1964

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It was a very bad year for Andy Richardson.

“I’ll tell you a story, true story, not a script for a movie,” says the film director hero of Ward Just’s fascinating 2002 novel The Weather in Berlin . “Andy Richardson was one of my father’s closest friends. Andy manufactured greeting cards, birthdays, anniversaries, but his specialty was Christmas. He had a team of artists at his plant outside of Chicago. Nineteen sixty-two was his banner year. In some locations he even outsold Hallmark. The next year, he borrowed every dollar he could and hired more artists—artists who could draw distinctive Santy Clauses, the Virgin Mary, elves, wreaths, and the Three Kings. Nineteen sixty-three was going to be his breakout year. He shipped more than two million Christmas cards, and then catastrophe. A month before Christmas, Oswald shot Kennedy. Andy was a great Democrat. He was inconsolable, and when he came to work a week or so later he realized that his business was ruined. No one sent Christmas cards that year. Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, we wish you and yours the very best for 1964? Little elves dancing around a snowman? The Three Kings gazing at the star in the east? America was in mourning, or anyway that part of it that bought cards for the holidays. Andy’s business never recovered.”

Every year, of course, contains its infinitude of calamities and triumphs, most of them suffered and celebrated by individuals. But America moved into 1964 in the shadow of a disaster that had befallen the entire country, its citizens joined in a shaken unity.

These people were different from you and me, even if they were you and me, and what made them different is the subject of this issue.

A year ago American Heritage ran a cover story about that immense, brilliant, insatiable creature the baby boomer. The first of them arrived in 1946, the last in 1964, and here we return to the subject by examining the latter year. If not acting quite at random, the editors nonetheless did choose their target with only the slimmest sense of its significance.

Every year—for that matter, every moment—is the culmination of all that has gone before, and the forcing bed for all that is going to happen. Still, as we worked on this issue, we were surprised to discover that so very much of our present-day world was germinating during those 12 months.

In the story that is the issue’s spine, Joshua Zeitz picks three moments as pivots on which the future turned. Two are clearly momentous in hindsight; one might be seen as a colorful bit of antique media fuss. But it’s interesting how the Beatles have managed to colonize this issue.

When I was discussing his writing about another influential 1964 arrival, the Ford Mustang, Phil Patton e-mailed me: “Certainly the Beatles’ arrival at JFK airport was like the end of the official JFK mourning period, as I recall it.” They show up in Nathan Ward’s account of the phenomenon then still named Cassius Clay and in Karen Hornick’s essay on the state of television. The sort of cheerful turmoil the Beatles both ignited and incarnated would not stay cheerful as the decade wore on, but they remain so to us here, standing on the tarmac at the airport that people still were calling Idlewild. It’s our hope that this issue will at once summon up the year as it felt to those who were busy living through it and give a sense of its legacies that stand all about us today.

Some of those legacies are tarnished, and some still shine. And of course everyone has his own 1964. I discover in John Steele Gordon’s story that with the exception of the debut of the Belgian waffle, the World’s Fair was an exorbitant shambles from beginning to end. I certainly didn’t catch on to that at the time. To me it was one long delight, full of things that were fun despite being worthy, sharing the deck with Columbus in the Traveler’s Insurance pavilion, for instance, or believing all the mellifluous claptrap about building highways through the jungle in the General Motors Futurama, as well as giving me a tenuous but gratifying sense of grown-upness. Although I was only 17 (then a year under the legal drinking age), the waiter in Rheingold’s Little Old New York unhesitatingly served me a beer with my “chopped steak,” and I sat in a glow of satisfaction up against the flocked wallpaper, under a photograph of Barney Oldfield, perfectly happy with both past and future.

Well, enough about me. This issue is about you, too—even if you weren’t yet born when Guy Lombardo led his Royal Canadians into “Auld Lang Syne” at midnight on December 31, 1964.

—Richard F. Snow