Front Stoops in the Fifties - Baltimore Post-ExaminerBaltimore Post-Examiner

Front Stoops in the Fifties

Baltimore Post-Examiner is pleased to showcase an excerpt from Michael Olesker’s Front Stoops in the Fifites.  Legendary Baltimore columnist Olesker recounts the stories of some of city’s most famous personalities such as Jerry Leiber, Nancy Pelosi, Thurgood Marshall, and Barry Levinson in this can’t put down account. Olesker marks the end of the fifties with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Please purchase the book at Amazon.

The Day the Fifties Ended

On November 22, 1963, the day the 1950s has a heart attack and dies, the fire at Saint Jerome’s Parochial School is big news for about a minute and a half, and that’s it. The sixties now arrives. Nobody knows the fifties are ending this day, since everyone assumes they vanished a few years ago, on their official date of expiration. As it turns out, decades never really begin or end on schedule.

This one dies with the gunshots in Dallas, Texas.

olesker_front_stoops (1)It dies with strangers huddled around transistor radios on street corners all over America, straining to hear each new bulletin updating the killing of John F. Kennedy, and dies with children listening to intercoms while school principals announce the worst news of their lives and then dispatch the kids home, where mothers are found weeping over kitchen sinks.

It dies with everyday disasters, such as this fire at Saint Jerome’s, instantly erased from memory.

The school is located on Baltimore’s West Hamburg Street, in a scruffy row-house area known as Pigtown. This is the usual working-class neighborhood of the era: bars on every block, the last of the coal men and the ice men still making home deliveries, and the local numbers runners slinking around in case the vice squad feels like getting serious today. Kids playing hooky scrounge around for discarded RC Cola bottles to make a killing at two cents a deposit. The hell with junior high, their education is poverty.

A young third-grade teacher named Mary Miller, hurrying to her lunch break just past noon, spots the fire and screams to the heavens for help. The blaze quickly goes to four alarms. The Rev. John A. Mountain, pastor, watches helplessly from a playground hopscotch area with hundreds of children gathered around him, and nuns clutch rosary beads, and nearby housewives with their hair still up in curlers arrive just in time to mutter platitudes to each other about the good lord moving in mysterious ways.

This, while the fire demolishes an auditorium completed one week earlier to celebrate the Catholic school’s seventy-fifth birthday.

When Frank Luber arrives, the flames are threatening the church and rectory next door. Luber’s a newsman for WCAO, an AM radio station that’ll dispatch a reporter to cover the usual municipal catastrophe du jour but mainly plays rock-and-roll phonograph records, as any Baltimore adolescent can tell you. On this sunny November midday, the airwaves carry the Chiffons’ “One Fine Day,” and Dion’s “Donna the Prima Donna,” and Elvis Presley embarrassing himself with “Bossa Nova, Baby.” Within a couple of weeks this music will drift away, and all such performers will be declared outdated cultural artifacts, pushed aside by some brand new musical group from Great Britain calling themselves the Beatles.

But, in a matter of minutes, the air will be empty of all song.

At Saint Jerome’s, much of Pigtown ceases normal activity and comes to gawk at the fire: grocery store delivery guys and municipal street sweepers and midday saloon regulars who came off the night shift at Bethlehem Steel and stopped in for a quick beer and a glance at the latest Baltimore Colts coverage in the morning paper and haven’t quite navigated their way home yet.

Luber makes his way past them all to a huge pageantry of firefighting equipment. Looks like a pretty good story. Then he hears firemen utter a word: arson. Good, this makes the story even better. It’s the school’s second fire in as many days, and it means Luber’s got a lead story at the top of the hour, which will scoop the city’s two afternoon papers, the Evening Sun and the News-Post, and beat the hell out of tomorrow morning’s Sun.

These newspaper guys don’t even know it, but their day of dominating all news is passing in front of their eyes. The game starts to end right here. Scores of reporters and editors in every big newspaper city room in the country, and all will stand there helplessly chained to the past as the first sketchy reports arrive from Dallas. Radio stations are starting to deliver the earliest blurbs to everyone, followed quickly by television. For newspapers, the story will have to be taken from wire- service machines to editors to hunched-over linotype operators sitting in ancient composing rooms, while front pages already locked in will have to be laid out again and reprinted and then loaded frantically by the tens of thousands onto trucks finally huffing and puffing their way across metropolitan landscapes that have never been so crowded.

By the time the papers arrive, the news will already be everywhere and updated faster than any trucks can deliver it. For newspapers, it’s the opening moment of long decades of coughing and wheezing their way out of existence. The changeover begins now, on this Friday afternoon, first with all radio stations replacing their music with news bulletins and then with television, which will break into the network soap opera Search for Tomorrow, and the quiz program Truth or Consequences, and the Mike Douglas talk show to announce the earliest assassination reports.

Now Luber spots a familiar face, a Southwestern District city cop named Jimmy McIntyre from Old Frederick Road, where they both grew up.

“You hear about the president?” McIntyre says.

The words barely penetrate Luber’s brain. He’s watching the new auditorium burn down and trying to pick up street sounds to play on the radio. McIntyre’s voice arrives through the din of fire hoses.

“He’s been shot.”

“President Kennedy?” Luber says. “Yeah. In Dallas, Texas.”

“Good lord. Is he OK?”

“Don’t know.”

Luber heads straight for his car, where he’s got a primitive two-way hookup to call the station. He is twenty-five years old, and he’s news director at WCAO. It’s an impressive title without much real-life muscle. The station’s got huge numbers of listeners, but its entire news operation is three or four people. They rip off wire copy and read it over the air for a few ticks of the clock each hour, like practically every station across the country. And that’s about it for news. We’re not dealing any more with Edward R. Murrow hanging tough on a wartime rooftop in London during the blitz; this is the final hour of the 1950s, when the country prides itself on staying calm and orderly. If a major local story breaks, such as a school fire in a crowded row-house neighborhood, Luber might escape the studio for half an hour and practice something resembling actual reporting. Otherwise, forget it, it’s reciting wire copy or rewriting something from one of the local papers.

But now, as he calls the station, the burning Saint Jerome’s and the firefighters scrambling madly about and the Rev. John A. Mountain and the nuns with their rosary beads staring at some vision of hell itself are all part of an instantly forgotten background blur.

“What’s this about the president?”

“Doesn’t look good,” a voice back at the station says. “United Press says he’s been shot.”

“Oh, my God. How bad?”

“Don’t know. You better come in right away.”

The station’s located at 1102 North Charles Street. Figuring the usual Friday afternoon traffic tie-ups, maybe it’s a fifteen-minute ride from Saint Jerome’s in southwest Baltimore to the heart of downtown. Luber navigates it in half that time, heads straight for the UPI wire- service machine, and finds everybody crowded around it: ad salesmen and secretaries and studio techs, people who have never in their lives bothered to glance at a news ticker. Nobody’s thought about turning on a television—why would they? It’s only 1963. There’s no news on daytime television yet, just these game shows and soap operas aimed at housewives who haven’t yet discovered there’s life beyond Benjamin Spock and Betty Crocker.

Luber thinks the UPI machine’s lost its mind. The noise alone is intimidating. Bells are going off, and typewriter keys beat out a frantic clackety-clack. He sees the word FLASH typed repeatedly across the top of the page like a movie scene. This is a guy who spends all his work-days checking the wire services every few minutes, hour after hour, and time goes by, and he’s never seen the word on a real-life teletype machine until this moment. But now it’s everywhere—FLASH! FLASH! FLASH!—and it’s interspersed with terse updates out of Dallas.

No more Chiffons across WCAO’s airwaves today, and no more Dion. Elvis will have to leave the building until further notice.

Luber heads for the studio and sits before a microphone with the latest bulletin in his shaky hands. What’s he doing in this place at such a moment? This is a guy who left school a few years ago for a radio job at a small-time Annapolis station and then went to Decca Records to help promote Brenda Lee and Jackie Wilson. As if they needed his help. Twenty minutes ago, he was happy to beat the daily newspapers on an arson story out of some poor forgotten Pigtown parish. Now he’s joining all those radio voices announcing the end of the world as we know it to millions of listeners.

Calm down, calm down. He’s done this so many times, what’s the big deal? In the last couple of years he’s broadcast mayoral elections and domestic bludgeons and airplane crashes killing seventy-five. He’s got a little seasoning on him. But all previous experience now belongs to some other world, made up entirely of small-town tales from Mayberry. That fire back at Saint Jerome’s? It’s in God’s hands. The story’s already lost to time and memory. This is history now, and Luber, leaning in to his microphone, joins its radio chorus of sorrowful, disbelieving voices.

“President John F. Kennedy . . . ” he declares.

This is happening at stations all across America. In 1963 most of them play their phonograph records around the clock—maybe not rock and roll, maybe Sinatra doing “Love and Marriage” for the middle-aged hipsters—while an era drifts lazily past. Radio gives you a few paragraphs of perfunctory headlines each hour just to cover their asses with the FCC’s public-service hall monitors, and then it’s right back to the Four Lads records and Hampden Rug Cleaners commercials and more sounds of a nation in the midst of its sweet complacent mid- century ride.

It’s beautiful back there in that America. The fifties is Marilyn Monroe standing over a breezy subway grate with her cotton candy dress billowing all around her. She’s our national sex goddess. (But, this being the fifties, the sex is still hidden somewhere under gauzy layers, just out of reach.) The fifties is Willie Mays racing across center field to make a catch that resembles an optical illusion. (Just don’t let the Say-Hey Kid try to move into your neighborhood.) The fifties is hula hoops and Davy Crockett coonskin caps and the neighborhood Good Humor ice cream truck with its bells tinkling so loudly that we don’t quite notice the sound of boys just out of high school trudging off to wintry Korea.

In the fifties the old soldier Dwight Eisenhower oversees eight years of economic triumph and cultural sleepiness and then turns over the country to the young Kennedy, our first real video president. Ike holds press conferences, and the death of language follows. Kennedy faces a TV camera, and a nation falls in love. He’s handsome and witty and knows how to turn a phrase. He makes us want to be better than we are. He inspires young people to rescue distant primitive people, one Peace Corps mission at a time. He makes it cool to be idealistic. He gets us through the Cuban missile crisis in one piece. He stands at the Berlin Wall, cheered by millions, and it’s as if World War II never happened. When he tells Americans, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country,” he makes our flesh tingle.

It’s as if Kennedy’s the role model for our longings: Maybe we could be just like him, if only we had a billionaire daddy, a Harvard education, and a Prince Valiant head of hair. He has the beautiful wife, Jackie. Nobody’s heard yet about the various girlfriends. He has the two beautiful children. Nobody’s even imagined him bedding a Mafia dame. He is the golden warrior who declares that America will “bear any burden, pay any price” to ensure freedom across the globe. Nobody yet imagines the full catastrophe of Vietnam. A moment ago we were all galloping across our New Frontier together, with our ideals clutched high against our chests. This isn’t the way the story’s supposed to end.

But now come words over all radio stations that sound like taps being played for an era.

On Dallas’s KBOX radio, a reporter named Ron Jenkins, standing alongside the presidential motorcade, can be heard shouting frantically something that sounds like, “Put me on, Sal, put me on. Am I on?” Behind him, a wail of sirens like a mourner’s anguish.

“It appears something has happened in the presidential motorcade route,” Jenkins shouts into a telephone line. “I repeat, something has happened in the motorcade route.” He describes people racing up a nearby street or falling face down onto the sidewalk. “I can see many, many police motorcycles,” he says. “We understand there has been a shooting. Something is wrong here. Something is terribly wrong.”

At stations around the country, network announcers break into regular programming with the earliest wire-service bulletins. You can hear each update in insurance offices and suburban kitchens and cars bumping along lonely back roads. We have commenced our first nationally broadcast shooting and dying, and it’s about to kill something in each of us.

NBC’s Robert MacNeil, scrambling from a motorcade press bus to a telephone, reports, “Several shots were fired as President Kennedy’s motorcade passed through downtown Dallas. A crowd screamed as the motorcade went by. Police broke away and began chasing an unknown gunman across some railroad tracks. It is not known if the shots were aimed at the president. Repeat, it is not known if the shots were aimed at the president.”

At WCAO, somebody hands Frank Luber another wire-service re- port: “The president was seriously wounded.” The words go straight from the page to Luber’s mouth. He can’t believe what he’s announcing. “This is not confirmed. It is a flash from Dallas that the president was seriously wounded by an assassin’s bullets.”

His words go everywhere. At Baltimore’s federal courthouse, on Calvert Street, a clerk named Jackie Moloney listens to her radio and turns up the sound. It feels like some kind of bizarre bad-taste radio drama, like that old Orson Welles “War of the Worlds” broadcast back in the thirties that scared half the country. Have they started running those dramas again?

In a courtroom next to Moloney’s office, 102 immigrants from a dozen different countries have gathered before Judge R. Dorsey Watkins for ceremonies to make them American citizens. Some carry small U.S. flags into the room, like children at a parade, and wave them in the air. This is the first day of their brand new American lives.

Nobody’s heard a word about Kennedy and Dallas.

In her little clerk’s office, a small crowd of courthouse workers and a Baltimore Sun reporter, Ted Hendricks, gather around Moloney’s desk, and somebody brings in a second radio. It’s as if the story’s too unbelievable and they need a second source, they need to know if everybody’s reporting the same impossibility.

They hear an NBC network announcer say, “We have just talked with two eyewitnesses, a man and his wife who were standing near the presidential motorcade. They said that a shot rang out behind them. One woman, who was in a hysterical condition, told us the president was hit in the side of the head and fell into his wife Jacqueline’s arms.”

“Oh, my God.”

“Oh, good lord.”

Everybody in the little clerk’s office sucking in their breath as Robert MacNeil urgently updates his earlier report.

“People screamed and lay down on the grass as the motorcade went by,” he says. “Police immediately fanned out over a wide area. A small Negro boy and a white man said they had seen a man with a gun in a window in a building overlooking the road.”

On Grand Street in lower Manhattan, Kenny Waissman hears the news from a toothless elevator operator as he’s leaving work. Later, Waissman will produce a Broadway musical called Grease, celebrating the innocent 1950s whose curtain is now descending across the landscape. Waissman’s a Baltimore native, a graduate student at New York University working part-time at a place where they produce those runty little pencils for keeping score at bowling alleys. As he’s leaving work, the elevator operator tells him, “They shot the president.”

Waissman, dazed, starts walking uptown. It’s a sunny day, and people have their car windows open and ten or fifteen people will gather around to listen to the radio together. Complete strangers, but right now it doesn’t matter. As he walks toward Washington Square Park, Waissman can hear the assassination story playing itself out, one radio at a time.

He hears: “The president’s head lay in his wife’s lap.” He hears: “Governor Connolly of Texas also wounded.”

And then: “Kennedy taken to Parkland Memorial Hospital.”

He notices people all around him. It’s the usual Greenwich Village Friday afternoon sidewalk crush, the boys in their desert boots and lumberjack shirts, the girls with the skirts starting to climb shamelessly above the knees like Jackie Kennedy’s, and all the young folk-singer wannabes with guitars who are starting to crowd out the old Village beatnik poetry types with their sandals and their goatees. But there’s no street sound at all, just the damned news coming out of everybody’s radios.

And there’s something rattling about the very pace of things, something so unsettling you can’t see straight: everybody wants more information, and they want it faster. Nobody’s felt this way since Roosevelt’s death or the end of the war eighteen years ago. People want the whole goddamn story right away. They’re accustomed to the day’s big news arriving on the front pages of newspapers, after it’s had time to sort itself out a little and catch its breath. But those editions are hours away, and everybody wants to know now if it’s true that their whole world has come undone.

Then it dawns on people: maybe television’s carrying the story. Nobody takes TV news very seriously yet—how could they? Hell, it was only two months ago that they doubled the nightly network broadcasts—Huntley and Brinkley on NBC and Cronkite over at CBS—from fifteen minutes to half an hour. When the guys over at ABC heard this, they laughed out loud and said, “It’ll never last. How are they gonna find enough news to fill thirty minutes every night?” And who could argue with them? It was only the end of the fifties, when the country could go months and nothing seemed to happen.

But now comes an endless weekend in which a nation will watch real-life drama on television, in real time, hour after hypnotic hour, and never for a heartbeat turn away. Heading uptown, Waissman listens to the latest bulletins and thinks, “This is the run in the stocking.” That’s how he phrases it. “Everything,” he thinks, “begins to unravel now. It’s the end of something, right in front of our faces.”

In Pennsylvania, the writer Ken Kesey and his pal George Walker flip on their car radio. Kesey’s great novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, has just been turned into a Broadway play, so he’s in a celebratory mood. But, as they pull into a highway Howard Johnson’s, he and Walker hear the radio bulletins about Kennedy. Inside the restaurant, word has already spread. As Kesey looks at the mourners around him, he thinks, “It’s America with its shirt torn open in grief.”

At the Lord Baltimore Hotel 250 members of the Maryland State Conference of Social Welfare listen to a speech entitled “Equal Opportunity”—it’s about black people finally getting a fair shot—when M. Shakman Katz, presiding over the meeting, takes the microphone and says, “Someone has handed me a bulletin.”

Sudden silence. Then Katz, his voice soft and breaking, says, “The president has been shot in Dallas.” That’s all he knows. He asks for prayers. People are already standing with their heads bowed. A moment later Katz asks, “Is there a doctor in the house?”

One woman has fainted and another, State Senator Verda Welcome, the only African American in Maryland’s Senate, has broken down in uncontrollable sobs, her head buried in a handkerchief.

At the federal courthouse half a dozen people cluster around the two radios on Jackie Moloney’s desk. Chief Judge Roszel Thompsen’s there, and Judge Edward Northrop, and a clerk named Wilfred Butschky. Luber’s bringing them the bad news on WCAO. The veteran Galen Fromme’s the news voice over at WBAL, and both can be heard reading the latest wire service stuff aloud.

And then comes Edwin Newman of NBC. His voice sounds exhausted, almost disembodied. It’s the beating of a national death knell. “Here is a flash from Dallas,” he says slowly. “Two priests who were with President Kennedy say he is dead of bullet wounds suffered in the assassination attempt today. I will repeat, with the greatest regret, this flash from Dallas: two priests who were with President Kennedy say he has died of bullet wounds.”

At the federal courthouse, Moloney screams, “Oh, no, no.” She stumbles to a back room where her cries can be heard in Judge Watkins’s court. Three more women join her, all sobbing convulsively. Judge Watkins, meanwhile, knows nothing. He’s seated at the bench with a sweet, unsuspecting smile on his face. This is one of his good days, when he can offer all these brand-new citizens the official big-hearted American embrace.

But now a deputy U.S. marshal, Fred Smith, standing near the courtroom door, hears the cries from Moloney’s office and the newest bulletin on the radio, and he slips into Watkins’s court. The roll of brand-new Americans is being called. Smith sees the little flags in their hands, the shy, expectant smiles on their faces. All are clothed in their innocence. Now Smith whispers the bad news to a deputy sheriff, William Harris, and Judge Watkins signals Harris to approach the bench. Then everybody in the courtroom watches Watkins slump disconsolately in his seat.

“I can’t go on,” he says. “President Kennedy . . . ” barely getting the words out “ . . . has just died.”

All these joyful, smiling, brand-new Americans—here is their national welcome, exploding in their faces.

“We will all rise for one minute of silence,” Watkins says.

As they stand there tearfully, disbelievingly, some are still holding up their American flags. A few show each other the official letters of welcome they just received in the mail. The letters are signed by John F. Kennedy. It’s as if they’re asking: How could he be dead when his name’s right here?

“I don’t understand,” one man says in an eastern European accent. “You mean he was shot?”

At the Howard Johnson’s in Pennsylvania, George Walker tells Ken Kesey, “The son of a bitch has killed him.” Not some son of a bitch; the son of a bitch.

“We thought we didn’t have him,” Kesey says. “The Europeans have him, the Muslims have him, but the United States? No, we’re above that.” Later, he’ll recall, “This was the real loss: the opinion of ourselves as an innocent, wonderful, above-board nation. It was a loss of our feeling of invulnerability—that you could walk across the nation and be all right, nobody is going to hurt you.”

At WCAO radio, Frank Luber finally exits the little news studio and hears the latest programming plan. Management has issued orders: no more rock and roll until further notice. In a time of national grief, there’s no place for the likes of Elvis and “Bossa Nova, Baby.” Play something classical, something funereal, something that’s been filed away back in the dusty record library for the last twenty years. Rock and roll will pay its respects with silence.

In New York, Kenny Waissman’s made his way to Columbus Circle on the upper west side. By the time he gets there evening has fallen and the worst of the news is everywhere. Waissman sees people walking the streets silently. Many hold lighted candles in their hands.

Better, they should curse the coming darkness.

So there we are when the curtain descends on the 1950s, 175 million of us gathered at graveside, one television set at a time.

We stare at these TV images in living rooms and club basements and neighborhood corner bars where people search for some kind of confirmation that this madness has really happened. Maybe if we watch long enough some authority figure like Walter Cronkite will appear on-screen to tell us there’s been a huge mistake, that Kennedy’s all right, he was only winged like Marshall Dillon in a TV shoot-’em-up, and he’ll be better after a commercial break. Maybe they’ll tell us he’s gone with Jackie and the kids to Hyannis Port for healing but he’ll be back at the White House in a couple of weeks. Anything, anything but this. We’ve been made vulnerable in a way we’ve never known: by the gunman Lee Harvey Oswald, by history, by TV itself. Murder has entered our homes, and it will linger. It’s on every television set where there used to be innocent ball games and kids on late afternoon dance programs doing the cha-cha to Sam Cooke records and I Love Lucy re- runs where all comic problems are solved inside thirty minutes. On television in 1963, until this moment, everything had its appointed time and place on three comforting mainstream networks, and all was geared to entertaining us and seducing us to buy merchandise that will make our lives ever more bountiful.

But now, at the tail end of a November weekend, comes this stunning panorama: the grieving Kennedys marching through the sunlit, haunted streets of Washington, D.C., and a little boy in short pants saluting his father’s casket; a bugler playing taps at hallowed Arlington National Cemetery with its ghostly thousands; and a crummy Dallas police basement where the owner of a strip-tease joint emerges from the shadows to kill the reviled assassin Oswald.

So ends the slow, self-satisfied fifties, buried alongside John F. Kennedy. And now begins the country’s long nervous breakdown, the years of pushing the limits of our maddest derangements. It’s as if millions will suddenly decide to act out their anxieties and their rage, as if Kennedy’s murder exposed some hypocrisy at the heart of the American dream, some bill of goods we’d all been sold, and TV has come of age just in time to grab everybody’s attention whenever some malcontent with an issue feels like venting.

Somebody kills a president, it takes the limits off things. If a rodent like Oswald can change the world, then anything is possible. In the sixties we become a country choosing up sides against ourselves, fangs bared, doped up, on the make, out of breath, everyday life getting freakier all the time.

“A naked tribal wig-out,” the critic James Wolcott will call the sixties, “that sucked us into a kaleidoscope and spat us out.”

The army starts snatching kids off street corners—by the thousands, every day—for a war that’s never officially declared in a place nobody can find on a map against a people in pajamas who have never in their lives threatened America. We blunder into Vietnam with our bombs and our missiles, and they crouch by their rice paddies and crawl through their tunnels. They will wait us out. The war goes on forever, killing fifty thousand of a generation of American kids who had no place to hide from the draft and no letter from a sympathetic doctor faking an infirmity for the skeptics down at Fort Holabird.

In the sixties, that’s us on the six o’clock news, marching on Capitol Hill with reefer wafting through the air, feeling self-righteous and brave on the streets of Washington, where nobody’s dropping napalm. And that’s us in the sixties, too, Americans so enraged by the killing of Martin Luther King Jr. that we put the torch to scores of American cities.

Who says you can’t fight city hall? You sure can, if you stage your fight with enough imagination. Take over a government building, that’ll grab their attention. Burn down a neighborhood, that’ll bring the TV cameras. Go build some more bombs, go kill some innocents in Asia, one more war to stop all future wars, right? All of this is the sixties.

They’ll last from November 22, 1963, until—when? Decades don’t go strictly by the calendar, they’re made up of war and peace, money and politics, and whatever mood’s in the air. Maybe the sixties ends when the last souls make it safely out of Vietnam, clinging desperately to the bottom of a helicopter. Maybe when they call off the military draft and all these earnest young people suddenly stop hollering about injustice and decide their future’s in Wall Street profiteering. Maybe when Richard Nixon gets caught trying to slip one past Justice while she’s got her blindfold on. After that, you could hear the world quiet down for a little while, as if we’d all simultaneously discovered how exhausted we were.

But what about the fifties? Decades later, many remember that time with affection and longing. We want our innocence back—as though it’s something we inadvertently misplaced with our car keys. The fifties were innocent compared with so much that came later, but that naiveté sometimes seems willful, an enforced innocence. White people were innocent of the appalling limits imposed on black people. Men imposed restrictions on women to maintain a perception of female innocence and servility. Human sexuality was censored and confined. Sometimes it felt as if we were suffocating ourselves—until we finally began tearing our way out of our self-imposed straitjackets.

In retrospect it seems so much safer back there, before the general craziness started. But sometimes the fifties seemed so slow, too, and sometimes so boring that the decade took thirteen years—the dawn of 1950 to November of ’63—to complete.

Or maybe not. You can’t go strictly by the calendar. The giddy 1920s probably started in 1918, when World War I ended and set off a decade of boom markets and nighttime razzmatazz, and ended with the Wall Street crash of 1929 and the onset of the Great Depression. The dreary 1930s stuck around until December of ’41 and Pearl Harbor. The forties was World War II.

Is that when the fifties started, August of ’45, when the boys started coming home from the war? Or was it January of ’53, when Eisenhower took the presidential oath? It’s a little tough to say—and not nearly as easy as pinpointing the end.

Or maybe the fifties doesn’t open with something big and powerful, like troop movements or a presidential inauguration. Maybe it crawls out of the 1940s in a thousand different places where the culture shifts glacially and nobody realizes until later. A little girl named Nancy D’Alesandro watches her mother organize an army of women for her husband Tommy, the mayor of Baltimore, and sees there’s a place in the political world even if you’re female. She’ll become America’s first woman Speaker of the House. A black youngster named Thurgood Marshall goes through Baltimore’s segregated public school system and never knows a white classmate. He grows up and convinces the U.S. Supreme Court to let children of all colors sit in the same class- rooms. And then there’s this West Baltimore kid named Jerome Leiber, who will help change the way America listens to music and finally encourage boys and girls to dance a jitterbug, and share a laugh, across the color line.

So much that erupted in the sixties was there in the fifties, simmering just below the surface, as if biding its time. And so much began in Baltimore.

Like this kid Leiber, as we’re just beginning to put the war behind us.

He’s a white boy who slips into black neighborhoods and hears rhythm and blues. It sounds like some glorious secret being revealed. He goes to the movies and sees the adventures of Sam Spade and Charlie Chan and Boston Blackie. These stick in his brain and become the stuff of lyric. He listens to the language of noisy street corners and school locker rooms and cafeterias, which have never been translated into American music.

Leiber will put it all there, including the laughter.

 

 


About the author

Michael Olesker

Michael Olesker, columnist for the News American, Baltimore Sun, and Baltimore Examiner has spent a quarter of a century writing about the city he loves.He is the author of five previous books, including Michael Olesker's Baltimore: If You Live Here, You're Home, Journeys to the Heart of Baltimore, and The Colts' Baltimore: A City and Its Love Affair in the 1950s, all published by Johns Hopkins. Contact the author.
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