American Men and Romantic Love in the 1950s


[1997, The history of the family, An international quarterly, 2, (1) 31-47.]




ABSTRACT:            The article uses love letters to re-analyse current notions about men and romantic love in the 1950s.  Examining advice literature as well as evidence from fiction and film, European and American historians generally describe the 1950s as an era of emotional "formalization " or suppression.  A newly-analysed set of 300 love letters by over a dozen American men suggests a much more nuanced view.  Some of their letters support scholarly accounts of "remasculinization" in the 1950s, displaying a hard-boiled, tough-guy qualities, to compensate for challenges to men's roles in the workplace and family. Other men, however, openly expressed their passions, fears, and other feelings.  Since these letters were written to the author's mother, they also suggest new potentials and opportunities for "personal " research.  Given the paucity of love correspondence in postwar archives, professional historians might find personal collections useful evidence to study. the character and dilemmas of modern romance.




            In 1955, Time magazine asked graduating seniors at twenty colleges across the United States to describe the life they expected in fifteen years-that is, in 1970.  "I'll belong to all the associations you can think of-Elks, V.F.W.'s, Boy Scouts and Boys' Clubs, Y.M.C.A., American Legion, etc.," began a typical response:


"It will keep me away from home a lot.  But my wife won't mind.  She'll be vivacious and easy with people.  And she will belong to everything in sight too, especially the League of Women Voters.  I won't marry her until I'm twenty-eight, and so when I'm thirty-six we will have only two of the four children I hope for eventually.  We'll be living in an upper-middle-class home costing about $20,000 by then, in a suburban fringe ... We'll have two Fords or Chevies when I'm thirty-six, so we can both keep up the busy schedule we'll have (cited in Reisman 1964, p. 318)


Amid this veritable orgy of consumption and congeniality, a few men noted their wish for a "stimulating" marriage.  Yet their answers almost never mentioned passion or love, as sociologist David Riesman told his own twenty-fifth reunion (Class of 1931) at Harvard.  Forged in the crucible of Depression and war.  Riesman's generation had worn its feelings - from raw ambition to romantic ardour - on its sleeve.  To the younger set, however. strong personal emotions could only disrupt the gregarious civility that an affluent "mass society" demanded.  Nowhere was this clearer than in the common youth injunction, "don't get involved": once a warning against premarital sex and pregnancy, Riesman wrote elsewhere, it now aimed to dampen any sentiment that might separate individuals from the group (1950, p. 279).

            For Murray Schechter, though, such reserve was unacceptable.  A member of the same college cohort that Time surveyed, Schechter clearly recognised-and resented-the constraints his era imposed upon personal expression.  "You know I've never written a passionate letter, but I'm tempted to do so." Schechter wrote his girlfriend in November 1952.  "I really want to just let myself go - and write what I feel - that's perhaps one of the hardest things to do in life." He pressed on. resolving to cast off his mask of caution once and for all:

"[W]ould 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."

            Writing almost nightly thereafter, Schechter struggled to articulate a deep ardour he could no longer disguise.  "[Y]ou've permeated my being - and my spirit with inspiration, doubt, tender feelings, and god knows a hundred thousand other emotions which I haven't the words to describe," he wrote.  "I think being in love with you is the most wonderful and strange thing that has ever happened in my life." Even rejection could not still the romantic pen of Murray Schechter, who continued to proclaim his love well after his girlfriend told him she did not share it.  "I love you enough to really sacrifice myself," Schechter declared, in response to her suggestion that they become "less intimate" with each other.  "I love you no matter how You feel about me.  Goodnight - Darling - Murray" (Schechter to Margot Lurie, 14 Nov. 1952, 17 Jan. 1953, 23 April 1953).[1]

            Men like Murray Schechter rarely appear in historians' accounts of Western societies and emotion in the 1950s.  Building upon the work of Norbert Elias, European scholars describe a gradual "informalization" of emotional constraints after the Victorian era (de Swaan 1981: Brinkgreve 1982; Wouters 1987. 1990; Gerhards 1989; Mennell 1989, pp. 241-246).  Yet this process was punctuated by periods of "formalization," especially in the 1940s and 1950s, when old taboos on personal expression were briefly reinscribed (Wouters 1977, p. 448; 1986, pp. 5-6; 1991, p. 71 1).  By contrast, American scholars chronicle a general dampening of emotions across the entire twentieth century.  Rejecting earlier views of Victorian "repression" and "frigidity," historians such as Peter Stearns insist that nineteenth-century lovers displayed stronger feelings than their modern-day counterparts (Stearns 1994; Lystra 1989; Rothman 1984).  The crucial shift came in the 1920s and 1930s, when new forms of work, consumption, and family spawned a detached, dispassionate style (Stearns and Knapp 1993, White 1993).  Instead of a temporary detour on the road to liberation, then, the 1950s reflected deeper emotional patterns that would continue, unabated, into the present.

            Painting in broad strokes.  Stearns left open the possibility of "class and ethnic variations" in this schema (Stearns 1994. p. 305).  European scholars generally downplay such factors, arguing that the modem era witnessed a general "diminishing of differences" in emotional culture (Wouters 1995, p. 107: 1990; 1991).  If the 1950s spawned a renewed spirit of "condemnation and suppression," then. its constraints influenced all members of society in roughly equal measure (Wouters 1986, p. 5).  In the United States, by contrast, historians have argued that blacks. beatniks, gays. and women provided beacons of intimacy and authenticity upon an otherwise pallid postwar sea (Breines 1992; Harvey 1993; Lhamon 1990.. Lipsitz 1981).  Of course. this new accent on cultural difference implies a largely undifferentiated view of white males.  Suddenly everyone is "subversive" or "oppositional" except "white-collar" men. who remain every bit as narrow and conformist as Riesman and other "mass-society" critics had claimed.[2]

            Whereas Riesman's theory neglected diversity beyond white men, contemporary history ignores the many distinctions between them.[3] Murray Schechter's girlfriend had at least a dozen other suitors-all white, all middle class, almost all Jewish, and all different.  Some of their letters support scholarly accounts of a "remasculinization" or "flight from commitment" in 1950s America, and affect a hard-boiled. tough-guy quality that compensated for challenges to their roles in the workplace and family (Bailey 1988, pp. 97-118; Dubbert 1979, ch. 8; Ehrenreich 1983; Kimmel 1996. ch. 7).  Like Schechter, however. other suitors sought to develop a new style that permitted a much wider range of emotional expression.  Tongues firmly in cheeks, they actually poked fun at reigning notions of the poker-faced male:


Dear Margot:


Look, Baby, this is hard for me to do.  We been goin' together for awhile and I guess I can talk to you, but this is still hard.  Yeah. honey, hard.  We're pullin' out - yeah, the whole goddam outfit.  Just got my orders.  Gotta report tomorrow.  So, baby, this is it.  We both knew what we were lettin' ourselves in for but I guess it was worth it ... No tears now, baby.  Sure it's gonna be dangerous and chances of me ever comin' back to you are about 1,000,000 to 1. But hold back what you feel.  Just remember what we had together ... Look, baby, I gotta run now - probably smack into oblivion.  Your Friend, M. Paul Zimmerman, B.A. (Paul Zimmerman to ML, n.d. [May 1957'?]).


"Margot" is my mother.  Margot Lurie; "M.  Paul Zimmerman, B.A." is my father, who wrote this satire shortly after they were engaged to be married.  His correspondence comprises only a fraction of the 300 love letters to my mother, which confirm but also confound our conventional view of men and romantic love in the 1950s.[4] Often in the same breath, suitors like my father acknowledged American emotional constraints-"hold back what you feel"-yet struggled to transcend them.  Indeed, these men were often at their most passionate when admitting - or attacking - the rigid taboos upon intimacy.  Any conclusions drawn from a single set of letters must remain highly speculative, of course.  But my mother's correspondence does show that men found fissures and opportunities within the dominant gender roles of the 1950s.  Pressed to be stoic, they could also be sensitive; in pursuit of commitment, they took flight from cool.

            These letters also point to an enormous. largely untapped resource for historians of the emotions: their own families.  For a variety of reasons, historical archives remain largely bereft of postwar love correspondence (Rothman 1984. p. 286; Stearns and Knapp 1993, p. 775: Stearns 1994. p. 242).  Hence scholars base their conclusions on prescriptive "advice" books or on more impressionistic evidence from literature, film, and television.  These sources tell us a great deal about "feeling rules" (Hochschild 1979) but very little about feelings, which can only be illuminated by direct personal testimony.  To understand the internal history of the modem West, then, scholars might have to exhume the letters. audio recordings, home movies, and other memorabilia inside their own homes.  Only then will it be possible to uncover the intricate webs between society and sentiment, between what was prescribed and what was perceived.


            To Max Lerner, a prominent American critic, 1956 was a bad year for love.  Reviewing a pair of recently published novels, Lerner remarked that they reflected "the obsession of contemporary American novelists with the theme of marriage as a kind of hell." In more psychoanalytic circles, meanwhile, Erich Fromm wondered whether people could ever practice the true "Art of Loving" in a "present-day Western society" of feverish consumption and frightful conformity- "Automatons cannot love," Fromm declared, dolefully describing the "average" Euro-American citizen.  "[T]hey can exchange their 'personality packages' and hope for a fair bargain." Yet the harshest critique came the previous winter in "Franny," J. D. Salinger's chilling portrait of deceit and detachment between young American lovers.  Awaiting Franny's arrival at a train station, her boyfriend Lane empties his face of any expression that might indicate how he feels.  In truth. though, he feels nothing - except when he spots her sheared-racoon coat, which Lane once kissed "as though it were a perfectly desirable, organic extension of the person herself' (Perrett 1979, p. 295; Fromm 1956, pp. 83, 87; Salinger 1957, p. 7).

            For Michael Reubens, by contrast, his girlfriend's coat was an extension of him.  Encouraging my mother to travel in Europe, Reubens tied her experience - and especially her appearance - to his own social standing.  "Someday in the hazy future we plan on getting married," Reubens began, brushing aside my mother's apparent claims to the contrary.  "Your being in Europe and having seen it will also be a reflection upon me.  It is like a woman wearing a mink coat.  It sets the woman apart from others, and at the same time enhances the reputation and esteem of the woman's husband." All of these status markers cost money, Reubens added, and lots of it; all the more reason to seize one now, when my mother's parents would still pick up the bill.  "If you never get your mink coat, nor your diamond ring nor your cadillac as my wife ... there will always be your travels abroad," Reubens wrote.  "This will always be one of your most priceless jewels." Concluding his plea, Reubens even chided my mother for failing to consider his own stake in the matter.  "I will bask in the warmth of your accomplishment and worldliness, just as you will share and feel any and all successes that I might encounter," he explained.  "So stop thinking of yourself primarily and stop being so darn greedy about the whole thing" (Reubens to ML, I Jan. 1954).


            Eventually, my mother decided to go to Europe.  But she also decided to break up with Michael Reubens. whose pecuniary musings confirm many themes in the 1950s critique of men and romantic love.  From Fromm and Riesman to Talcott Parsons, commentators across a wide ideological spectrum worried that modem couples in the West could not sustain meaningful romantic relationships.  Fromm feared that the metallic jungle of the market place transformed love into yet another commodity, like Cokes and cars; Riesman located the problem less in capitalism per se than in peer groups, which buried every real emotion in a bland superficial gauze; while for Parsons, the "instrumental" values that men learned at work were incommensurate with the "expressive" functions that romance demanded (Fromm 1956; Riesman 1950; Parsons 1951, ch. 6; Breines 1992, ch. 1; Ehrenreich 1983, ch. 3).  Modem marriage manuals provided the clearest indicator of these trends, recommending a "companionate" or "team" approach that echoed the shallow give-and-take of office life (Fromm 1956, pp. 87-88; Bailey 1988, pp. 119-140; Stearns 1994, pp. 171-18 1; Stearns and Knapp 1993. pp. 783-785).  The husband should praise his wife's cooking and help with the dishes; the wife should listen attentively as he unburdens himself of his woes at work; and each should take pride in the other's "accomplishment" and "successes." to quote Michael Reubens.  Every play - a trip, a coat, a diamond, a Cadillac-affects the team.  One for all, all for one.

            But how would the game be scored?  As Riesman recognised, the new ethos provided few outlets for traditional displays of manliness such as virility, independence, and physical prowess.  Hence young American men often adopted a stoic, cynical persona: gregarious Organisation Men by day, they became gruff Tough Guys by night.  The organisation man cared little for romance but a good deal for rectitude. cultivating a marriage to fit the mold of corporate companionship; the tough guy cared for neither, limiting his relations with women to a single, primal realm: sex.  Here, Riesman wrote, men "can define themselves as men ... in the one physiological way which appears irrefutable"; here, as the popular terminology had it, "scoring" was simple and straightforward (Riesman 1950, p. xliii; 1959, p. 214).

            As always, American critics exaggerated the novelty of these developments.  Celebrating, unfettered loners was as old as the nation itself, while separating sex from sentiment was a staple of interwar youth culture (Gerson 1993, p. 293n.; Kimmel 1996; Stearns and Knapp 1993, p. 783; White 1993).  Yet the separation was not finalised until the 1950s.  American historians tell us, when love dropped out of the formula altogether.  The Beat, the hipster, the hoodlum, the private detective, the playboy, and the cowboy all shared a strikingly unromantic view of sex, despite their many differences from each other (Dubbert 1979, p. 263; Miller and Nowak 1977, p. 167).  Whereas Michael Reubens regarded a woman's coat as a symbol of marital prosperity, then.  J. D. Salinger's Lane viewed it through the prism of sexual conquest: recalling how he kissed it, he boasts "that he was the only one on the platform who really knew Franny's coat." As the image suggests. however, such Biblical "knowledge" lacked even a hint of passion.  Sex "became part of the standard package of goods and services," one scholar writes, "pursued not to make the spirit burn more brightly but to bask in the reflected glow of an attractive partner, prominently paraded" (Salinger 1957, p. 7; Perrett 1979, p. 3 1 8).

     Under these evolving standards, a "good date" dispensed physical affection without demanding emotional expression (Douvan and Adeson 1966, pp. 205-208; Butz 1958, pp. 87-88).  Before a big football weekend. for example, a relative candidly asked my mother to find him a date with "good personality, good looks, good bank roll, and a good time." Nor did my mother's suitors hesitate to tell her she had fit the bill; indeed, several seemed to regard it as the highest form of compliment.  "It is my pleasure to inform you that you have won the award as 'The Most Desirable Woman of 1954' (which I have taken out)," Stanley Drucker rhapsodised.  "You really do have a 'Golden Touch' because while I was with you I was in heaven." Hoping to explore farther galaxies, perhaps, Drucker invited my mother to stay in his room during her upcoming visit-"a radical suggestion but perfectly on the up and up," he noted, since he "could easily sleep in my housemates (sic) bedroom." Wherever they slept, women walked a sexual tightrope: thanks to the era's notorious double standard, a "Good date" could easily become "damaged moods" with one false move.  "Is it true that the girl with the least principle draws the most interest'?" Jacob Levine asked my mother, in a jocular mood.  "Someone told this to me and I thought it cute (and clean) enough to pass on." Other correspondents were equally cavalier. often drawing on the tough-guy imagery of 1950s pulp fiction.  "I am reading some real sexy books," wrote Fred Kaplan.  "There is nothin. like getting the terminology used by $50-100/night call girls in NYC straight in case I visit there and should be approached.  I must say 'No' tactfully and not blush, etc., of course-above all. keep Cool" (Robert Perlman to ML, n.d. [1953?]; Drucker to ML, 4 Jan. 1955; Drucker to ML, 4 March 1955; Levine to ML, 29 Feb. 1956; Kaplan to ML, 2I Aug. 1955).

            Capitalised for good measure, Cool became the "currency of exchange" in postwar American romance, as Benita Eisler has written.  It purchased emotional distance, guarding against any real or honest communication between the sexes.  The code placed especially strict controls on men, who were even warned by one poll against crying at movies (Eisler 1986, pp. 171, 166; Bailey 1988, p. 106).  In their letters to my mother, however, they often admitted the guilt and anxiety that festered beneath this hard-boiled-and hypocritical facade.  After a date with another woman, for example, Murray Schechter described for my mother how he followed the expected script - including a token gesture of sex.  "Everything was very platonic - not that I didn't make a half-hearted effort to the contrary-but I always do," Schechter wrote.  On another date, the woman took the leading role.  "[B]ecause she isn't so good looking - an understatement, she was rather hard up for me- I can safely say that this is the first time I have ever been mauled," Schechter reported.  "You don't know what a pleasure it will be to see you" (Schechter to ML, 9 Feb. 1953; Schechter to ML, 12 Oct. 1952).  These episodes lack any tone of conquest or braggadocio, the hallmarks of tough-guy sexuality.  Rather, Schechter recounted them with an air of embarrassed resignation.  Offered to assure my mother of his premier affections, no doubt, they also highlighted his mindful complicity with a regimen that he clearly hated.

            In his declarations of love. however, Schechter explicitly defied this ethos.  For a man, of course, any deep emotional expression was automatically suspect.  But romance represented a particularly strong taboo: since the 1930s, experts had derided it as a puerile myth and a poor basis for marriage (Stearns 1994, pp. 171-181; Stearns and Knapp 1993, p. 781).

"Movies, wood-pulps, and radio crooners have built up an imaginary picture of love," complained one American educator, ridiculing the "childish day-dream" of perpetual, passionate romance.  "Scientifically, there is nothing to it" (Popenoe, n.d., p. 22).  Schechter's first profession of love displayed an acute awareness of this view, but also a determination to overcome it:


"I love you, Margot darling.  I've never felt this way before.  I've been dieing [sic] to say it for the longest time-but I was too afraid of your reaction-and I didn't want to be irrational - but I finally have to say something.  It may be ill considered, childish, or immature, or all of those things - but it's true and I'm compelled to tell you the truth.  For me. it's wonderful and painful.  I alternate between ecstasies of joy thinking about you and moments of fear that something might happen." (Schechter to ML, 24 Oct. 1952).

            Later, my mother would confirm Murray Schechter's fears of rejection.  For the moment, however, she seems to have responded in kind.  Her letter elicited a veritable avalanche of emotion from Schechter, who again apologised for articulating it.  "[I]t was the first time - I know it's not being very tasteful to mention this - but I never was anyway - you said 'I love you,"' Schechter gushed.  "It gives me an incredible feeling of elation and general happiness ... just the very words are enough to shake me to the foundations" (Schechter to ML, I Nov. 1952).

            Schechter proceeded to read the letter over and over, in precisely the style of Victorian couples a century before.  As several American scholars have recently argued, nineteenth century amorists longed obsessively for each other during their days apart.  They also voiced a deep and transcendent form of love, distinguishing it from mere physical union (Lystra 1989, pp. 52, 38-41., Stearns 1994, pp. 34-38).[5] In the rush to rescue Victorians from their heretofore "repressive" image, however, historians have too quickly assumed that this spiritual ideal faded in the furiously sexual climate of our own century.  To be sure, several of my mother's suitors flaunted the carnal infatuations of modem men on the make.  But others evinced a much more ethereal passion, which they openly contrasted to erotic desire.  "It's taken me about six weeks - since we've been engaged - to realize what love really is, and I still can't explain it," my father wrote.  "[B]ut now, for the first time I feel your presence, even when you're not with me physically" (Zimmerman to ML, 7 May 1957).  Much in the manner of the Victorians, meanwhile, Schechter declared that his love would overcome even those qualities he otherwise disliked.  "When I first met you-l was attracted to you as a woman - normally," Schechter wrote.  "[N]ow I feel that I know you as a person, as an individual-1 know your good points and your weak ones - I love you for all of them" (Schechter to ML, 17 Jan. 1953).  Sexual attraction was "normal," then, but it was also trivial.  True, transcendent love awaited a complete account-and acceptance of the counterpart's total character.

            It also required full candour on one's own part.  Love allowed nineteenth-century Americans to express their "natural" or "true" selves; indeed, several scholars argue, its central pleasure lay in openness and revelation (Lystra 1989. p. 26-27; Stearns 1994, p. 38; Rotundo 1993, pp.  110-111).  Murray Schechter concurred, again reminding us that older styles of romance persisted alongside newer ones.  "[I]t's a sort of relief and relaxation to write to you-an opportunity to express my innermost feelings and convictions to the one person in my life who really understands and is willing to share my experiences," he wrote.  "I think this is the highest ideal of human existence - it proves in a metaphysical sense the reality of the world." Love implied a duty as well as a desire to disclose, as Schechter stressed in an angry letter.  "[C]omplete and absolute sincerity [is] quite imperative," he seethed, sensing that my mother was holding back.  "[D]o you really love me-and if you do ... you will tell me truthfully what you think and feel - no matter how hard it is." Obeying his own injunction, Schechter even told my mother that he was seeing a psychoanalyst.


            "[l]t's nothing I should he ashamed of - even if I am or was at times," Schechter wrote.  He also admitted that he had agonised over mentioning it to my mother, since "most people look upon this business ... as something terrible." But he went ahead anyway, relieved to get it off his chest - and confident that she would approve (Schechter to ML, 21 March 1953: 11 Nov. 1952; 13 Nov. 1952).

            To Schechter's chagrin, however, she did not.  My mother apparently accepted his therapy at the beginning, but she balked when he proposed to continue it the following year.  Her criticisms actually echoed his parents, adding insult to injury.  "I was really shocked by the incredible naiveté of some of your ideas," he wrote.  "[Y]ou still seem to feel that a person who goes to a psychiatrist is crazy" (Schechter to ML. 23 Sept. 1953; 29 Sept. 1953).  Here, again, Schechter both challenged and confirmed his era's traditional gender roles.  Despite the "psychoanalytic chic" that prevailed among New York intellectuals of both sexes, most Americans regarded analysis as the sphere - and often, the salvation - of women.  Men resisted psychiatry but readily recommended it for their wives, whose boredom and frustration were easily imputed to "neuroses" and other facile Freudianisms (Wakefield 1992, p. 224; May 1988, pp. 187, 191; Breines 1992, p. 40).  In the case of Murray Schechter, however. the man underwent treatment-from a female analyst! - and the woman objected, associating psychiatry with the "feminine" qualities (weakness, dependence, and expressivity) that had made it so repellent to men in the first place.  Now came the moment of truth: in the wake of Schechter's multifold challenge to contemporary notions of masculinity, his own girlfriend announced that he was no longer a man.  So he lashed back at my mother's "naivete" (and. elsewhere, at her intellect), upholding male mental superiority in the same breath as he undermined male emotional constraints.

            Even for sensitive and passionate suitors. then, masculinity remained a problem.  Challenging certain parts of the traditional male model, they invoked others with an almost manic zeal.  Intellectual eminence represented one such line in the sand. summoned with casual assuredness by suitors of every stripe.  "Your ideas on current politics, I am afraid, need a bit more information," Ted Duncan wrote, responding to my mother's remarks about the 1952 Presidential race.  "Your sentence on Stevenson was idiotic and your stand on Ike is silly" (Ted Duncan to ML, I I April 1952).[6] But money represented the final frontier. as befit a culture that still celebrated bread winning as the penultimate male preserve (Gerson 1993, pp. 17-22: Bailey 1988, pp. 4, 110-111).  At the time. of course, none of these suitors were supporting families.  Even among singles, however. the notion of man-as-earner was so deeply etched that they bridled at any financial assistance, especially from my mother.  "Honey, thanks loads for the offer of the loan." wrote law student Peter Lewisohn, who was struggling to pay his rent.  "The thought was really a wonderful one ... but as things are I want to give you everything I can, not take from you." Nuff said.  Nor was he willing to write home for help, as my mother then suggested. "[E]very time I think about it I feel sick." Lewisohn wrote, "so I'm going to do the best I can for myself which at least makes me feel somewhat like a man." Yet she continued to press the point, prompting a brief outburst from Lewisohn.  "It's not pride, far from it," he wrote, clearly irritated.  "I guess I'm tired of taking money and being dependent after all these years.  I want to be able to take care of myself ... [Clan you blame me at 25?  No more bawlings out, just try to understand me" (Peter Lewisohn to ML, 24 Sept. 1955; 26 Oct. 1955).[7]7

            Here. it seems, my mother scolded Lewisohn for sticking too closely to the bread winning script.  His annoyance reflected his failure to impart a basic principle: masculinity required self-sufficiency.  When my mother accused Schechter of relying too heavily on his parents, by contrast, he responded not with baffled ire but with a full-blown tirade.  "You must imagine that after building hopes and having ambitions about my future as a professional making a living, about wanting a decent home, etc., how much it must hurt to [hear] that all I want is to be given things," Schechter wrote.  "But what really hurts is that you know so little about me that you can wonder about it." My mother had often criticised Schechter's profligate habits. instructing him at one point to "learn how to budget your money as well as Your time." Yet now she specifically charged that he sponged off others, striking at the very core of Murray Schechter's manhood.  After she asked whether he planned to work over the summer, Schechter exploded.  "[Y]ou want to be made happy and satisfied by my pointing out to you how much money I make," he wrote, "which seems to me to be so superficial and intransigent as to be not worthy of discussion.  I really do wish you had more depth" (Schechter to ML, 2 Dec. 1953: 17 Feb. 1953).

            Once more, then, Schechter lashed back by maligning my mother's intellect.  Hardly "superficial," her jabs at his poverty - like her attacks on psychiatry - implied that he was something less than an independent, self-reliant man.  So he recoiled, invoking one traditional male domain (mental superiority) to shore up another (bread winning).  Even as he defended these twin bastions of masculinity. however, Schechter was busily destroying a third one: the wall around feelings.  In most accounts of men in modem Western society, of course, bread winning and intimacy are inversely related: the "good-provider role," Jessie Bernard flatly declares, did not include "emotional expressivity" (Bernard 1992, p. 206).  Scholars vigorously debate the consequences of recent declines in male bread winning, some describing a related flight from marital commitment and others detecting "the rise of the sensitive man" (Ehrenreich 1983: Gerson 1993. p. 311n).  As suitors like Schechter remind us, however, staunch advocates of the bread winning ethos were themselves capable of expressing profound personal emotions.  Indeed, they were often at their most eloquent when articulating their concerns and anxieties surrounding this very role.  "Honey, I feel terrible!" a passionate Peter Lewisohn wrote.  "It's almost Chanukah and I can't afford to get you anything.  I want to give you the most beautiful thing in the world and yet I neither can afford nor know of anything that would be deserving of you" (Lewisohn to ML, 5 Dec. 1955).  Likewise, my father voiced deep fears about his ability to support my mother after their engagement.  "You know how touchy I am on financial problems," he wrote, noting the cost of a wedding ring and honeymoon.  "But I know which things are important to you, and this makes me very happy.  This is why I know we'll do all right" (Zimmerman to ML, 2 April 1957).  Love, he hoped, would case the same worry that it allowed him to express.

            Often, though, love itself was the source of worry.  A self-described "social butterfly," my mother danced between several suitors at the same time (Stanley Drucker to ML, 20 March 1955).  At least five men professed love to her; at least three asked her to marry.  Hence each of them feared for her favour, articulating a huge array of feelings as they struggled to bolster-or even to discover-their place in the ranks.  Rejection represented the greatest worry, hanging like a cloud over Murray Schechter's correspondence, "Take this anyway you want to," Schechter wrote, "but the possibility of losing you would cause me more anguish and unhappiness then [sic] I'd care to admit to myself' (Schechter to ML, 28 Sept. 1952).  Such anxieties were often accompanied by a raging jealousy, which swept over suitors in periodic paroxysms.  Like love itself. open jealousy was often verboten in twentieth-century Western culture.  Especially during youth, then, men experienced an ongoing battle between "pangs of jealousy that cannot entirely be denied" and "the desire to present a cool exterior," as Peter Stearns (1989, p. 131) has noted.  For most of my mother's suitors, though, cool lost.  As in their romantic pronouncements. they both verified and violated the taboo on jealousy-sometimes in the same sentence.  "I have no intention of sharing you, even though it may sound demanding," Lewisohn wrote my mother, before a college vacation.  "I do my best not to be jealous while I'm away from you but I won't even attempt it when we're both home" (Lewisohn to ML, 27 Nov. 1955).  Schechter, for his part, admitted jealousy was "selfish" and "silly"-and then pleaded guilty as charged.  "This feeling was hell, pure and unadulterated," he admitted, after my mother implied an interest in another man.  "I felt icicles in my heart" (Schechter to ML, 12 Oct. 1952: 9 Nov. 1953; 6 Dec. 1953).

            In the end, of course, his heart broke.  So did the hearts of several other suitors, providing the final and most poignant testimony to the depth of their passion.  "I'm sorry that I'm so bitter-but I can't help it," Schechter wrote my mother, just before she abandoned the relationship.  "I really feel that with all this difficulty between us - since I love you so much that my life is just going to hell right under me" (Schechter to ML, 9 Nov. 1953).  For Peter Lewisohn, likewise, the loss of my mother brought anger, remorse. and recrimination.  When he went to law school, he asked her to marry; my mother declined for the moment, but left him hope that she might change her mind.  "You wrote enough to make me feel as though I have as good a chance with you as anyone else," Lewisohn noted, "and in that regard I'm fairly optimistic" (Lewisohn to ML, 13 Oct. 1955; 26 Oct. 1955).  Thereafter, his spirits wavered wildly: sometimes giddy and upbeat about his prospects, he also fell into funks of gloom and depression (Lewisohn to ML, 10 Oct. 1955; 23 Feb. 1956; 10 April 1956).  Finally he tired of the entire matter, demanding a definitive answer (Lewisohn to ML, 26 May 1956).  It came in the form of a letter about my father, which my mother sent to my grandmother-and Peter Lewisohn read, inadvertently, during a visit to the home of the woman he wished to wed.  "[T]he letter sounded real exciting for you - but is Paul giving you a hard time or did I misunderstand"' a sarcastic Lewisohn asked.  "[T]he damage has been done ... Expect to hear of your engagement any time now.  Good luck.", As for love, Lewisohn was through with it.  "I think I'll make it a policy to no longer let anything you might do disturb me," his last letter declared.  "Guess I'll just revert back into my impregnible [sic] shell, for the present anyway" (Lewisohn to ML, 28 June 1956; 5 July 1956).

            Under this cover, there were no hard feelings; indeed, there were no feelings at all.  Yet Lewisohn's very need for shelter from emotions showed how deeply they bad touched him.  To love meant to risk everything and to feel everything-joy, passion, and desire, but also jealousy, pain, and even doubt.  In Good-bye Columbus, Philip Roth's 1959 novel, the protagonist is overcome with ambivalence while he waits for his girlfriend to be fitted for a diaphragm.  "[T]he doctor is about to wed Brenda to me, and I am not entirely certain this is for the best," worries Neil Klugman, staring into the flickering candles of St. Patrick's Cathedral.  "What is it I love, Lord?  Why have I chosen?  Who is Brenda?" (Roth 1959, p. 71).  The diaphragm had been his idea, a plea for greater intimacy and commitment between them.  But now, he starts to wonder; love, it seems, brought with it a nagging propensity to question itself.  My father. too, experienced second thoughts shortly after he and my mother were engaged.  Like Neil, he was only 23 years old at the time.  Whereas Neil's doubts multiplied as the novel went on, however, my father's fears seem to have stilled.  "I can't see how I ever could have doubted my need for you, or your meaning to me." he wrote my mother, three days after his apparent crisis of faith.  "You are the one who is going to make me a complete individual, and for this I'm grateful in advance" (Zimmerman to ML, 2 April 1957).

            Forty years afterwards, what can we conclude from my mother's love letters'?  Whether reflecting a brief phase of "formalization" or a deeper, century-long trend, it seems clear that the 1950s imposed severe emotional constraints upon men.  Just as clearly, though, men also managed to rebel - at least in private - against these very strictures.  Describing earlier eras, historians often caution against what might he called the ecological fallacy of emotions: that is, against the presumption that individuals automatically internalise their culture's dominant emotional prescriptions (Stearns 1994, pp. 85-86; Kimmel 1996, p. 10). The same   warning seems warranted with respect to the 1950s. when even my mother's small sample of middle-class, mostly Jewish suitors displayed an enormous emotional diversity.

            According to one widely held theory, such variations occur more frequently among Jews.  Judaism is "more emotionally rich than the bland norm," writes American sociologist Michael Kimmel.  "Jewish men hug and kiss. cry and laugh.  A little too much.  A little too loudly" (Kimmel 1992, p. 78.  Frankel 1990, p. 97; Simons 1988, p. 135).  Perhaps, then, my mother's letters tell us more about the distinctive emotional sub-culture of American Jews than they do about "men" per se.  "[T]here does seem to be a fascination these days with the idea of Jewish emotionalism." Philip Roth told a 1961 audience.  "People who have more sense than to go up to negroes and engage them in conversation about 'rhythm' have come up to me and asked about my 'warmth.' They think it is flattering-and they think it is true" (Roth 1961, pp. 141, 138).  Simultaneously, however, this image of the emotional or "feminised" Jew - historically, a lightning rod for anti-Semitism - led some Jewish men to overcompensate in the direction of stoicism and toughness.  "We Jews are not what we have been portrayed to be," declared Leon Uris, whose best-seller Exodus (1958) depicted athletic, highly sexualised Jews vanquishing Nazi and Arab alike.  "In truth, we have been fighters" (Breines 1990, p. 54).  Uris's novel welcomed the new and improved "Tough Jew" to American shores, where he would shed his "feminine" weaknesses once and for all.

               At colleges and universities. meanwhile, critics often complained that Jews were embracing the same bland congeniality that infected the student body as a whole.  "The passionately devoted search after wisdom and learning has been dying out," complained a 1951 editorial in Commentary magazine, the era's tribune of American Jewish intellect.  "[T]he contemporary Jewish student takes a cool view..." (Freedman 1951, p. 305).  Indeed, one professor observed, "the campus life of fraternities, sports, dances. and the like dominates all students without discrimination" ("Seven Professors," p. 526).  That same year, Mitchell Cohen's letters to my mother focused almost exclusively upon his own fraternity's elaborate social calendar.  "Next weekend we're having a 'Chicago Jazz Party' at the house, and everyone is busy building props for it, since the living room is supposed to be a 'speakeasy,' with a bathtub full of gin," Cohen wrote.  Later, he described the fraternity's "South Seas Party" and its "rush" system in luminous detail.  "The pledges have been kidnapping the actives, and fouling up the house, while we've been paddling and 'tubbing' them," Cohen mused.  "Everyone's been enjoying it, however" (Cohen to ML, 28 Nov. 1951: 10 Dec. 1951).  Likewise, Samuel Freedman's letters portrayed a relaxed, jovial world of parties. dances, and balls.  "'Till college men become civilized," he signed one note. "All my love.  Sam" (Freedman to ML, 25 Jan. 1952).

            Finally, Jewish courtship and marriage manuals tended to mimic other American experts' emphasis upon "togetherness" and "responsibility" rather than romantic love.  "Too few of us are mature enough to accept the fact that marriage must kill romance, if marriage is to survive," Chicago rabbi Jacob Weinstein declared flatly in 1951.  "[M]arriage cannot abide the moon-calfing, the tearing-to-tatters passion, the dizziness of the blood. the melodramatic weepings and wailings, the insane tests of loyalty, the fits of irrational indulgence, the contempt for the commonplace and the routine which is still too often the essence of romantic love." Denouncing "love propagandists" in the film and fiction industries, Weinstein advised young people to base their marriages upon "a mature concept of partnership" rather than "romantic fever" (Weinstein 1951, pp. 205-208).  The same cautious spirit suffused commentaries by other rabbis, who often described marriage as a "team" or "career" rather than a romance (Brickner 1951, p. 182; Goldstein 1947, p. 5). "One of the dangers of the courtship period lies in the very feeling of love and romance itself," warned Sidney Goldstein, founder of the "Committee on Marriage, Family, and the Home" of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.  "[Y]oung men and women are in danger of being deceived by their own emotions and of being betrayed by their own romantic imaginations" (Goldstein 1942. p. 29).

            Indeed, Jewish advice literature was distinguished only by its insistence that contemporary dicta on love and matrimony were compatible with ancient traditions (Joselit 1994, p. 20).  A common gift to newlyweds, Goldstein's marriage manual "combines the Jewish interpretations of marriage and family life with the findings of modern social science." as an advertising leaflet emphasised (Bloch Publishing Co.). Reviewers agreed, congratulating Goldstein for squaring "Talmudic-Rabbinic law" with "current progressive thought" (Richman 1940).  Even sexual pleasure within marriage was prescribed in the Talmud, another rabbi wrote, noting a Scriptural basis for the modern cult of mutual orgasm - but not for romantic love.  "[S]ex adjustment," declared Nathan Drazin.  "is the foundation of good, happy, marital living" (Drazin 1958, pp. 25, 35).

            If Jews had once occupied a special emotional sub-culture, then, it seemed to be fading fast into the bland congeniality of postwar America.  Herman Wouk captured their dilemma in his novel Marjorie Morningstar, which topped the best-seller list in October 1955 (Mazzeno 1994, p. 55).  An aspiring actress, Marjorie is seduced by the lascivious, Anglicised playwright Noel Airman (nee "Ehrman") in the early pages of the book.  In the end, however, she marries Milton Schwartz - a successful lawyer, "slow, calm, and direct" and settles into a comfortable suburb (Wouk 1955, p. 554).  "Who is Marjorie?" asked Time magazine, in a glowing cover story.  "Marjorie Morningstar is an American Everygirl who happens to be Jewish" ("The Wouk Mutiny," p. 48).  In selecting a mate, then, she faced the same choice as every other woman: bohemian or bourgeois, cool or corporate, tough guy or glad handler.  Yet these models were actually "two sides of the same coin," as one perceptive reviewer noted.  "The fact is that neither the Bourgeois nor the Bohemian understands either sex or love," he wrote.  "Neither... is capable of great passion" (Fitch 1956, p. 14 1).  Walking down the aisle in the Gold Room of New York's Hotel Pierre, a common venue for lavish Jewish weddings, Marjorie does wince momentarily at the "bourgeois riot of expense" before her: five hundred guests, a ten-course dinner, and a seven-piece orchestra.  But she soon regains her composure. happily embracing her new identity as "Mrs.  Milton Schwartz." Marjorie "was ... marrying the man she wanted in the way she wanted to be married." Wouk concludes.  "It was a beautiful wedding, and she knew she was a pretty bride" (Joselit 1994, pp. 30-32: Wouk 1955, pp. 564-565).

            Like Marjorie and Milton, Margot Lurie and Paul Zimmerman were wed in the Gold Room of the Hotel Pierre.  I can imagine my mother strolling down the aisle. a flash of white lace and red lipstick.  But who was the young man who awaited her on that 1957 evening, nervously adjusting his tuxedo'?  Thankfully, historians of the 1950s are now peering "beyond the feminine mystique" to explore how women embraced an alternative model of ambition and achievement (Meyerowitz 1994). My mother's letters suggest that men, too, could challenge the traditional gender roles of their era.  Beyond the bourgeois and the bohemian - beyond the drab affluence of Milton and the cool posturing of Noel - lay other, more passionate ways to be a man.[8]

            How common were these alternatives'?  Were they more common among Jews?  My mother's letters can only raise such questions, of course; they cannot provide definitive answers.  It seems clear that my father and his co-suitors displayed deep emotions, perhaps more so than many men today.  They also varied enormously, contrary to notions of a timeless "difference" between sensitive females and stoic males.  In scholarly as well as popular circles, unfortunately, it his again become fashionable to formulate homogenous conceptions of the sexes[9]. 9 The antidote may lie no farther than historians' own attics and closets, if we only care to open them - and listen.[10] "What's this complaint about my not writing too often?" a playful Jacob Levine asked, during his brief courtship of my mother.  "Thirty years from now these letters might be considered masterpieces of literary thinking, and quite valuable" (Levine to ML, 15 Feb. 1956).  Who could have guessed that, on one level at least, he would be right?





The author wishes to thank Laura Ahearn.  Susan Coffin, Peter Laipson. and Margot Zimmerman for their comments on earlier drafts of this essay.  Thanks most of all to Ron Waiters, who taught me that history must be "personal" but never quite imagined how far I would pursue the dictum.




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[1] All letters to Margot Lurie (hereafter "ML") are in the author's possession.


[2]At times.  Riesman insisted that "autonomous" Americans could escape society's conformist seductions.  As he recently admitted. however, "[t]he notion of autonomy was rather thinly sketched." For Riesman never explained how autonomous people could "pick and choose" between the various personality types he sketched.  Autonomy operates for Riesman as a purely "negative concept," Wilfred McClay notes, since "it negates whatever is compulsory ... without supplying anything tangible to take its place" (Riesman 1954, pp. 99-120; 1990, p. 77, McClay 1994, pp. 247, 250).


[3] For an excellent critique along these lines. see Gerson 1993. pp. 12-13. 262-264.  See also Biskind 1983, ch. 5, which offers several intriguing suggestions about intra-male diversity during this era.


[4]  I have used pseudonyms for all of the correspondents in this paper except my own parents, who gracefully gave me permission to quote the letters.


[5] For a contrasting view see Kern 1992. who argues that the Victorians lacked the "emotional authenticity" of lovers today.


[6]  Duncan. my mother's only non-Jewish suitor, was also the only man in the group who clearly disagreed with her liberal views.  In their rare political remarks. the other suitors all demonstrated strong Democratic loyalties (see, e.g.. Jacob Levine to ML, 15 Feb. 1956).  Such comments confirmed the nationwide pattern for Jews, the only upper- or middle-income group that continued to vote solidly Democratic throughout the 1950s (Sachar 1992, p. 800).


[7]  In the end, Lewisohn did accept a small check from his father.  But this was a one-time-only payment, Lewisohn emphasised, hardly enough to live on.  "So you see, [a] job is a necessity now," he wrote my mother.  "Think I'll feel better working anyway" (Lewisohn to ML, 9 Nov. 1955).

[8]  Significantly, popular films of the 1950s depicted "sensitive" men as well as tough guys.  Many leading actors even cried on the screen, suggesting a much greater complexity in gender roles than historians have generally appreciated.  The same people who read magazine entreaties for "manly men and womanly women" watched Montgomery Clift (and Marlon Brando!) cry; they saw Natalie Wood tell James Dean that "a man can be gentle and sweet"; and they heard Marilyn Monroe praise men who were "gentle, weak, and helpless." much like Wood lauded Dean's "soft lips" (Mintz and Kellogg 1988. p. 190; Biskind 1983, pp. 257-262, 274).  To be sure, war movies and Westerns still upheld the traditional masculine virtues of strength and stoicism.  Yet this was mainly a rearguard action, as manly icon John Wayne knew better than anyone else.  "Christ, Kirk!  How can you play a part like that" Wayne asked fellow actor Kirk Douglas, berating  Douglas for his "sensitive" portrayal of Vincent Van Gogh in 1956.  "There's so goddam few of us left.  We got to play strong, tough characters.  Not those weak queers" (Lyman 1992, p. 1761).

[9]  For a withering critique of this trend. see Gerson 1993, esp. pp. 12-13.


[10]  Thus far professional historians have been noticeably reluctant to research their own families and lives.  A recent exception is Lois Banner (1994a. 1994b), who is writing an autobiography based on letters, court records, and other standard historical sources.  See also Duberman 1991, which quotes the author's diaries and some of his correspondence.  Smith 1976 contains fascinating correspondence from the author's father but does not seek to corroborate or contextualise it.  Other historians have written memoirs of their youths and careers; for outstanding recent examples, see Conway 1989 and 1994.  Aside from the works cited above, however, I know of no professional scholars who have researched their own pasts via traditional archival techniques.  Non-historians seem much more willing to use family letters and other "personal" sources.  See, for example, Frazier 1994.