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Posts tagged ‘social history’

Seeking the Sixties

December 15, 2015

Susan Marg

Photo by: © nejron

Photo by: © nejron

There’s an old hippie saying: “If you remember the Sixties you weren’t there.” Well, I disagree. I think we all remember the Sixties. There was the hope and excitement that President Kennedy brought to the country when he was inaugurated in 1961; our shared grief when he was assassinated in 1964. President Johnson fought the war on poverty, but greatly expanded our presence in Vietnam. Like-minded individuals marched for civil rights, burned their bras for women’s rights, and rioted for gay rights. Young people flocked to San Francisco in 1967, the Summer of Love, but fled the Hollywood Hills following the Manson murders in 1969.

If these events bring back memories, write about them. Here are some more suggestions to consider when thinking about your own personal or family history.

  1. By executive order. President John F. Kennedy established the Peace Corps to promote world peace and friendship in 1961. Although the volunteer organization had its critics, Congress formally authorized the program later that year. Since then, nearly 220,000 Americans have joined and served in 140 countries.
  2. Notorious for being banned. When first published in Paris in 1934, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer was banned here: it couldn’t be imported to the U.S. When Grove Press legally published it in 1961, the battle to read about the adventures of a young expatriate in Paris had just begun. Local authorities in twenty-one states filed sixty lawsuits against the book or those who sold it on grounds of obscenity. When one such case went to the Supreme Court in 1964, it overruled state court decisions and established a new, more liberal definition of obscenity. No longer could a book be banned because of its dirty parts, but rather it had to be without any socially redeeming value, as well as prurient throughout and offensive.
  3. Tell the people what she wore. The bikini first went on sale following an outdoor fashion event in France in 1946. The song “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polk Dot Bikini” was the number one song for one week in August, 1960. The sexy swimsuit did not become fashionable, or acceptable, however, until Annette Funicello wore one in the 1963 movie Beach Party. Hers neither had yellow polka dots nor showed her navel.
  4. The doctor is in. In Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Love the Bomb, a 1964 satire of the Cold War, the President and his advisors, including Dr. Strangelove, a nuclear war expert played by Peter Sellers, are trying to resolve a crisis brought about by a crazy Air Force general who unleashed a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. It did not end well for anyone. In Doctor Zhivago, an epic drama released the following year, a doctor/poet played by Omar Sharif survives World War I and the Russian Revolution. Both films were nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture and both lost to musical love stories, My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music, respectively, demonstrating the wisdom of making love, not war.
  5. The British are coming! The British Invasion refers to rock bands from across the pond, such as the Beatles, the Dave Clark Five, the Kinks, and the Rolling Stones, making a big splash in America in the mid-1960s. Few made it to Woodstock in 1969, however. The Who performed, and Joe Cocker’s performance of “With a Little Help from My Friends” earned accolades. John Lennon wanted to be there, but the U.S. government refused him an entry visa.
  6. A shot in the dark. While protesters marched for peace, we witnessed the assassination of John R. Kennedy in 1963, of Malcolm X in 1965, of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, and of Robert F. Kennedy in 1968.
  7. A space odyssey. American astronaut Neil Sheperd went into space in 1961, three weeks after Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin had orbited the earth. Still, Sheperd was the first person to have manual control of his spacecraft and was widely celebrated upon his safe return home. In July 1969, we went to the moon, landing in the Sea of Tranquility. “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind,” Neil Armstrong pronounced, stepping outside. Fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin joining him twenty minutes later described the surface as “magnificent desolation.” Their teammate Michael Collins stayed on board to man the controls, while Armstrong and Aldrin collected rocks that President Nixon gave as gifts to 135 countries and all fifty states.
  8. Kings of cool. Dean Martin, former partner of Jerry Lewis, member of the Rat Pack, nightclub entertainer, and movie star, began hosting The Dean Martin Show, a television variety program, in 1965. Always charming, he sang, danced, flirted, smoked, and drank his way through the hour program. In 1967 Tommy and Dick Smothers offered viewers an alternative point of view on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. In their opening act they sang folk songs, which usually led to an argument. There were also plenty of arguments with the censors, as their pointed humor was usually directed at racism, the President, and the Vietnam War. The show was cancelled in 1969, while Dean Martin continued to get good ratings through the 1973-1974 season.
  9. Thank you, Al Gore. Contrary to statements Gore made, possibly taken out of context, he did not invent the Internet. Rather the Internet grew out of the ARPANET. Scientists formulated the idea to enable general communications among computer users, particularly corporate, academic, and government researchers, in 1963 and developed a plan to implement the network in 1968. It was up and working in 1969, under the control of the military for two decades. Al Gore as a Senator, by the way, promoted legislation to fund the expansion of the ARPANET to allow greater public access.
  10. Close to home. The Cuyahoga River, dividing the East side from the West side of Cleveland, Ohio, my hometown, caught fire in 1969. Neither the first nor worst time this had occurred, the incident barely made the local news, but it created a national outcry, leading to the passage of the Clean Water Act and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.

The pendulum swings, and a lot happens in a decade.

© 2015 Susan Marg – All Rights Reserved

Looking Back to the Fifties

November 22, 2015

Susan Marg

When I work on client memoirs, I like to bring in as much social history as I can. After all, each and every one of us have a front seat to history, and that history makes us and shapes us, individually and collectively. It also resonates today. If you are thinking about your personal or family history, consider what past events influenced the way you think and feel.

Photo by: © retroartist

Photo by: © retroartist

Here are some suggestions pertaining to the Fifties for you to consider.

  1. Bond and Brown. That’s James Bond in Spectre and Charlie Brown in Peanuts, who, earlier this month, were numbers one and two at the box office, respectively. The iconic Secret Service agent first showed up in novelist Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale in 1953. Sean Connery played the first James Bond on the big screen in Dr. No in 1962. Peanuts, a 3D computer-animated movie, commemorates the 65th anniversary of the popular comic strip.
  1. Polio take down. Jonas Salk developed a vaccine to immunize children against polio in 1952. After extensive testing and the subsequent licensing of the product, it became universally available in 1955. Although polio has been eradicated in the U.S., it is still recommended that babies receive three dosages starting at two months of age and a booster shot when four to six years old.
  1. City or suburbs. Taking a cue from Levittown be it in New York, New Jersey, or Pennsylvania, the suburbs boomed in the Fifties. But where will Millennials chose to live? Right now, they seem to enjoy urban areas, close to work and play. Census data and survey results, however, suggests that many still yearn for the single-family houses where they grew up.
  1. In the matter of. The Supreme Court handed down its landmark decision in Brown versus Board of Education  in 1953. Unanimously, the court declared that “separate educational facilities” for black children were “inherently illegal.”
  1. Baby, it’s cold outside. Tensions ran high during the Cold War, when the West grew anxious over the Soviet Union’s push to advance communism around the globe. Here at home, Senator Joseph McCarthy fueled the fear in 1950 by declaring, “The State Department is infested with communists,” and he went after them furiously and recklessly. In 1954 the Senate voted to condemn him for his behavior to “obstruct the constitutional processes of the Senate, and to impair its dignity.” The House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), which tracked down Communist sympathizers in Hollywood, thrived in part due to McCarthy’s actions. The recently released movie, Trumbo, tells the story of screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, one of hundreds who were blacklisted, that is, denied employment for their suspected political beliefs.
  1. Hasta luego. The Cuban Revolution took place from 1953 – 1959, when the rebels overthrew the Batista regime and Fidel Castro established a communist government. Two years later President Eisenhower shuttered the American embassy in Havana. After months of negotiations to restore diplomatic relations, Cuba reopened its embassy in Washington D.C. in July of this year and we reopened our embassy on the island in August. Tensions between the two nations still exist, but travel restrictions have been relaxed. It’s possible that U.S. airlines will begin offering regularly scheduled flights to Cuba in the not too distant future. See you soon.
  1. Work hard; play hard. Hugh Hefner first published Playboy magazine in 1953, putting actress Marilyn Monroe on its cover. Known for decades for its scantily dressed, if dressed at all, centerfolds, it announced last month that it will no longer feature full nudity, as it can’t compete with pornography on the Internet, only a click away.
  1. In living color. The New Year’s Day Tournament of Roses Parade in 1954 was the first national television broadcast in color. Bonanza, the television program chronicling the adventures of the Cartwright family on the Ponderosa ranch, was one of the first series to be filmed and broadcast in color. First airing in 1958, it lasted fourteen years. You can still catch the show in syndication.
  1. United we stand. In 1959 Alaska and Hawaii became the 49th and 50th states, respectively.
  1. It’s now or never. I can’t write about the Fifties without mentioning Elvis. In August 1953, Elvis first walked into the offices of Sam Phillips’ Sun Records. In an evening session in July, 1954 with Scotty Moore and Bill Black, he recorded “That’s All Right” which Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips played to great reception. In 1956 Elvis’ “Heartbreak Hotel” became a number one hit in the U.S. Later that year he appeared on The Milton Berle Show, The Steve Allen Show, and The Ed Sullivan Show. He also made his first movie, Love Me Tender. In 1958 he was drafted. In March, 1960 he was honorably discharged and returned home.

A lot happens in a decade. What music were you dancing to?

© 2015 Susan Marg – All Rights Reserved

Is it Personal or Is it History?

September 5, 2014

Susan Marg

I got into the “writing personal and family histories” business through my husband, James C. Simmons, who has been involved in such an enterprise for over fifteen years. He incorporates social, political, and cultural events into his work, bringing his client’s lives to life and putting them in context of the world at large.

Photo by: Joey Lax-Salinas

Photo by: Joey Lax-Salinas

My personal involvement in this line of work began when Jim suggested writing the Marg family history as a present to my parents on their 55th wedding anniversary. I thought that was a great idea, but I didn’t know how my parents would react. They’re both reticent people, not comfortable on being the center of attention, and, of course, we needed their cooperation, as the book we envisioned would center on them.

Well, my parents came through. For the one-hour telephone interviews Jim conducted, my Dad was a willing participant. For interviews with my Mom, I  listened in. I was on the phone to prompt her , if she was at a loss for words. She was rarely at a loss for words.

One of the stories we incorporated in the Marg family history was one my Mom used to tell on my family’s twice-annual visit to New York City to see her parents. She was working in the offices of the United Services Organization (USO) in the Empire State Building one Saturday morning in 1945 when a plane crashed into the building. She knew something was wrong when she heard an elevator falling, not gliding, down the shaft not far from her desk.

As a social historian Jim filled in the details of the oft-told tale. There was a heavy fog that day. Planes were not equipped with radar. The plane was a B-25 bomber, and it had gotten lost. When it went into the 79th floor, the wings sheared off and the fuel tanks exploded. One engine landed atop a building across the street, and the second engine slammed through an elevator shaft, cutting the cables. Fourteen people died, and twenty-six were gravely injured.

From my mother’s perspective, it was a harrowing experience. She and a friend walked down from the 56th floor to safety. The first thing she did was to find a pay phone to call her mother who had not yet heard the news, news that became the number one story in the country for days.

Next, the two young women used their tickets to see Roger and Hammerstein’s Carousel. Having recently opened the Broadway musical was receiving rave reviews, but they really didn’t enjoy themselves, having come so close to death. They returned to the theater several months later to see it again.

And, yes, she returned to work that Monday, as the Empire State Building was open for business.

Is it history or is it personal? I think it’s both.

© 2014 Susan Marg – All Rights Reserved