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The Gray Flannel World
Dan Weiner’s fond, frank, canny 1950s photographs restore the depth to people whose children often saw the society they built as a cultural joke
February/March 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 1
In a piece titled “Paradise Lost?,” about why we miss the 1950s—and shouldn’t—which ran in the February/ March 1998 issue of this magazine, the English-born historian Michael Elliott concluded that “we had elevated the period after 1945 into a corrosive national myth. The error didn’t lie in thinking the golden age was a condition to which we should aspire but in thinking that the golden age was normal and that insofar as the country had changed, it was a catastrophic failure.”
Corrosive or not, it’s easy to see why the decade is mythic. Even the most cursory glance at the high points leaves this reader with the distinct impression that almost everything that happened in his life had its origin, if not its fruition, during the time Weiner was taking pictures—that is, between 1949 and 1959. On February 7, 1950, the United States recognized Bao Dai as the head of the “free state” of Vietnam. On the ninth Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy told a Women’s Republican Club in Wheeling, West Virginia, that he had the names of 205 State Department employees loyal to the Communist party. That same year, Communist forces invaded South Korea, and the Diners Club marketed the first credit card.
Dan Weiner never had our distance on the decade, and yet his judgment is at once both harsher and more forgiving than my own.
Mickey Mantle joined the New York Yankees in 1951, Gen. Douglas MacArthur made his farewell speech, J. D. Salinger published The Catcher in the Rye . In January of 1952 Dave Garroway hosted the opening episode of “The Today Show.” The pocket-sized transistor radio was introduced that year, and Mad magazine came on the stands. In December the public learned of Christine Jorgenson and the first-known sex-change operation in history.
For those with more traditional appetites, the maiden issue of Playboy was published in 1953, with a nude photo of Marilyn Monroe. The mind boggles as the decade gallops on, giving us Metrecal, Disney’s Davy Crockett , and the hydrogen bomb. “American Bandstand” started up. Howl was published. Roger Bannister ran a mile in 3 minutes and 59.4 seconds. James Dean crashed his Porsche Spyder, and scientists came up with instant coffee, the TV dinner, and the polio vaccine. The Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Brown v. Board of Education that segregated education is illegal.
So take a deep breath when you look at these pictures. Events in the past may be easier to predict than those in the present, but this does not make them any easier to comprehend. We can feign ignorance, as my old friend once did about a pair of lady’s underpants, and certainly America worked hard back then, looked stern, but also America made some whoopee. There was life beneath the flannel. The men in those ridiculous suits must have slipped out of them now and again, else many of us wouldn’t be around now to feel superior.