James Conaway takes readers on a photographic tour of the “forgotten” Fifties.
BY LEONARD GILL
The colorful, poolside image by photographer Frank Bauman seems harmless enough.
Bauman was on assignment for Look, and in April 1959, he’d been sent by the magazine to illustrate the Sunshine State for a story that examined “expanding” Florida. The state was rapidly becoming a “new frontier” for retirees, job seekers, and college kids on spring break, which is what we have in that poolside image: two young, white couples engaging in some diving-board horseplay; in the foreground, white vacationers taking in the sun; in the middle ground, a line of cars blocking the beach view; and, on the horizon, the blue sea and big sky.
The image is reproduced on the cover of The Forgotten Fifties: America’s Decade from the Archives of Look Magazine (Skira Rizzoli) by James Conaway (assisted by photo editor Amy Pastan; introduction by historian Alan Brinkley). But inside the pages of Conaway’s book, Bauman’s photograph faces another one that Bauman took: a black-and-white image that says a lot about Florida’s supposed frontier status. That photograph shows the entrance to a palm-reading shop in Miami — the door to the right labeled “White”; the door to the left labeled “Colored”; and slightly out of focus a pair of black men walking by, the entire image encircled by shadow to suggest that Bauman took the photo on the sly.
So, no. Maybe Florida wasn’t quite as “expanding” as the state would have readers of Look think. That picture of the pool isn’t quite what you think, either. Ask James Conaway.
“I was really struck by the image,” Conaway says in a phone interview. “It’s slightly sadistic. The guy on the high dive has clearly just frightened the girl off the board. The guy below is a frat boy. You can tell. He’s pushing a girl off the low board. Then there are the passive heads beside the pool, doing nothing. That, right there, says a lot about the 1950s.”
Indeed, it does, and so do the additional 200 photographs (many of them never published in the magazine) that Conaway culled from the Look archives in the Library of Congress — all of those photos from the 1950s and all of them with something to say about that difficult decade. Just how difficult for many Americans you may in fact have forgotten or never knew.
Conaway knows. He lives today in Washington, D.C., but he grew up in Memphis. And in addition to magazine articles too numerous to count, three novels (The Big Easy, World’s End, and Nose), and several works of nonfiction (including a best-selling study of the California wine industry, Napa: The Story of an American Eden, and a collection of travel essays, Vanishing America: In Pursuit of Our Elusive Landscapes), in 1993 Conaway penned the best memoir of Memphis in the ’50s: Memphis Afternoons.
For The Forgotten Fifties, Conaway returns, year by year, to that decade, starting with a 1950 shot of American soldiers and Korean civilians walking in separate files on a single road (each file heading in opposite directions) and ending on a double-page spread of Jacqueline Kennedy in 1959, pictured at ease and in style but with a faraway look suggesting the dawn of a new era.
“She doesn’t know what’s on the way,” Conaway says of that look in her eyes. “And neither did Americans, who didn’t have a glimmer of what was coming.”
But Americans who flipped through the pages of Look in the 1950s saw a weekly report on who we’d become: commuting businessmen in gray flannel suits and a suburban housewife relaxing in a kiddie pool; Joseph McCarthy in black and white (hard to imagine him in color even in real life); Eisenhower in a motorcade at re-election time and Nixon in the kitchen with Khrushchev; Captain Kangaroo on the small screen and Montgomery Clift off the big screen (in a photo by a young Stanley Kubrick); Rocky Marciano in the ring and “Whitey” Ford on the field; “frosted food” in the grocery store cooler and the bunny hop in the basement rec room; grade school kids and their well-dressed moms in line for the polio vaccine; the American dream couple at Christmastime (in a photo featuring a collection of ideal gifts, among them: a vacuum cleaner and washing machine).
Signs of racial segregation depended on where you looked: a sports stadium; a dry cleaner. Cars were everywhere: a drive-in restaurant and a drive-in laundry. To keep everybody on their toes, there was Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis Presley. And to keep everybody wondering, there was the laughing Kennedy clan on JFK’s wedding day in a photo from 1953, which inspires Conaway to comment:
“Whatever the joke is, it must be really funny. We’re happy to laugh along, but why do we have this sneaky feeling we’re never going to get it?”
That “we” Conaway uses here he also uses throughout The Forgotten Fifties. It’s an inviting, first-person plural approach to suggest that if Americans in the ’50s weren’t always in on the joke, in a national sense we were at least all in this together — “this” being a good question. To quote the double-edged title of Conaway’s opening chapter set in 1950: “What Were We Thinking?”
According to Conaway, “I didn’t want to do just another book about the ’50s. A lot of those books are cliched. Plus, it wasn’t such a great decade for a lot of Americans. But I wanted a special voice that fit the decade, and I didn’t want the writing to be from my own point of view. I wanted the book to read as if we were inside the head of a kind of collective American consciousness — to emulate, if possible, a reasonably well-educated American of the ’50s. I imagined how my father, my older brother, and older friends of the family would react to thumbing through copies of Look. Once that voice started to roll, I felt at ease. This voice from the past came back.”
Conaway himself recalls flipping through the pages of Look at Fletcher’s, his neighborhood drugstore, when he was a boy. But The Forgotten Fifties is more than an entertaining, thought-provoking extended essay. It’s the product of a journalist’s eye on the watch for arresting images, telling images. It’s an artistic eye too.
Conaway, the grandson of Commercial Appeal editorial cartoonist J.P. Alley and a son who grew up smelling the linseed oil in his artist mother’s work space, has, in addition to his writing, taken up painting as well. It’s trained him to look closely at the components of an image, and it helped him edit through the Look archives. That critical eye serves him well when summing up not only the ’50s but the change in imagery at the close of the book.
“By the end of the decade, people were beginning to see the promise of the early ’50s as not necessarily fulfilled,” Conaway says. “The Korean War had not reached a satisfying conclusion. Joseph McCarthy’s effect on the country — a fear of government — was being felt. The expectations of the civil rights movement — not a lot had happened by the end of the decade. Eisenhower was finished. And people were looking with some misgivings at Nixon.”
No mistaking the project James Conaway says he’s been working on for some time now. It’s a novel. The period is the 1950s. The story is only indirectly autobiographical. But the setting, again, is Memphis, Tennessee.
James Conaway wants readers of Memphis magazine to know that Memphis Afternoons, his first two novels (which includes a rewritten version of World’s End), and his journey through the American West, Kingdom in the Country, have all been reissued in paperback, and they’re available on Kindle.
This article appears in the November 2014 issue of Memphis Magazine
This article appears in the November 2014 issue of Memphis Magazine