December 15, 2018

1950s ‘Cool,’ with a side of loss

Leo Braudy is a distinguished scholar at USC whose work focuses on the entertainment industry and other artifacts of popular culture.  His previous books range from “The Frenzy of Renown: Fame and Its History” to “The Hollywood Sign: Fantasy and Reality of an American Icon.” But now he has cast his memory back to his own adolescence in Philadelphia in the 1950s with “Trying to Be Cool: Growing Up in the 1950s (Based on a True Story)” (Asahina & Wallace, $15). It is an affecting account of one young man’s ongoing effort to invent himself in an era when being cool was “the summum bonum of teenage aspiration.”

“The problem was first deciding what was cool and then imitating it with enough nuance of your own to make it seem at least partially unique,” Braudy explains. “One day you were safely within the sphere of family, where your role, like it or not, was clear. The next day you had left the realm of blithe boyhood in some murky dawn of self-consciousness.”

Ironically, the man who deconstructs movies for a living started watching them at a neighborhood theatre that he describes as “a minor teenage war zone, where the lights were never totally dimmed so the manager and his band of ushers could patrol the aisles looking for infractions of whatever personal moral code he was enforcing that evening.” As a result, Braudy reveals, “[t]here must be at least 10 or 12 movies from that period that I never saw to the end because I was kicked out.”

Precisely because Braudy is writing about the 1950s, a period of both moral and political repression in America, adolescent excess was something quite different than it is today.  “There was certainly a lot of necking going on, and some people even claimed to have had sex,” he concedes. There was a little drinking, but no dope.  The place where the envelope was pushed, he explains, was the dance floor: “Parents might get irritated at rock ’n’ roll music,” he observes, “but dancing drove them crazy.”  And some dances were more crazy-making than others: “The Hora you danced with your grandmother and your uncle Lenny,” he explains, but a circle dance called the Bug was so provocative that it was outright banned by “many of the more strait-laced synagogues.”

Like all memoirs, the author brings a measure of sentiment to his recollections. But what I admire most about “Trying to Be Cool” is Braudy’s ability to deconstruct the common experiences of adolescence in a way that reveals their inner meanings, as in his candid discourse on the truth or falsity of the proposition that “ugly girls put out.” He concludes that there “was little chance of actual sex in these situations, just an interminable succession of power struggles worked out in miniature.  One example: “In fact, even if the girl weren’t putting up a struggle, you had to pretend she was, as a sop to her self-esteem,” he writes. “Thus, I began to school myself in something like the male version of faking an orgasm.”

Along the way, Braudy recalls some facts of life that are wholly forgotten nowadays. Margarine, he points out, used to be “dead white like lard” because the dairy industry had lobbied for laws to ban the coloring of margarine to make it look like butter. “Between 1951 and 1955, when those laws were overturned, it was sold with a plastic capsule of orange-yellow coloring inside the packaging,” he writes. “Breaking the capsule, then squeezing and kneading the package to create margarine’s now familiar look, was my job.”

He also shatters a few carefully-tended myths.  Dick Clark and the teenagers who danced on his Philly-based show may have been famously clean-cut, but the show “had begun as a much funkier radio show, then called merely Bandstand, out of a dark studio in downtown Philadelphia, emceed by a beefy guy in a sharkskin suit and a 5-o’clock shadow named Bob Horn.”  When the show went national, “the gangstery Bob Horn disappeared via what in those days was called a ‘morals charge.’ But the truth seemed to be that Horn was just too jowly and old to compete with the chipmunky Clark as the bright face of teenage America.”

But Braudy does not shy away from the most intimate of revelations and, almost inevitably, the most affecting memories focus on the author’s father. “Whatever may seem embarrassing in these memoirs — my sexual preoccupations, my naïveté about the world and its ways — to say this saddens me the most: I saw my father’s myths about himself stripped of their plea of victimization, punctured and flattened like an old tire.”

Braudy makes the significant point that he was not a baby boomer.  “We were war babies, born into a world of scrap metal and bacon-fat drives, air-raid drills and fireside chats, the offspring of furloughs or fathers too old or too young to fight,” he explains. “We weren’t the boomer generation born into the new world as its birthright but as a group with more desperate strivings and a keener sense of the world we had lost.”  For this reason, “Trying to Be Cool” is not an exercise in nostalgia; rather, it is a kind of testimony: “My purpose is to bear witness,” he concludes, “to try to recapture the experience of growing up in a particular time and place that might otherwise vanish from memory.”  And he has been wholly successful in that effort.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal. His latest book, “The Short Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat and a Murder in Paris.”