Previous convictions : a journey through the 1950s /
by Nora Sayre.
New Brunswick, N.J. : Rutgers University Press, c1995.
xi, 462 p. ; 25 cm.
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New Brunswick, N.J. : Rutgers University Press, c1995.
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Includes bibliographical references (p. [441]-447) and index.
A Look Inside
First Chapter


Blame It on the Moon

Smoke rose and thickened until it swayed across the room in a wavering canopy: the harsh tang of Chesterfields and Camels and Lucky Strikes mingled with the fumes of Scotch sloshing against the ice cubes--which rattled with the impatience of enthusiastic listeners who nonetheless wanted to talk themselves, or simply wanted another drink.

When I remember my parents' friends I think of them indoors, in living rooms, laughing, eating salted nuts and drinking whiskey, talking expansively--with a group rather than to one person. The setting would shift from New York to Beverly Hills and Cape Cod, occasionally to Connecticut. And one or two guests might spend the night, perhaps on sofas: next morning there would be the long silent trip to the bathroom, the speechless breakfast, and then a few jokes about hangovers. But no perceptible remorse.

To their timid juniors of the Fifties, their gatherings seemed astoundingly gay: how could such a variety of individuals relish one another's company with such ease? Shyness might never have been invented; even though one heard it attributed to E. B. White and Edmund Wilson, diffidence was rarely apparent in those rooms where conversation was a form of play as well as exercise. Still, Wilson sometimes looked most comfortable if he sat next to Peggy Bacon--who loved to remind him that his dog had given her fleas--or the novelist Dawn Powell; he'd known both of them well for many years. Bacon, whose satirical drawings had been compared to Daumier's, could rarely resist an opportunity to tease: that was her style of affection.

The companions of the Twenties were then approaching fifty or recently past it. Quite a few of them had worked together on newspapers when they were very young-Nunnally Johnson, James Thurber, John O'Hara, James M. Cain, St. Clair McKelway, and my parents, Joel Sayre and Gertrude Lynahan- and the camaraderies of the city room at The Herald Tribune and The New York World had persisted. Later many had The New Yorker in common; a number had served time in Hollywood. Not all of them were intimates, but the mobile affinity groups included S.J. and Laura Perelman, the screenwriters Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, Edmund and Anne Duffy (cartoonist and decorator), the novelist and art critic Robert Coastes, Random House editor Robert Linscott, William Faulkner when he was in Manhattan or Los Angeles, and the clothes designer Muriel King.

Ceremony didn't suit them and daily life did not entail much planning; they liked to drop in for drinks after dinner. Yet even when the speakeasies belonged to the past, the excitement that swirled through the living rooms resembled what John Dos Passos described in his autobiography: "there is a time in a man's life when evey evening is a prelude. Toward five o'clock the air begins to tingle. It's tonight if you drink enough, talk enough, walk far enough, that the train of magical events will beign."

Few of the writers were born New Yorkers; most had come to Manhattan from provincial cities or towns: fromShelby, Ohio, or Corning, New York, or Marion, Indiana, and had made their way as absolute beginners, testing their talents against their obscurity. In a world of strangers they had won the battle against anonymity at an early age, and had also found each other int he shabby Greenwich Village boardinghouses or around the water coolers in the hallways of the magazines which began to publish them: The American Mercury, The New Republich, Vanity Fair, The Nation, and Scribner's Magazine. SOme had visited Europe in the Twenties but hadn't wished to live there; for them New York had been the place of all potentialities; a liberated zone.

Even in the Fifties, some who were older or much younger than they called them bohemina-which was not how they saw themselves. Naturally they had enjoyed shattering the codes of Victorianism in their youth. Freewheeling sex and floating parties were still taken for granted as a part of normal life, but ongoing escapades did not often deflect them from working, from trying to write a better sentence than the last one, to build a better paragrah or essay or book. Committed to extreme professionalism, they had not respect ofr anyone who was careless about his or her work. While they might not have been as stern as Scott Fitzgerald sounded when he wrote to his daughter life was the only one worth leading.

And despite the (sometimes manic) gaiety of those rooms where they regrouped, most over fifty probably considered themsevles to be respectable citizens-who were also free to behave as outlaws whenever they plases. Of course they had long ago rejected the ethos of their own middle-class parents, along with the precepts of the Midwest. Some looked back on their hometowns as oppressively stagnant and shamefully ignorant, grateful to have escaped the main streets satirized by Sinclair Lewis. And yet I think they feld that they were guardians of certain decencies: honesty, loyalty to freinds, and the concept of equality-at least among men. Their educations and their gifts-and by the Fifties, their professional standing-had advanced them beyond the social class of their forebears. But few were social snobs: O'Hara was mercilessly razzed for his weakness in that realm, and it was thought that Fitzgerald's fascination with the rich had somethimes been debilitating fro him as a writer. So their children could have the illusion of growing up in a classless society, where talent and achievement were the ruling standards.

Their community was loosely meshed and it seemd open to newcomers. Yet most tended to abide with their own generation, born early in the century, though there were a few younger exceptions, like the New Yorker writer Philip Hamburger. Fairly remote from Partisan Review and the Jewish intellectual circles of New York, they were irreverent toward academics. For them academia was associated with the genteel tradition which had helped to stifle experimental work. "Professors" were expected to be pedants who misundertstood literature and committed crimes against language. Cherishing education for its own sake, the writers I knew had great respect for the erudition of individuals such as Edmund Wilson, who was even harder on academics than they were. But their disdain for universities was probably an extension of their profound mistrust of all institutions. And they scoffed at the establishment although they were a part of it.

Indeed most were still the offspring of their decade, even though some thirty years had passed. The values and tropisms of the Twenties were very much alive in our living room of the Fifties. Not that the visitors seemed dated. But they had shared a species of exuberance in their unshadowed early years that none of their successors had know-certainly not those who came of age only to enter the Depression or World War II, nor those of us who were girdled by the constraints of the Eisenhower era. And most behaved as though they were thoroughly unfettered in middle age: for them authority didn't even seem to exist. I think they felt quite young at fifty, and they laughed at an unpublished Thurber drawing when it was handed aound our living room: a small shocked man drops his drink as a woman cheerfully tells him, "I believe I have accomplished a great deal in my thirties, but I just peed my twenties away."

Except for Dorothy Parker, few of my parents' friends had spent much time at the Algonquin Round Table, which was said to have been draining and self-conscious. In the Fifties, although they didn't seem nostalgic for the jazz age, they did perpetuate its music: sometimes the melodies of the period drifted through the smoke: "Button Up Your Overcoat," "Don't Bring Lulu," and "Blame It on the Moon." "My father was an expert on the Tin Pan Alley songs of World War I: "Don't Bite the Hand That's Feeding You," "Wind Up the Watch on the Rhine" ("Wd don't want the bacon/All we want is a peice of the Rhine"), and "Would You Rather Be a Colonel with an Eagle on Your Shoulder Than a Private with a Chicken on Your Knee?" The occasioanl singers had not kept the banjoes or ukeleles which they'd played decades before. But they remembered ballads like "My Freckle-faced Consumptive Sarah Jane": "Some say that you are crazy, but I know that you're insane."

As for their children, who passed the crackers and cheese and refilled the ice trays, a number of us felt colorless in comparison to our seniors, who still lived (as sometime said) as though something wonderful would happen in the next twenty minutes. To us it seemd as if they had done everything first-as though there were no fresh fields for us to discover. There was surely no way to shock them. they could be exasperated by bad grades or mulishness and they insisted on "manners": we were raised to practice a politeness they didn't expect from their peers. On the whole they were quite strict with us. But it seemed impossible to surprise them.

I've long thought that the largest sexual revolution of the century occurred in the Twenties. The gult that gaped between my grandparents' generation and their children's was clarified for me in the Sixties, when a woman born in 1880 told me she wished that prostitution might be legalized-so that "those poor college girls" wouldn't feel they had to "sleep with men." Sex, she said, was excusalbe only when the motivation was "a nice babe."

Yet it was very hard for me to imagine the puritanism which pervaded my seniors' upbringing. Those who grew up in the Midwest had been instructed that the lights must not be dimmed when a group of young people were merely talking together, and holding hands was taboo. It was indefensible for a woman to adjust her hat in public and cosmetics were reviled. In some communities dancing was subverisive: the social historian Herbert Asbury wrote that "everywhere in my section of Missouri the waltz and the two-step were considered Steps toward Hell....One man in our town was even criticized for [dancing] with his wife."

Despite the feverish Sunday sermons about omnipresent dens of prostitution, many townships were bereft of brothels because, as Asbury explained, "There were not enough cash customers to make the scarlet career profitable." His adolescent fantasies conjured up houses "full of handsome young women, all as loose as ashes," but he knew there were none in his neighborhood. In Farmington, Missouri, there was just one part-time prostitute, know as Hatrack "in deference to her figure": a domestic servant who had time for her trade only on Sundays, when she took her Protestant clients to the atholic cemetery, and her Catholic clients to the Masonic cemetery. but the young men and women who left the Midwest for Manhattan soon felt as free to enjoy one another as they did to enjoy their new city - and some were vastly amused when the issue of The American Mercury that carried Asbury's account of Hatrack was briefly banned in Boston.

During my teens it was clear to many of us that our parents loved sex. But we also realized that it complicated their lives. The sexual cavortings didn't diminish with their youth. Most had married rather late, after abundant exploration. In their forties and fifties some acted so swiftly on spontaneous attractions that few could be astounded if a wife or a husband or lover suddenly took off with a new acquaintance or an old friend. Long before, many had assured each other that they were all free and rational spirities, that not one had the right be possessive. However, affairs among the married were supposed to be inconsequential. But some became deeply involved with one another's partners-and then most were wounded or outraged. Feelings didn't always jibe with the principles: messy middle-class jealousies had not been erased after all, and there were many enduring ruptures. Those who kept getting divorced and remarried were called "big marriers." Of a husband who didn't stray, it was said that he was "a very married man." As Lincoln Steffens had written to his niece in 1925, "Nowadays we do not regard love and marriage as necessarily permanent."

Some of the former Midwesterners agreed with Harold Ross of The New Yorker that "clinical" or "functional" details did not belong in the magazine, and I heard no four-letter words from them until I was almost twenty; cries of "Shoot!" or "Fudge!" rose when someone stubbed a toe or broke a glass. But decorum vanished in private and in their letters. In the late Thirties my father wrote to my mother from Hollywood about a San Diego fishing trip with Nathaniel West, Edward Paramore - a writer with many girlfriends-and S.J. Perelman: "The only catch of the day was an eerie Will-Beebeish object Paramore fished up which Sid identified as a marine vulva. We threw it in a bucket. When anybody but [Paramore] looked at it, it lay inert on its side. But when he gave it a peek it would shoot out its fronds and eject a cloud of purple effusion." When Edmund Wilson's Memoirs of Hecate County was published, Joseph Mitchell overhead my mother and Katharine White talking outside his New Yorker office after they'd been to lunch. The narrator of Wilson's novel had referred to his penis as his "club." The two women were laughing; one exclaimed, "His club!" and the other said, "Buny's club." Mitchell told me that their mirth wasn't unking, that it seemd like a response to the machismo inherent in all cultures, and he also thought they were amused "because they knew how unreliable a club could be."

Many have called the Twenties generation romantic, and the word certainly applied to their individualism and their hedonism. But I sensed that few had been romantic about love. (Scott and zelda Fitzgerald and Edna st. Vincent Millay and Dorothy Parker seemed like exceptions; Fitzgerlad had told Wilson that he wouldn't care it Zelda died, but he couldn't bear it if she married anyone but him.) Perhaps romance depended on variety, on having a number of lovers; my mother's friends urged me nad my contemporaries to "Play the field!" and were baffled when their juniors spoke wistfully about "relationships." Emily Han recalled a man who wrote many poems about love-to different women; she added that "a faxation: on one person could become "pretty dull." Some admitted that they had been looking for love but were wary of intimacy, and that they had often pretended to themselves that they were in love, mainly when sex was exhilarating. Even so, I was told, love was rarely as romantic as the first ocean voyage to a foreign country. It seemed as though quite a few were emotional claustrophobes: if "love" threatened to tie them down, it ceased to be alluring, and there was an impulse to look for the exit sign before the question of commitment could arise.

But most eventually got married because that was part of experience-you couldn't postpone if forever. (Even in New York, unmarried lovers didn't live openly together for long.) The decision to marry had little connection with domesticity: acquiring a home and putting down roots were not attractive. A first marriage had sometimes been undertaken as a fling: an ext3ension of good times, a venture. Some also hoped it might be glamorous. Later on, most male writers wanted to be looked after - they seemed to be a batch of helpless men who couldn't change a light bulb because they didn't know where bulbs were kept, who were unable to boil water - and some second wives (like Helen Thurber and Belle O'Hara) or third wives (Katherine O'Hara) or fourth wives (Elena Wilson) were exceptionally supportive of their husbands' talents. But there wasn't much desire to "build families"; most of the couples had one child, partly because they couldn't afford more during the Depression, but also because both sexes wanted to travel lightly. The fact that some became enthusiastic parents was starting to them: they hadn't guessed that children would be interesting.

Whether the women had full-time careers or not-and many did-most writers' wives were expected to be able to earn at short notice or for years at a stretch. Domestic help had been cheap in the Twenties and was still inexpensive in the Fifties, so a middle-aged woman didn't have to be tethered to her household. Few of the wives were keen on cooking: like my mother, they'd learned to make fudge in college, but while they were apt to overcook the meatloaf or the canned succotach on the maid's night off, they made sure that the maids ironed the husband's shirts, dusted their desks without disturbing the papers, and reordered their favorite foods from the grocery.

If there were feminists within this group, I did not know it; perhaps women who'd held jobs since the Twenties had persuaded themselves that the issue was outmoded. Yet I didn't see them deferring to men, and I'm sure that most regarded themselves as men's equals. So the history and the perpetuation of inequality were unacknowledged. And although I later learned that Thurber was a misogynist, I hadn't guessed that he regarded the American woman as his "mortal enemy," because he was in favor of daughters-his own and his friends'. But in his letters and theirs, "a writer" was usually male; Thurber wrote to Malcolm Cowley, "Not long ago, [John] McNulty expressed surprise at having met a writer who had always wanted to be a writer, and I was surprised that he thought most men drifted into it." Thurber also liked to quote Robert Benchley's observation "that the free-lance writer is a man who is paid per piece or per word or perhaps." Still, Thurber was encouraging when I started to write, and he didn't suggest that I was intruding on masculine turf.

And if there was competition between spouses, I wasn't much aware of it: perhaps that has something that was hidden from the children. But there were some who rarely allowed each other to finish a sentence. I remember the cartoonist Edmund Duffy saying to his wife Anne, "You don't talk-you only interrupt!" When Nora Johnson, daughter of the screenwriter Nunnally Johnson, was taken by her father to see their friend Helen Hayes in The Wisteria Trees, Nora was impressed by the prolonged, explosive coughs that resounded throughout each of the play's climactic passages, and Nunally explained that that was Charles MacArthur: he always hacked and choked during his wife's key scenes. Accustomed to his reflexes, the actress never faltered in delivering her lines.

Growing up in this world, I received almost no impression of the customary roles of husbands or wives, except that both should be pleasing to one another; otherwise there was no point in being together. I also deduced that marriage required a lively amount of self-protection: each person must defend the psyche against invasion, and over-dependency was a transgression: being a burden was one step away from being a parasite. Therefore marraiges which worked well indicated that both partners-especially the wives-were not oeverly demanding. Demands per se were offensive, and I concluded that it was wrong to ask for things: requests for time or money or love itself could violate the code of non-encroachment.

Needless to say, few marriages were exempt from mutual intrusions and the resentments that resulted were often dramatic: I remember the doors slamming and the bags rapidly packed and the tickets purchased by those who wanted an intermission in the middle of a marriage. Yet they took divorce hard: it might be inescapable but so was demoralization, and people who were heading for reno received commiseration from many friends. Possibly some also felt a stirring of their traditional backgrounds: divorce implied failure, and it seemed like a short circuit in a promising life. But the conventions of marriage seemed unreasonable to most of them; on hearing that a friend was separating from her husband, Perelman wrote to her, "I suppose I incline to feel that monogamy is at best a very shaky and provisional arrangement invented by some rather smelly monks for the purpose of preventing the extinction of the race."

There was a story by O'Hara that I read in my early teens which described two married couples exchanging their underwear after three A.M., following a party given for one couple's wedding anniversary. Each man put on the other's wife's bra, and the women wore the husbands' undershirts and shorts. Although I hadn't seen anything like that, the story conveyed the possibilities that were in the air-I was struck by that at the time. I already knew that what people did or said when drunk ought not ot matter the next day: you weren't supposed to judge anyone when he was loaded, and he had no reason to be embarrassed. But there was some disapproval of "thimble bellies" who couldn't hold two or three drinks without imperiling the furniture.

At times the group still seemed to be defying Prohibition, as though whiskey were hard to obtain. A.J. Liebling wrote, "People whose youth did not coincide with the Twenties never had our reverence for strong drink. Older men knew liquor before it became the symbol of a sacred cause. Kids who began drinking after 1933 take it as a matter of course....Drinking, we proved to ourselves our freedom as individuals and flouted Congress....It was the only period during which a fellow could be smug and slopped concurrently."

According to Police Commissioner Grover Whalen, there were at least thirty-two thousand speakeasies in New York City during Prohibition. The speakeasies had been the scene cementing: people were drawn together in response to the opposition, just as a population may be unified in time of war. Inevitably, what was forbidden was irresistible. And the boundaries of class evaporated when typesetters, judges, stagehands, college students, off-duty doormen in uniform, debutantes, prizefighters, and newspapers publishers drank with each other. But perhaps the greatest charm of the speakeasies was the opportunity to leave home, to get out of the house-to walk out the door and away from all restrictions. For many young New Yorkers, "home" had meant propriety, the correct behavior required in childhood. So saloon life was an entralling emancipation.

Dos Passos recalled the bewitchment of "places [where] you whispered your name through a slot in the door...From the moment the door clicked behind you, you had the feeling of being in the Fortunate Islands, where there were no rules and regulations, no yesterdays and no tomorrows." Meeting friends at Bleeck's or Costello's, mingling with songwriters and bootleggers and aviators or a man who booked horses out of the Frick Museum-when he saw all the empty telephone booths, he moved in and ran his business there-the young revelled in discovering the unknown and in dwelling in the present: nothing mattered but this evening, the hour or two that lay ahead.

Having escaped from their own homes, they didn't want to visit others': dinner parties made them feel trapped; when they needed to eat, they preferred the hardboiled eggs at Dan Moriarity's or the T-bone steaks and spaghetti at Tony Soma's. In the speakeasies they could sing and shout and throw things at each other, or initiate the mock-fights that alcohol can inspire: those who felt aggressive but not particularly angry could match insults and pretend to be offended, duel with words and jokes and call it a draw. The speakeasies also enabled them to get out of themselves-always a boon for writers. And they could depart whenever they wished to: the sidewalk was right out there. If they felt like dancing, they might dash up to Harlem, where they had learned to dance without holding on to their partners: men and women would dance away from one another for a few steps, and no one was guiding anyone. Home was where they went the saloons were closed: it was a place for sleeping and working, not for self-expansion.

In middle age they still liked to go out, but the domicile was no longer so distasteful: the living room had become the speakeasy, and the presence of growing children was not the hindrance that their forebears' had been. And yet they were under observation-more so than they knew. As Manhattan teenagers we saw that our parents' drinking was a celebration: of the self and of friendship-they seemed to feel closer to each other once the whiskey had rise in them. Theirs was a rather atheltic, activist style of drinking, so unlike the silent soakers we encountered. Yet we also noticed (and discussed) how isolated adults could appear when they were very high: there would be monologues by some who hardly seemed to know that there were others in the room.

But even those who had passed the flashpoint of drinking for pleasure were almost exultant about their appetites; Wolcott Gibbs had said there was no such thing as one martini. Ring Lardner was sometimes quoted: "How do you look when I'm sober?" Nunnally Johnson, who often came to New York from Hollywood, once complained that after four days in the city he'd had nothing to eat but hors d'oeuvres: all the drinks and hangovers had left no time for meals. Thurber, who briskly rejected Gertrude Stein's definition of the Lost Generation, wrote in a letter: "We weren't lost. We knew where we were, all right, but we wouldn't go home. Ours was the generation that stayed up all night. Indeed, we spent so little time in bed most of us had only one child." And a friend of my father's, a writer who was dying from the massive binge in Rome, brightly told the stretcher in the ambulance that was speeding him to the hospital, "This is a self-inflicted wound."

Copyright © 1995 Nora Sayre. All rights reserved.

Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Publishers Weekly on 1995-10-16:
National Book Award nominee (Sixties Going on Seventies) and former New York Times film critic Sayre uncomfortably juxtaposes snapshots of 1950s American culture and politics with glimpses of her own singular life. Sayre went to Radcliffe and was close to such literary giants as Edmund Wilson and John O'Hara. At the same time, this privileged life of ``lowered voices and pale cashmere'' was fractured by the increasing fragility of her mother's mental health and premonitions of the social and sexual upheavals of the 1960s. The cast of characters is intriguing. Sayre suggests that T.S. Eliot's New Criticism (which advocated repudiating biographical speculation in literary criticism) was motivated by the disarray of the poet's own marriage; she offers a penetrating profile of college classmate Dorothy Dean, who was black, fiercely intellectual and ultimately a suicidal habitue of Warhol's Factory; and she pays affectionate tributes to Gregory Corso, James Thurber and others. Brief ``documentary'' chapters offering textbook takes on the Red scare and desegregation merely exaggerate the schism in the book between the intimately personal and the broadly historical. Those in search of satisfying cultural history of the period ought to look elsewhere. Photos not seen by PW. (Nov.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
This item was reviewed in:
Kirkus Reviews, September 1995
Publishers Weekly, October 1995
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Unpaid Annotation
Nora Sayre, author of Sixties Going on Seventies and a National Book Award nominee, continues to explore our century's history as she turns her witty, insightful eye on the dramas of the 1950s. The major figures of the Cold War landscape, such as J. Edgar Hoover and Joseph McCarthy, are alive in these pages, but what makes Sayre's montage of narrative and documentary unique is her focus on the connections between private lives and public events. She follows some of the luminaries of the mid-century through the best and worst chapters of their lives.
Table of Contents
Preludep. 1
Legacies from the Twenties
Blame It on the Moonp. 17
Hanging Gardensp. 37
Church and Statep. 49
"I Am Still Expecting Something Exciting"p. 61
"A Flash of the Mind"p. 74
Derailmentsp. 90
Envoip. 103
Admonitions of the Fifties
Maturityp. 109
Touchstonesp. 115
Documentary One: The Loyalty Oath at Berkeleyp. 124
High and Lowp. 136
Deliver Me from the Days of Oldp. 142
Spiders' Threadsp. 151
Documentary Two: The Autherine Lucy Casep. 157
Rapture Unwrappedp. 172
Excavationsp. 178
On the Balconyp. 184
The Poets' Theatre and the Beatsp. 195
Documentary Three: Invading The New York Timesp. 211
Codap. 223
Sequels to the Thirties
Snakes or Tigersp. 235
Assaulting the Leftp. 253
Withstanding the Rightp. 269
Flashbacksp. 295
Blacklist in Exilep. 303
Thinking of Stalin?p. 348
Hindsight from the Nineties
Voyage to Columbusp. 381
Notesp. 413
Selected Bibliographyp. 441
Indexp. 449
Table of Contents provided by Blackwell. All Rights Reserved.

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