Over the past few weeks, I have written a lot about the 1940s, an era well before my time. It was, by any measure, a very scary decade.
In my travels across Europe, I have gone looking for the remnants of World War II. (Interestingly, none are visible in Japan, except for the gradual realization that all architecture is post 1950.) There is the tour of Churchill’s bunker on King Charles Street in London. Walking around Paris, you can’t help but notice the historical markers here and there memorializing the location where a patriot was shot by the Nazis. In both cities, I have walked down certain streets and noticed numerous pockmarks on the graceful facades.¹
At times, I have looked up into the sky and tried to imagine the sounds of bombers, the rumble of artillery, or the rat-a-tat-tat of machine gun fire. From the damage to the buildings around me, I could tell I was standing in the very places where hell reigned. But, in every case, I failed to feel it. Just cloudy skies above, and the sounds of traffic around me. I could sense the highs and graces of Europe, but I just couldn’t visualize or feel the war that was very real.
The drumbeat to the war is best documented, in my opinion, in William L. Shirer’s remarkable tome The Rise and Fall of The Third Reich. A bigoted politician – whose ancestor had fortuitously changed the family name from something sounding silly ² – built a national campaign scapegoating minorities to win an election in a major European state. He successfully manipulated the new media of the era – radio and motion pictures – to win the adulation of the masses.³
Sound familiar? Can’t happen here, right?
It was during this epoch, from 1935 through 1946, that my Dad completed his undergraduate degree, served in the US Army, worked in numerous projects as a consultant, applied to graduate school, and sadly, lost his mother, my grandmother.
When I first wrote my “The Lost Weekend” post this last summer, I based it on the amusing photograph below. Dad and a friend and two other couples yucking it up in front of a camera:
I knew nothing about the date, background of the picture, the significance of the caption “The Lost Weekend,” or who the others are.
Over time, these have become clearer. The reference to the “The Lost Weekend” was of course to the Academy Award winning movie of the same name released in November 1945. Accordingly, I surmise that it was probably taken in late May 1946, at an amusement photo booth at the Annual Dance of Dad’s Alma Mater, Cooper Union. The event was open to both undergraduates and alumni. At the time, the venue of the Dance was the Hotel Riverside Plaza, a weekly hotel for men, at 253 West 73rd Street on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
For an interesting set of pictures of this building, which today is a renovated fancy condo building, click here.
Since that time, I have written expansively about the 1940s based on that image – seminal years for my Dad as a recent graduate from Cooper Union, armed with a lesson about Quality Assurance/Quality Control (“QA/QC”) that was to be a competitive advantage in a new industry some 20 years hence.
But there were other amusements during his college and post-graduate years, despite the gloom of war. Remember, this was before the television era.
Once, in the 1960s, The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells turned up on my reading list. It’s considered to be a classic work of science fiction; Martians land in Woking, outside London, and shoot up the place with heat rays. Dad surprised me by telling me about a very strange War of the Worlds radio broadcast on CBS national radio on October 30, 1938. Read by Orson Welles, it was an adaptation of the story where the invasion occurs not in Woking, Surrey, England but in Grover’s Mill, Princeton area, New Jersey. At the time, that was a disconnect for me because the book was specific — it happened in London, not New York. What was he talking about, I wondered?
In preparation for this piece, I listened to the broadcast for the first time on YouTube and I have to say, it is very disturbing. The program is presented ostensibly as a live broadcast from the “Meridian Room in the Hotel Park Plaza in downtown New York where you will be entertained by the music of Raymond Marcello and his orchestra.” The tiny, ghostly, ethereal music of the 1930s then tumbles out of the speakers.
Interrupted by a series of apparently live “Special Bulletins,” the War of the Worlds story unfolds 30 miles away from New York City. First, cannons are observed to fire on Mars (just like in the book). “Don’t worry,” an astronomer comments, “Mars is 94 million miles away.” Back to the music. Then another “Special Bulletin.” A metallic cylinder of unknown origin has landed in New Jersey. Music. Aliens crawled out of the cylinder. Reporter incinerated. And so on and so forth.
Dad said people were upset and scared by a Martian invasion! As a 10 year old, I scratched my head in amazement.
What added to the gravitas at the time was the fact that the Munich Crisis had been the big radio story, with an attendant YOOGE war scare. The crisis was resolved (or so the world thought) just 4 weeks previously. Anxiety is hard to let go of; people seem to have an amazing propensity to leap from the clutches of one problem to another – just ask Fox News! It was the deadly tone of the War of the Worlds broadcast that scared the bejesus out of people – Orson Welles played it brilliantly.
It made his career! He went on to become a huge star. Aside from Citizen Kane, be sure to check out the film noir classic “The Third Man” set in post war Vienna.
¹ – New York City has one such location where equivalent damage is visible – the north façade of the old Morgan Guaranty headquarters building on Wall Street – but that was from a 1920 bombing and had nothing to do with World War II.
² – Alois Hitler, father of Adolf, had changed the family name from “Schickelgruber” 13 years before his son was born.
³ – Take a look at Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 film “Triumph des Willens” and tell me if you do not see the first expression of Beatlemania-style rock stardom – in fact preceding it by 30 years.