Category Archives: History

Can An Algorithm Rate Artistic Creativity?

Burghers STanford

Detail from one of Rodin’s “Burghers of Calais”

Wired UK and other media outlets report that computer scientists Ahmed Elgammal and Babak Saleh from Rutgers University have developed a visual algorithm which they believe can accurately rank historical artworks according to their creativity. Elgammal and Saleh define creativity as “the originality of the product and its influential value.” They use this definition to create what has been called an art network based on paintings’ (and some sculptures’) similarity to earlier works. Their experiment evaluated a variety of elements including color, texture and type of scenes depicted. Elgammal and Saleh compiled a database of art works from the 1400s to the present and used their algorithm to draw parallels between creative works.

This study, which purports to use computer science to measure the absolute creative worth of over 62,000 original works of art, is highly subjective and filled with inherent bias despite the programmers’ efforts to tease out evaluative absolutes by setting strict criteria. They seem to have assumed that their criteria covered the most important elements of what makes a work original or creative. Sadly, the whole enterprise and is at best flawed and at worst counterproductive to an accurate appraisal and understanding of what makes great works of art great.

A primary problem with such a test is determining what works to include and by which artists. For example, one artist who fared poorly in this project’s evaluation is August Rodin, an immensely popular French sculptor who has had an extraordinary impact on sculptors who came after him. Rodin is best known by the general public for two works, “The Thinker” and “The Kiss,” which are, to my mind, among his less exciting pieces. Indeed, “The Thinker” was conceived as a small part of his masterwork, “The Gates of Hell,” a monumental sculptural bronze work which depicts scenes from Dante’s Inferno, and versions of “The Thinker” appear in each of the cast bronze versions of the gates on display in museums around the world. Those who study and collect art are generally much more excited about “The Gates of Hell” and Rodin’s “Burghers of Calais,” which are considered his most emotionally powerful works. Each was cast in multiple versions and is  displayed in numerous locations around the globe.

“The Gates of Hell,” a  bronze gate covered in writhing bodies, and the somber collection of chained men dressed in rags that makes up “The Burghers of Calais” are, I would argue, more important to the development of 20th century sculpture than “The Thinker” or “The Kiss.” They are, however, much less well-known among those who only have a cursory interest in art. These more influential works are deeply psychological and disturbing sculptures featuring people in torment, not the placid, pleasing sculptures that those who know little of Rodin’s work may think of when they hear his name. Rodin, who lived a long, passionate and prolific life, created thousands of heads, bodies and body parts of clay and bronze and he created portrait sculptures that sometimes offended those who posed for them with their raw, unfinished, often ugly qualities. For more than a century, serious students of art have studied and copied Rodin’s work and techniques, and his more distorted and disturbing  sculptures have been among the most influential works of the last 150 years among modern artists.

If your specialty is programming and not art, you might not know to include those works among your sample. You might choose only his more generally popular works and assume that because they are more frequently copied, photographed or parodied, they are the more important pieces. And if you do that, you’ll get a skewed result, which is exactly what happened.

This study is getting a great deal of attention because of what was written about it by Daniel Culpan of Wired UK and in careless quotations of his work by other publications. Mr. Culpan is not conversant enough with art history to know basic terminology about the discipline. He did not appear to know enough about the subject to challenge some of the computer scientists’ biases and assumptions, and he apparently did not fully read even the short precis of the paper which he seems to have skimmed. He failed to mention, for example, that the artworks include not only paintings but also sculptures. The republication of and references to his article by Ars Technica and Smithsonian both repeat this error. Also, the art historical term “old masters,” which Mr. Culpan apparently erroneously believes means all important artists of the pre-20th century period, actually has a more specific meaning and commonly refers to works painted from approximately the 13th to the 18th centuries, up to about the year 1800.

Two of the artists Culpan describes as “old masters” who rated poorly in the computer assessment of their creativity actually lived and worked significantly after the “old masters” period: Ingres painted in the late 18th and early 19th centuries; Rodin sculpted in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They are artists we consider to be part of the canon, but Ingres predates the modern era by only a few decades, and Rodin worked during what most art historians would consider to be the modern era.

Some wonder whether this study “proves” that some long-lauded artists might have been overvalued by those who lived before computer-aided evaluations were available. In the cases of Ingres and Rodin, their works (and Rodin’s in particular) are so unlike any others by their contemporaries that they are easily recognizable as having been created by those masters. I would argue that Ingres and especially Rodin were powerfully influential and that they saw things with a different eye than those who came before them. However, they worked primarily with traditional subject matter—figurative portraiture—in recognizable ways; i.e., their subjects’ body parts are generally recognizable as such and appear in the name locations as real body parts do, unlike paintings or sculptures by artists like Picasso, say, who moved eyes and limbs around on the bodies of the subjects he painted.

Sometimes Picasso painted multiple views of the same body part from different angles and incorporated them all into one portrait. Artists like Matisse distorted the colors of body parts, painting faces green or red when it suited him. Such altering of basic elements of human anatomy in one’s art could be considered more creative, and showing creativity (according to this definition) could be considered to be a better or more advanced form of art, or more impressive or important than producing images based more closely on figurative norms. Making recognizable portrait paintings of nobility, as Ingres did, could be seen as less “creative” than building most of one’s oeuvre out of stacked boxes and lines, like Mondrian, or collages, like Braque, or simplifying figures to their essential shapes and distorting them, like Munch or Picasso or Dali or Lichtenstein. But reducing creativity to such simplistic, easily measured or described metrics is unfair and damaging if it allows us to discount the importance, beauty, influence and ineffable magic found in historically earlier, more subtle or more “mainstream” works of art.

Taking these works out of their historical settings does them a disservice in determining how influential they were on the art that followed. The creators of this study tried to determine the influence of artists on those who followed them and to determine how different they were from what came before. But such differences were much more subtle during earlier centuries, and changes in style usually came about more slowly in past centuries than they did from the mid-19th century onward. Changes in art sped up throughout the 20th century, and now there are so many competing styles, media, techniques, mindsets, methodologies and concepts that one can no longer describe a prevailing artistic sensibility as being representative of the modern era. Technology and speed of communications changed artists’ ability to influence each other, and that sped up creativity, by one measure of the term. But since we modern types tend to think of “creativity” as an inherently positive term, I fear conflating the idea that something is “different” and therefore more “creative” in some ways with the idea that it is therefore better or more valuable.

In past times, the differences between two styles of art could be seen as monumentally important to earlier artists or to professional art historians, but those differences might be almost imperceptible to modern people without training and context. For example, Early Renaissance master sculptor Donatello and High Renaissance master sculptor Michelangelo each created important statues of the biblical figure David between about 1440 and 1504, and those who study art history see them as vastly different in feeling, symbolism, strength, influence and style. Someone without training, however, might very well see them as two boring, traditional nude dudes. Someone with no training at all can look at paintings by Salvador Dali, Rene Magritte and Andy Warhol side by side and see that each is different from the other and none is like anything seen before, and by that measure they could be seen as much more original, creative or even valuable than the works of Michelangelo. Each of those artists is hugely important and influential, but to put Magritte into the same category as Michelangelo would be ridiculous and unfair. Michelangelo’s works’ relative similarity to sculptures done by Roman artists 1500 years earlier does not make him a less creative or important or original artist for having copied and appropriated techniques from ancient works so well.

I fear any project that would use loaded terms like “creative” to rank, describe or value artists is likely to mislead those outside of the art world into believing that there are absolutes and discernible metrics that one can use to boil artworks down to their essence and take the guesswork out of determining meaning or value or rank. Such a ranking tool cannot exist because an essential element of art is that it can be valued in multiple ways, and that a work’s value is not solely the price for which it can be sold but is also derived from the meaning it has for the creator and its viewers. One can no more value a work of art than one can a human life. Yes, it can technically be done in a court of law or an auction showroom, but each of us holds a particular person or possession dearer than any court or auction house would, and we would argue that that person’s or thing’s imputed value has nothing to do with the value we sense within our head and heart. That is what makes art great and more complex in meaning than a garden hose or a box of cash. Each of us brings our own meaning to and derives our own value from a work of art in a unique way, and a computer program cannot do that for us.

According to this computerized assessment of relative creativity, Munch’s “The Scream” is on a par with Velazquez’s entire artistic output. In actuality, Munch’s dark, disturbed paintings owe much to the interior moodiness of 17th and 18th century masters like Velazquez and Goya, just as the nihilistic artists and writers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries could not exist without the influence of the writers and artists who came before. To take them out of context and rank them in this raw and bloodless way feels, to me, preposterous.

Margaret Keene’s big-eyed portraits of the 1950s and 1960s were distinctive and immediately recognizable and they inspired many copies. These aspects of her work could be considered signs of great creativity according to descriptions of elements considered by this study. Keene’s works are, however, generally considered to be kitschy, shallow and lacking in artistic merit. Rodin, on the other hand, created rough, lumpy, often ugly portraits that many believed looked half-finished or hideous, but this freshness and openness to a reassessment of what constitutes a completed form had huge influence on modern sculpture. However, most people who know little about art history are only familiar with his statues “The Thinker” and “The Kiss,” which are more smooth, finished and conservative in their style than most of his works and are less appropriate examples of the originality and influence of his work on artists themselves. I think his scoring so poorly on this “test” of creativity better shows the weakness of the creators’ understanding of which works of his should be evaluated and included in the test than it does the level of his creativity.

The project is interesting, and it is heartening to see people in tech fields showing an interest in the fine arts. However, the metrics the project uses to measure artistic merit are biased more toward novelty than quality, and they discount many of the key elements of artworks most prized by professional art historians and collectors. Elgammal and Saleh make so many value judgments based on personal opinion that the result is a controversial evaluative tool of very limited use.


What Makes a Woman “Feminine”?

Vanity Fair

Caitlyn Jenner‘s photos were published in Vanity Fair earlier this week, as we all know by now. She looks beautiful in them, and I wish her only happiness in her life as the woman she has always felt herself to be.

Since she seems to have taken charge of all aspects of publicizing her transition from Bruce to Caitlyn, we must assume that Ms. Jenner had the final say regarding which of the photos taken by top celebrity portraitist Annie Leibovitz she wanted to have featured on the Vanity Fair cover. Of all the photos from that spread, the one on the cover shows Ms. Jenner in the most vulnerable possible state: sitting in white underwear with arms pinned behind her and her strong, beautiful legs awkwardly pressed together. All the others show her looking more in-charge and comfortable with herself, not to mention in prettier clothes. For example, here she is relaxing:


Here she is about to drive her $180,000 sports car:

Red Dress

In each of these images, she shows herself to be in command of the moment and of herself. In one, she looks away from the camera as if unaware and unconcerned about its gaze; in the other she wears sunglasses and a body-conscious red dress, and she exudes power and control. Compare these to the cover image in which her wrists and ankles could be bound for all we know; they’re certainly pulled tightly back and out of the way, and she looks directly at the camera, unsmiling and very aware that she is being appraised by the viewer in her half-naked state.

After a lifetime of being lauded for physical strength and power, which were so often conflated with her appearing to many to be the epitome of manly attractiveness, it is understandable, but I think a bit disturbing, that she and Vanity Fair should see the opposite—a physical position of seeming powerlessness—as the apotheosis of feminine beauty. While it is true that stripping away clothes could also be taken as a symbol of stripping away what she felt were the public lies about her private self, both she and photographer Annie Leibovitz knew full well that by portraying her without clothes or visible hands or feet they were also using visual shorthand to get across the idea of her vulnerability as part and parcel of her newly-public femininity.

She is in fabulous physical condition, as one would expect a disciplined gold-medal-winning Olympic decathlete to be, and one can understand that she might want to show that off—it must feel great to show the world that she can look so conventionally attractive as a woman. And, of course, Vanity Fair wants to sex up the cover as much as possible to sell more issues. But I wonder: did Ms. Jenner or Vanity Fair think that placing her in as vulnerable a state as possible was a necessary part of making her look most feminine?

If people think that what makes Ms. Jenner appear to be “feminine” is the fact that her near nudity and constrained pose leave her looking vulnerable and fragile, that saddens me, since in that case the choice is clearly not about glamour (which can be strong and empowering) per se; it is instead about playing up weakness as a womanly trait. Caitlyn Jenner is plenty glamorous in all the photos, so the choice must have involved what she and Vanity Fair think makes her look most like a woman, and that appears to be weakness, vulnerability and the impression of greater sexual availability (i.e., fewer clothes, direct gaze, body seated rather than standing and legs and arms out of the way). I’m concerned about underlying sexist and disempowering messages about femininity and beauty that could be sent to the world by this photo spread when the most fragile and powerless-looking of all photos taken becomes the image chosen to symbolize feminine beauty out of all the beautiful, powerful images available.

I am not denigrating Caitlyn’s choice to transition from male to female, nor her desire to share her story and her first photos of herself in a beautiful and powerful way. I support and applaud her in this. I am merely questioning what this episode in popular culture tells us about how we may conflate powerlessness and vulnerability with ideals of female beauty.

Nordic Splendor: The Baldishol Tapestry


I’m currently traveling in Scandinavia feasting my eyes on Nordic art and design, both ancient and modern. One of the highlights so far was the Baldishol Tapestry, a Medieval masterpiece dating between 1040 and 1190 AD. The tapestry was rescued from the Baldishol Church in Hedmark, Norway, when it came to light after the demolition of the church in the late 1870s. By then it looked like tattered old rags and was covered in dirt acquired from its previous use: protecting the feet of the church sexton from drafts. (Click on the photo below to see a more detailed image of the tapestry in its current setting.)

Baldeshol Tapestry

Now that it’s clean and displayed in a dark room under climate control, this brilliantly colorful tapestry (which is contemporary with the world’s most famous Medieval tapestry work, The Bayeux Tapestry, depicting the Norman Conquest of 1066) is in remarkable condition. This wall decoration, once of of a series meant to encircle a room, symbolizes the months of April and May, and is the only surviving early medieval tapestry believed to be of Nordic origin. It is on display in the National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design in Oslo.

We No Speak Americano

You may have heard the international dance hit “We No Speak Americano,” which was recorded in 2010 by Australian duo Yolanda Be Cool and producer DCUP. But did you know that the Italian song it’s based on, “Tu Vuò Fà l’Americano” (“You Want to Be American”), goes back to the 1950s? Variations on the song in Italian and English have been performed by scores of stars as diverse as Sophia Loren, the Brian Setzer Orchestra, Pitbull, Matt Damon and Jude Law, and even Alvin and the Chipmunks since then.

Yolanda Be Cool’s song is based on (and features samples from) the 1956 Italian pop hit “Tu Vuò Fà l’Americano,” which was written in the Neapolitan dialect by Italian singer Renato Carosone in collaboration with Nicola “Nisa” Salerno. It was commissioned for a radio contest and the song, which combines swing and jazz elements, became a huge hit almost immediately. It was featured in several Italian films by 1960s, including a sexy dance number performance by Sophia Loren in In Started in Naples. It also features in the 1999 film The Talented Mr. Ripley. The song satirizes the Americanization that swept Southern Italy after World War II and tells a story of an Italian man who pretends to live like an American, enjoying whisky and soda, rock ‘n roll, baseball and Camel cigarettes, but who is still dependent on his parents for money. The Puppini Sisters sing a spunky, sprightly version of the song in three-part harmony on their album Betcha Bottom Dollar; Pit Bull sings a version, “Bon Bon,” primarily in Spanish; Trio Manouche does a Gypsy Jazz-inspired version; and French group The Gypsy Queens does a fun version with American jazz chanteuse Madeleine Peyroux in bouncy Neapolitan style. Every version of the song has its own very danceable quirks and charms.

The Strength That Comes from Acknowledging Frailty

Watercolor on paper by Laura Grey
Watercolor on paper by Laura Grey

I have a deep fascination with history and historical objects that make the past more accessible and understandable to us today. I often incorporate them into my art, writing and home environment. Not a day goes by that I don’t consider how the past (either my own or the time before my existence) has shaped me. I’m always asking myself how I can bring the things and the knowledge of the past into the light and share its importance and meaning with those around me who may not know how many wonders have been created, shared, discovered and often lost. I incorporate bits of history into my world wherever I can. I fear the idea of people losing what has gone before, or failing to notice connections and patterns that could help them avoid repeating the same errors others have already made. I’m also saddened when people live without context, unaware of their place on the continuum of history.

I think each day of the people and relationships I have lost, and of the sadness I feel about the fact that part of my history died with them, too. But I also feel grateful that I have given my own child a context for her life and mine so that I can continue to enjoy my relationships with those who have gone before us by relating their stories to my daughter and letting them become touchstones and stories and elements that bind my past to her future.

Something I’m so glad to have learned along the way is that one’s relationship with people who have died (or who have simply disappeared from our lives, if not from the world) doesn’t end with their death; we can still learn from and about them, change the way we feel about them, and grow in our understanding and acceptance of (or sometimes anger toward) them long after they’re gone. My relationships with my own very difficult parents have changed a lot in the 13 and 20 years since their respective deaths. I’m grateful that despite the finite nature of their own histories, they are still a part of my ongoing history. They live on through me. People can even have meaningful relationships with those who died before we were born. Yes, those are one-way relationships, but they can still teach and inspire and help to form us, and I find that so comforting. I love that both my mother and my long-dead grandmother are living presences in my daughter’s life through the stories that I share about them. Their history becomes part of my daughter’s own life.

I suppose studying history also reminds me of how fragile and temporal we and all of our creations are, and how even the greatest among us is or was human and flawed, scared and mortal, too. Perhaps that’s why I so love cemeteries and memento mori paintings and mourning jewelry. That fascination sounds morbid, but it’s not, really. It’s not a love of death that I feel when I see such things; it’s a love of the touching human reminders people build to those who have moved them and shaped them. These are reminders to be grateful, to make the most of what exists now, to share and expand on love, to express what should be expressed, to recognize how fleeting it all is, and to acknowledge just how much power each of us has to affect others, power that we don’t like to admit that we hold because it’s scary to think of wasting such a precious thing the way we all do every day.

In the 1970 film Patton starring George C. Scott, General George S. Patton shares the following, haunting thought, which has always stuck with me: “For over a thousand years, Roman conquerors returning from the wars enjoyed the honor of a triumph — a tumultuous parade. In the procession came trumpeters and musicians and strange animals from the conquered territories, together with carts laden with treasure and captured armaments. The conqueror rode in a triumphal chariot, the dazed prisoners walking in chains before him. Sometimes his children, robed in white, stood with him in the chariot, or rode the trace horses. A slave stood behind the conqueror, holding a golden crown, and whispering in his ear a warning: that all glory is fleeting.”

I think one of the great discoveries that has come with time for me has been learning what tender little people we all are inside, and that even the most assertive and confident-seeming among us has doubts and failures and awkward unguarded spots that the armor doesn’t fully cover. There is comfort in that, not just because it humanizes great characters, but because their successes actually seem greater when I consider that they were accomplished by life-sized people who had to navigate the world just as I do, yet they found ways to do great things despite their very human limitations. They weren’t giants walking the earth, they were humans stuck in failing bodies challenging themselves to think in fresh ways and act where others only pondered. Knowing that the people I most admire are not immune from human frailty helps me to feel more compassion for them, and sometimes for myself.

In Flanders Fields



In Flanders Fields

“In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.”

One of the most-often-quoted poems of what was for many years known as The Great War, “In Flanders Fields” was written by Canadian physician Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae in 1915. The poem was inspired by the funeral of McCrae’s friend and fellow soldier Alexis Helmer, who died in the Second Battle of Ypres. According to legend, fellow soldiers retrieved the poem after McCrae, initially dissatisfied with his work, discarded it. “In Flanders Fields” was first published on December 8, 1915 in the London-based magazine Punch. The poem refers to the red poppies that grew over the graves of fallen soldiers. The popularity of the poem led to the remembrance poppy becoming one of the world’s most recognized memorial symbols for soldiers who have died in conflict.


Dulce Et Decorum Est


To my mind, Wilfred Owen’s account of a mustard gas attack, “Dulce Et Decorum Est,” is the greatest of First World War poems. The title comes from an ode by the ancient poet Horace, who said “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori”: It is sweet and right to die for your country. Owen’s account questions the sweetness and rightness of death in battle.

Dulce Et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!– An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.–
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Owen died just before the end of the war. His parents received news of his death on Armistice Day.

Low-Key Lustre, Elegant Beyond Price: Women’s Magazines of the Sixties

Beauty Shop

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

I recently purchased a great selection of vintage magazines dated from 1960 to 1971 and I’ve been enjoying stepping into the past each time I sit down to read them. My latest vintage magazine adventure has been with the June 1966 issue of McCall’s, the long-running popular women’s magazine. It’s been fun to compare it to the Good Housekeeping magazine from 1960 I wrote about a few weeks ago. In just that six-year span, the advertising copy grew much more florid, less concerned with keeping a perfect household and more concerned with personal sex appeal. I don’t know if it was the popularization of the birth control pill in the early 1960s that caused the subsequent cultural obsession with sexiness that sprouted in the 1960s and 1970s (as many social historians suggest), but the move from wanting a sparkling oven and a perfect meatloaf for one’s husband and children to the quest for bouncier hair, more luxurious nails and more kissable lips for an unnamed man is quite pronounced.

I love the over-the-top ad copy: “Suddenly everyone’s all eyes (and sighs!) over [Max Factor] Shadow Creme. The new glowy-eyed eye shadow that slips on like a dream, because it’s cream!” Adjectives morph into ad-copy-ready verbs to try to add youth and vigor to a phrase: with dreamy creamy eye shadow one can “sleek on a shy narrow line of color.” Or how about the nail polish which will apparently change your life with its heart-stopping, eye-catching beauty? You don’t just brush it on, you slither it on. Not slather, slither: one must apply it sexily, with the thrilling undulations of a snake. Yes, with Revlon Crystalline Nail Enamel, “Even before you slither it on, you’ll see the big difference. . . . On your nails it glows with a soft, low-key lustre. A quiet kind of chic. You’ll be smitten with the deep, velvety quality of it. The plushness. The cover. The delicate—but definite—color. Elegant beyond price.” I’m practically having palpitations just thinking of it.

Not getting enough action, you brown-haired beauties? The problem is with your makeup: you need Clairol Flicker Stick. “This is only for the brunettes who rather enjoy having their hair mussed occasionally. The very first lip gloss for Brunettes Only. Give your lips a lick of something new.” That’s wildly suggestive compared to the ads of 1960 and before. Another rather bold ad features a photo of a man in a business suit with his head and one hand both cropped away and his other hand holding a telephone. The focus of the photo is the man’s crotch, which is shown splay-legged sitting on an office chair. The headline? “If your husband doesn’t lift anything heavier than a telephone, why does he need Jockey support?”

The ad goes on to say that “During a normal day, a man makes a thousand moves that can put sudden strain on areas that require male support. Climbing stairs. Running to catch a bus. Bending. Reaching. Simple things, yet they are the very reasons why every man needs the support and protection that only Jockey brand briefs are designed to provide.” Otherwise, what, he might get a wedgie? Or lose his ability to sire a child because he ran up the stairs too fast? They seem to imply that his very manhood is in peril should he wear the wrong underpants.

The fashion emphasis by 1966 is on younger, fresher, livelier styles. The concern isn’t so much about using the latest and greatest (and shortly-thereafter-to-be-determined dangerous) drugs, pesticides and cleaning agents around the house in an effort to be more chemically controlled and germ-free, as had been so popular in 1960. By 1966 there was more of a desire to spend money and time on disposable products that made living more convenient and fun. The hedonism index rises dramatically during the 1960s, and there’s more of a desire to consume new, specialized products and live for today without concern for the cost or waste involved. There’s definitely a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses kind of jonesing for the latest, hippest disposable new thing.

For example, paper napkins and towels and coordinating tissues and became popular, and having one’s scented, dyed toilet paper match one’s scented, dyed facial tissues was a must. Ads offered bright, bold bath towels with garish flower power colors and patterns, then showed coordinating Lady Scott bathroom and facial tissue with colored flowers printed onto the paper in Bluebell Blue, Camellia Pink, Fern Green and Antique Gold. It’s a “color explosion in towels and napkins.” “Pop! go the colors of Scotkins—newly pepped-up to bring zing to table settings” and “gay bordered towels.” Don’t forget to “Scheme your tables with the vibrant new designs in the first cushioned paper placemats by Scott.” Scheme your tables?

Best of all, “Color explosion flashes into fashion with the paper dress!” For $1 plus a 25 cent handling fee you could buy a paper shift dress in a red and white bandana print or a black and white op-art geometric design. Original “Paper-Caper” dresses, still folded in their original envelopes, are now quite collectible; one of the bandana print was recently available on eBay for $25; another auction house is asking $150 for the op-art version. “Dashingly different at dances or perfectly packaged at picnics. Won’t last forever . . . who cares! Wear it for kicks—then give it the air.” Campbell’s soup cashed in on the disposable dress craze while demonstrating their pop art cred: they sold their own Andy Warhol-inspired paper “Souper Dress” printed with images of Campbell’s soup cans. Each sold for $1 plus two Campbell’s Soup labels in the sixties. Want one now? Ebay recently listed one with a starting price of $749; it sold for $1,125. Missed out on that one? Don’t worry; another has been listed for sale for $2,000.

Paper dresses were available in very simple styles, which were much like most fabric dresses of the day. Most women did at least some home sewing in an effort to economize, and almost all girls were taught to sew and cook in school, so essential were those skills deemed for females of the day. Many dresses were shapeless, boxy shifts, easy for any home sewer to whip up with a pattern bought at the nearest department store. My mother, an accomplished seamstress and knitter, never stopped with simple shifts; she made me wonderful pintucked blouses, perfectly tailored little coats, intricately cable-knitted sweaters and lovely dresses. We spent many happy hours in all the department stores’ sewing sections from as far back as I can remember. We visited the fabric departments of five-and-dimes like TG&Y (which was affectionately nicknamed “Toys, Garbage and Yardage”), popular stores like Mervyn’s and Penney’s, and slightly tonier establishments like the Bay Area’s Emporium-Capwell stores. Every good department store had a fabric section with a wide variety of materials, notions and patterns. Nowadays it’s hard to find fabric stores that aren’t superstore fabric-and-craft chains, and sewing is a niche market attended to by specialty stores only.

I don’t mean to get too personal, but do you remember spray deodorant? Wet and smelly, it got all over everything, spewed fluorocarbons into the air and ended up wasting a lot of product due to overspray, but it was oh, so popular in the sixties and seventies. But how do you market something like that to women? Like this: “Slim, trim, utterly feminine, hardly bitter than your hand . . . new cosmetic RIGHT GUARD in the compact container created just for you.” “Elegant . . . easy to hold, Right Guard is always the perfect personal deodorant because nothing touches you but the spray itself.” What a prissy little product, huh? And for those not-so-fresh moments that can’t be discussed in polite company, there was Quest, “a deodorant only for women.” It was a powder that “makes girdles easier to slip into,” among other things.

Having a separate female version of a product with prettier packaging was very popular: all sorts of spray cans and discreet boxes featured what looked like miniature wallpaper designs, floral themes and delicately drawn feminine profiles of wispy women who appeared unaware that they were being watched while they sniffed daisies (which are rather stinky flowers, actually).

I wish I could still send a quarter to Kotex for the fact-packed booklet titled “Tampons for Moderns.” One can only imagine the bouncy, well-groomed young women in the line drawings that must have illustrated the booklet, which I see in my mind’s eye as having a turquoise cover bearing a confident-looking brunette wearing a fresh white dress. (Such products are often advertised by women in white to emphasize their fresh, clean, pure quality and the idea that you won’t be the unclean mess you’ve been made to think you are if you’ll just use their products.) The booklet must have read a lot like the brochures and booklets I got at school during the seventies, full of “gee, it’s great to be a woman!” ad copy that played up the ease with which one could stay well-groomed, pretty and presentable even when afflicted by the horror of the condition that could barely be hinted at but which every female experienced. A “really, it’s not so bad!” tone lay behind every phrase and the subtle instructional nature of each conversational paragraph was supposed to allay concerns. I think it actually emphasized the unmentionable quality of the subject matter: this stuff is so important and secret, the text implied, you need official instruction books to deal with what every woman from time immemorial has gone through—but we still can’t address any of it head-on.

Before reading this magazine I’d forgotten just how popular hairpieces were in the sixties. They were quite common accessories and supplemented many women’s wardrobes, often with rather ridiculous results. Remember, many women still went to the hairdresser for weekly perms, blow-outs, cuts and curls and slept with their hair in hard plastic or itchy metal-and-nylon brush curlers or pincurls every night, spraying their coifs afresh with new coats of sticky Aqua Net hairspray each morning and avoiding washing their hair for as long as possible between beauty parlor visits. Adding fluffy, braided, curly, straight or poufy switches, falls or wiglets (don’t you love that word?) to the mix wasn’t a big stretch. Long hairpieces, braided or twisted, or fluffy poufs added onto the top or back of a hairdo weren’t uncommon; teasing hair up into domes, small head hillocks or B-52-large beehive cones was a regular thing. I remember women with hair that rose a good four to six inches above their heads and never moved, no matter what the weather did. Women only entered swimming pools without bathing caps in movies; public pools wouldn’t allow a woman or girl to swim unless a rubber cap, often covered in ridiculous colored rubber “petals” that came off and floated in the water, completely covered her head.

Of course, a women’s magazine couldn’t be simply about making oneself prettier for one’s man. A good housewife also had to feed him (using lots of prepared food products) and heat or chill the leftovers in appliances that came in sexy new colors and promised easy-care features. The Admiral Duplex Freezer/Refrigerator ad features eight—count ’em! eight!—exclamation points on one page, so you know it must have been a sensational product. With this fabulous appliance’s automatic ice maker, there’s “no filling, no slopping, no mess.”

But what to feed a hungry man on a hot summer night when you don’t have time to whip up a big batch of sloppy joes with Shilling’s or Lawry’s sloppy joe mix? Meat-laden salads! When housewives of the sixties grew tired of the same old coleslaw, Best Foods Mayonnaise had the answer: hollow out a cabbage, scallop the edges of the emptied cabbage head (with kitchen shears, apparently) and pack it to the brim with coleslaw into which you’ve mixed canned tuna. Or maybe you’d prefer to dollop cottage cheese, celery seeds, shredded carrots and green peppers into your coleslaw? Cottage cheese was plopped on everything in the sixties and seventies, as I remember. The iconic healthy breakfast depicted on TV shows or in ads always included a half-grapefruit with a mound of cottage cheese astride the fruit flesh and a maraschino cherry popped gaily on top. Why anyone would want to consume those three items at the same time was always a mystery to me. What if you’re not into tuna slaw or cottage cheese and cabbage? California coleslaw includes crushed pineapple and quartered marshmallows. To wow the guests at your next picnic, serve this candy-sweet coleslaw in a cabbage cut to look like an Easter basket, complete with orange peel “bow,” as shown in the ad, and you’ll “perk up wilted appetites.”

Of course, not every woman alive in the 1960s was a housewife. Many, like my single mother, worked, whether out of pleasure, necessity or both. But the jury was still out on whether those who didn’t strictly need to work to pay the basic bills had either reason or right to do so. Paying women less than men for equivalent work because it was assumed that their work wasn’t essential to their family’s income was common; refusing to promote them or extend them personal credit that wasn’t cosigned by a husband or other man was also an everyday thing. When my mom bought her own house with her own savings in 1970, it was quite an accomplishment and unusual among the people we knew.

This issue of McCall’s has a letter related to an article about working women published in a prior issue. A reader writes of having worked steadily her whole life out of necessity, but angrily derides the choices of women who work out of a desire to serve, for career fulfillment or for personal satisfaction. “I have nothing but contempt for the wives of prosperous men who, in their own boredom and greed, take jobs away from those who really need to work.” She can’t see the validity of working for personal satisfaction or from a desire to help others or to extend one’s world beyond one’s husband’s sphere. These opposing arguments played out regularly in the court of public opinion (and in courts of law) throughout the next couple of decades as women fought to be allowed the same access to education, employment and advancement without respect to whether they had as much “need” to work as men.

When the woman of 1966 worked too hard and felt depressed over her inability to get ahead on the job, whether at home or out in the world of paid employment, what could she do to find the vim and vigor she needed to get through the day when her get-up-and-go and gotten up and gone? McCall’s had the answer for that, too. Anacin, then a popular over-the-counter headache medicine (and still available at drugstores today), was touted as not just a pain reliever but a mood elevator in an ad with the headine “Casts away gloom, depression . . . as it relieves headache pain fast! Anacin has a combined new action that actually casts away gloom and depression as headache pain goes away in minutes. . . . [F]ortified with a special ‘mood-lifter’ or energizer that brightens your spirits, restores new enthusiasm and drive. With Anacin you experience remarkable all-over relief.” Wow! How did this remarkable wonder drug effect such miraculous changes? What super-effective secret ingredients were at work? Anacin’s remarkable active ingredients amounted to nothing more than aspirin and caffeine. Yes, taking two cheap aspirin and a few cups of coffee would “cast away gloom” and relieve headaches just as quickly. After all these years, now you know.

Of Wolves and Hustlers: American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street

American Hustle

Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Jennifer Lawrence in “American Hustle”

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

Of this year’s contenders for the Academy Award for Best Picture, two of the nine feature constant frenetic movement, explosive bursts of speech, uncontrolled intensity of feeling and unrelenting, feverish, heedless action. “American Hustle” and “The Wolf of Wall Street,” both of which are based on true stories about risk-loving con artists, were directed by two of the most lauded and original directors in Hollywood, David O. Russell and Martin Scorsese. Their ability to keep up the hyperactive pace while moving their stories forward with constantly thrumming energy is laudable. There are moments of broad comedy in each movie, and fine actors get to strut and display their big-time acting chops like peacocks. However, the frantic energy of each story kept me from engaging with or feeling much concern for the characters, nearly every one of whom is profoundly, even dangerously, self-absorbed. The manic movement of each story, the outsized and all-consuming appetites of the characters and their frequent disregard for the serious impact their actions had on others made me itch to leave the cinema so I could escape the company of these heedless narcissists.

I have few complaints about the quality of the acting in either film. Each is well cast over all, and the dynamic performers chew their scenery powerfully, bug out their eyes on cue, thrash at each other, spew metaphorical venom and sometimes actual spittle with gusto. They mime their egregious behavior quite capably in scene after scene. But the pace is relentless, the hustle is constant, and the inflated egos bump up against each other with such regularity that I felt they were invading my personal space as well.


Leonardo DiCaprio and Matthew McConaughey in “The Wolf of Wall Street”

This cinematic overkill, especially “The Wolf of Wall Street,” felt assaultive instead of merely entertaining. These films feature some of the most skilled and intuitive actors in movies today, and I love their fervent energy, which seems to have been the major element that Russell and Scorsese cared about this year. However, I also value these actors for their intuition, for the quiet intensity that each has shown in prior work. Neither film allowed these actors to show this end of their range, and it is range of emotion displayed in a single story that really wows me, not just intense, unbridled feeling overwhelming scene after screaming scene.

We have seen these actors give outstanding performances, so we know what they’re capable of. Christian Bale is a force of nature and has been carrying massive films on his capable shoulders since he was twelve years old. In “Empire of the Sun,” young Bale led an epic Spielberg movie on the strength of his performance and made us believe in and fall in love with him. In “Her,” Amy Adams must convey emotional exhaustion and fragility as well as inner strength and resourcefulness—and she does. In “The Departed,” an undercover cop played by Leonardo DiCaprio lies his way into a dangerous organized crime leader’s inner circle, and seeing the cost to his psyche of living in terror is excruciating. Few actors could play that role with such tormented intensity. In “Silver Linings Playbook,” David O. Russell’s hugely successful and moving Best Picture nominee from just last year, Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper are misfits with huge hearts and huge tempers. They hunger but hold back, explode and then retreat. They bob and weave and engage, connect and then just miss each other. The audience shares in their yearning to find a safe harbor in each other.

But in “American Hustle,” the actors rush at each other, scream and punch, and the mascara runs, the hair gets pulled, and the poor Steadicam operator whirls in 360-degree circles to amplify the mayhem going on around him because of the intense, no-holds-barred way in which Russell films his movies. In “The Wolf of Wall Street,” Scorsese overloads us with scene after scene of excess: offices filled with screaming, raving, swearing stock traders oozing testosterone and pumping fists, anxious to defraud any patsy they come across; hotel rooms full of hookers and blow; drug-fueled orgy scenes so full of outlandish spectacle that our eyes roam wildly over the screen as we try to focus on a single episode of decadence at a time. It all blurs together in a giant Quaalude-fueled, Armani-clad, cocaine-covered slurry of outrageous excess.

There are rich and enjoyable scenes in each film, of course. “American Hustle” was written by David O. Russell and Eric Warren Singer; “The Wolf of Wall Street” was penned by Terrence Winter, creator of “Boardwalk Empire” and frequent writer and producer of “The Sopranos.” Both provide lively, vulgar, rapid-fire dialog, and their actors relish every syllable. Jennifer Lawrence’s drunken, desperate, boundary-free turn as con man Christian Bale’s wife Rosalyn in “American Hustle” is a knock-out performance. She mixes cockiness with desperation as she warns Amy Adams’s character to stay away from her man, and she struts, lures and confronts with stunning confidence and charisma. Lawrence has the instincts and impeccable timing (both dramatic and comedic) of a much more experienced actress. Her performance makes it clear that having won a Best Actress Oscar last year (with the same director and one of the same co-stars) with a self-assured performance at such an early age was no fluke.

Amy Adams’s performance here is less successful. She’s a talented actress and a very likeable woman; her interview with James Lipton on Bravo’s “Inside the Actor’s Studio” last month showed her to be a thoughtful, disciplined, generous actor, articulate and devoted to her craft and to those with whom she works. But I never bought her in her role as Sydney, a lying, manipulative homewrecker with nerves of steel who is vital to the con artistry involved in bringing down corrupt politicians. She brings a quiver and insecurity to all her roles which often gives them a spark of life, but here that vulnerability undermines the ruthlessness of her character. The British accent she adopts for part of the film was so uneven and unconvincing I could never believe that any character would buy it; throughout the film I was always aware that she was a playing a role. Adams has a natural softness that suits her well in most of her films, and while she was surprisingly effective as a foul-mouthed barmaid in Russell’s earlier and extremely entertaining film, “The Fighter,” here she plays too much against type. Her character in “American Hustle” is so conniving and happy to use any and everyone that she left me cold—like nearly every other character in this over-adrenalized movie.

However, I do applaud Russell for providing rich and chewy roles for women in most of his films, roles that allow women to be as lively, influential, exciting and messed up as the men. Scorsese’s films are usually all about the men, and in “Wolf of Wall Street,” the women are again  primarily foils for stories about over-grown boys gone very, very bad.

Bradley Cooper shows angst and confused anger as well as anyone; he used these skills to great effect in “Silver Linings Playbook,” behaving erratically and often badly without losing our sympathy. In “American Hustle,” his character is so violent, duplicitous, vain and selfish that despite the good performance, I couldn’t care about him and didn’t enjoy spending time with his portrayal of nasty, erratic FBI agent Richie. Similarly, Christian Bale (whose Oscar-winning performance in Russell’s film “The Fighter” was sensational) gained over 40 pounds and sported the worst comb-over in the history of cinema to become Irving for this film. While he has more heart than the rest and even experiences moments of regret, those fleeting episodes of conscience rarely interfere with his putting his interests first. Jeremy Renner’s portrayal of Mayor Carmine Polito is one of the more sympathetic characters here, but when the lying, law-breaking politician is one of the better-behaved members of the ensemble, you know you’re hanging out with the wrong people.

The behavior is even more outrageous and consideration for the safety or well-being of others is completely lacking in “The Wolf of Wall Street.” As in “American Hustle,” the story is told in a nonjudgmental way; indeed, in the character of Jordan Belfort, a corrupt stockbroker who was convicted of market manipulation and fraud, Leonardo DiCaprio narrates the story of his rise and fall himself. Audacious behaviors that threaten people’s livelihoods and even lives are presented as sources of amusement and are seen as sexy and exciting. Matthew McConaughey’s cameo early in the film as an enthusiastically despicable character is heartily enjoyable, but what seemed like over-the-top self-absorption in that scene proved to be reined in and subtle compared to the rip-snortingly outrageous fever pitch the film builds to over the following two hours. Jonah Hill plays DiCaprio’s sidekick Donnie Azoff with relish and delight; Donnie provides much of the comic relief of the film, but Hill plays him not just as a clown but as a man in over his head. Donnie was clearly not born with the gifts of  suave, slick, sick-hearted Jordan, so watching his decline hurts more than seeing Jordan’s fall. For dramatic purposes, Terrence Winter was wise to emphasize the relationship between these two men above all others in this film since there is a strange and interesting chemistry between them, but I notice that, again, Scorsese has chosen to present a story in which women are noticeably peripheral to the action, except as sexy visual filler.

Scorsese is an interesting case; he is capable of great restraint and beauty in a film like “The Age of Innocence,” and even his most volatile and violent characters live in worlds that are beautifully designed, lit and filmed. He has one of the most aesthetically sophisticated points of view of any director working today, and we owe him an enormous debt of gratitude for his many years of efforts to support film preservation. But his enthusiasm for extremes of behavior and expression, and his desire to make viewers not only experience but wallow in assaultive excess, cause me to view his work with a wary eye. Much as I admire a Scorsese classic like “Goodfellas” and admire his guiding touch in the excellent HBO series “Boardwalk Empire,” I must always prepare myself for a barrage of ugliness when I enter a cinema that presents his films, for violence is inherent to most of his greatest work. He is famed for working with the meticulous editor Thelma Schoonmaker, and they certainly know how to build tension. But fine filmmaking involves more than bottling up rage until it is compressed to such a point that the bottle shatters. Nobody does explosive rage better than Scorsese, but in his latest film, he does it at the expense of the quieter moments that allow an audience to breathe, to relax, and to get inside the workings of a character so that we can feel enough about him or her to care when something happens to change his or her world. In this film he works more in words than in blood, it’s true, yet the energy behind the story feels as violent and visceral as the energy in his more deadly works.

My favorite Scorsese film, “The Departed,” features a crackerjack cast (Jack Nicholson, Matt Damon, Mark Wahlberg, Alec Baldwin, Martin Sheen, Vera Farmiga), including one of the director’s favorite actors, Leonardo DiCaprio. Leo has become to Scorsese what Robert De Niro was to the director’s earlier films. He is at his best when he channels his vulnerability alongside his rage; we must see the bruised boy within the powerful men he usually plays in order to be drawn into and care about his characters. In “The Wolf of Wall Street,” he has a chance to express his explosive power unchecked, and it’s damned impressive, but the role misses the element that makes DiCaprio a truly great actor: his range, his fragile core, the pain his characters generally feel when they harm others. His performance here is powerfully ugly, and the character moves along his nasty trajectory so quickly that we get very little time with him before he becomes a monster. DiCaprio deserved his Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination (and perhaps the Oscar itself) for his amazing work in “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?” and gave exceptional performances in “Revolutionary Road” and “The Departed” and wildly entertaining performances in “The Aviator,” “Catch Me if You Can” and other fine films. But “The Wolf of Wall Street” is not the film he should win his first Oscar for.

DiCaprio, like Christian Bale, is one of the finest actors of his generation, and Leo is, over all, a more versatile performer than Matthew McConaughey, who has proven his own mettle over the past four years. However, McConaughey’s performance in “Dallas Buyers Club” is the more moving and astonishing feat of acting; his is the performance I would like to see win a Best Actor Oscar this year. In “Dallas Buyers Club” he was able to show range, raw vulnerability, and a talent that moves from abject deathly illness and despair to victorious, cocky success, all in a brittle, emaciated body that is as far as a man can get from the muscled, oiled, powerful physique he displayed in “Magic Mike” just two years ago. Christian Bale is a remarkably realistic actor, and he gives his all here, but the character is limited in his range of emotion and expression as well. Bale whispers, shouts, cajoles and generally shows much more versatility that the other actors in “American Hustle” are allowed, but his role cannot provide us with a breathtaking conversion from lost soul to redeemed hero the way McConaughey does in “Dallas Buyers Club.” I don’t blame DiCaprio or Bale for not being worthy of Oscars this year; they did what they were hired to do admirably and often enjoyably, but they did not have the opportunity to reinvent themselves on the scale that McConaughey did, and he proved himself as adept and committed any actor alive.

As explosive as the characters directed by Scorsese can be, director David O. Russell is famous for his own scary relationship to anger. He was involved in two of the most famous altercations in movie-making history with two of Hollywood’s best-loved movie stars. His ego and temper are legendary. During the making of his wickedly funny, surprisingly moving war film “Three Kings,” George Clooney was so appalled by Russell’s contemptuous treatment of the film’s crew that Clooney and Russell got into an argument so heated it broke down into physical fighting between the star and the director. During the making of his mediocre film “I Heart Huckabee’s,” Lily Tomlin, with whom Russell worked successfully in the funny road-movie farce “Flirting with Disaster,” found Russell and his style so difficult to work with that their disagreement quickly rose to a shouting match that was recorded and shared widely the world over. They’ve since made up with each other, and in his interviews (as well as in most of his films) he shows a self-deprecating wit, enthusiasm, devotion to craft and (occasional) sensitivity that allow one to see how all-consuming his passion for movie-making is, and how difficult it has been for him to allow a single element of it to elude his control. He is still famously touchy, tightly coiled and sometimes turns adversarial with surprising speed. However, with his great recent success he seems to have learned some element of humility; he credits his becoming more patient and loving to the fact of his having a severely bi-polar son for whom he has had to sacrifice much. He says it was his experience with his son that drove him to make “Silver Linings Playbook,” and he certainly brought great love and passion to that project, which deserves its great success.

Perhaps it was his having moderated his expression of anger in his private life that led Russell to find an appropriate professional outlet for his extremes of emotion and led to the boisterous “American Hustle.”  As many reviewers adore the film as were overwhelmed by it. Audiences were certainly seduced by the disco-era costumes, interiors and, especially, hairstyles; it is a visual feast of seventies tackiness. But it is the film’s energy level that either delights or repels audiences the most. Russell works differently from most directors, and that shows up on the screen. Jennifer Lawrence calls Russell’s style “weird and instantaneous,” Robert De Niro says it’s “spontaneous and chaotic.” Russell likes to film in enclosed spaces and to use a Steadicam (hand-held camera) operator to follow the action around the room (or even inside a car) and to film multiple takes of a scene in quick succession without turning off the camera. Actors have to keep their energy levels up and their characters intact because at any moment they might have to repeat, react to, change the dialog in or continue a scene without knowing in advance. (This process is what Lily Tomlin found so unnerving during the filming of “I Heart Huckabees.”) Some find it exhilarating, and the energy certainly shows up on the screen. David Denby of the New Yorker says, “‘American Hustle’ is built around many acts of cynical manipulation, but it is generous, even kindly, in spirit. … What he puts on the screen here is faster than life and more volatile than common realism, but it’s definitely not farce. His characters act stupidly because they want something desperately, and his actors, all of them taking enormous risks, form an ensemble that is the equal of anything from Hollywood’s golden age.”

I did not find it so. I was able to enjoy some of the film as it progressed, but the more I think about it in retrospect, the more it disappoints me. The selfishness of nearly every character wore me down and left me cold. Because the script for “American Hustle” bounces from one fraught, intense scene to the next, the viewer never gets to relax, either. I found this frenetic pace, along with the inherently unlikable qualities of the characters, distanced me from them and made me weary of all the niggling details of their exchanges. The film is ostensibly about the famous Abscam sting operation run by the FBI in the 1970s. The operation set up and entrapped public officials who were on the take by involving known swindlers working on behalf of the government. Since a story that relies on backroom political bribery is not always inherently gripping, the real heart of the film is in the personal entanglements between the people who entrapped the politicians and their motivations for doing such work. I found the explanations of these intrigues overly detailed and the histrionics of the five primary characters tiring enough that I started checking my watch halfway through the film. I was relieved to see Louis C.K. portray the only reasonable, normal person on screen, but Bradley Cooper as the FBI agent treated him so badly that I began to cringe in anticipation every time Louis’s face appeared. Christian Bale’s character, for all his many flaws, is the only one who shows actual concern for the people he harms along the way, but it came too little and too late for me to enjoy his characterization much.

There is more to a great film than the alternation of emotional compression and explosive rage, and there is more to a great director than the ability to prod an actor into spewing and screaming. While I look forward to future projects from all of the actors, writers and directors involved in these films, I hope that at this year’s Academy Award ceremony their directors are not rewarded for these exhausting, overwrought paeans to excess.

The World of a 1960s Housewife

Good Housekeeping

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

I recently purchased a cache of vintage magazines from 1960 to 1971, and have marveled at the extent to which the content,  writing styles,  focus of advertisers and willingness to talk candidly about social issues changed over the course of that decade.

The transition from the height of the Cold War in 1960 to U.S. immersion in a  very unpopular war in Vietnam in 1971 is fascinating. During this period, women’s magazines changed more than they had in any other 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 later be the cause of so much unnecessary suffering.

The oldest of the magazines 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. I remembered the brouhaha caused 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 incorporating hexachlorophene, in our home when I was a child. I remember when it and other affected products 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 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 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 my childish dexterity). Kids ate them like candy. 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 understood 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 foreign to an early Colonial American.

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 my mom’s girdles were tighter than compression bandages and lined in horrible rubber ridges. In hot weather, those ridges pressed deeply into her skin. There was little that was 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.


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 “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 taught boys 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? My research confirmed that 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 banned 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 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 defrosted an iced-over fridge and dealt with the resulting puddles on your floor). Another ad features 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 these chic 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 alive 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 was advertised here? Well, there’s a baby powder that’s almost certainly made of talc, which contains asbestos and has been asserted to raise the risk of ovarian cancer in females who use 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 brighten up your home interiors with a coat or two of SatinTone paint? People of the Mad Men era used this (probably leaded) oil paint on the walls of baby’s rooms and the volatile vapors stunk up their homes and burn their throats for days before it finally dried. It’s hard to overstate how wonderful the invention of fast-drying, low-stink indoor acrylic paint is.

Honestly, this magazine is a minefield of health and safety disasters just waiting to happen. What a fascinating reminder of how much we’ve learned in the last fifty years about environmental toxins, hazardous home-based chemicals and healthy eating!