Fifty Years Ago, Everyone Wanted to Be “International”

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Nov. 6 2013 7:18 AM

When IHOP Was Glamorous

Fifty years ago, all anyone wanted was to be “international.”

American Airlines Flight Attendants
American Airlines flight attendants, at a time when aviation was portrayed as glamorous.

Photo via Allison Marchant/Flickr/Creative Commons

This essay is excerpted from The Power of Glamour: Longing and the Art of Visual Persuasion, by Virginia Postrel, published by Simon & Schuster.

In a 1956 issue dedicated to the “Air Age,” Life magazine profiled a Pan American crew traveling on a “13,000-mile, seven-day flight” from New York through Paris, Rome, Beirut, Tehran, and back. The feature gave readers a behind-the-scenes look at airplane operations, complete with spilled trays in the tiny galley. But the main emphasis, captured in four pages of photos, was how the crew spent their time off: kayaking in the Mediterranean, buying Damascus brocades in a Beirut shop, visiting a modernist painter’s gallery in Paris, dining near the Eiffel Tower. The co-pilot visited Left Bank jazz clubs, and the stewardesses went shopping for perfume. To the Life reader, it was all exciting and exotic—right down to the Paris hotel’s six-foot-long bathtub, a favorite of the co-pilot, who said he “never saw a tub like this back in West Virginia.”

Here was a new take on the old glamour of aviation, offering not a dream of individual heroism or a general notion of escape but an image of travel as stimulating and fun. When the Life article ran, a mere 8 percent of Americans had ever taken an airplane flight, and international travel was similarly rare. Aside from wartime postings, few people had ever left the country, let alone the western hemisphere. In the United States of the ’50s and ’60s, the word international possessed a glamour almost as intense as the word modern, making the ocean-hopping life of the Pan Am crew deeply alluring. For Americans in particular, what came to be called the Jet Age represented a new version of escape and transformation, one that addressed several widespread longings.

In the prosperous postwar period, Americans enjoyed a rising standard of living, embodied in suburban houses, push-button kitchen gadgets, and chrome-bedecked cars. Although extreme poverty lingered in some places, most people were no longer yearning for escape from hardship. More likely, the escape they wanted was from boredom, regimentation, and routine—an escape symbolized by international travel. If you flew, especially internationally, you were someone special. If not a hero like James Bond, you were at least a person of leisure: an international playboy, a college student traveling standby, a tennis player on the international circuit, a carefree adventurer with time to see the world. On the last page of its Pan Am feature, Life highlighted the contrast between the globetrotting crew’s adventures and mundane American life, showing the pilot returning home to his wife and daughters in a New York suburb. On the days off between flights, he said, “Sometimes I just stand in the yard watching the briefcase brigade go by.”

Having achieved a smoother passage through life, many Americans yearned for a more exciting one. The man or woman in a Pan Am uniform embodied that longing. So did other icons of Jet Age glamour. Take the era’s distinctive automobile designs. In the mid-’50s, American car makers abandoned streamlined styles in favor of the aviation- inspired “forward look,” with its wrap-around windshields and winglike tail fins. The cars’ shapes, their advertising, their names the Pontiac Strato Star, the Oldsmobile Rocket), and their features (“flightomatic” transmission, “Jetway hydra-matic”) all suggested high-tech aviation. Hood ornaments took on the shapes of jets. “Millions of Americans now drove with model planes in their peripheral vision,” observes Grant McCracken, the cultural anthropologist. “These peripheral planes made a plane of the car and a pilot of the driver.” Detroit’s products, he writes, “impressed as cars. They wowed as planes.”

Then there were James Bond and his many imitators. With their daring and mystery, spies and secret agents had long been glamorous fictional figures, but the popular culture of the early ’60s produced a new version of the character. He was aptly dubbed “the international man of mystery” by the Austin Powers parodies of the 1990s. This spy was not a wartime hero but a jet-setting operative whose adventures transported the audience to exotic locales, exclusive venues, and the arms of beautiful women. Bond was the prototype, but television shows like I Spy (which premiered in 1965), Mission Impossible (1966), and The Saint (a British series that debuted in 1962 and began airing in the United States in 1967) picked up the theme. The Jet Age secret agent was charming, omnicompetent, and exceedingly well-traveled. No place was truly foreign to him, yet he was always having new experiences. He made the international intriguing.

Even as one sort of Jet Age glamour was informing spy movies, another was providing a respite from the high-stakes conflicts of the Cold War. This was the innocent internationalism reflected to this day in the opening ceremonies of the Olympics and the Miss Universe pageant, with their colorful costumes and shared aspirations, superficial exoticism and essential sameness. The same Jet Age optimism was depicted in The Endless Summer (1966), a documentary in which two young surfers fly around the world in search of the perfect wave. From Africa to Australia, everywhere they find friendly people who love the beach as much as they do. In the world of The Endless Summer, nobody worries about nuclear war.

The glamorous version of the international was peaceful and friendly, reflecting the sunny faith of Disney’s “It’s a Small World” and Star Trek. There were no differences that wouldn’t disappear once you got to know people—yet it was all much more interesting than ordinary life. The essayist Sandra Tsing Loh captures the culture I remember from my own childhood:

As a kid in the sixties, I remember drinking up everything international: Expo 67! UNICEF! The five intertwining rings of the Olympics! International ... House of Pancakes! “Come in!” international people always seemed to be saying. “We don’t care where the hell you’re from. Have some flapjacks!”

The popularly priced pancake house, founded in 1958, may seem the antithesis of glamour, but in 1960s middle America the chance to eat crêpes or blintzes, or even to order good old American pecan pancakes from a menu featuring such exotic fare, offered a bridge to a glamorous ideal. Unlike a Chinese or Italian restaurant, the International House of Pancakes featured representatives of many different cultures in the same place. Its menu “looked like the U.N.,” a period phrase that suggested an intriguing mix of costumes and skin colors: Star Trek without the alien makeup. The glamour depended on that harmonious juxtaposition. A 1966 ad inviting tourists to visit U.N. headquarters shows a young American boy looking sideways at a Japanese attaché wearing a kimono and the Mali ambassador in a kufi and grand boubou, as they talk to the U.S. ambassador. “A trip to United Nations Headquarters can be educational and inspirational,” it declares. “What’s more, it’s fun.”

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From Pan Am pilots and mass-market crêpes to the U.N. building and such popular foreign films as La Dolce Vita (1960), the representatives of Jet Age glamour made Americans feel cosmopolitan and worldly—none more so than the chic, French-speaking Jacqueline Kennedy. A friend advised the first lady on hosting small dinner parties at the White House: “Have pretty women, attractive men, guests who are en passant, the flavor of another language. This is the jet age, so have something new and changing.” The dinner parties’ international flavor not only offered pleasure to the guests; it also provided a glamorously sophisticated ideal for the nation, one that Americans were, in that moment, surprisingly eager to embrace.

In 1962 Jackie took her children on vacation to Ravello on Italy’s Amalfi Coast. They stayed in a 900-year-old palace rented by her sister, Princess Lee Radziwill. A year later, after the Kennedys’ third child died shortly after birth, Jackie recuperated from the trauma with a Mediterranean cruise on Aristotle Onassis’ yacht, again arranged by her sister. Franklin Roosevelt Jr., a family friend then serving as undersecretary of commerce, was dragooned into coming along as a sort of chaperone. After a while, he said later, “We began to look like a boat full of jet-setters, and President Kennedy didn’t want that image.” They looked like jet-setters because that’s what they were.

The president’s concern was understandable. Since the Jacksonian era in the 1820s, American voters have been instinctive populists, wary of politicians who suggest social elitism or conspicuous consumption. They prefer the candidate born in a log cabin to the scion of a great family. But Jackie’s jet-setting image doesn’t seem to have been a political negative. Something was different about the Kennedy moment. A young campaign organizer saw it back before the president’s election, when he accompanied Jackie during the hotly contested Democratic primary in West Virginia. Charles Peters had been worried that she was “far too glitzy” for West Virginia voters but discovered he had seriously misjudged:

There was no question that instead of identifying with the woman who was like them—Muriel Humphrey—they identified with the Princess. You could just tell they wanted Jackie. They had a wondrous look in their eyes when they saw her. After the dowdiness of Eleanor Roosevelt, Bess Truman and Mamie Eisenhower, they were looking for an aristocratic image. And the Kennedys did a superlative job of merchandising that image.

At no other moment in American history has the public been so willing not merely to vote for but to identify with a political family representing a privileged, cosmopolitan elite. Although the 1960 election was closely divided, Jackie was always popular. In a June 1961 survey, Gallup asked, “What are your impressions of Mrs. Jacqueline Kennedy?” Sixty-six percent of respondents said “favorable,” compared to only 12 percent “unfavorable.” That same year she ranked second, after Eleanor Roosevelt, on Gallup’s survey of the American public’s most-admired women; after Roosevelt’s death in 1962, she topped the list every year until 1968, when she fell to seventh after marrying Onassis.

Once you’ve watched enough movies from the 1930s—and most of the voting public in 1960 would have been moviegoers in that decade—the appeal of the jet-setting, couture-wearing Jackie Kennedy becomes clearer. She was living the glamorous life depicted in those old films, the life the ladies of West Virginia had dreamed of and identified with when they were young. Movie glamour had been an illusion they knew to be false but one they had, in those moments of cinematic magic, felt to be true; Jackie similarly inspired not envy, resentment, or insecurity but identification and longing. She was the pink negligee against Muriel Humphrey’s or Pat Nixon’s blue gingham dress: impractical and a tad foreign, but the embodiment of desire. She represented something beyond ordinary life. In the early years of the Jet Age, her international aura seemed somehow appropriate.

Familiarity eventually destroyed Jet Age glamour. “When the jet age was new and exciting, flying was a glamorous and sexy endeavor,” the Virgin Atlantic website declared in 2006, pledging “to bring this glamour back.” It’s a perennial promise in the contemporary airline industry, usually offered along with an announcement of new in-flight luxuries or stylish new crew uniforms. But however nice the amenities or attractive the uniforms, the old glamour never returns, because Jet Age glamour wasn’t about the actual experience of flying. It was about the idea of air travel and the ideals and identity it represented.

Jet Age glamour expressed the longing to experience a world of variety and excitement, a fast-moving, dynamic, and diverse alternative to the familiar and routine. We now inhabit the real version of that world, a world glamour advertised and helped bring about. We can never bring the old illusion back. We can only invent new ones, reflecting new circumstances, new possibilities, new desires, and new versions of yearnings that never go away.

From The Power of Glamour by Virginia Postrel. Copyright © 2013 by Virginia Postrel. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Virginia Postrel is the author of The Power of Glamour: Longing and the Art of Visual Persuasion and a columnist for Bloomberg View. Follow her on Twitter @vpostrel.