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When We Were Young

BACK THEN: Two Lives in 1950s New York, By Anne Bernays, and Justin Kaplan, William Morrow: 310 pp., $25.95

July 21, 2002|DAN WAKEFIELD | Dan Wakefield is the author of the memoir "New York in the 50s," which was the basis of a documentary film of the same name.

At the 35th reunion of the Columbia College class of 1955, Rabbi Harold Kushner told his classmates that there were shelves and shelves of books on the '60s in any library, but only a few, if any, volumes about our own decade, the '50s. We were dismissed as "The Silent Generation," part of the boring "Eisenhower Age," descriptions that the late Meg Greenfield once called "a sort of a libel" on a decade she believed was "badly researched and badly reported."

Since Kushner made his observation 12 years ago, there has been at least a trickle (if hardly a flood) of books that chronicle that era as it played out in New York City. Earlier this year the musician David Amram published "Offbeat: Collaborating With Kerouac," an insider's corrective account of the Beat scene, and now Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Justin Kaplan and his wife, novelist Anne Bernays, have written a lively double memoir of the time.

Though the young, single Bernays made forays to Greenwich Village to meet her lover, the book reviewer Anatole Broyard, ("an erotic villain"), she and Kaplan were hardly part of the cold-water flat and Thunderbird wine scene of the Beats. They were "both children of privilege," Anne being driven to private school by "the Bernayses' uniformed chauffeur," while Justin was sent to a "private progressive school equipped with a swimming pool, gymnasium, woodworking shop, and rooftop playground," before entering Harvard.

Daughter of the colorful public relations czar Edward L. Bernays, Anne ("Growing Up Rich") met such megastars as Gloria Swanson and Salvador Dali and went to a Thanksgiving dinner cooked by Marlene Dietrich; later she dated a Brit whose aunt was a niece of Queen Victoria and a writer who had served as Trotsky's bodyguard. Through a Harvard pal, Justin partied with W. Somerset Maugham and Dame Edith Sitwell.

Despite their star-studded social and working lives, these native New Yorkers were as dazzled by Manhattan as my fellow hayseeds and I who got off the train from Indiana to behold the cathedral of Grand Central Station. "During the 1950s," Bernays and Kaplan write, "we saw the city as if finding something unmatchable anywhere in the world." For Kaplan it was "the Promised Land where, for someone my age, almost anything wondrous and unexpected could happen."

The authors don't attempt a portrait of the period beyond their personal experience, told in alternating chapters, yet some of its big themes come alive through their own stories. Like so many young people in New York then, both were in psychoanalysis. Kaplan observes: "For better or worse, Sigmund Freud was the Pied Piper of my generation .... We fell into line behind him, like the children of Hamelin." Bernays, a great-niece of Freud, was "an instant postulant" to analysis: "Why not? Everyone else was doing it."

Both authors were part of the vital literary life of the day, Bernays working on the groundbreaking mass-market literary journal, discovery, Kaplan as an assistant to publisher Max Schuster and then as an editor at Simon & Schuster.

He found "ferment and excitement" in working with such writers as sociologist C. Wright Mills, "an intellectual hero of the time," but took less pleasure negotiating contracts with the likes of Bertrand Russell and the "legendary financier, presidential advisor, and park-bench blowhard Bernard Baruch." It was a time when "[w]riters like Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow and Allen Ginsberg challenged the traditional WASP hegemony in American letters," creating "their own mainstream along with a literary language." Young New Yorkers were also still in thrall to the legends, as well as the language, of literary heroes like Hemingway and Fitzgerald, the exiles of the '20s. The sacred pilgrimage of the generation was the trip to Europe by ocean liner ("the speediest crossed the Atlantic in four and a half days") and going there was "like dying into a new life."

Literary aspirants also inherited the hangovers glamorized by Hemingway and his crowd, believing booze was a required element of creativity rather than the curse that killed so many so young, like Fitzgerald at 44 and Dylan Thomas at 39. "Strong drink, the obligatory lubricant of publishing lunches, sales conferences, and trade events, was an occupational hazard for editors and agents," writes ex-editor Kaplan. One young editor came back from lunch so drunk his boss "sent him out to be sobered up by means of a fire hose."

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