The Fifties

Halberstam, David

Villard, 1993

pp. 456 - 458

The advent of Elvis Presley in the 50s “was nothing less than the start of a revolution.” It was, said Leonard Bernstein, “‘the greatest cultural force in the twentieth century.’” True, he was “a sultry-faced young man from the South in tight clothes and an excessive haircut who wiggled his body while he sang about hound dogs,” but he changed “music, language, clothes,” racial relations, and much else. Bernstein believed that Elvis launched the 60s. P. 458: “He was an odd mixture of a hood—the haircut, the clothes, the sullen, alienated look; and a sweet little boy—curiously gentle and respectful, indeed willing and anxious to try whatever anyone wanted. Everyone was sir or ma’am. Few young Americans, before or after, have looked so rebellious and been so polite.”

pp. 508-09

In the 50s, American TV families (the Cleavers of “Leave it to Beaver;” the Andersons of “Father Knows Best,” the Nelsons of “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet”) were antiseptically perfect.  There was no poverty or abuse in the families, no despair, no mental illness, “few if any hyphenated Americans, few if any minority characters.”  People did not raise their voices in these families.  A Greek-American record producer, Nik Venet, once visited Ozzie and Harriet Nelson’s real home, and was struck by the absence of odors.  No onions, no garlic, no fried meat.  In fact in American TV families of the 50s there were “no Greeks, no Italians, and no Jews . . . only Americans, with names that were obviously Anglo-Saxon and Protestant.”  The families “reflected—and reinforced –much of the social conformity of the period.”  Dads were around the house a good deal, but seemingly couldn’t find common household objects.  Moms were comforting mistresses of the household, but if they had to drive a car a block from home, then “things went wrong, although never in a serious way.”  Once Ward Cleaver asked his wife June what kind of girl she would like their eldest son Wally to marry.  “’Oh,’ answered June, ‘some very sensible girl from a nice family . . .one with both feet on the ground, who’s a good cook, and can keep a nice house, and see that he’s happy.’”

pp. 509-510

In American TV families of the 50s, the Moms stayed at home, while looking well-dressed enough (skirts, earrings, complete makeup) to go out.  Dads had the family’s single outside job, which was nondescript, but clearly white collar enough to afford their home in the suburbs.  The TV writers wanted the families to look comfortable, but not more so than middle class viewers.  No ambitions in these families pushed them out ahead of the middle class curve.  Ozzie Nelson, for example, was a bit of a bumbler—enough of one to let middle class male viewers patronize him a little in their minds.  And he seemed to have flexible hours at work.  He was almost always home—and yet successful.  Things in these family sitcoms “never took a turn for the worse, into the dangerous realm of social pathology.  Things went wrong because a package was delivered to the wrong house, because a child tried to help a parent but did so ineptly, because a dad ventured into a mom’s terrain, or because a mom, out of the goodness of her heart, ventured into a dad’s terrain.  When people did things badly, they always did them badly with good intentions.”  It was quite a trick, and the writers brought it off for 22 minutes every week.

pp. 512-13

The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet lasted longer than the other family sitcoms, even though it wasn’t the best-written.  What it had was family members who were playing themselves: “ordinary viewers had the benefit of watching the Nelson boys grow up in real life in their own living rooms.” Harriet Nelson was “a wonderful, al-purpose homemaker . . .If, in a prefeminist era, she had doubts about who she was and how she was presented to her fellow Americans, she never showed them or talked about them.”  She had to swallow quite a lot.  The shows were written by her husband Ozzie, and sometimes included sexism a later era would find downright demeaning.  In one show she suggested that she’d see more of Ozzie if she joined him at the local volunteer fire department.  “’Are you kidding?’ Ozzie answered.  ‘You gals take too long to dress.’  ‘Oh, I don’t know,’ she said.  ‘We can be pretty quick.’  But Ozzie would have none of it.  ‘By the time you got your makeup on, the fire would be out.’”  The only wife of the era to set a different tone was Lucy of the show I Love Lucy.  But her rebellions were so “manic and incompetent” that they seemed to show that women had no place in the fields of business and commerce.  “She should be at home, burning the dinner.”

pp. 514-15, 520

When people in later decades remembered the 50s nostalgically, it was often the idyllic TV families they were actually remembering.  Maybe in their own home the dad drinks and abuses the mom, but not on TV.  In its world families were “warm-hearted, sensitive, tolerant, American, a world devoid of anger, meanness of spirit, and, of course, failure.”  Ozzie Nelson, who wrote, produced, and directed The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet was authoritarian and dictatorial.  He controlled every aspect of his boys’ lives, often reminding them that if they got into any kind of trouble, it might ruin the show, and wreck the jobs of all the people who depended on the show for their living.  The boys progressively felt chafed by such pressure.  “Ozzie Nelson had in effect stolen the childhood of both his sons and used it for commercial purposes; he had taken what was private and made it terribly public.”  Ricky became a rock star, but his Dad wanted to control that too.  P. 520: Ricky Nelson, the adult, was an unhappy drug addict.  “Finally, the harshest truth could not be suppressed: Ricky Nelson, the charming, handsome, all-American boy, was . . . the unhappy product of a dysfunctional family.”

pp. 595-96

Betty Goldstein Friedan had grown up in Peoria, graduated from Smith College in 1942, summa cum laude, and had then lived and worked as a journalist among lefty young women in Greenwich Village.  She married Carl Friedan in 1947 and started having children (three, total) in 1949.  For her fifteenth reunion at Smith in 1957 she sent around a questionnaire to her college classmates: it asked about their lives—and especially about their satisfactions and frustrations.  The answers were stunning.  All kinds of her classmates “felt unfulfilled and isolated with their children; they often viewed their husbands as visitors from a far more exciting world.”  The women had been intellectually stimulated by their years at Smith and, as in Friedan’s case, by their work as single women following graduation.  But once they married and began to have children, everything changed.  They were now tied down.  And they felt the dissatisfaction.  One classmate said “at college we went through dress rehearsal for a play that never happened.”  In her pioneering book The Feminine Mystique (1963), Friedan described how an educated woman struggled with her role as a wife and a mother:  “As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slip cover materials, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night, she was afraid to ask of herself the silent question—‘Is this all’”  The Feminist Mystique became a seminal work within First Wave feminism in America.  Betty Friedan had spoken for millions of wives and mothers.

pp. 697-98

Bill Russell was the dominant player in the NBA almost as soon as he started playing in the league in 1956.  He was 6’9 ½” but played much taller, largely because of his wing span, extraordinary quickness, and leaping ability.  He was an accomplished rebounder who could start a fast break in an instant.  He played for the Boston Celtics “but Boston was never his home.”  He was aware of the city’s prejudices and would not sign autographs.  His teammate, Bob Cousy, noted that Russell was indifferent in practice.  “But he played with a special fury in the real games, as though this sport was the only outlet . . . for all the racial anger stored up within him.  This, the intensity of his play seemed to say, was his answer to prejudice and discrimination and to existing myths about things that blacks could not do but that whites could do. . . . In those days the Celtics’ archrivals were the St. Louis Hawks, and in St. Louis, then a Southern city, the crowd seemed to him to be the most racist in the league, the epithets the most vile; it was a place where even the coffee shops denied him service.  He played particularly well in St. Louis.”