Back Then: Two Lives in 1950s New York

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Infused with intelligence and charm, Back Then is an elegant reflection on transformative years in the lives of two young people and New York City. Marked by their youthful passion, this double memoir marries the authors' distinct literary styles with a riveting narrative that captures the density and texture of private, social, and working life in the 1950s.

Novelist Anne Bernays, born in 1930, and biographer Justin Kaplan, born in 1925, both natives of New York, came of age in...

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Back Then: Two Literary Lives in 1950s New York

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Overview

Infused with intelligence and charm, Back Then is an elegant reflection on transformative years in the lives of two young people and New York City. Marked by their youthful passion, this double memoir marries the authors' distinct literary styles with a riveting narrative that captures the density and texture of private, social, and working life in the 1950s.

Novelist Anne Bernays, born in 1930, and biographer Justin Kaplan, born in 1925, both natives of New York, came of age in the 1950s, when the pent-up energies of the Depression years and World War II were at flood tide. Back Then, written in two separate voices, is the candid, anecdotal account of two children of privilege, one from New York's East Side, the other from the West Side, pursuing careers in publishing and eventually leaving to write their own books. They both sought self-knowledge and realization through years of psychoanalysis. They brushed shoulders with celebrities like William Faulkner, Somerset Maugham, Marlene Dietrich, and Anatole Broyard.

Before Bernays and Kaplan met and married, each had enjoyed the sexual and social freedom that, along with the dark shadow of McCarthyism and the Cold War, was among the distinguishing marks of the 1950s. In many other respects, the story they tell could almost as well be about an earlier era.

This vibrant, balanced memoir offers an indelible portrait of postwar New York — exhilarating, hospitable, and affordable. A striking collaboration by two prominent figures in American letters, Back Then surprises and delights as Bernays and Kaplan recall their youthful pursuits, the merging of their lives, and the city's underlying influence on them.

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Editorial Reviews

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In this evocative double memoir. writers Anne Bernays and Justin Kaplan write of growing up in New York City during the 1950s, pursuing their craft, and finding each other.
Publishers Weekly
Bernays's first date with Kaplan was over lunch. Glancing at the menu, Kaplan recommended the calf's brains and Bernays made a split-second decision: I could never marry a man who ate brains for lunch or, as far as that went, for any other meal. But the not-yet-prestigious writers (he went on to win a Pulitzer for Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain; she has written eight well-received novels) did marry, and they have collaborated on this double memoir recounting their remarkably parallel lives in 1950s New York City. Both grew up in well-to-do Jewish families, she on Manhattan's Upper East Side, he on the Upper West Side; both went away to college, majored in English and returned to New York to work in publishing. What makes this book successful is the way both writers capture the diverse sounds and sense of various subcultures in the city: bohemian, literary, Jewish, upper-crust, etc. They alternate chapters, and both writers have entirely distinct voices and styles of writing: Bernays's chapters are narrative driven, personal and filled with anecdote, while Kaplan maintains a certain distance from the subject at hand (that is, himself), offering character sketches of his colleagues and associates. Though the couple eventually leaves New York, the book serves as a hymn to the city of their youth: Still relatively restrained in style, and with as yet only a subdominant glitter, chic, and Babylonian arrogance. Well written and thoughtful, this memoir gives a nice flavor of urban cultural life in the 1950s. B&w photos. (May 28) Forecast: New Yorkers and denizens of the literary and publishing worlds will love this, and it will be widely reviewed. Expect excellent sales in New York City, and good sales among literati in other urban locales. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Novelist Bernays (Short Pleasures) and biographer Kaplan (Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain), who are married to each other, have written separate narratives of their younger personal and professional lives that, artfully interwoven, provide a vivid picture of what it was like to be gifted in 1950s New York City, when a heady sense of opportunity and possibility prevailed. While they each write candidly of individual experience, they are mindful of being representative as well. The privileged daughter of PR pioneer Edward Bernays before the war, her family occupied an entire floor of the swank Sherry-Netherland Hotel Bernays writes of life at Wellesley and then Barnard, where she majored in English, and of being a member of the Silent Generation whose goal was to draw no attention to herself. For his part, Kaplan, the son of an Orthodox Jew, describes the pain of the growing distance between himself and his father's religion and Russian background. He also recalls a Harvard where learning seemed hermetic. Working in New York's publishing houses, the authors got a good sense of the era's attitudes on such topics as psychoanalysis, sex, babies, civil rights, the arms race, the Holocaust, women's clothing, and the Waldorf salad. In a lighthearted style, this work says much about all the things that made the 1950s a unique decade in American life. Recommended for all libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 2/15/02.] Charles C. Nash, Cottey Coll., Nevada, MO Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Novelist Bernays (Professor Romeo, 1989, etc.) and biographer Kaplan (Walt Whitman, 1980, etc.) follow up The Language of Names (1997) with another joint effort: a zesty intellectual memoir of starting out in the '50s. The couple came of age when coded language and strict mores (e.g., no overnight visitors in college dorms) held sway. But social and intellectual change bubbled beneath the surface of the Eisenhower years. Their first encounter in 1953 brought together contrasting New York personalities with a shared passion for publishing and a fascination with psychoanalysis. Effusive East Sider Bernays, of German-Jewish descent, was the daughter of public-relations pioneer Edward Bernays. Reticent West Sider Kaplan was the orphaned son of a former rabbi from Russia who became moderately wealthy manufacturing shirts in America. In a duet of perfectly matched voices, they recount with verve how it felt to be a young adult living under the shadow of The Bomb and McCarthyism in the sunshine of a still-vibrant metropolis. By day, they wrestled with language and eccentric bosses at Town and Country and the short-lived Discovery (Bernays), Harry Abrams and Simon & Schuster (Kaplan). At nighttime parties, they met William Faulkner, James Thurber, Alger Hiss, C. Wright Mills, Philip Roth, and Somerset Maugham. (In two especially memorable incidents, a haughty, apron-clad Marlene Dietrich serves Thanksgiving dinner to Bernays at friend Francine du Plessix's home, and Kaplan dances with Marilyn Monroe.) The authors need not have bothered to kiss-and-tell about their premarital sex lives, and they sometimes seem unaware of the many less fortunate who shared the city with them during this time. Butthey compensate with rich anecdotes on virtually every page and sharply ironic prose: Kaplan notes at one point that Edith Sitwell was "garbed like a Druid priestess . . . on her head a shapeless hat and on her feet shoes from the men's department at Macy's." Like a Porter melody, the recollections of these saucy, urbane lovers linger and prompt smiles of affection for a bygone era.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060198558
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 6/1/2002
  • Edition description: 1ST
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 6.12 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.05 (d)

Meet the Author

Anne Bernays

Anne Bernays, a novelist and writing teacher, is the author of eight novels, including Professor Romeo and Growing Up Rich, as well as two works of nonfiction, including The Language of Names written with Justin Kaplan and What If? written with Pamela Painter. Her articles and essays have appeared in numerous major publications, among them The Nation, the New York Times, Town & Country, and Sports Illustrated. She lives in Cambridge and Truro, Massachusetts with her husband, Justin Kaplan. They have three daughters and six grandchildren.

Justin Kaplan is also the author of Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. He is general editor of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He is married to the novelist Anne Bernays. They have three daughters and six grandchildren, and live in Cambridge and Truro, Massachusetts.

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    1. Hometown:
      Cambridge, Massachusetts
    1. Date of Birth:
      September 14, 1930
    2. Place of Birth:
      New York, New York
    1. Education:
      Wellesley College, 1948-1950; B A., Barnard College, 1952

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One



Where we lived in Manhattan had a lot to do with how my father, the person who made the hefty decisions in our family, chose to be perceived by the world beyond his front door. And this, in turn, had a lot to do with his profound and nervous reluctance to be identified as a Jew. His reluctance was the chain on which many of the beads of daily life chez Bernays were strung. Being Jewish was something we almost never talked about, just as we avoided the contagion of cancer, poor people, and sex. Naturally then, cancer, poor people, and sex took a tenacious hold on my imagination, hung there like a cat halfway up a tree. Oma Hattie, my mother's mother, was one notch less inhibited than my parents about the subject of Jewishness; whenever she wanted to indicate that someone was Jewish she said, sotto voce, "M-O-T" — Member of the Tribe. It made my father wince whenever she said it. If I read his thoughts correctly, they were saying, "Why do I have to hear this? What does it have to do with me?" Oma Hattie was just as circumspect about malignancy — she wouldn't say the whole word but whispered its initial: "My friend Bessie was just operated on for C, poor thing." People with C almost invariably died of it.

Each era earns its particular codes and proscriptions, some more demanding and painful than others, depending on the temperament of the times and the moral force of what has preceded it. As I grew up the language I spoke was heavily encoded, a condition due in part to my hothouse upbringing and in part to the period itself. Because my parents were born before theturn of the century (my father in 1891 and my mother in 1892), some of their regulations hung in suspension around us like the smell of something nasty. Not once did I hear my father or my mother say anything more freighted than damn and hell — and then only when, like Rhett Butler, they found themselves pushed to the limit.

I found it a constant challenge to decipher what someone really meant when they used this coded language, and since I wanted to believe what I heard, I wasn't all that adept at instant understanding. It took me a long time, for example, to understand that "Will you go out to dinner with me?" more often meant "I want to fuck you" than it did "Let's share a meal." When I accepted a dinner invitation I didn't think I owed the man who had extended it any favors; often, he did. "Good friend" or "Great and good friend," a staple of Time magazine euphemism, meant lover or mistress. A "long illness" might have been lengthy but it was also specific: it meant cancer. "Died suddenly" meant a suicide and "he was a confirmed bachelor," homosexuality. "New Yorker" was the equivalent of Jew. When a woman said, "I have to go wash my hands," you knew she was headed for "the little girls' room," another euphemism. As for a girl's periods, they were known by many names: "the curse," "the monthlies," "falling off the roof," and, inexplicably, "grandma's come to visit." Your periods put you in a condition about which boys and men pretended to know nothing. The term "social disease" was code for syphilis or gonorrhea; they were both potential killers and, before antibiotics, often were. On the other hand, it didn't strike us as inconsistent that words like retarded, crippled, foreigner, spinster, and old lady were never disguised but were allowed to emerge starkly, like naked children at a picnic.

Our pervasive language code fortified the pretense that ours was a polite and well-regulated society — at least at its upper reaches. And along with this, "good manners" were passed more or less intact from one generation to the next, fortified by books of etiquette that changed very little from decade to decade. You knew how to behave in front of and talk to intimate, casual friend, and stranger alike.

When one of my boyfriends, a former sailor, inserted "abso-fucking-lutely" into an otherwise bland conversation, I was dazzled. "What did you say?" He repeated it. "Navy talk," he said.

As a result of these taboos, the shock value of smutty language was as loud as an air raid siren. You could calculate the seriousness of a girl's determination to be "her own man" as much by the words she spoke as by how many guys she had slept with and which substances — and in what quantities — she poured, inhaled, or injected into the temple of her body.

If you can say any word any time you feel like it, it loses its bang; if you save it for the exact right moment its going to do its job and rip through your adversary like a dumdum bullet. You tucked your list of precious forbidden words and phrases into your deepest pocket, fingering them as you might someone else's gold coins. And, like Russians under communism, like Aesop, we tended to tell our stories in altered form, hiding the truth in assorted disguises. Self-censorship is supposed to be dehumanizing, and perhaps, ultimately it is. But it forces you to be inventive and sly. You got away with something, you slid the true text past the censors as you sneaked absinthe past Customs; you slipped out the window when they thought you were in bed, sleeping; you had sex when they thought you were at a wedding shower.

My father was a gilded creature, shimmering with a vanity that had as much to do with his forebears as it did his considerable brawn in the world of commerce and celebrity. He was Sigmund Freud's double nephew: a brother and sister, Sigmund Freud and Anna Freud, had married, respectively, a sister and brother, Martha Bernays and Eli...

Back Then. Copyright © by Anne Bernays. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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