Tag Archives: History

The Boys in the Band

 

Boys in the Band

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

Some years ago, while staying up till the wee hours while organizing something or other, I turned on the TV and flipped channels till I could find a good movie to keep me entertained while I worked. I happened to catch the beginning of a film that I’d never heard of before that night, and it turned out to be a milestone in gay-themed filmmaking, a cult classic that alternately (and sometimes simultaneously) delighted and appalled New York theatrical audiences in 1968 and then moved to the screen in 1970. That film was The Boys in the Band.

Written by gay playwright Mart Crowley, the play attracted celebrities and the New York in-crowd nearly instantly after it opened at a small off-Broadway theater workshop in 1968. The cast of nine male characters worked together so successfully that the whole bunch of them made the transition to the screen in 1970, which is nearly unheard of. Crowley had been a well-connected and respected but poor young writer when his play became a smash in 1968. While still a young man, he knew how the Hollywood game was played and how to jockey his success into control over the casting of the film. Working with producer Dominick Dunne he adapted his script into a screenplay and watched director William Friedkin, who also directed The French Connection and The Exorcist, lovingly keep the integrity of the play while opening it up and making it work on the screen.

It’s hard to believe that the play opened off-Broadway a year before the Stonewall riots that set off the modern-day gay rights movement in New York and then swept across the country. The characters in the play, and the whole play itself, are not incidentally gay—the characters’ behavior and the play’s content revolve around their homosexuality. For better or worse, the characters play out, argue over and bat around gay stereotypes: the drama queen, the ultra-effeminate “nelly” fairy, and the dimwitted cowboy hustler (a likely hommage to the cowboy gigolo Joe Buck in the 1965 novel Midnight Cowboy, which was made into a remarkable film by John Schlesinger in 1969). The play also features straight-seeming butch characters who can (and do) “pass” in the outside world, and a visitor to their world who may or may not be homosexual himself.

The action takes place at a birthday party attended only by gay men who let their hair down and camp it up with some very arch and witty dialog during the first third of the film, then the party is crashed by the married former college pal of Michael, the host. A pall settles over the festivities as Michael (played by musical theater star Kenneth Nelson) tries to hide the orientation of himself and his guests. That is, until the party crasher brings the bigotry of the straight world into the room, and Michael realizes he’s doing nobody any favors by keeping up the ruse. During the course of the evening he goes from someone who celebrates the superficial and who has spent all his time and money (and then some) on creating and maintaining a reputation and a public image, to a vindictive bully who lashes out at everyone and forces them all to scrutinize themselves with the same homophobic self-hatred he feels. He appears at first bold and unflinching in his insistence on brutal honesty, but he goes beyond honesty into verbal assault, while we see reserves of inner strength and dignity from characters we had underestimated earlier in the play. Though The Boys in the Band isn’t the masterpiece that Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is, I see similarities between the two in the lashing out, bullying and name-calling that alternates with total vulnerability and unexpected tenderness.

The self-loathing, high-camp hijinks, withering bitchiness and open ogling made many audience members uncomfortable, a number of homosexuals among them. Some felt the story and the characterizations were embarrassingly over-the-top and stereotyped. They thought that having the outside straight world peek in and see these characters up close would only make them disdain homosexuals even more. This is a legitimate criticism; the nasty jibes, pointed attacks, and gay-baiting that goes on among and against gay characters here is the sort of in-fighting that could encourage bigots to become more entrenched in their prejudices when seen out of the context of a full panorama of daily life for these characters.

However, the play and film were also groundbreaking in that they depicted homosexuals as realistic, three-dimensional men with good sides and bad. Even as we watch one character try to eviscerate the others by pointing out the supposedly gay characteristics that make them appear weak and offensive to the straight world at large, there is also a great deal of sympathy and empathy shown among the characters under attack, and even towards the bully at times. Sometimes this tenderness is seen in the characters’ interactions, and sometimes it is fostered in the hearts of the audience members by the playwright. He has us witness people behaving badly, but we recognize over time how fear and society’s hatefulness toward them has brought them to this state.

These characters may try to hold each other up as objects of ridicule, but the strength of the dialog is that we in the audience don’t buy it; with each fresh insult, we see further into the tortured souls of those who do the insulting. We see how, as modern-day sex columnist Dan Savage put it so beautifully in an audio essay on the public radio show This American Life in 2002, it is the “sissies” who are the bravest ones among us, for they are the ones who will not hide who they are, no matter how much scorn, derision and hate they must face as a result of their refusal to back down and play society’s games. Similarly, to use another theatrical example, it is Arnold Epstein, the effeminate new recruit in the Neil Simon 1940’s-era boot-camp play Biloxi Blues, who shows the greatest spine and the strongest backbone in the barracks when he does not hide who he is, and he willingly takes whatever punishment he is given stoically and silently so as not to diminish his honesty and integrity or let down his brothers in arms.

The situation and premise of The Boys in the Band are heightened and the campy drama is elevated for the purposes of building suspense, rather like the action in a Tennessee Williams or Eugene O’Neill play, where the uglier side of each character is spotlighted and the flattering gauze and filters over the lenses are stripped away dramatically as characters brawl and wail. The emotional breakdowns are overblown and the bitchy catcalling is nearly constant for much of the second half of the film, which becomes tiresome. However, the play addresses major concerns of gay American males of the 1960s head-on: social acceptability, fear of attacks by angry or threatened straight men, how to balance a desire to be a part of a family with a desire to be true to one’s nature, monogamy versus promiscuity, accepting oneself and others even if they act “gayer” or “straighter” than one is comfortable with, etc.

It is startling to remember that, at the time the play was produced, just appearing to be effeminate or spending time in the company of assumed homosexuals was enough to get a person arrested, beaten, jailed or thrown into a mental institution, thrown out of his home or job, even lobotomized or given electroshock therapy in hopes of a “cure.” In 1969 the uprising at the Stonewall Inn in New York City’s Greenwich Village by gay men fighting back against police oppression was a rallying cry and gave homosexuals across the nation the strength to stand up for their rights and refuse to be beaten, threatened, intimidated, arrested or even killed just for being gay. However, anti-gay sentiment in retaliation for gays coming out of the closet and forcing the heterosexual mainstream to acknowledge that there were homosexuals with inherent civil rights living among them also grew.

Cities like San Francisco, Miami, New York and L.A. became gay meccas that attracted thousands of young men and women, many of whom were more comfortable with their sexuality than the average closeted American homosexual and who wanted to live more openly as the people they really were. There was an air of celebration in heavily gay districts of these cities in the 1970s and early 1980s in the heady years before AIDS. It was a time when a week’s worth of antibiotics could fight off most STDs, and exploring and enjoying the sexual aspects of one’s homosexuality (because being a homosexual isn’t all about sex) didn’t amount to playing Russian Roulette with one’s immune system, as it seemed to be by the early to mid-1980s. Indeed, of the nine men in the cast of the play and the film, I was shocked and disturbed to learn that five of them (Kenneth Nelson, Leonard Frey, Frederick Combs, Keith Prentice and Robert La Tourneaux) died of AIDS-related causes. This was not uncommon among gay male theatrical professionals who came of age in or before the 1980s. The numbers of brilliant Broadway and Hollywood actors, singers, dancers, directors and choreographers attacked by AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s is staggering.

When the film was made in 1970, all of the actors were warned by agents and others in the industry that they were committing professional suicide by playing openly gay characters, and indeed, several were typecast and did lose work as a result of their courageous choices. Of those nine men in the cast, the one who played the most overtly effeminate, campy queen of all (and who stole the show with his remarkable and endearing performance) was Cliff Gorman. He was a married heterosexual who later won a Tony playing comedian Lenny Bruce in the play “Lenny,” which went on to star Dustin Hoffman in the film version. Gorman was regularly accosted and accused of being a closeted gay on the streets of New York by both straights and gays, so believable and memorable was his performance in The Boys in the Band.

The play is very much an ensemble piece; some actors have smaller and more thankless roles with less scenery chewing, but it is clear that it was considered a collaborative effort by the cast and director and that the enormous mutual respect and comfort of the characters with each other enriched their performances and made the story resonate more with audiences than it would have otherwise. The actors saw the film and play as defining moments in their lives when they took a stand and came out (whether gay or straight) as being willing to associate themselves with gay issues by performing in such a celebrated (and among some, notorious) work of art. When one of the other actors in the play, Robert La Tourneaux, who played the cowboy gigolo, became ill with AIDS, Cliff Gorman and his wife took La Tourneaux in and looked after him in his last days.

In featurettes about the making of the play and the film on the newly released DVD of the movie,  affection and camaraderie among cast members are evident, as is a great respect for them by director William Friedkin. Those still alive to talk about it regard the show and the ensemble with great love. As Vito Russo noted in The Celluloid Closet, a fascinating documentary on gays in Hollywood which is sometimes available for streaming on Netflix, The Boys in the Band offered “the best and most potent argument for gay liberation ever offered in a popular art form.”

According to Wikipedia, “Critical reaction was, for the most part, cautiously favorable. Variety said it ‘drags’ but thought it had ‘perverse interest.’ Time described it as a ‘humane, moving picture.’ The Los Angeles Times praised it as ‘unquestionably a milestone,’ but ironically refused to run its ads. Among the major critics, Pauline Kael, who disliked Friedkin and panned everything he made, was alone in finding absolutely nothing redeeming about it. She also never hesitated to use the word ‘fag’ in her writings about the film and its characters.”

Wikipedia goes on to say, “Vincent Canby of the New York Times observed, ‘There is something basically unpleasant . . . about a play that seems to have been created in an inspiration of love-hate and that finally does nothing more than exploit its (I assume) sincerely conceived stereotypes.'”

“In a San Francisco Chronicle review of a 1999 revival of the film, Edward Guthmann recalled, ‘By the time Boys was released in 1970 . . . it had already earned among gays the stain of Uncle Tomism.’ He called it ‘a genuine period piece but one that still has the power to sting. In one sense it’s aged surprisingly little — the language and physical gestures of camp are largely the same — but in the attitudes of its characters, and their self-lacerating vision of themselves, it belongs to another time. And that’s a good thing.'” Indeed it is.

 

[Originally published in August, 2014]

Suburbia

bill

Photo of a Tupperware party by Bill Owens from his book Suburbia

When I was a child growing up in the San Francisco suburb of Livermore, the publication of photographer Bill Owens‘s exploration of Bay Area suburban life, Suburbia, was a big deal in my home town. His book of photojournalism, published in 1973, garnered significant media attention; it was even written up in Time magazine. The book was of particular interest in Livermore because its stars were our town’s own citizens. The Tupperware ladies, toy-gun-toting little boys, Barbie-collecting girls and block party barbecuers whose black-and-white portraits  filled the book lived in the Livermore-Amador Valley. Several of my mother’s friends and our own family doctor appeared in its pages.

Even now, historians, postcard manufacturers and bloggers republish photos from the book. Art galleries, major museums and other institutions around the world include Owens’s photos in exhibitions. Gallerists and pop culture historians point to his work when they want to expose the supposedly tacky superficiality of American suburban life during that awkward period between the clean-cut, rule-following fifties and the shaggy, sexy, if-it-feels-good-do-it seventies.

Richie

Photo of six-year-old Richie Ferguson by Bill Owens from Suburbia

Bill Owens took these now-iconic photos when he was a staff photographer at the Livermore Independent News starting in 1968. My mother’s boyfriend at the time was himself a reporter at the Independent who worked alongside Owens, so I met the photographer at a party shortly after the publication of his book. He had the no-nonsense confidence of a man who is used to sizing up a situation quickly, figuring out the most visually compelling elements, and getting in and out of an event in a hurry, before his subjects have a chance to become too self-conscious or studied in their poses. News photography has always required such skills, but in the days of film photography, there was a pressing need to be able to edit one’s work on the fly and be quick about it. Film was costly, and all photos needed to be developed and cropped by the photographer on short deadlines if they were to make it into the next day’s paper. Taking too many shots or too much time was a luxury that local papers and their staff photographers could ill afford.

In the seventies, there were few television channels or news radio stations, and of course there was no Internet with which individuals could share news directly, so the local newspaper was the primary source of in-depth information on all things regional. Newspapers had to report on crime, business, sports, laws, fashion, civic and social events, so photographers like Bill Owens had to get in and out of multiple places and events daily. But while Owens came from that journalistic tradition, in his photoessays he took the time to focus not only on what people did, but also on how they felt about their lives and suburban surroundings. He let his subjects express their pride, ambivalence and concerns about living in a growing, post-war, middle-class community. It was a time of prosperity and expanding social and sexual openness, but also a time of war, increasing crime and political unrest. Our town was largely insulated from the drama and violence that was shaking bigger cities at the time, but middle-class angst and drama were plentiful.

In his photographs and in the commentary his subjects provided, Owens caught suburbanites in private moments. They questioned whether they were capable parents, or took pride in living what they considered to be the good life. Some admitted that while they’d found the money to buy a house, they couldn’t afford to furnish it. People opened up to him, agonized over whether they were setting good examples for their kids, beamed as they showed off their prosperity, or sat half-naked on the edge of a bed daring the world to judge them for being comfortable with themselves.

Ozzie Davis

Photo of Livermore’s Ozzie Davis Toyota dealership by Bill Owens from his book Suburbia

The world was used to urban photographers like Diane Arbus or Gordon Parks taking awkwardly intimate photos of people looking embarrassingly real in big, gritty cities like New York. Time and Life magazines brought images of war and rioting into our homes each week in full-color photo spreads. In comparison to large-scale photojournalistic  works about the Great Events of Our Time, a photoessay treating the inhabitants of a middle-class enclave near San Francisco as if they were significant enough to be worthy of their own project was a fresh and intriguing idea. It was exciting to be in the spotlight after always feeling like we had been on the edges of things.

Livermore is less than an hour from San Francisco, which was the hippie movement’s Ground Zero during the 1960s. Though only a half-hour from Berkeley, scene of some of the nation’s most bitter and frequent anti-war protests during the years when these photos were taken, Livermore had for many years been a bastion of traditional conservative values.

A wine-growing community dotted with ranches, Livermore was known as little more than a cow town until the early 1950s. My high school’s mascot was a cowboy, and the street behind the main school building is still called Cowboy Alley. But while the community had long been based on rancho culture, by the 1960s and 1970s Livermore’s biggest employer was what was known as the “Rad Lab,” rad being short for radiation: Livermore was and is the site of one of the nation’s largest national nuclear weapons laboratories. What is now known as the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory opened its doors in 1952, and by the time Bill Owens’s book was published two decades later, the laboratory directly employed about 10% of the city’s population.

For six decades, Livermore has had one of the largest concentrations of top nuclear physicists in the world, meaning that my town was home to a huge number of highly educated, fact-loving scientists, their well-educated spouses, and their smart and skeptical kids. Most of those who worked at the lab were strong believers in the theory that the specter of “mutually assured destruction” by the Soviet and U.S. superpowers in case of a nuclear war would keep either side from initiating war as long as both sides kept designing, building and stockpiling more and more threatening, long-range and expensive weaponry.

The Cold War-era belief that spending billions on the development and creation of weapons of mass destruction was necessary to keep us safe from communists (who were building their own gigantic nuclear arsenal on the other side of the world) sounds like a conservative stance to us today, but there were plenty of political moderates and even liberals working at the lab. Democrats like Presidents Kennedy and Johnson were staunch anticommunists who had instigated and escalated our involvement in wars meant to stop the spread of communism. Fear of communist expansion and take-over was by no means a solely Republican fear. Engineers and physicists who prized rational thinking above all were often open-minded and modern in their thinking in many fields and they came in many political flavors, not just conservative ones.

By the time that Bill Owens set about photographing our city’s denizens, formerly rural Livermore’s population included many erudite, cultured people of all political persuasions who were curious about the world in general. Many of the problem-solvers who had descended on Livermore from around the globe brought with them great worldliness and interest in culture and erudition. Though Livermore had once been thought of as a quiet farming community out in the boonies, by the 1960s it was surprisingly full of eclectic amateur theatrical events, excellent public schools with award-winning musical ensembles and a community symphony. An ambitious annual cultural arts festival takes over much of the downtown corridor during early October every year to this day.

However, because of the popularity of Bill Owens’s book, the place where I grew up became famous for people who represented everything superficial and embarrassing about suburban American culture. The real Livermore was a lively mixture of experts in fields from agriculture and livestock to nuclear weaponry to the arts. The book that both celebrated and embarrassed us was on the coffee table of every hip and educated family in town, and we felt both pride and chagrin over the images shown within its pages. There was delight over the fame the book brought us, and recognition of ourselves in the photographs and stories told in the book, but also a bit of shame over the parts of the book that made us look like overconsuming, self-absorbed buffoons.

Another understandable but misleading aspect of the book was the fact that the long agricultural history and natural beauty of the place got lost in the focus on the tract housing developments and accoutrements of post-war Northern Californian living, so the richness of the culture and the long history of people living close to the land in Livermore and the surrounding valley all but disappeared.

Big cities like New York can handle having people think a large proportion of their citizenry is odd or tacky, but Livermore has suffered unfairly over the years by having people choose the least flattering photos and stories from our signature photoessay to represent our whole populace. Although those of us who lived in the Bay Area in the early seventies grew used to hearing that our region was rife with proto-New Age philosophies, encounter groups, redwood hot tubs, free love experimentation and all varieties of omphaloskeptic behavior, for many people (like my self-righteous hippie father) Bay Area suburbs like Livermore came to represent not the cool, sexy, mind-expanding elements of the Age of Aquarius but the shallow, consumerist, un-self-aware aspects of modern living.

In the decades since I left Livermore, the city has nearly doubled in size thanks to its proximity to the tech boom in San Francisco and Silicon Valley. My home town has long been one of the more affordable corners of an outrageously overpriced region. It is still home to one of the nation’s top nuclear weapons laboratories, as well as to Sandia National Laboratories, which develops, engineers and tests the non-nuclear components of nuclear weapons. But its economy and culture are no longer quite so closely tied to the nuclear research culture as they were when I lived there. Yet echoes of that culture reverberate in modern literature and film: the writer of the popular science fiction novel The Martian, Andy Weir, grew up in Livermore. He went to my high school, worked at Livermore’s Sandia Labs, and he is himself the son of a particle physicist who worked at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. It’s likely he had a literature or composition class with my mother at some point; I like to fantasize that she may have encouraged his considerable writing talent in some small way. Though Weir wasn’t even born when the first of the photos in Suburbia was taken, the influence of Livermore’s science-friendly, intellectual, problem-solving culture helped to nurture his curiosity and imagination, just as it did my own.

Fluffy Mackerel Pudding

Fluffy

[A treat from the archives: this has been revised from an article originally published on Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]

In the 1970s, Weight Watchers and other companies created packs of recipe cards that they gave away with hideous giant plastic recipe boxes in order to try to hook gullible Americans (and perhaps Canadians, though I hope they had the good sense not to follow their U.S. cousins) into subscribing to a series of monthly recipe packs which arrived with billing statements and hefty postage fees. The special introductory offers provided a free recipe box and the first set of recipe cards in the hopes that the person ordering them (a.k.a. the sucker) would then get (and pay for) a new set of recipe cards every month. After a year or so, the sucker would have a whole collection of supposedly mouth-watering original recipes that would allow a hungry family to eat hearty, wholesome meals that would satisfy all their nutritional needs and cravings for just pennies a serving.

Once the vast majority of Americans realized they could get a free plastic recipe card box and 24 or so cards featuring scary color photographs of unappetizing food and then cancel their “memberships” in the recipe clubs, they were all stuck with giant awkwardly sized recipe boxes into which nobody could fit any of the recipes they might actually want to keep. I know this because I ordered my own giant plastic free recipe box when I was a child, and I kept it for years figuring I would someday figure out how to store actual recipes in it, to no avail.

A few years ago, I stumbled onto a brilliant website with fabulously unappetizing (and splendidly captioned) examples of Weight Watchers recipe cards from 1974. (The photos and captions are also available in book format as The Amazing Mackerel Pudding Plan: Classic Diet Recipe Cards from the 1970s by Wendy McClure.) Whenever I return to the site in hopes of lifting my spirits, I always start my pilgrimage to Tacky Town with my personal favorite recipe: “Fluffy Mackerel Pudding,” the highlight of the “Convenience Fish” section. The name speaks volumes.

Next, I make my way through the pack to revisit other mouth-watering delights such as “Hot Wrap Ups,” which include a hot lettuce, pickle, chive, caper and celery combo, as well as “Rosy Perfection Salad,” an exciting little number featuring shredded red cabbage in molded purple gelatin. Who could say no to a brandy snifter full of “Jellied Tomato Refresher,” or a man-pleasin’ pan full of “Mackerelly“?

The “Fish Tacos,” which are completely tortilla-free, look especially  enticing with their shredded green cabbage, tomato chunks and some sort of chopped fish on a bed of . . . toast. And in the “Budget Best Bets” category, don’t forget “Frankfurter Spectacular,” a sexy little dish of hot dog halves wrapped around a pineapple core and garnished with carrot, potato and pineapple chunks. Between meals, why not fix yourself a plate of “Polynesian Snack,” featuring the excitement you can only find in a dish composed of canned bean sprouts, buttermilk, pimiento and fruit pieces. That’s snackin’ satisfaction!

For a peek at “Snappy Mackerel Casserole” or the famous tortilla-free “Marcy’s ‘Enchilada,'” you must check out the Candyboots Web site. The wicked captions on each card are the artificially colored maraschino cherry on the top of the whole delicious experience.

Want to make your very own dinner of fluffy mackerel pudding tonight? Here’s the recipe:

FLUFFY MACKEREL PUDDING

2 stalks celery
1 medium green pepper
8 ounces drained, canned mackerel, flaked
1 tablespoon dehydrated onion flakes
2 teaspoons prepared mustard
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/8 teaspoon mace
Dash of ground cardamom
2 medium eggs, slightly beaten
2 medium eggs, hard-cooked, and sliced

Put celery and green pepper through a food grinder (or chop finely in blender). Combine with mackerel, onion flakes,mustard, salt, pepper, mace, and cardamom; mix well. Blend in raw eggs. Divide evenly into 4 (8 ounce) heatproof cups. Bake at 350°F (moderate oven) for 35 to 40 minutes. Garnish each with 1/2 sliced egg. Makes 4 luncheon servings.

For more off-putting recipe ideas from the 1970s, check out the Dinner is Served 1972 blog.

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.

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?