May/June 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 3
1930s café society. It’s tempting to point to the sixties counterculture, whose somewhat smug rejection of the inauthenticity of mass society fueled instead a new kind of ironic, hip consumerism: the straight road from the Volkswagen to the “Dodge rebellion” to what a recent writer in the L.A. Times describes as the “random acts of coolness” in current ads from Levi’s and Nike. But the counterculture has taken enough hits, and it’s hard to argue that a generation that many seem to feel is responsible for eroding the foundations of Western civilization is in any sense “overrated.”
The café society of the 1930s—not exactly a generation but a cultural moment that seems to lie behind the rising generation’s stylistic aspirations—glitters from our current vantage like a lost world of urbanity, wit, and grace. And it’s partly true: As photographed and reported in swank photos and the columnists’ jazzy prose, here was an American style that was both energetic and adult, that combined the liveliness and sexiness and new gender relations of the twenties with a new elegance and attention to form. Society itself had loosened up from a stuffy, restrictive Four Hundred to a sort of ideal dinner party where a Vanderbilt or Harriman broke bread with Noël Coward, John O’Hara, Fredric March, and Tallulah Bankhead. An elite meritocracy of style, talent, and charm that valued worldly achievement, artistic success, and personal distinction and that was light-years removed from the pandering to mass taste and hunger for publicity of our debased, sensationalized, People magazine-obsessed times, yes?
Well, no. Lucius Beebe, a participant observer, recalled that “a cocktail shebang or dinner dance at which no press photographer was present was considered an unequivocal failure by both host and guests alike.” Much of the witty action was staged for columnists like Walter Winchell and the first paparazzi, employed by Town and Country and the new glossy photo magazines. Café society was in fact the halfway house of our now pervasive culture of celebrity. Moneyed socialites and eminent artists still made news, as they had traditionally done, but it helped if they said or did something amusing, performing for an invisible audience. Power was shifting to the columnists and photographers who publicized them. Looking back from 1997, the year of Diana and Versace, it’s not the dying fall of a lost world of enchantment we see, but the birth of our personality-oriented culture and of celebrity as a form of power that within forty years would subsume all others—social, artistic, even financial.
Perhaps the last word on the thirties will belong not to MGM or Paramount—or to Steinbeck or O’Hara—but to Nathanael West, who saw the rise of mass-produced fantasy as a new sort of American religion.
“Yuppies.” Seen from their elders’ point of view, the generation that came of age in the 1980s was made up of powertie-wearing, BMW-driving, Perrierdrinking, callous, materialistic, socially irresponsible careerists. They seemed understandable only by caricature—the era is still most closely identified with Tom Wolfe, our Daumier—and they fitted conveniently into jeremiads about youth’s decline from sixtiesstyle engagement and optimism to apathy and self-serving cynicism. But materialism has its up side, and certain things-of-this-world finally came in for some long-overdue attention. Thanks to the yuppies, we are lucky enough to be standing on the far slope of a watershed in American life: the Good Food Revolution. Gone, it seems for good, are the days of blandness and uniformity, a “banal diet of industry-selected and industry-backed food,” and American “ineptitude” in the “restaurant field,” as Waverly Root and Richard de Rochemont’s Eating in America complained as recently as the mid-seventies. Who cares if the yuppie insistence on upscale consumables and a wider range of authentic ingredients and cuisines was mainly a snobbish quest for new badges of status? Through the sheer power of their demand, there are beers and spirits readily available that actually have flavor, and American cities of any size can be expected to have at least a couple of decent restaurants with creative and well-prepared dishes and drinkable wine, not to mention ethnic cuisines ranging from Japanese to Mexican.
And it’s not just a matter of fine restaurants and superpremium brands; this is one eighties phenomenon that actually did trickle down. Look at local supermarkets, once prime offenders in the matter of mass-produced and packaged uniformity and processed glop. Now they carry not only iceberg but five other kinds of lettuce, plus arugula and watercress and other greens, fresh herbs, chiles, fresh tofu, and much more, in healthful, appetizing, and dazzling displays undreamed of just two decades ago.
This is a startling change, a revolution in taste in every sense, and it has reversed an apparently inevitable drift toward the bland and mediocre. “Must we deduce that a change of governors, which America was willing to accept,” wrote Root and de Rochemont of the carrying over of English culinary traditions to the New World, “was less important than a change of food, which it was not?” Worth pondering when we consider which of the many innovations of the eighties will have a lasting influence on American lives.