Category Archives: History

The World of a 1960s Housewife

Good Housekeeping

[Revised from an article published on Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]

I’ve been enjoying my recently purchased cache of vintage magazines from 1960 to 1971, taking one issue or another with me to read over lunch, in waiting rooms, etc., over the past two weeks. I’ve marveled at the extent to which the content, the writing styles, the focus of advertisers and the willingness to talk candidly about social issues altered over the course of the decade.

The transition from the height of the Cold War in 1960 to U.S. immersion in a hot (and by then very unpopular) war in Vietnam in 1971 is fascinating. During this period, women’s magazines changed more than they probably ever have in a single decade since the Depression. In 1960 they were filled with home-centered fantasies and prescriptive articles telling how to be the ideal wife and mother with perfectly starched aprons, a fresh darling dress and matching heels, an adoring husband and well-fed children who loved your latest Jello creation. By 1971 they were covering serious, formerly unmentionable subjects like sexual problems, psychiatry and psychotherapy, rising drug use among youth, and other hot-button social issues and political stories that would never have made it into a women’s magazine a decade earlier. Of course, there were still articles with titles like “17 New Designer Patterns for Fall” and “The Foods that Make You Prettier.”

I was surprised to notice how many of the products advertised in 1960 would be found to be downright dangerous in the following ten to twenty years. The archetypal housewife of 1960 had the specter of The Bomb looming over her life and she was trying to use modern chemistry and technology to provide a cleaner, whiter, safer life for her family. How ironic, then, that these fresh technologies and newly synthesized chemical compounds would be the cause of so much unnecessary suffering.

The oldest of the magazines I picked up last month is an issue of Good Housekeeping from May 1960. The very first page of the issue has an ad for Ipana toothpaste touting their new germ-killing ingredient, hexachlorophene. Immediately, I remembered the brouhaha caused by by hexachlorophene in the early seventies, when it was discovered that the potent germ killer, chemically related to herbicides, was toxic and could cause cerebral swelling and brain damage in humans. We had pHisoHex, a very popular facial cleanser, in our house when I was a child. I remember when it and other products containing hexachlorophene were pulled from the market with much alarming media coverage in 1973. The product is actually still sold and used to prep skin for surgery and to fight infections that haven’t responded to other treatment, but packaging warns against excess hexachlorophene absorption and the possible dangers to the central nervous system.

I didn’t have to look far to find another dangerous product being marketed to anxious mothers with sick children. Page 4 features an article for St. Joseph Aspirin for Children, a delicious treat I remember from my childhood. Tiny orange-flavored aspirin tablets for children were chewable and so tasty, the company had to invent child-proof caps (which I remember opening for my grandmother because she didn’t have the dexterity I did). Kids ate them like candy. (I know I ate more than I needed.) Of course, by the 1980s it was discovered that Reye’s syndrome, a severe illness which can cause acute encephalopathy, can be caused by giving aspirin to children. When this was known and NSAIDs like Ibuprofen began to be recommended for children’s use in place of aspirin, the number of cases of Reye’s syndrome dropped dramatically across the country. Plough was a smart enough company to change their marketing for what had been called “baby aspirin” to take advantage of the discovery that small amounts of aspirin taken daily could help ward off strokes in older people with high blood pressure. The company now markets the same product to older people who don’t have the risk of contracting Reye’s disease that children have.

Though not an advertisement, I do have to give a shout-out to the column “Foods with a Foreign Flavor,” which featured “Three festive recipes from Colonial America,” which is, of course, completely contrary to the point of having a column about international foods. Best of all was the recipe for Maple-Nut Whip Pie, which included as a primary and necessary ingredient a package of unflavored gelatin, which, as you may know, wasn’t a product found in Colonial American kitchens. A whipped cream pie based on gelatin and egg whites whipped into a near meringue—no recipe could be more authentically early-American, could it?

Warner’s, still a major maker of women’s undergarments, featured a lovely layout of mannequins wearing scary bras and girdles to keep women’s bodies completely jiggle-free. My favorite set? Probably the “Most famous Double-Play” high-topped girdle with built-in garters (remember, pantyhose hadn’t been invented yet) in the elegant blue pearl colorway, with “Matching pantie” and “A’Lure” bra. The ad exults, “Happy you! Your hunt-and-fret days of girdle choosing are over!” Each girdle offers some new fresh Hell of discomfort so that you might fit more snugly into that Jackie Kennedy-knock-off skirted suit made of fatteningly bumpy chenille that was so popular at the time. “Some with midriff-shaping Sta-Up-Top! Some with hip-slimming side panels; all with flattening back panels!” Because every woman wants a flat behind, right? Huh. This was an era when a natural wiggle was the sign of a loose woman, and a woman who wore a dress without a slip was an absolute hussy. The ad claims these products had “All-over slimming made magically comfortable,” but I remember trying on my mom’s girdles when I was a girl, and they were tighter than compression bandages and lined in horrible rubber ridges. In hot weather, rubber compression ridges pressed into the skin. I can tell you, there was little less magically comfortable than those horrid, tight, hot, constricting monstrosities. They were better than rib-crushing corsets, but a far cry from today’s comfy undies.

Girdle

Berlei high-line girdle ad from the 1960s

The Equitable Life Insurance ad on Page 21 features a serious, carefully dressed woman in a kitchen doing deep knee-bends next to the stove while her husband and son sit at the kitchen table ignoring their cherry-topped grapefruit halves to ogle the hot mama who has kicked off her shoes and is earnestly working to keep her fine figure. It’s like a scene right out of the wonderful AMC television series “Mad Men,” set in the early 1960s in the Madison Avenue ad world, where a woman’s job was to get and keep a man, and where men teach boys early to look at women, even mom, as objects of desire and little else.

Do you remember Fizzies, the tablets dropped into plain water than created instantly carbonated drinks? Kids loved them, and most of us tried to get our moms to let us have some to suck on without water so we could feel the effervescent action directly on our tongues. Page 24’s ad promises “Fizzies are FUN to make and drink—and so GOOD for you!” I had to wonder how they could make this claim about the “sprizzling, sparkling goodness” of their product, which was “as up-to-date as the newest jet.” It turns out “Mothers prefer Fizzies, too—they’re two-ways better for health. No sugar—safer for teeth—won’t destroy healthy appetites.” Hmm, no sugar? They wouldn’t be sweetened with saccharin, the earliest artificial sweetener, would they? Why, yes, they were. And saccharin was the focus of yet another health scare in the early 1970s; in fact, the USDA attempted to ban the substance in 1972, as another artificial sweetener, cyclamate had been in 1969 after causing bladder tumors and cancer in rats. Cyclamate had been used in an earlier formulation of Fizzies. Saccharin was and remains banned in Canada while remaining the third most popular artificial sweetener in the U.S.

The popular and attractive opera star Roberta Peters is featured in two different ads in this issue, one for St. Joseph’s Aspirin, the other for Murine eye drops. It’s hard to imagine a mainstream magazine featuring a coloratura soprano diva to sell anything at all nowadays, the art form is so much less popular among the general public. Roberta Peters was a well-known figure then, not only on the stage but also on TV and radio. Even though the average American lived on modest means in a modest home or apartment with much less education than is normal now, there was a greater ease with an interest in classical vocal and orchestral music at the time. Leonard Bernstein‘s Young People’s Concerts featuring classical music interspersed with Bernstein’s captivating commentary were televised from Lincoln Center in New York City to the rest of the country for a decade beginning in 1962, and they were enormously popular, helping people of all ages to become conversant with the classical canon.

Skipping recipes for curried fruit bake and a jeweled Bavarian (a dessert that includes raspberry “gelatine,” port wine, eggs, scalded milk and heavy cream, ugh), I find an ad for Velveeta, the “pasteurized process cheese spread” of my childhood that seems to have been melted all over everything. There’s an exciting frost-free Frigidaire (and if you don’t think a frost-free freezer isn’t exciting, you’ve never had to defrost an iced-over fridge and deal with the resulting puddles all over the floor) and a woman in pearls wearing a spotless white blouse and no apron while she cleans a filthy oven. Such fantasy. My favorite product name in this issue? That would be the cream deodorant with this straightforward moniker: ODO-RO-NO.

Hey, are you old enough to remember bad home perms? Girls whose moms had left the permanent wave solution on their heads so long they ended up looking like frizzed-out poodles? Here on page 153 is Bobbi, a home perm kit that you put in at night and don’t wash out until morning. Trying to sleep while wearing hard plastic perm curlers all night is one thing; having that horrible-smelling chemical stew sitting on your head for eight hours and breathing it in is another. On page 157 is Come Alive Gray, the hair color for women who like their gray hair. Add a brilliant pearly glow, enjoy a gleaming silver, or “add lustre . . . with rich, smoky tones.” I remember these different shades of gray on old ladies: lots of slightly lavender, blue or even pink hair was popular for a time, and the ladies sometimes dyed their poodles to match.

Bradley Cooper

Bradley Cooper sports a head full of home permanent curlers in the film “American Hustle,” which takes place during the perm-crazy 1970s

Ah, doilies! I’d forgotten how popular they once were. Paper doilies under every cake, plastic doilies under Hummel figurines (because “Your ‘best’ looks better on plastic Roylies”), even crocheted lace doilies on backs of chairs to keep the hair oil off the furniture (that’s why they were called antimacassars—to keep the macassar men’s hair oil off the brocade). And Brillo pads! They were once so popular before nylon scrubber sponges came along to save us from quickly rusting soap-imbued metal mesh pads that stabbed one with loose, sharp aluminum points. By 1960, Brillo pads contained “Jeweler’s Polish” and produced a “richer, livelier lather.” Yes, lively soapsuds.

“Live Outside and Love It!” You can with Hudson pesticide sprayers and dusters. Wear your pretty spring dress and spray DDT all over your roses while your husband teaches your daughter to putt six feet away and your son sits at Dad’s feet, looking up adoringly. All of that is charmingly illustrated in Good Housekeeping. Of course, in 1960 gardeners had no idea that DDT was so extremely toxic that it would be banned in 1972, and so persistent that it still shows up regularly in the blood of people today. In the United States DDT was detected in almost all human blood samples tested by the Centers for Disease Control in 2005. It is still commonly detected in food samples tested by the FDA.

Make light work of chores indoors by playing your new miniature radio with six transistors. This tiny beauty is only four by six inches and costs just $39.95—that’s in 1960 dollars, when the average income of a four-person family was $5600 per year.

Isn’t it odd that not one but at least two tuna canners wanted to compare their tuna to chicken last century? I knew of Chicken of the Sea, but had you heard of Breast-O’-Chicken Tuna? And have you tasted Pretzel Meat Loaf? Yes, meat loaf made with the lavish inclusion of crushed pretzels, “catsup” and canned mushrooms. There’s a recipe on page 215 you won’t want to miss. (Urp.)

What other hazardous materials can I find advertised here? Well, there’s a baby powder that’s almost certainly made of talc, which contains asbestos and has been proven to raise the risk of ovarian cancer in females who have used it in the genital area. Nowadays pediatricians recommend avoiding talcum powder and suggest using powders with a cornstarch base instead. A few pages later is a hot steam vaporizer, the kind I scalded myself on numerous times as a kid. The glass got so hot, the steam burnt my fingers or legs as I neared it, and the whole thing had a rounded bottom so it could tip and spill nearly boiling water and hot liquid Vick’s Vapo-Rub (which was melted in the well on the top and sprayed into the air, leaving a fine petroleum-based film all over the windows and, it turns out, irritating the lungs as well). Thank goodness for today’s cool-air humidifiers.

Next page? Mothballs! Very toxic, made with naphthalene, they can cause all sorts of bad side effects with increased exposure, and can cause death when eaten. Why would you eat a mothball? Ask all the little kids who’ve tried them! A few pages later we find insect killer spray (very likely DDT-laced). Anxious about the hazards in this big, crazy world? Why not zip up your home interiors with a coat or two of SatinTone paint? You can slather this (probably lead-based) paint on the walls of your baby’s room.

Honestly, this magazine is a minefield of health and safety disasters just waiting to happen. It’s a wonder how much we’ve learned in the last fifty years about environmental toxins, hazardous home-based chemicals and healthy eating, isn’t it?

The Times of Harvey Milk

milk

[Revised from an article originally published on Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]

In 1978, San Francisco mayor George Moscone and San Francisco’s first openly gay city supervisor, Harvey Milk, were assassinated by Dan White, another San Francisco supervisor. Dianne Feinstein, now a U.S. Senator from California, was president of the board of supervisors; she witnessed the aftermath and announced the tragedy to the press, and rose to the position of mayor of San Francisco as a result of the assassination.

I remember the time vividly. When I was a young girl, I had met George Moscone, then a California state senator, at a Democratic party rally I attended with my mother, and I was starstruck to meet someone whose face I had seen smiling on our television during nightly newscasts. Beyond the fact of his familiarity was his personal charm; Moscone was energetic, charismatic and bigger than life. The assassination was shocking, happening as it did at the hands of a coworker of both of the victims, an attractive and clean-cut fellow whose blind rage inspired a dramatic and highly publicized trial in which killer Dan White was convicted of manslaughter, the lightest possible charge against him, based in part on the fact that his attorneys said he’d gone temporarily mad because of the large quantity of junk food he’d consumed prior to the crimes. This “Twinkie defense” outraged people across the country and inspired a change to California criminal law.

The murder also inspired the creation of an odd and controversial work of art by one of my favorite Bay Area artists, sculptor Robert Arneson (who received his Master of Fine Arts degree from my alma mater, Mills College). In 1980 Arneson was commissioned to create a work to memorialize Moscone in San Francisco’s new Moscone Convention Center. It is a mystery to me why the Arts Commission would ask a sculptor as famously irreverent and outrageous as Arneson, who had made a name for himself sculpting wild and ridiculous ceramic self-portraits, to commemorate someone who was best remembered for the brutal and horrible circumstances of his death. The bust of Moscone was done in Arneson’s usual style, which is to say it was bold, disturbing and unflattering, and, most shocking of all, it was placed on a large pedestal which commemorated the circumstances of Moscone’s murder. Arneson was asked to change the work and refused, nor would he consent to have the sculpture displayed with the pedestal art hidden. He returned the commission he had been paid for the piece and resold the sculpture. It is powerful and arresting, singularly disturbing and unlike any official commemorative sculpture I have ever seen.

At the time of the murders, the greatest attention was given to the killing of the mayor; I was aware that another supervisor who was openly gay had also been murdered, but in the general news of the time my memory is that most Bay Area news media treated that as a decidedly secondary part of the story. Since then, however, little has been said or written about George Moscone that most people, even in the Bay Area, would know much about; few would remember much about him beyond his having been murdered and having had a San Francisco convention center named for him, while Harvey Milk has inspired a very successful, Academy Award–winning documentary, “The Times of Harvey Milk” and is the subject of “Milk,” a moving and important biopic by director Gus Van Sant starring Sean Penn as gay rights pioneer and civic reformer Harvey Milk, which won Penn his second Academy Award for the Best Performance by An Actor in a Leading Role. What makes Milk worth such attention and even adulation is of course not the nature of his death but the powerful story of his life and what he did with it during his 48 short years.

The quality of biographical films is often limited by the fact that they are usually conceived of as propaganda of some sort and are meant to elicit certain strong feelings from the audience. Biopics like “Ray” or the disappointingly inaccurate film “A Beautiful Mind” are crafted to make heroes of those they lionize and as a result their realism and subtlety are compromised and the truth is often completely distorted. The best among them may feel stilted or fake at times but may still provide opportunities for actors to make a deep impact on us by presenting audience-manipulating lines of emotionally fraught dialog and fake scenarios built on half-truths with a candor, vulnerability and freshness that transcends the stale, set-up quality of the stories that comprise the film. “Milk” is one of the better biopics, but it still suffers from a prefabricated, lionizing, misty-eyed mindset. However, Sean Penn’s performance as Milk is so heartbreakingly lovely, naturalistic and moving that I can highly recommend the film despite the weaknesses in the script and direction. It is worth seeing in order to learn the remarkable story of the man, who was so incredibly brave, and to see how, in the hands of a truly masterful actor, even a flawed script can be burnished until it breathes and glows.

Harvey Milk spent only a few short years in San Francisco, but during that time he proved himself to be a masterful manipulator of the media and an inspirational force against anti-gay bigotry. A remarkably effective community organizer, he helped the budding gay rights movement to solidify and strengthen not only in San Francisco but throughout California, which galvanized gay activists across the country and coaxed gay and lesbian people nationwide to come out, stand up for their civil rights and prove to the world in general, to people both gay and straight, that honest, openly gay people could live fulfilling, successful lives. Milk said, “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet also destroy every closet door in the country.” As a tireless, charming and articulate man with an understanding of the concerns and needs of the more conservative elements of society (he had, after all, been a closeted insurance salesman and upstanding member of the establishment for many years in New York), he was particularly well-suited to the role of cross-over politician, making friends among Teamsters and drag queens alike.

While the documentary “The Times of Harvey Milk” is perhaps the better picture in showing a more accurate portrayal of the man, “Milk” will be seen by many more people and will leave a vivid impression on the world in a way that a carefully made but less popular documentary could never do, and for this I’m grateful to Gus Van Sant and Sean Penn for giving life to such an important figure in the history of civil rights in the United States.

city hall

Sean Penn (right) at San Francisco City Hall in a scene from “Milk”

Throughout “Milk” are many scenes of the beautiful San Francisco City Hall, the gorgeous beaux-arts building that is an elegant centerpiece and a virtual wedding cake of a civic building, but also the scene of the horrific murders of Moscone and Milk. I was married in San Francisco City Hall in 1990 (as Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio were in 1954—I figured if it was glamorous and gorgeous enough for them, it was good enough for me), and several of my favorite photos from my wedding day were taken on the same steps and in front of the same doors that appear repeatedly in the film. I was married on the first day of summer, and the week of the summer solstice has been designated Gay Pride Week in big cities across the country ever since world-changing riots were held by angry gay citizens in protest after the arrest of gay patrons of the Stonewall Inn in New York City on June 28, 1969. (When in Manhattan, it’s worth a detour to stop by the Stonewall on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village, as my daughter and I have. It’s not often one can stand at an epicenter of seismic social change.)

It is in part due to the efforts of Harvey Milk and his supporters that such celebrations and artworks were socially acceptable in a San Francisco civic building twelve years after Milk’s death. Another proof of his continuing influence was the presence of an ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) rally which took place just outside the building on my wedding day. We in the wedding party stood behind the line of police officers who were all dressed in riot gear (all except police chief Frank Jordan, later the mayor of San Francisco, who wore his standard uniform), each of them looking grimly beyond his shield and baton at the loud but peaceful protesters outside. We who stood behind them felt we were on the wrong side of the law, so to speak. I would have preferred to be standing in my purple wedding suit outside the building alongside the green-haired protester wearing the Butthole Surfers T-shirt, but we had to wait our turn inside the building to be called to marry.

There was great pleasure in feeling solidarity with our LGBT sisters and brothers on a day when my then-husband and I celebrated our heterosexual union. Since then, laws in nearly 20 states have changed to allow the legal marriage of homosexual couples, and every time another state takes a big step forward toward marriage equality, I think of Harvey Milk and the important place he had in the early days of the struggle that has brought us so much closer to true equality for people of all sexual orientations. I think also of the fact that, over thirty years after his death, so many virulently bigoted people still feel free to spew their nonsensical hatred toward our gay brothers and sisters and to vote to keep them down. We must act up and speak up for each other, even if we are lucky enough not to have to fight this fight personally every day. As Harvey said, “Hope will never be silent.” We must never let it be.

Judi Dench and the Lost Child of Philomena Lee

Philomena

Judi Dench is a nearly universally admired British actress who can be relied upon to add dignity and dry humor to any production. Dench, who was born in 1934, has long been a celebrated Shakespearean actor, but nowadays she is most recognizable to millions of Americans after having played M in recent James Bond films.

Dench was the star of several popular British television series, but she first knew success on the stage in productions like Cabaret in London’s West End in 1968, as well as in serious Shakespearean roles. When she became the first female incarnation of M in the James Bond film series beginning in 1995, she became known to a wider assortment of international filmgoers. Winning an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for playing Queen Elizabeth I in 1998’s Shakespeare in Love made her at last recognizable to the average American film-goer.

Judi Dench often plays unsmiling, all-knowing, uncompromising women who cannot be fooled, but in her Oscar-nominated role playing Philomena Lee in Stephen Frears’s film Philomena, she gives a unexpectedly soft, poignant and sympathetic performance that displays her versatility and range. The film is based on the true story of Philomena Lee, and Irishwoman who became pregnant as a teenager in 1951 and was sent to a remote Irish abbey during her pregnancy. There she was forced by nuns to work as a laundress alongside other unwed mothers, and was made to stay on working at the laundry without pay for four more years as penance for the sin of having had premarital sex, and to pay the abbey for the costs of caring for her during her pregnancy.

The practice of locking up young unwed mothers in what were known as “Magdalene asylums” or “Magdalene laundries” was common in Ireland and Britain in the 19th century, and it spread to other European countries and to the U.S. and Canada. The practice lasted well into the 20th century. The last Magdalene asylum in Ireland was in operation until 1996. At these workhouses girls were sometimes beaten, often locked inside against their will and sometimes forbidden to leave even after they became adults.

The Catholic Church enjoyed free labor from these women, and embarrassed parents of unwed pregnant teens were often so relieved to avoid the public shame of having their daughters’ sins paraded before society that many abandoned their children to the Magdalene sisters forever. Families often told neighbors and friends that their daughters had gone to live with family, or emigrated, or even died, all in an effort to save themselves from shame and social ostracism.

While these teen girls worked long hours in steamy laundries, their children were watched over by nuns in nurseries. At the abbey where Philomena lived, children were often adopted out to American married couples who sought children in return for generous donations to the abbey. Philomena’s much-loved son was adopted by an American couple and taken away without warning one day while she was working. She had no chance to say goodbye, she had no idea that her little boy had been flown to America, and she was not told that his named had been changed.

All her efforts to learn what became of her son were rebuffed by the abbey, which destroyed her records and denied knowledge of her son’s name and whereabouts. Ashamed by her plight but desperately sad to have lost her son, Philomena sought him secretly for a half century without luck. Finally, she enlisted the help of Martin Sixsmith, an out-of-work journalist and former government advisor to the Labour Party. Martin and Philomena traveled to America together and learned extraordinary things about Philomena’s son and the abbey’s deceptive practices. Their story of their adventure together was published by Sixsmith in 2009 in his book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, described by the L.A. Times as “a serio-comic travelogue full of heart-rending discovery and the triumph of forgiveness over hate.”

Previews made it look like a manipulative tear-jerker about a naive old lady with a can-do attitude and a big heart, the sort of story that could turn sickly-sweet in under a minute. Happily, it stars Judi Dench and satirist Steve Coogan, two actors famous for their droll, whip-smart performances, and it benefits from the tart and clever writing of Coogan, who coauthored the screenplay. He is known for his cynical, sarcastic portrayals, and he shows his dark wit in films like The Trip and Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story. In England he’s well known for his most popular creation, a character named Alan Partridge described as “a socially awkward and politically incorrect regional media personality.”

I knew better than to expect mindless, treacly antics from Coogan or from director Stephen Frears, whose smart, often dark films include Dangerous Liaisons, My Beautiful Laundrette (which starred a young Daniel Day-Lewis), Prick Up Your Ears (with Gary Oldman) and The Grifters (a dark little masterpiece with John Cusack, Annette Bening and Anjelica Huston). Frears has no fear of difficult subjects or ugly moments. Weighing all these facts, I put aside my worries that this could be a manipulative little feel-good flick. Happily, I found it a movingly acted film about an unworldly, seemingly simple woman who turns out to be more complex and determined than people expect.

The battle between the jaded, antireligious cynicism of Martin and the every-day-is-a-gift devout positivity of Philomena is at the core of the film, but Dench’s portrayal shows the spirited openmindedness of our seemingly old-fashioned heroine. Her sense of hopefulness and appreciation for small kindnesses is nicely balanced by exasperation with Martin’s dour, dark, angry worldview. He is not won over by her endless sweet simplicity, but he is moved by her because he recognizes that she has insights into people and situations that he, with all his experience and inside information but lack of empathy, misses.

Martin recognizes that Philomena’s story is a door into a huge and devastating world of widespread, long-term institutional abuse of the most vulnerable among us: abandoned, pregnant teen girls and small children. He sees that she has a power to connect with people that he lacks because he is often closed to anything but the fulfillment of his own expectations and prejudices. The journey they take together becomes more tangled and difficult than they expect, and it becomes more personally engaging and meaningful than Martin could have guessed.

[Originally published on Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]

Capote

Capote

[Originally published on Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]

“My major regret in life is that my childhood was unnecessarily lonely.” –Truman Capote

The Truman Capote I grew up watching and reading was the Capote who appeared, usually drunk or drugged, odd but always interesting, on afternoon and evening talk shows, spinning stories about the fabulously famous and wealthy crowd with whom he ran. He was a professional personality by the time I was aware of him, but I also knew that he’d written much-admired stories that had been turned into very famous and popular films. I knew that my mother admired his work, and that he had written “A Christmas Memory,” one of the most beautiful, understated, tender stories I’ve ever read. The fact that it was based in his own experience made it all the more lovely to me. I felt sad for and protective of him at a young age, because I knew that the man who had written that story had been a tender and hyperaware child, like I had, and had seen the fear and pain in life as clearly as the joy and the secret beauties of it.

My mother taught “A Christmas Memory” to her high school English students for many years and she introduced it to me when I was about ten. I was completely taken with this story of a young boy abandoned by his parents and living with his disapproving southern aunts. This boy’s best friend was the childlike old-maid cousin with whom he also lived, a woman who flew handmade kites with him and took him to buy moonshine whiskey from Mr. Haha Jones so they could make their annual batch of fruitcakes, one of which they sent to President Franklin Roosevelt every year. Capote had taken the littlest details and moments in what others might see as an unexceptional situation and spun them into a rich and compelling story, simple and straightforward but with every word in place, every emotion sparely but elegantly woven into the words. I think it’s a short masterpiece; it is perhaps my favorite short story, and the one I’ve read more often than any other.

It was immediately clear to me that Capote got the tone, the subtleties, the story, and the total devotion of the characters for each other exactly right. That he was the model for the boy Dill in his friend Harper Lee’s story To Kill a Mockingbird, a novel that I find close to perfect, made him all the more special to me. I have read and reread “A Christmas Memory” to myself and others most of the Christmases of my life, and cry as regularly as clockwork when I come to the last bittersweet page. This was a man who clearly understood loss and loneliness, and who understood empathy and tender connection to another like few writers I’d come across. There was something beautiful and tender and true in him and in his art that I, and millions of other people, were drawn to, and wanted to believe in.

When Capote died in 1984 among swirling stories of long-term drug and alcohol abuse, he also left behind him a parade of disaffected friends who felt he’d used and abused them, that he’d betrayed their friendship and their secrets in order to steal their souls so that he might make not only his party anecdotes but his writing come to life. He had been such a wildly successful New York socialite, courting and collecting the loveliest, richest, and most prominent socialites as his “swans,” as he called them, for years. He hosted the New York social event of the decade, the famous and successful Black and White Ball, in 1966. Best-dressed list icons like Lee Radziwill and Babe Paley attended parties with him and had him to their summer homes, traveled with him and relished his delicious gossip. He wangled his way into the hearts of dozens of people who felt he understood them intimately and would respect and love them not only despite but because of their foibles. When he wanted to be charming, nobody could outcharm him. He made people of all types and of any social standing believe he loved them for the tender, misunderstood people they were inside their suits of shiny invincibility; they felt not only understood by him but safe with him. And then he spilled out their secrets for everyone to see.

For years he gathered their lives into his short stories and promised a splendid, insightful book to his publisher, talk show hosts, and the world, and we all waited with bated breath, knowing that when Capote had the time to build a work, like In Cold Blood, he would carefully piece it together just so and make the wait worthwhile. He had shown his mastery of the short story form very early in life, and, when sober, he was an insightful and entertaining fellow. He was also extraordinarily catty when he wanted to be, and, when one wasn’t on the receiving end of that acid tongue, he could be shockingly funny. But his charm was so extreme and his magical power of diverting attention from the things that everyone should have known that he was a sponge who missed no details, a writer first and foremost, insightful and ruthless when exposing the hidden motivation, the raw nerve.

So he gathered his swans’ secrets and then poured them out onto the page with such clarity, and so little effort at concealing the identities of his characters’ inspirations, that he immediately and permanently drove most of his friends and their associates away and turned their feelings for him from indulgent and loving exasperation to anger, fear, and resentment. To learn of how almost all the doors of society slammed on him one by one after he had been the toast of New York, the shining star of literary society, was to feel that, no matter how much he deserved what he got, it was still a terrible shame, that there must have been some mistake somewhere, some misunderstanding.

Knowing his downward trajectory during the last 15 years of his life makes “Capote,” the outstanding new film about his years researching and writing In Cold Blood, even more riveting. The film constructs, with not one extraneous scene or unnecessary bit of dialog, an understanding of his place in literary society, and his chameleon-like ease at blending into the lives of the people whom he wanted to capture and luring them into trusting him with their lives and stories. His ability to say exactly what a publisher, a murderer, his lover, his oldest friend wanted to hear in order to court their love or trust, and seem to mean each word he said, is juxtaposed rivetingly with his ability to cut them off at the knees, dismiss them, insult them, or ignore them when their needs don’t suit his. The performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman is astonishing, not only because his impersonation of Capote’s strained, high, tiny voice and his fussy mannerisms is so remarkably good, but because he moves effortlessly between charm and seemingly endless empathy to self-absorption of enormous proportion so smoothly and naturally. We both admire and revile him. In their roles, excellent actors Chris Cooper and Catherine Keener show indulgence and affection for him, as well as wariness and disgust with his deceit of others, of them, of himself. The script is often spare and the pacing, while perfect, is never rushed; what is not said by the characters is as important and full of meaning as the well-crafted dialog. We learn just enough about any character, any situation, to be able to piece together what its meaning will be to those involved. His actions and the reactions of others are carefully calibrated so that we are never in the dark as to what is going on or how his actions will reverberate, but we are trusted to be able to let the story build in our minds; the writer, director, and actors don’t spoonfeed us but deftly piece the feelings, words, and actions of the characters together so that the story builds and intermeshes exactly as it should. This is how a subtle story should be told.