Loving The "Unlovable" Men Of The 1950s

"Why do we love those unlovable men of the 1950s and early '60s?" asks Jonathan Zimmerman in the Christian Science Monitor. He explains how finding love letters written by his father 50 years ago convinced him today's man is not that different from the 1950s man.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Fans of the AMC series "Mad Men" finally feel some relief. The series returned for its third season last week, so they are once again immersed in the world of Don Draper, a master of Madison Avenue. Men want to be him; women want to be with him, while his wife and children just struggle to get a bit of attention and connection. He is the distant dad that, in the media anyway, has typified white, middle-class fathers of the late '50s and early '60s. Is that image accurate or fair?

If you were a '50s dad, if you grew up with one, was he Don Draper? Our phone number: 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site at npr.org; click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Jon Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. Earlier this year, he wrote an article that appeared in the Christian Science Monitor titled "Touchy-Feely 'Mad Men'? My Mom's Love Letters Show a Softer '50s Male." And he joins us from member station WHYY in Philadelphia.

Thanks very much for coming in today.

Professor JONATHAN ZIMMERMAN (Professor, New York University): Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And it's not just Don Draper but recently, the dad in the movie "Revolutionary Road." You call them the unlovable men of the '50s and early '60s.

Prof. ZIMMERMAN: Yeah. They do reflect a stereotype, as you described. And one of the things I've tried to point out in my work is that the stereotype is accurate in so far as it describes a certain model, and most of all, a set of constraints that were clearly present on '50s men - emotional constraints about what they could and couldn't express.

The point I've tried to make, from studying my mom's love letters - which was weird enough as it is…

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: I'm sure.

Prof. ZIMMERMAN: …is that - yeah - is that human beings are complicated and they don't always follow the script. I think "Mad Men" is brilliant because it gets the script down really well. But people aren't billiard balls or rocks or fish. You know, they're people. And so, even when they're within a kind of force field of emotional instruction, it doesn't follow that they're going to follow the instructions, and I found - in looking at these love letters - that many men did not.

CONAN: For example, Murray Schechter, or a man you call Murray Schechter.

Prof. ZIMMERMAN: Yes. Murray Schechter was deeply in love with my mom; so were many other people. In fact, there were letters in this box from 11 different suitors, including my father. What was fascinating about Murray is that in the same sentences, he would both acknowledge the constraints that I'm talking about and also transcend them - violate them. And if I could just read you one very small example?

CONAN: Sure.

Prof. ZIMMERMAN: He says in a letter to my mom - this is, you know, 1954.

(Reading) You know, I've never written a passionate letter, but I'm tempted to do so. I really just want to let myself go and write what I feel. That's the hardest thing to do in life.

And then he writes on. He says:

(Reading) Would you like to hear how much I love you? I sometimes think the word love is inadequate to express all the tender and stirring emotions I feel. It's the little things. The sound of your voice, the way you walk, your eyes. I can't stand being alone. Come to me, I want you. Love, Murray.

What I think is so interesting about a letter like this is, again, it both confirms and overturns what we think. It confirms our, kind of stereotypical view in so far as Murray himself acknowledges the constraint. He says, you know, I've never written a passionate letter. It's so hard to do, to let myself go to write what I feel. So, in some ways, he's reinforcing that image. But he goes on to challenge it in the same letter.

CONAN: That second part. Yeah, that second part, you'd think he'd go and knock back six martinis before he would write that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. ZIMMERMAN: Exactly. And he clearly was not a drinker.

CONAN: Now, some of these letters - I have to ask. Is your mom still alive?

Prof. ZIMMERMAN: Oh, she's absolutely alive, very much so.

CONAN: And she let you read these letters?

Prof. ZIMMERMAN: She did. She did. You know, my mom - I don't know if mom is listening - but I think it's fair to say that she's an open book. And I think that she is a completely unaffected person. What you see is what you get. And her allowing me - indeed encouraging me - to read this box of letters, I think was consistent with that.

CONAN: There's another correspondent you quote by the name of Paul Zimmerman. And he writes - well, he sort of masks his willingness to express himself with humor.

(Reading) Look, baby, this is hard for me to do. We've been going together for a while and I guess I can talk to you. But this is hard. Yeah, honey, hard. Sure it's going to be dangerous and chances of me ever coming back to you are about a million to one.

But hold back what you feel.

Prof. ZIMMERMAN: Yeah. You read that better than I would.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. ZIMMERMAN: That's why you're in radio. Yeah. I mean, to me, the fascinating part of dad's satire is - and it is a satire (unintelligible) of course…

CONAN: And he is your dad.

Prof. ZIMMERMAN: Right. And he's sending up this kind of tough-guy stereotype of the 1950s that you might associate with somebody like Bogart. But at the very end of the letter that you just quote, he says, but hold back what you feel. Again, an acknowledgement of that constraint, but in this case, a send-up of it.

CONAN: We're talking with John Zimmerman, a writer who teaches history and education at New York University, who got the chance to read love letters to his mom, and has thoughts about '50s and early '60s males. 800-9898-255. Email: talk@npr.org.

Lindsay(ph) joins us from Prescott, Arizona.

LINDSAY (Caller): Hi. Yes. I just wanted to say that my father was a typical stereotype that Mr. Draper is representing. He was an engineer and very aloof, and didn't even like us kids.

CONAN: Didn't even like you?

LINDSAY: No. Really, not too much. We were bit of a nuisance. Now, when he quit his engineering job as when he retired, he became a - got a second career as a real estate appraiser. And then he had to work with people, and he really has changed. And he's a whole different person than what he was growing up with him as a child. So he's a different person. But then he - the only safe emotion for him was anger, and he was very aloof. And…

CONAN: It sounds like you're getting on better with him these days than back in those days.

LINDSAY: Oh, excellent. I mean, he's great, you know? And I love him a lot and he's a great guy. But he was a rough dad when we were little.

CONAN: Hmm. Now I have to ask, John Zimmerman, we heard that letter from your dad. What was he like growing up for the kid? Was he distant or was he warmer than we might think?

Prof. ZIMMERMAN: Well, you know, I have to say that I was very fortunate. I sympathize with the caller because I think that there were many '50s dads, as we're calling them now, who held back what they felt, to use Dad's term. But I think in his letter, his send-up, his satirical reading of that term, I think, illustrates both his willingness and his capacity to break those boundaries.

I never felt that my father withheld any love at all or felt a need to. You know, I think that he was, in some ways, you might even say ahead of his time in so far as his - the centerpiece of his life was his wife and his kids, and I think remains so.

CONAN: Lindsay, it sounds like your dad, the centerpiece of his life was his job.

LINDSAY: Well, his life was centered on his job and my mom. And he had a difficult upbringing himself, with a very aloof father.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

LINDSAY: So he really didn't have a role model in how to be much different, I think.

CONAN: All right, Lindsay. Thanks very much for the call.

LINDSAY: Okay, thank you. Bye-bye.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Now let's go next to Jean(ph). Jean with us from Lansing, Michigan.

JEAN (Caller): Hi. My story is very similar to the last caller. My - raising eight children in the 1950s, my dad was himself very aloof and very focused on earning, you know, the money to keep us in a house and in groceries and all of that. But I remember when I was - oh, my gosh, we were adults at this time -and one of my brothers was killed in an automobile accident. And at the funeral home, you know, just trying to reach out to my dad. I was the oldest girl of eight kids.

And he just was taking a walk and I remember just walking up to him and, you know, putting my hand, my arm through his, and no words were spoken. He just - I never saw him cry. But I knew he was sad and not being able to express those emotions. And then after my - he died shortly after that. But after my mom died, we were cleaning out, you know, all of her memorabilia and found three cards that he had given her over the ages.

And just the love he expressed towards her, we just - my sisters and I just looked at each other like, who was this person? We never - you know, it never was part of who he was in our upbringing, you know, to - and it's sad that we did not see that side of him as we were growing up.

CONAN: Oh, that's interesting.

Prof. ZIMMERMAN: Yeah. But that side existed. And I think it's also interesting that the way you discovered it was through letters, through private correspondence, because I do think…

JEAN: Right.

Prof. ZIMMERMAN: …that they often find a window onto people's interiors that you can't really find anywhere else.

CONAN: Hmm.

JEAN: Mm-hmm..

CONAN: Jean, thanks very much.

JEAN: You're welcome.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go, see if we can talk with Tom(ph). Tom with us from Tucson.

TOM (Caller): Yeah. Hi. My brothers and I grew up in the late '50s and '60s. And my father was kind of a mix of both sides. He was the hardworking person who was never around. But when he was, he was a very caring and concerned person. He was into the arts and literature and other things. But of course, the irony is that when he was around, he was a good father. But he was generally just not around.

CONAN: That speaks to the interest and perhaps focus on earnings. And John Zimmerman, we have to remember these men were the products of Depression and war.

Prof. ZIMMERMAN: Absolutely. And I think it's interesting in how many of the calls that you've just taken, the issue of money and earning has come up. Yes, they were products of Depression and war. And in part because of that, I think money and earning was a huge part of the self-definition of American male, a huge part of the masculine identity. And it was something that came through in all of these letters, including letters from my dad, the anxiety surrounding that.

In one letter, my dad writes to my mom: You know how touchy I am about financial matters. This was a letter about his anxieties about being able to afford a wedding ring.

CONAN: Hmm.

Prof. ZIMMERMAN: And other people wrote in that they were worried that they were sponging off their parents. One guy writes, saying, you know, I'm supposed to be a self-sufficient American man - those were the terms he used - but my parents are giving me money.

CONAN: Tom, you were trying to say something, I'm sorry.

TOM: Sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt. Yeah, I think in my father's case, it wasn't really the money because neither of my parents were ever very good handling money, or ever seemed to be much concerned about how much they made.

My father was a professor and his whole life, I think, was really driven by his love of ideas and certain notions he had about, you know, pursuing these ideals of academia. And that was always far more important to him than money or, I think, probably his family.

CONAN: Well, I guess we need to be careful of stereotypes in every respect.

TOM: Yeah.

CONAN: Tom, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

TOM: Thank you.

CONAN: And Jon Zimmerman, thank you so much for your time today.

Prof. ZIMMERMAN: Thank you. It's been fun.

CONAN: Jon Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He's the author of "Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory." His article, "Touchy-feely 'Mad Men'?" ran in the Christian Science Monitor in February. We have a link to it at npr.org; click on TALK OF THE NATION.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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