By Tim Henney
If one is about to salute a decade, as we are about to in Sandpoint, one could do no better than to celebrate the 1950’s. My late mother, Harriet Helen Harriman Lewis of Carmel Valley, California, would disagree. Her nickname was Hattie. Born to privilege in 1907 down the coast in palm-studded “old” Long Beach, she wished she might have been a flapper forever. In the 1950’s, over bourbon old fashioneds in the leathery den of our family home in Long Beach, she would say she felt sorry for anyone who hadn’t grown up in the 1920’s. This sentimental backward glance was inspired perhaps by jazz-age rock star Al Jolson, bellowing the 20’s hit Baby Face on the living room stereo. Music of the 20’s shared the phonograph with Crosby,The Andrews Sisters, Peggy Lee, Billie Holiday,The Kingston Trio and Nat King Cole in our 1950’s home.
One might understand Hattie’s sorrow for those spawned after the 1920’s if one considers the culture from which she came. A 1920’s life far removed from millions of hungry Americans in urban and rural squalor. A world away from ignorant, cowardly, violent rednecks in white sheets happily hanging blacks in the South. Hattie grew up in a large, comfy, early California ocean-front manse nestled among avocado and citrus trees. (Long since turned into condos, this being booming Southern California). She grew up before off-shore oil derricks decimated the pristine coast, fouled the water and killed surfing. Before developers built massive breakwaters, harbors and shopping malls on landfill. Long before freeways. Hattie fondly recalled when she and little sister Margie, briefly USC (University of Spoiled Children) sorority girls, danced the Charleston at the venerable Pacific Coast Club on Ocean Boulevard in Long Beach (Since demolished. Bigger bucks in condos). And at the Ambassador and Biltmore Hotel ballrooms in Los Angeles.
I’ve never eulogized the 1950’s, my decade, the way Hattie did hers. But, like the much-read 1989 book, Everything I Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten, everything I know I learned in the festive fifties. I owned them. Along with Eisenhower. Brigitte Bardot. the Korean War. Senator Estes Kefauver. Dr. Jonas Salk and his polio vaccine. Harry Belafonte. Adlai Stevenson. Marilyn Monroe. The Beats and Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. Willie Mays. Elizabeth Taylor. The Weavers. Elvis. Sloan Wilson’s The Man In The Gray Flannel Suit. The Mills Brothers. Senator Joe McCarthy. Frankie Laine.Young Marlon Brando in On The Waterfront. J.D. Salinger’s A Catcher In The Rye. Frisbees and hula hoops. Jazz vocalist Billy Eckstine. Tricky Dick Nixon. Fidel Castro and Che Cuevara. Singers Patti Page and Johnny Ray. James Dean in East of Eden. Scribe Walter Lippmann. The Four Freshmen. Buddy Holly. Russia’s invasion of Hungary and its surprise space satellite, Sputnik.
To say nothing of the Cold War with Communism. Integration at gunpoint of Little Rock’s Central High School. The migration of millions of African Americans from Dixie’s cotton fields to Chicago and other big northern cities. And Brown versus Board of Education of Topeka, in which the 1954 Supreme Court declared state laws supporting separate public schools for white and black students to be unconstitutional. A major early victory in the Civil Rights movement, the unanimous Topeka decision did not integrate America. But, as with countless 1950’s actions and decisions, it paved the way for subsequent historic happenings.
One of which was my dropping out of USC. My mom had met my dad, a campus celebrity, there in 1928. The only thing I met there in 1950, following his sudden, early death, was confusion. More memorable was my heroic if undecorated service as a Korean War military newspaper editor in Georgia. In preparation the Air Force sent me to NYC for journalism training in the summer of 1951. Tromping around the city alone on weekends, my uniform and youth scored seats to original cast productions of The King And I, Guys And Dolls, Oklahoma, Call Me Madam and other shows. I fell in love with Manhattan and vowed to live and work there someday. And did. Years of toe-tapping to musical theater lay ahead, for the 50’s were Brodway’s grandest era. Besides those just cited, the decade introduced The Music Man, Pajama Game, Carousel, South Pacific, Damn Yankees, West Side Story, Pal Joey, Kismet, Annie Get Your Gun, Most Happy Fella, My Fair Lady, and many more.
Upon returning to Georgia, I dated a school teacher named Coota. An older woman, maybe 22. On a black and white TV above the bar at the Continental Club (in the basement of a distinctly un-continental downtown Albany hotel) Coota and I watched Nixon deliver his pathetic but effective “Checkers” speech. About his daughters’ dog. Ike was about to dump him as his running mate in the 1952 campaign against Adlai Stevenson. Nixon begged and Ike relented. On our first date Coota taught me a sassy song about a Persian Kitten “… perfumed and fair, went out to the backyard to get some air…a tomcat lean and lithe and long, dirty and ragged came along…”. My excited reaction to such lyrics was that Coota must be a hot chick. She wasn’t. At least not with me. But she could jitterbug like a Mexican jumping bean to Glowworm on the jukebox.
On weekend nights with buddies from the base I hung out at a piano-equipped steak house on the edge of town. We’d belt out oldies like Put Your Arms Around Me Honey, Hold Me Tight. Before long, half of Albany was dropping by to hear us boom out the old songs. On Miss America Day in 1953, Miss America Neva Jane Langley, from Georgia’s Wesleyan College, popped in to sing with us. I wouldn’t say our bawdy singing was an aphrodisiac, but she found us. Even played piano.
One day an airman friend who operated the base movie theater glanced furtively over his shoulder then beckoned for several trusted pals to step inside. He held a photo of an unknown young starlet, posing face down in her birthday suit. She was to become Marilyn Monroe. Inspired by that picture, Hugh Hefner borrowed $1000 from his mother, bought the rights to the photo, and in 1953 launched Playboy. Hugh became a busy playboy himself. All without taking off his bathrobe.
No doubt motivated by erudite Playboy essays, I dated Lucia, another older Dixie chick (24 when I was 22). Lucia flew to California to join me at my family’s home on a USAF leave. I was not the main attraction, Southern California was. Movie stars. Street rods. Beaches. Lucia and I drove leisurely back to Georgia in a shiny, hardly driven, 1950 Oldsmobile. Ah, the sacrifices we warriors made for our fellow citizens. In the summer of 1954 I held the greatest job I’ve ever had — program director at Camp O-ongo, a private boys and girls summer camp near Lake Arrowhead in California. Three summers later, the instant I finished college, I left town. Much of the damage to SoCal (including to beloved Lake Arrowhead) had been done by then and I resented it. It’s “progress” if you prefer a paved environment, dreadful over-population, and a culture crafted by creepy Trump-type developer/entrepreneurs.
In June, 1956, Jackie Pelton and I met at Cal-Berkeley. All summer we played the recording of Broadway’s new hit, My Fair Lady. A year later I jumped into my 1954 Brit Triumph TR-2 roadster and hit the highway via Route 66 for NYC. Jackie stayed put. Degree in hand, she had taken a teaching job at Lake Arrowhead. During four college years she had no financial help, supported herself waitressing, and was debt-free upon graduation. Such a feat would be unimaginable today, even in California’s university system. The thrifty, nifty Fifties.
Jackie Pelton and I wed on block Island, Rhode Island, in August, 1957. We lived in the heart of Greenwich Village NYC, in a walkup brownstone apartment with fireplace and terrace straight out of the 1954 movie, Rear Window. $105 a month. To us that was plenty. Today? Conservatively, $2500. Indianapolis was next. And then, as the 50’s dissolved, a log cabin, a canoe and a 1957 Saab in the woods at Pines Lake, New Jersey, our first owned home. Like a chainsaw, the Saab required both gas and oil in the gas tank. We had a mortgage and a commute for me into downtown NYC by car, train and ferry boat. And a constant stream burbling through the cabin’s cellar which the realtor had forgotten to mention.
Earlier, as editor of the Western Electric factory newspaper in Indianapolis, where all the telephones in the U.S. were manufactured, I eagerly ran a story, with photos, about the yet-to-be-announced Princess phone. “It’s little, It’s lovely, it lights.” The dainty instrument was fresh off the assembly line and a top corporate secret. A massive, nationwide, zillion dollar marketing campaign was planned for the Princess. Parent company AT & T was in charge. And I had blown it. Important New York Hq. tycoons were, well, angry. All copies of that week’s newspaper were shredded. I almost was as well.
On the happier side, one day a bright young female graduate engineer joined Western Electric at the Indianapolis factory. Imagine that! A lady engineer! A first! It was such heady corporate news that I ran the story and her picture, really big, on page one. That was late 1958. There was some bitching from old timer, white-shirted assembly line supervisors. But it was a start. If some things about our society seem much worse today, other things are obviously so much better.