Monday, May 09, 2011

Partying in midcentury Chicago

{Photos by rocketlass.}

In my day job, one of the books I've been handling publicity for is Bachelors and Bunnies, a new book by Carrie Pitzulo that argues that Playboy magazine and the Playboy corporation have had a significantly more pro-feminist history and outlook throughout their history than their reputation would suggest.

So it's probably not surprising that, when the protagonist of Frederick Exley's unclassifiable masterpiece A Fan's Notes described his years living in Chicago in the mid-1950s, I found myself seeing my city as the swinging, no-hang-ups party town long ago portrayed by Hef:
There I lived in that section called the Near North Side, a paradise for the young men and women--airline hostesses with airline hostesses, rising executives with rising executives, Junior Leaguers with Junior Leaguers, voyeurs with voyeurs--who overflowed its modern town houses and converted Victorian mansions, men and women who reigned, or were, in youth's obliviousness, sure they reigned supreme there. The section had an absurd though touching notion of itself as the Greenwich Village of the Plains; but the young men I knew there seemed blatantly and refreshingly unburdened with things of the mind, and the fine, corn-bred, yellow-haired girls as succulently wholesome as cream of chicken soup.
It's far from my vision of paradise; my Chicago is much more homebound and quiet, my circle of friends almost lacking rising executives (let alone airline hostesses). But Exley does manage to imbue the Chicago of that era--not yet surpassed in size by Los Angeles, or in cool by San Francisco; still to face the slog of the '70s and the super-slick spruce-up of Daley's '90s; before Rush Street became the Viagra Triangle--with some of the hedonistic magic that was Hef's stock in trade:
If the section was not the Village, it was precisely named: the Near North Side was near to everything. In the morning we descended into the subways and were in a matter of minutes conveyed to the Loop where, after cursorily putting in our days at the altar of commerce, we fled back to Babylon. The bars--The Singapore, Larry's Lounge, Mister Kelley's, Gus' Pub--along Rush Street (Chicago's "White Way") were within five minutes' walking distance from anywhere in the area; in those saloons those genial young men, corn-bred girls, and I nightly got quite happily, quite absurdly, drunk. In the summer we sat around gallon thermoses of vodka and tonic, as tribesmen around the beneficent fire, taking the sun on the most exhilarating city lake front in the world. (I have never sen any other, so I suffer from no competing claims). Behind us rose the dizzying turrets of Chicago's skyline, pale and iridescent facades rising into the azure heavens, buildings all constructed, it seemed, for nothing save the pleasure of our eyes. At evening we wandered from one apartment to another, as from one room in a house to another, as if the entire Near North Side were but a single mansion to which we had a standing invitation.
Now, I realize that it's but a small step from those standing, drunken invitations to the alcoholic wrecks and disintegrations portrayed by, say, the Johns O'Hara and Cheever--and that's even before we say anything about the troubles of gender inequity in the perpetual party Exley portrays--but even so, those glimmers of a lost era are seductive, like the spinning of the Capitol dome as you lay the needle on a new Sinatra record. Pick up your martinis, folks, and let's start dancing.

1 comment:

  1. this is words to describe