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    New York in the '50s

    Culture club

    The documentary "New York in the '50s" includes memories from the most creative people of their generation about the flourishing of arts, literature, journalism and intellectualism that prefigured the '60s counterculture.


    "Everybody had this image of the '50s being the Eisenhower age," notes novelist Dan Wakefield. "What they forget is that the '50s was also the people who came to New York to escape the Eisenhower age. New York was like the alternative society.  . . . There was no such place like this in Indiana."

    Directed by: Betsy Blankenberger.
    Adapted from the book "New York in the '50s" by: Dan Wakefield.
    Featuring: Dan Wakefield, Gay Talese, Nan Talese, Brock Brower, Ann Brower, Ted Steeg, Robert Redford, Joan Didion, John Gregory Dunne, Ed Fancher, Mary Ann DeWees McCoy, Reveren Norm Eddy, Jane Wylie Genth, Nat Hentoff, David Amram, William F. Buckley, Ned Polsky, Sam Astrachan, Ivan Gold, Ray Grist, Lynne Sharon Schwartz, Calvin Trillin, Knox Burger, Norman Podhoretz, Harvey Shapiro, Bruce Jay Friedman, Art D'Lugoff, Helen Weaver, Steve Allen, Barney Rosset.
    Wakefield's biography forms part of the framework of "New York in the '50s," a documentary that looks back at the flourishing of creativity and intellectualism here that presaged the counterculture of the '60s. The film includes reminiscences from a pantheon of noted writers, artists and publishers who were part of that scene — including Joan Didion, Robert Redford, Gay Talese, Calvin Trillin, Village Gate founder Art D'Lugoff, Norman Podhoretz, Nan Talese, Village Voice founder Ed Fancher, Nat Hentoff, John Gregory Dunne, Steve Allen, David Amram and William F. Buckley.

    Gay Talese speaks for many new arrivals from the conservative heartland about the mystery of New York. "It was a city in which they described beautiful women and they also described women of great, liberal sexual inclinations. And that appealed to me. Even at that time I hadn't known any women of any liberal inclinations at all."

    New York in the '50s

    These people tell an interesting story — one that almost mirrors the experience of many a wide-eyed young person who moves to New York, even today. There are stages of anticipation, excitement, intellectual achievement, overindulgence, disillusionment and breakdown.

    There are memories about the flourishing of a new culture here, in which misfits from around the country found kindred spirits. But there are also hints about this culture's own downfall. "Here it is," says Wakefield, remembering the first time he was shown the table at the White Horse Tavern "where the great Dylan Thomas had his last drink before he passed out, was taken across the street to St. Vincent's Hospital and died of alcoholism at age 39. And I go, 'Wow, that's fabulous!' I mean, like, that was what you were to aspire to!" Later, Joan Didion recalls how strange it felt to move to California and be sober for the first time.

    "New York in the '50s" doesn't include nearly enough archival film of the people and places it discusses, whether that's because the '50s just weren't as obsessively filmed as the present day or because the filmmakers lacked the resources to dig it up. So it doesn't present a very thorough vicarious experience of the New York scene, but it does present conversations with some of the period's most interesting people. It's good that somebody documented their memories and gave us a chance to hear them.

    FEBRUARY 20, 2001

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