The Gray Flannel World

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I know a man who came home from work one evening tired and dispirited. His wife met him at the door and thrust a pair of women’s panties in his face. These she had discovered while changing the matrimonial bed. She’d never seen them before. Had he?

 

To gaze or even to glance at Dan Weiner’s photographs of corporate America in the 1950s is to face a crisis similar to that of my old friend. It is to stumble on one’s own intimate, carnal, and willfully forgotten past.

Our first position has to be a firm and unequivocating denial. Who are these men in ridiculous hats and suits? Are the glasses the women wear designed to frighten off evil spirits? And why do the children look so old? But just as my friend knew all about those panties, we know all about these pictures.

It has become routine to speak of the fifties as if they were a limited entity, a static interval easily dismissed on the basis of tasteless clothing and a foolish national pride. The values were antiques, the contentment was risible.

When Harry N. Abrams published a handsome volume of these pictures more than a decade ago, the very title of the book had its tongue in cheek: America Worked. The opening photo was of C. Wayne Brownell, vice president and industrial relations director at Packard Motors, Detroit, and was taken in 1952. Mr. Brownell (and I bet you a coonskin cap that he had a nickname) gestures welcomingly with his cigar, showing prospective employees the way to jobs. The optimism is absurd. Look closely at the vice president’s face, though, and you can’t avoid the realization that if the joke’s on Brownell, Brownell is also in on the joke.

Certainly America worked hard back then, but also America made some whoopee. There was life beneath the flannel.
 
 

As we look back over half a century, distance has set these men and women in aspic with stupid sauce. What did they know about child rearing then, if Spock was a revelation? As for health, they all smoked, and many still thought that the cure for pulmonary difficulties was to relocate to Denver. No man was an alcoholic until he had sold a child for a pint of Listerine and then downed the Listerine. A fitness buff was a man, inclined to stoutness, who slept with the windows opened and started each day with an icy bath and a breakfast of steak and eggs.

Dan Weiner died in 1959; he never had our distance on the decade, and yet his judgment is both harsher and more forgiving than my own. An admirer of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Weiner did not freeze his subjects before he photographed them. Even though much of his work must have come from scheduled photo sessions, these people are surprised in life.

Influenced by Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange, Weiner once said, “I carry with me always that great body of photographs produced in the Depression of the thirties.” Working most frequently for Fortune, he photographed corporate titans, not the victims of the Dust Bowl, yet his style embodies the same beliefs one associates with the social critics he admires: the sanctity of life, the search for meaning and even justice. Like Evans and Lange, Weiner shot almost exclusively in black and white. “I prefer my pictures colored by the imagination, rather than by Kodak,” he said.

The artist was thirty-nine years old when he was killed in a plane crash. “The small rank of fine photographers has been cruelly thinned by the loss of Dan Weiner,” wrote Edward Steichen. Arthur Miller declared, “The death of such a phenomenon is inadmissible.”

 

The pictures we still have. What strikes me first and with greatest force is the sexuality, which was hidden and therefore is everywhere apparent. I found myself wondering, “How did they get out of that clothing?” Adultery, now considered presidential, was then rare and breaking news. When I was growing up in this decade, the only sexual position I ever heard mentioned was that if you weren’t married, you shouldn’t. My hero, Roy Rogers, never kissed Dale Evans on the screen. He felt that such a demonstration of carnality might trouble his viewers.

 

The book’s text, by William A. Ewing, with an essay by the anthropologist Lionel Tiger, is cleverly peppered with quotations from Fortune, and also from prominent writers of the era. “Baking a cake is traditionally acting out the birth of a child,” Vance Packard reported in The Hidden Persuaders (1957). I remember considering Packard a tough-minded truth-teller when I read that book. Having since been present at the births of three sons, I am forced to conclude that Mr. Packard was spared this joy, or else that his wife was a truly wretched and dangerous cook.

 

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.