "American Gothic" . . . ; the cozy stink of cigarette smoke freshened by Air-Wick deodorizer amid sweet pine paneling whose knots watch over you like the loving eyes of Disney forest creatures.
How sweet and new it all is, this incense of mid-century, this strange sense of coziness and infinite possibility at the same time.
Don't worry, Ike seems to say as he smiles and hits another tee shot. You light another Camel, knowing that "It's a psychological fact: pleasure helps your disposition: For more pure pleasure--have a CAMEL."
There's a cartoon fullness to things. Everybody is somebody. Everything is possible. Hence a cushiony give in the national psyche, a pleasant ache that feels like nostalgia dispensed by a spray can. You believe in the future, be it a perfect marriage, racial integration, commuting via your personal autogiro, Formica countertops, or a day coming soon when everybody will be sincere and mature. ("Sincerity" and "maturity" are major virtues.)
Ignore the viruses of dread that float through family rooms: the hydrogen bomb erupting from the South Pacific like a cancerous jellyfish the size of God; or the evil Sen. Joseph McCarthy and the evil Commies he never catches one of, not one, though he does manage to strew the land with damaged lives and the liberal tic of anti-anti-communism; or Sputnik, the first satellite, built by Russian slave labor, no doubt, while our top scientists were developing the Princess phone, 3-D movies and boomerang-shaped coffee tables.
Ignore Marilyn Monroe saying: What good is it being Marilyn Monroe? Why can't I just be an ordinary woman? . . . Oh, why do things have to work out so rotten?
And ignore the Korean War, which is nothing but ugly except for the embroidered silk dragon jackets the soldiers bring back. Ignore the newspaper pictures of racists with faces like wet-combed hand-grenades, screaming at Martin Luther King's boycotters and schoolchildren who will overcome . . . people whose isolation and invisibility in this white society are incalculable . . .
Progress will take care of everything.
Amid the Ford Country Squire station wagons and slate roofs, wealthier homeowners boast that neighborhood covenants still keep out Jews and Negroes. They offer you highballs and cigarettes. They show you black-and-white photographs of themselves waving from the rail of the Queen Elizabeth II. They turn on lights till their houses blaze like cruise ships. What lonely darkness are they keeping off? Do they know their time has gone?
Meanwhile, amid the tract housing and developments, the genius of William Levitt and Henry Kaiser creates the loneliness of growing up in your own bedroom, in your own house where the green grass grows all around. It takes some getting used to, but do you really want to go back to the apartment with three kids to a bedroom and Nana mumbling over the cabbage? You know your future is here. You wish you knew what it held.
"Children, your father's home!" Mom yells.
A father's Florsheim Imperials are heard. A Dobbs center-dent fedora is seen, with a jaunty trout-fly feather on the grosgrain band. Dad exudes the tired authority of cigarette smoke and Arrid underarm deodorant cream. His knuckles whiten on a Christmas-present attache case.
"Can't you kids get up off your duffs and do something instead of sitting there watching . . ."
"Hey, Dad's home."
". . . 'Howdy Doody,' a little children's show?"
"There's nothing else on, Dad."
Dad shouts over his shoulder: "Doris! You have any chores for these kids?"
"No, hon, everything's hunky-dory. You hungry?"
"Hell, yes, I'm hungry."
"Be dinner soon's I do the limas."
Sighing as if he has made a huge decision, Dad walks into the kitchen. He cracks ice for a drink.
"The kids," he says. "It's like I'm not even here."
"Well, it's like I always am," she says. "They're scared of you, but they take me for granted."
"Make you a drink?"
"Not too big, now."
His face struggles toward some home truth, but doesn't find it.
"Ah, Doris," he says. "Turn off the stove and let's go to the Roma for veal scaloppine. Please. Just the two of us."
"I have to drop Tommy at Boy Scouts, and then Kitty Kennard is doing her slide show at L'Esprit Francais. Forgive me?"
Doris and Tom Sr. are only trying to live by what their parents taught them--manliness, graciousness, a day's work, good posture--and pass it on to their children. The problem is, they they don't quite believe it themselves, anymore, but they have to teach their kids something. Should they really confess their emptiness and bad faith instead? Should the children feel betrayed by parents who are only trying to do the best they know how?
How squalid. Let's leave all this behind. It's a symptom, not a cause, a failure where success is what you see on "Ozzie & Harriet" and all the other shows about breakfast-nook families where no one is taken for granted and everyone says hello. Hi, Rick. Hi, Pop. Hi, Dave. Good morning, Mom. Dad's a bit of a bumbler, and what won't those darn kids think of next! Nevertheless, perfection is attainable. How smug one feels to know this. How inadequate one feels to know one hasn't attained it yet, oneself, but one can put on a long-playing record of the perfect Ella Fitzgerald singing the Jerome Kern songbook perfectly.
Some of the young folks seem to have a hard time adjusting.
If I could have just one day when I wasn't all confused. . . . If I felt I belonged someplace.
--James Dean as the anguished son
in "Rebel Without a Cause"
Be part of progress like everybody else--the everybody you see on television and in Life magazine. Here's the equation: If you're just like everybody, then you're somebody.
The way to be somebody is to buy something that makes you like everybody else who's bought the same thing--Ford owners reading their Ford Times, Parliament smokers joined in aromatic sophistication. Remember: Consumption is a moral good. Madison Avenue admen are cultural heroes, with cool slang like "Let's run it up the flagpole and see who salutes."
Look at all the college kids stuffing themselves into phone booths and Volkswagens. And a lovely girl whose picture appears in Life next to the comment: "She has forgotten all about emancipation and equality. To belong is her happiness."
And Mary Ann Cuff, a regular among the teen dancers who appear on Dick Clark's "American Bandstand": "What it is we all want is to get married and live on the same street in new houses. We'll call it Bandstand Avenue."
Ignore the hipsters and intellectuals sneering at Bandstand Avenue, and at the triumphalism of tailfins, Time magazine and pointy bras whose tips sort of crinkle under sweaters. Fun can be made of bomb shelters stocked with Franco-American canned spaghetti and Reader's Digest Condensed Books.
J.D. Salinger can appeal to adolescent self-righteousness by railing against phonies in "The Catcher in the Rye." Scorn can be heaped on Ray Kroc, who runs those new McDonald's drive-ins; he writes a memo: "We cannot trust some people who are non-conformist. The organization cannot trust the individual, the individual must trust the organization."
And certainly critics can make a living by attacking the men in the gray flannel suits, the organization men, the lonely crowd of ulcer-proud hidden persuaders bringing us ads where women in crinoline-fluffed shirtwaists invite us to buy into the carefree new patio-perfect world of hyper-power Torqueflite Cyclamatic Teletouch Whatever that gives you more pleasure. (Repeat thru fade-out: MORE PLEASURE! MORE PLEASURE! MORE PLEASURE!)
Which does not mean sex, boys and girls.
Sex is for Europeans, people in movies (off-screen) and juvenile delinquents.
White people believe that colored people have sex lives of unimaginable ecstasy and variety.
Italian kids drive surly Mercurys to the Jersey Shore, spread blankets and neck in Ace-combed 1953 look-at-me majesty beneath the outraged stares of moms in bathing suits with little skirts . . . prefiguring the erotic insolence of Elvis, Marilyn, James Dean, and the secret subtext of Annette on "The Mickey Mouse Club."
Otherwise, sex, the lonely vandal, is safe in the stewardship of middle-class women who manage the courtship rituals of dating, going steady, pinning and engagement, and aren't very interested in sex anyway, according to the Kinsey Report on Women. Life magazine sums it up: "Woman is the placid gender, the female guppy swimming all unconcerned and wishing she could get a few minutes off to herself, while the male guppy pursues her with his unrelenting courtship. . . . Half or more of all women . . . seldom dream or daydream about sex; they consider the human body to be, if anything, rather repulsive."
Maybe men make cracks about women's driving and spending, and they want dinner served on time, but Life has learned that the unrelenting guppy is becoming "the new American domesticated male" who is "baby tender, dishwasher, cook, repairman. . . . Some even go to baby-care classes, learn to wrap a neat diaper and to bubble Junior deftly. With father available as sitter, wives can have their hair done, shop, go to club meetings." Lawn mowing gives him "a sense of power and a gadget to tinker with."
What happened to the red-blooded, can-do, all-American male? And female?
Well, sexed women and powerful men are a threat. We don't need them now. Passion has been replaced by love, adventure by fun. If you want sex, watch Elvis Presley on "The Ed Sullivan Show," even if Ed refuses to show the King below the waist. Or go to a movie with Marilyn Monroe or Ava Gardner. If you want male brooding and rage, go see Marlon Brando or Montgomery Clift, the prince of loneliness.
The great thing about the '50s is that rebels can fling their grenades of anger and irony into the cafes of the conformists, safe in the knowledge that they can't really change anything. The '50s are an irresistible force still in search of an immovable object.
So pay no attention to that slouching bohemian with sunglasses black as telephones and a tremor induced by his benzedrine inhaler. He says he wants to get back to Europe, "where they really know how to live, where they don't have these hang-ups."
"Europe?" asks the astonished corporate executive who helped liberate Europe from the Nazis only a decade or so ago. "You can't even drink the water in Europe."
"You drink wine, man," says the bohemian. "You drink wine."
Don't worry about snooty intellectuals, either. For a moment, a Columbia University professor named Charles Van Doren is a national celebrity on a big-money TV quiz show called "Twenty-One." He appears on the cover of Time. He seems to be the answer to the old American question: "If you're so smart, why aren't you rich?"
Then it turns out the producers are slipping him the answers to keep him on the show.
Van Doren is disgraced, treated like a traitor for lying on television. Well, intellectuals. It just goes to show you. They're all homos or Commies anyway.
And don't worry about the alienation of the modern jazz that lures college boys to the big city for a taste of hip, and the self-loathing notion that "white cats don't swing."
Don't worry about rock-and-roll, which sounds like a national anthem for the republic of vandalism and anarchy, which it is. Rock may drive the young folk to drugs and groin-thrusting madness, it may cause riots in the streets and insurrection in the schools, which it does--but it can't last, it's just a fad.
Ignore the sly joke of Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers singing "No, no, no, no, no, I'm not a juvenile delinquent" to suburban kids who actually think JDs are cool in their rumbles fought with bicycle chains and switchblade knives. So cool that Leonard Bernstein, Mr. Music Appreciation Class himself, will write "West Side Story," a musical that puts romantic love and gang wars together in a climactic switchblade duel.
Forget about civil rights workers heading south, where they're known as "Northern agitators." And the revival of pinko folk singers like Pete Seeger and the Weavers. And marijuana in Harvard Square. And Hugh Hefner proposing in Playboy magazine that we should think of sex as fun, like a game of picnic badminton where nobody tries too hard to win.
"There's a place for us," the cast sings at the end of "West Side Story," to reassure us that, despite the tragedy of Tony and Maria, the promise of progress is intact. "Someday, somewhere, we'll find a new way of living."
There are no VA mortgages for veterans of gang wars, but America will find a way to get them into little Cape Cod starter homes sooner than you think. Haircuts, briefcases, Peter Pan blouses, Formica, Bisquick and pole lamps while the whole family sits in front of the television to sing along with Mitch:
I'm looking over a four-leaf clover . . .
How could it be otherwise?