It was spring 1954.
While the Cold War was frozen solid, thanks to a temporary thaw in my parents own chilly clashes, I would be conceived on a sweltering hot night that June.
The year had started with a bang and a boom.
Our arsenal of missiles was becoming as bloated as the ever-expanding bellies of the prodigious legion of pregnant women. Along with the birth of a boatload of baby boomers, a bouncing new U.S. Policy was born, and they would grow up together. The proud Papa, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles named his progeny Massive Retaliation. Under the watchful eye of his rich Uncle Sam the policy would grow up big and strong.
Conceived, as was I, in the warm afterglow of the Hydrogen Bomb, it was also in the dark shadow cast by Godzilla, that radioactive mutated monster of mass destruction. Together they would send a collective shiver down our Cold War spine. What a brave new world awaited me, a world, thanks to science, of unsurpassed comfort, health and security. Lucky for us the words “Under God” would be added to our Pledge of Allegiance providing that extra protection we would need.
A Special Night – Music Martinis and Memories
Spring turned out to be a real scorcher that year.
The night of June 5th was an unusually sultry one and Mom never remembered being so hot.
New York was in the grips of a deadly heat wave; the headlines of the New York Mirror said it all: “Heat Wave Blasts Scorched City.” Despite the oppressive heat my parents were leaving their apartment in Queens to head into the sweltering inferno that was Manhattan. That evening they had dinner reservations at, a swanky supper club called ironically enough The Embers.
My mother Betty knew it was a big night.
Dad was wearing his good Wallach Bannister Wing tips, donned his Silver Masonic tie bar and matching cuff links, and had splashed on Old Spice- “spiced with excitement and speaking of love” – with a generosity reserved for special occasions. Not only that, but earlier Dad had Turtle-waxed the Chevy in the blistering heat ensuring the car had a show off shine for the city.
Putting on Her Face
The noisy oscillating fan in the bedroom only seemed to move the muggy air around the small room offering little relief as Mom prepared for the evening. Putting her face on in the heat was no easy task as beads of perspiration kept a perpetual shine that no amount of face powder would subdue.
After powdering her nose for the umpteenth time, Betty had carefully applied her new lipstick ‘See Red’…the maddening new lipstick color. “Looking for Trouble?” the ad posed provocatively, warning the wearer: “And be careful- don’t start anything you can’t finish…!”
She deftly arranged her new Warner Wonderful Merry Widow Corset- the one that’s taken the nation by storm – the one you wear when you “want to look a little wanton.”
“It’s so simple to be sure of figure success, as it coaxes you into new fashion containment, you’ll barely be able to contain your excitement.”
“And neither will he!”
Imagine, taking two whole inches from your waist! My father Marvin never failed to notice the bewitching curves the cinch corset produces. “You look so naughty, feel so nice!”Mom hummed to herself!
The Nearness Of You
Mom struggled with her zipper until Dad came to the rescue. Morphing into Renzo Cesana, TV’s “The Continental” complete with a sex-laden Charles Boyer-esque voice Marvin murmured: “Don’t be afraid darling, it’s only a mans apartment” followed by some well turned compliments, sly innuendos and intimate laughs, causing Mom to blush. He often fancied himself “the Continental” the suave Italian gigolo from the short-lived television show of the same name, whose job it was to woo the bored housewife.
Her incendiary figure was smartly showcased in five alarm cherry blossom red, ravishing cone-shaped, cotton shantung two piece dress, cool as a breeze, and gay as the fourth of July.
Because smart gals never go outdoors without it, she lavishly spritzed herself with some Helene Curtis Hairspray Net, careful not to spray any on her white stretch cotton gloves – M’lady’s loveliest accessory – frosting for that delectable spring fashion ensemble.
While Mom arranged her hat on her newly lacquered hair, carefully adjusting the feather capulet, Dad went to fix himself a drink for the road. Pouring a drink marked the moment of change over from the everyday world to one just a little bit warmer.
Sipping the Cutty Sark he soberly assessed the evening ahead.
Their marriage could run hot and cold, but it wasn’t like they were at each others throat like the mismatched Hickenloopers on Your Show of Shows. But Dad was sure tonight he would reignite the flame of romance. Casually slipping a little mood music on the phonograph, his selection of Jackie Gleason’s new album, “Music, Martinis and Memories” sounded about right.
Knowing that my 2-year-old brother Andy would be spending the night with Betty’s Mother Sadie in the city, he put a bottle of Taylor Pink Champagne in the Frigidaire for later.
Arriving at the Embers resplendent with its blinding bursts of gilded chairs, crystal chandeliers, and ornate mirrors, my parents were greeted by a welcome blast of arctic air. The hum of the bulky Carrier Air Conditioner competed with the soft melodic music – easy on the ears, courtesy of the muted trumpet sounds of Jonah Jones and his quartet playing softly in the background.
However, the real show was in the main dining room which was ablaze with a dazzling display of pyrotechnics.
Dad knew no first-rate restaurant could even be considered sophisticated unless it flambéed tableside.
A true gourmand would never dream of allowing a lobster Newberg or Crepe Suzette, the sin qua non-of chic deserts, to be served in his dining room except from a chafing dish, always lit in front of guests. Fleets of wagons bearing gleaming flambé equipment, stood in a state of readiness.
The maitre d hotel was like a general and his well orchestrated waiters members of a well-trained rapid response force skilled in handling incendiary devices.
Surveying the room, they noticed anything and everything could be flambéed.
Nothing was safe from this barrage of fire – fruity cocktails set ablaze, meats incinerated, even iceberg lettuce as indestructible as the Titanic was smoldering in a blue haze of fire. A cease-fire was declared only upon closing.
The shining copper pans reflecting the flickering blue flame beneath and the candle light on the table said “savoir faire. Her face aglow, Mom squealed with delight. This was real glamour, she thought, sinking softly in the sumptuous red leather banquettes.
Settling in with a simple but gratifyingly sizeable scotch served in a graceful etched glass, they pursued the large menu card. The room captains carefully maintained accent was as urbane and suave as The Continental himself.
Handsomely turned out in an elegant tuxedo, he approached the table bowing as Dad ordered two Steak Diane’s and a garlic studded he-man Caesar salad for himself. The order attentively taken, the captain and his escort backed off bowing in retreat as if Dad were Caesar himself.
As a white linen covered cart was wheeled tableside, great prowess was displayed as the serious rituals of mixing and measuring, sautéing and sizzling, began. With dramatic gestures, Theodore, the maitre d hotel personally saw to the finishing of the Caesar salad, wielding a two foot pepper mill, presented with much pageantry and flourish.
The high moment of drama was the skillful use of firepower within a restricted space. Using a long match to ignite the accelerant, Theodore tipped the copper sauté pan slightly to set the brandy on fire producing that amazing flambé.
As the burst of flame shot up, it created a whoosh, engulfing the whole table in a searing bluish white flash visible for more than five banquettes, nearly obliterating everyone from view. The proximity of the skyrocketing red-orange fireball leaping capriciously close almost singed poor Betty.
Through the warm haze of his Dewar’s on the rocks, Dad sat transfixed by the flame’s blue haze enveloping the table.
With the room brashly ablaze, it occurred to him that although the French may have originated flambeing, it was pure 100% proof American in its high-octane flamboyance.
It took American know – how and showmanship to take these burnt offerings to such soaring heights of spectacle.
Not unlike the Hydrogen Bomb, he thought. The recently developed Super-Bomb was thousands more powerful than the Atom Bomb dropped on Hiroshima, making it seem as innocent as its Mother Goose sounding nick name of Little Boy. This, Uncle Sam believed was the new kind of power that today’s American wants.
A new kind of power for a new kind of people: the growing, restless people of mid-century America.
My parents supported anything nuclear-especially the nuclear family.
The family’s outlook had never been brighter. It was no accident that there was a rocketing birthrate. That afternoon, while thumbing through the April issue of McCall’s, my mother came across a series of articles celebrating the American family.
“Is this a good time to have another baby you ask? You betchum! The latest news from science, industry and government says yes, it’s a fine time to be born! And to be parents! Parents have centered their lives almost completely around their children and their home.
American families are creating this new warmer way of life not as women alone or men alone, isolated from one another but as a family sharing a common experience.
McCall’s Magazine even cooked up a name for this spirit – togetherness, launching a thousand nuclear families.
It Could happen To You
Nowadays every magazine you flipped through painted the same glowing picture of the American family, emphatic in their belief that the family was the center of your living, and if it isn’t, you’ve gone astray- or you’re a Communist!
As the waiter quietly replaced the full ashtray by cupping it with an empty one, Betty gave voice to her burning desire. Another child preferably a girl, would fill out their family just fine, she mused. After all you couldn’t be a true nuclear family without at least two children.
As all the womens magazines pointed out it was no longer ‘Baby makes three’ for the American family.
“More second and third babies are born each year…Such behavior confounds the pessimists who say that we are living in the shadow of doom, under the constant threat of war and the H Bomb. To these gloomy Gus’s, young parents merely shrug them off coolly and tell them to go back to Russia where they belong…”
Cheered on by America’s manufacturers, an ad filled, bloated McCalls enthused:
“Yes Mr. and Mrs. America have all the babies you want!”
The cherry jubilees that Mom ordered, matched her cherry blossom dress to a tee. Though steeply priced, at $1.50 a portion, the blazing brandy floating over the glistening fruit, was well worth it. Lighting Mom’s after dinner cigarette, with his Ronson Windsor lighter, its lustrous finish of black onyx gleaming in the candlelight, Dad leaned closer to her.
“How’s about creating some atomic fusion of our own,” Dad winked to Mom after draining the last of his scotch on the rocks.
Her scarlet blush was no match for his florid complexion.
Her crimson cheeks glowed as she cheekily replied: “Have you no decency sir. At long last have you no decency?”
Sounding mockingly shocked, she bore not the slightest resemblance in tone to the patrician coolness of Joseph Welch, questioning Joe McCarthy. Dad looked at her for an interminable moment, as warmth more exhilarating than her Jack Rose cocktail stole through her.
Tipping the hat check girl a dime, Dad donned his hat, puffed on his after dinner white owl cigar and slipped Mom’s Best and Company Mink stole over her shoulders as they walked to their car.
With the car radio pre-set to WNEW, the Milkman’s Matinee played softly in the background. Snuggling in the Chevy, Mom kicked off her breezy little strap shoes as she moved over closely so that her shoulder touched the soft material of Dads suit jacket. As she glided over, the back of her thighs stuck rudely to the hot plastic seat, causing her to wonder why she had ever ordered the darn protective seat covers in the first place. Though she had to admit, the patterned plastic with gold fleur-de-lis design added an extra sparkle to the car upholstery.
Dads cigars tip glowed an iridescent red in the dark, as the car descended into the deep of the East River speeding with an abundance of extra power through the Queens Midtown Tunnel as he stepped on the gas, getting the extra thrust he needed.
The Nearness of You
He put his hand momentarily on hers and then returned it carefully to the wheel, but she knew what the gesture meant, that he was there to take care of her, to take her where she was going and to bring her back safely.
She was radiant.
Mom reapplied her “See Red” lipstick reminding herself what the lipstick ads had warned… “don’t start anything you can’t finish!”
Smiling to herself, she knew they would be a nuclear family at last.
© Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.