Apr/May 2010 Nonfiction

Orgones, Jazz and General Motors: Young, free And Easy in Motor City

by Julia Braun Kessler

In my day we married early. That's the way it was in the far off 20th century. Young women in their teens were promptly readied. By 25, we were over the hill—old-maid material! No resisting that custom. It enveloped us all like a dark presence. Despite our struggle to explore, find paths into scholarship, invent schemes for business ventures, or longings for foreign travel—we were bolted to that iron frame.

Destined to wed, we were expected to seek a prospect, and act upon our choice. Grooming commenced with the first menstrual cycle. There was scarcely time for young adolescents to enjoy their hour in the sun. In truth, juvenescence for girls was blasted even as it flowered.

And that custom, combined with prevailing anxiety over virginity's loss (a state much valued in mid century), were the same threats that drove swift marital pairings. Marriage now, or the inevitability of a life of spinsterhood overshadowed with scorn.

Young men then felt themselves free to take their time and roam about and enjoy their eligibility. They could postpone matrimony. Years of carefree bachelorhood were theirs until they ran the clock right up to the shocking age of 30! After that, they too were likely to face suspicion, made to worry about their solidity. To choose such a male as husband and father for a young female was deemed desperation, an iffy proposition at best.

It may be, of course, that lives seemed shorter sixty years ago. Death at fifty was not uncommon. My own hard-slugging, super-dedicated Dad, himself married at 19, had sailed to this country with his young bride to father and raise three girls, fretting and smoking his way to a heart attack and gone at 52.

Nevertheless, some of us ventured into the world to seize the day. Returning from college, I'd developed a routine for coping with the outside world. With my first job at the Grolier Society, I'd scurried from place to place around New York's boroughs, researching, seeing more of my native City than I'd ever imagined. My young life was graced by a kind of liberty I'd not known before, not even as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago.

My parents tolerated my comings and goings, my evenings out with new friends, no matter how late the hours I kept. That was an agreement formed silently, if noticeably, upon my return home, in recognition for my status as a working adult. The agreement went on happily for the year while I lived with them, though I knew that they were awaiting "real news"—that their youngest (whose sisters were married at 19) had tied down her own connection. Nor did they have the least doubt that I, too, would bring home some "nice Jewish boy." Still, they kept their hopes private. Little matter. I overheard them, sounding almost like impatient foot-tapping beneath the dinner table.

All the same, that was a time of wonderful discovery everywhere in New York. I could gladly have gone on forever enjoying my new freedom with my "bohemian" friends. By chance though, a high school chum surfaced one day as I strolled around the Columbia University campus, checking out the offerings at the Evening Extension School. We exchanged our grand-gesture hellos and enjoyed our reunion over a coffee, talking of our doings over the years since. On parting, she mentioned that she and her husband were throwing a party for another of our high school bunch, and she invited me up. I agreed to appear up at their 116th Street and Riverside Drive apartment do, though I hardly remembered our mutual friend and certainly never imagined what might ensue.

The place was teeming with people and noise, strangers, mostly friends of the host, a New York Times newspaper man. A huge crowd milled about in a large, smoke-filled apartment. After I met her husband and greeted my high school friend and talked with her briefly about old school days, I wandered about in those smoky rooms, drinking a few drinks and chatting with anyone willing—very much of an evening where one manages to wait just long enough to make a respectable exit.

So that's just what I did. It was only when I'd got my coat on my way out and bid adieu to my hostess that she introduced a tall, attractive young man who surprised me with a compliment about my page boy hair style coming right "out of a Renaissance fresco," adding "Where have you been all evening?" Amused, I extricated myself and left to make my trek uptown.

That was that until a couple of days later, when in came a call from that forward flatterer who identified himself as "that fellow holding you at the door, only to be left behind!" Not having given away my phone number, I wondered how he'd found me. "No problem," he responded casually, "I called the party's hosts about you."

Daring enough. And, if his glib admiration made me agree to meet him, I confess to my weakness. Apparently, he went his own way, ignoring times and convention guidelines. When we met for that first cup of coffee, I found his manner egregious. He was a student at the New York University campus way up in the Bronx, lived at home, patiently fending off his parents intrusions, more or less as I did with mine. Our coffee went engagingly, and we chatted easily. And when asked, I agreed to something more like a date. As it turned out, we would join with some of his own "bohemian" friends, dining out in a Chinatown.

It could have been a dozen, and they dressed in "Village" style, not exactly proper for dating back in those suit-and-tie, dress-with-high-heels, days. The women of the group there were deliberately shabby, with free-flowing garments —adopted by the devotees of the lower Manhattan way of life.

I'd barely sat down with them at the table, when a heated argument ensued about the dishes to be ordered. A lot of back and forthing went on until the menus was settled and conversation picked up again as though it hadn't been interrupted. As a stranger among them, attention was focused upon me. Chit-chat wasn't their style, not even tolerated, and that certainly was new to me. Even these days, after so many years later, the demand made of me by one woman remains vivid.

She was prepossessing in her bright-colored caftan. Would I breathe for her?—she asked. My puzzled expression prompted her to commence a discourse upon the importance of Wilhelm Reich's theories for analyzing people. In a long speech she described how plainly anybody's neuroses could be determined judging from their breathing. It was revealed by the "orgones" they emitted. So could she analyze the person she now faced? Yes, indeed, she could, and more, comprehend not only the degree of energy but sophistication, sexual potency, life force, even someone's place in this universe! What a wondrous achievement it seemed to everyone listening and enthralled that evening. Her self-assurance struck me as ominous. Easy enough, I thought, to flunk her exam!

To this very day, when we review that lordly exchange, it gives us both a hearty chuckle, providing a vivid take on the New York's avante garde types of that era.

Later, when I brought my young man to one of my office parties to meet my own rambunctious crowd of encyclopedia researchers, a disastrous reaction came from them as well. There at the Grolier Society, they held themselves as another exclusive club. After all, they frequented the Algonquin on 45 Street after work. Hadn't the Manhattan's Round Table assembled once upon a time at that same hotel bar? There it had been that Dorothy Parker, Alex Woollcott, Robert Benchley, and their ilk had made boozy waves. One or another of my crowd would usually spout Parker's quip about hating the office because it interfered with her social life, or Edna Ferber's definition of an old maid (it being a state like death by drowning—a delightful sensation, after you quit struggling). Yes, my crowd had its reserves of wit and different notions of judging for themselves who qualified.

In my case, my young guy was New York born and bred, and he sported his own notions. As he saw it, his Village gang was simply too heterosexual to suit the effete aesthetes I hung out with.

Never mind these impediments to the marriage of true minds. Our lives became inextricably entwined. And the formal union came within that very year. It was performed twice, as it happened. The first time took place on my lunch break. We decided on going down to City Hall to get ourselves married with a couple of our friends to serve as witnesses. Following a short, sober and empty noontime ceremony, we took our friends to a soda fountain counter right there in the same street and toasted our union with chocolate malts. We then split up, rushing back to our different businesses in time to make our appearances and not be missed.

When we told this story to our parents, we were met with quite a ruckus on both sides. Mine were aghast and demanded a "proper" wedding. Protests went nowhere, especially with my mother, who brushed aside the license we displayed as of little significance. We were simply not "married in the eyes of God." Soon was to come another ceremony, more complex, costly, and swiftly organized by my MaMa.

Only weeks later, we stood in formal attire at the local synagogue, filled with relatives and friends of the family. That amateur performance made for a contentment among the older—and provided the much needed cash. All in all it passed smoothly enough, including impromptu, boorish wedding speeches spouted by a pompous New Jersey cousin.

So, young we were, and married! To this day, we hesitate over which ceremony should count as our anniversary.

In no time we were off for the University of Michigan, where my new husband was taking an MA and intending to enter the Hopwood Writing contest. That meant a year of coursework, after which his work would be judged by a panel of well-known writers for a series of prizes. It was an enviable sum and not insubstantial for those times.

We had ventured out into this country of ours to face another planet. What lay before us was open countryside with a tiny, sleepy, university town. (My years as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago were altogether cosmopolitan by comparison!) Ann Arbor at mid-century was for New Yorkers the boondocks, with little cultural diversion available. Our own post-war New York City was full of the genius of Europe, people who'd arrived escaping the horrors of Nazism; we had enjoyed superb talent in both the arts and sciences. We had benefited from their advanced lectures, read their books, seen their art, watched their performances. Here in remote Michigan, it was to the movies that people resorted on weekends, with an occasional concert or touring theater group thrown in. A letdown, rather.

Amid the problems of acclimatizing ourselves to a new way of life in that campus environment, came that of being newly wed. One had suddenly to look out for oneself and another, too! And for my young man, this was his first exposure to a deadlined writing schedule, intense criticism and re-write demands, along with incessant study. In short, he faced the pressures of career and future. For me, the wrench was giving up my classy New York job and once again having to look for somewhere to work that could interest me and support us both.

Still, opportunity waited before us, and new friendships. Before long, I took a job as an editor for a university institute there on the campus. While many of the young wives of the graduate students and veterans around were trapped in the inevitable secretarial web, I was more fortunate. My former association, my skills in research, editing and writing, together with my association with Grolier Society and title of Research Editor, were well-regarded. With the help of a former University of Chicago professor who endorsed my candidacy, I was not merely gainfully employed but challenged, too.

There also was finding a place to live. Throughout the nation during those post-World War II years, rentals remained scarce. Ann Arbor had no new housing. We hunted and hunted and finally landed in a farmer's old two story house down a quiet court street. It was an old place complete with stove and refrigerator to match the early 20th century decor. Just the same, the lower story was to be ours, and we delighted in the space it provided.

There was a real catch. Like so many small houses then, the plumbing offered only one bathroom. And that was upstairs on the second story—now part of the tenant above's apartment. The solution the landlord had come up with was to install a shower and toilet in the basement. Closet-size, crowded by a tiny sink, a primitive shower stall, curtained. Lurching down the rickety cellar stairway to that unheated basement on early mornings in freezing mid-winter weather remains etched in memory!

True, we were not unfamiliar with weather. We'd been bred to New York's severe enough winters. But Michigan showed us just how cold it could get there in open country. On those November through March dawns, hopping in slippers down there made brushing one's chattering teeth a challenge.

Nevertheless, my new job got me going. Until the snow and ice overlaid the streets of Ann Arbor, I peddled along there on my new black Raleigh, already on my way before eight. At the Institute a curious crowd waited at the office. People unlike any I'd before known. Cordial folks we later knew as academics. On my first day they emerged one by one, young men and a few young women, concerned only with their progress at the University. A civil, welcoming bunch withal.

This adjunct at the university, the Institute for Social Research (composed of two distinct branches, Survey Research Center and Research Center for Group Dynamics), had not before engaged an editor to critique their prose, to reformulate their constructions for the sake of their readability, or make them viable for publication. Few of those scholars had ever imagined let alone acknowledged such refinement of their creations to be necessary!

Still, publication was key for these young aspirers, not only in their salaried posts, but for their futures and academic advancement.

In those days, sponsorship of such organizations came through grants from the government. It was part of the post-war commitment to gain access to and some sense of the opinions Americans professed on various public issues. Other monies arrived from branches of the private sector that hoped to influence their views. It was government's encouragement of groups like the Group Dynamics bunch, who were occupied with taking the measure of the prevailing cultural notions prevailing. Their proposals for "measuring" were to improve data through new investigation of how opinions could be created, influenced, and tracked.

It was a new intellectual ambience for me. While I had worked to supply a curious public with research into historical eras, historical innovation, breakthroughs over many centuries, I had been approaching the cultural past. Here, I was thrust into the future! Social science, well-funded, dominated the scene for these eager scholars determined to put themselves at the forefront of the teeming times.

My first challenge came in confronting executives of the two groups with a plan for action. They were open, collegial in greeting their new employee. Their approach showed the informality of campus manners, and came as something of a surprise to me. Among academics, any man or woman ready to take on that world was regarded as knowledgeable, an authority in his specialty; so a certain deference was forthcoming. It took getting used to after Madison Avenue's jockeying immoralities. It seemed delightful, at least until the hidden pitfalls of the situation revealed themselves, ones that might lurk in each project or assignment, and particularly dangerous here.

I had to deal with another breed: educated, graduate-degreed people, males mostly, people taken with themselves and their achievements. They were relentless at making their mark. Because they desperately wanted to be published, they promptly solicited my help. They urged this "New York editor," to take their papers. But—this would remain the obstacle—it wasn't input they looked for. Input? No, no, never! They saw their text as untouchable, even sacred.

What they wanted was access, entree, my opening the doors to magazine and journal editors, and especially to publishing houses. Introductions! Connections! Introductions that could bring them attention, and through it, wider academic recognition and fame, too.

My reaction was skeptical—respectful, yet skeptical. I had even then understood a publishing basic: any writer, great as he or she might seem, will profit from a good editor—by suggestions aimed to clarify, from analysis of organization flaws, even the "catching" of grammatical errors.

Yet here were these beginning specialists—someday leaders in what was optimistically termed an innovative "scientific method" of viewing human behavior, who already maintained their work untouchable. I soon found I could barely grasp their bureaucrat-ese, or comprehend their speculative proposition couched in techno babble. Yet the language used for their revolutionary investigations was something they esteemed, considering it exact. Such "science" might suit them, yet it was framed in undecipherable jargon. Whatever its nominal importance, this jargon remained an obstacle to human communication.

Of the two groups, the Institute for Group Dynamics was intent on gibberish. People's thought processes were at stake, they argued, and how they related to one another in key situations. There were techniques proposed to change minds! They could contribute their sense of the immense contribution to practical social science. Their highly regarded and recent mentor had been famous Austrian theorist, Kurt Levin. His terminology must remain as he defined it, they believed, whether or not his terminology was communicable to lay readers. They must be faithful!

Clearly, there was little to be gained about that. I was assigned to deliver the message. While I hadn't at first a hope of altering this view—and slaved over each manuscript, simplifying, clarifying, trying to translate their texts for lay readers, to my dismay, every piece came back to reading like its original. My effort, polite as face-to-face exchanges continued to be, were met with antagonism. I soon realized that success at the institute depended upon going along with their argot. To survive, I had to assimilate!

How might one interest publishers, even academic ones, in inpenetrable texts? A tactical problem. I dutifully approached potential establishments. Unsurprisingly, I found little welcome. A couple of times, I ghosted pieces for academic journals, summarizing for my colleagues what I thought was the exact import of their ground-breaking discoveries—pieces about public reaction, say, to the recent developments in atomic energy, or, for example, how the post-war public regarded big business, or how they chose a president, in hopes of stirring some interest for their books.

Nothing served for the Institute. I would have to invent another route. And do it fast. As I began to think about what to do, I stumbled upon a solution. While talking with local printers in Ann Arbor, I was shown a new method to reprint manuscript books. It was called "offset printing."

Just emerging in that period, this was a technique of litho printing that could serve the purpose. I turned to technicians in the University community and learned that that innovators were experimenting with inexpensive methods for reproducing texts, especially those using charts, graphs, or other visuals that proved far too expensive in letter press, the traditional means of book publishing. These developments were presently revolutionizing the industry. I saw that I might produce the Institute's works, devising my own method and avoiding market standards of form and of course, comprehensibility as well.

With economy in view, I made my pitch to the Institute: a series of monographs to be sponsored in house, these bringing their theorists' work to market as breakthroughs in social sciences.

Working with freelance cover designers, I engaged the local printing establishments and their new machines. An imprint was designed exclusively for the Institute.

I tried one last stab to make their texts publishable (though with not much luck), combing manuscripts for our series. The imprint was to be prestigious, coming as it did from the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research. In their formatting, I was able to choose fonts that at least could be read.

With these processes, we had no further need of the age-old printing press. Prompt results for an inexpensive and professional product offered a way to launch our series.

My husband, had meanwhile been at his writing and his reading, researching day and night. He would soon win a coveted Hopwood Award for Poetry that year. Better still, we flourished in this once alien seeming country, which had turned out to be congenial. We made good friends, mostly other graduate students and their wives, who like us were making their way. And we explored much of the countryside of lower Michigan.

When the summer of 1952 arrived, we took our celebrated prize money off on a voyage across the sea. Booking ourselves on the then grand HMS Queen Elizabeth—myself equipped with "sensible" shoes and an indestructible nylon dress—we walked our way around most of Western Europe, from Cherbourg to Rome and Vienna and then back through England and Scotland. Just a glimpse at that continent, then some eight years into the post-War world and wracked by mass destruction still visible everywhere. Even so, for young American travelers in search of signs of their foreign pasts—whether real or fictional—it was to be a carefree, wondrous time.

But that summer escape did not happen after all. The summer came with a consequential decision. We agreed to remain in Ann Arbor. My husband had been offered a scholarship to continue with graduate study. A new commitment. Yet, since he was about to be drafted into the Korean War, and reluctant, the solution was to stay in school. Besides, during that first year of writing and study, he had found himself at ease among such texts as Beowolf and Chaucer, able to read early texts with pleasure. So when he was offered work as a Teaching Assistant, we dug in, despite the severity Michigan's winters. He was thought to have excellent academic potential. In the end, it was to be his calling.

So I plowed on at my labors at the Institute for two years longer while the list of monographs under my editorship grew. The work had, however, become repetitive. Most days I found myself bored and longed for fresh challenge.

But Madison Avenue was far away. And while my husband studied for the Ph.D., our keep had to be earned. There had to be livelier employment somewhere! I turned my attention to the nearest big city, and that, of course was Detroit. Only when I began my job hunt again did I learn something about our real surroundings—those well outside the parochial security of a University.

After metropolitan New York, I had thought it a curious place, prosperous as the city of Detroit then was. Mostly it appeared to be urban sprawl—an industrial town dominated its one industry, the American auto business. Jobs like editing or writing seemed non existent. That looked as if it was the problem.

Among the city's players were Ford, Plymouth-Chrysler, and General Motors. Those companies employed everybody working there. I was beginning to despair until I chanced upon an unlikely outfit at its center, The Jam Handy Organization. This odd-sounding bunch piqued my curiosity, and I went and tried my luck. Out of that whole metropolis, they alone served as the public relations arm for General Motors and some other large corporations. Jam Handy looked upon itself as Detroit's "creative pioneer." When I snagged a job with them, I was oddly designated as their "Trouble-Shooting Writer."

Along with dozens of others, I became a daily commuter to the City, some 40 miles away. Off I went at dawn each morning, not on my bike to Campus, but down to the railroad station to catch the express train coming straight from Chicago, carrying cars full of sleepy travelers heading East.

Once there, I was to be introduced to another world of public relations; it proved as alien as anything I'd known before. Jamison Handy, it turned out, was really the name of the man, and a rather formidable fellow he was. Detroit's exclusive mastermind at that time of what he termed as the "soft-sell." He insisted that virtually every major industry there had to promote their products through accounts with him and him exclusively: General Motors, General Electric, Westinghouse. All the biggies, in fact.

On his walls were the familiar posters and catchphrases: "THINK," "PRESENTATION IS WHAT ITS ABOUT!" Monday mornings, he met with his staff to put the "fire to their bellies." One ice-covered dawn, for instance, we entered that conference room to find him sitting at his huge conference table wearing his usual business attire of striped suit and tie. That day, however, he was missing the starched white shirt! Instead, what we saw was his bare, pink chest and its black hairs.

We sat there in silence, dumb-struck! Not one of us dared to notice that the shirt was missing! Faces blank, and with a unanimity that might have been ordained, none permitted himself a direct gaze or a turn to peek at his neighbor's reaction.

Puzzling, for sure. An oversight? Handy was not a young man. God knows it was still cold that morning in that heated room! Long minutes passed as each of us wondered what to do. We brought our coffee to the table, we coughed, we stalled and pretended to study our notes.

Handy's secretary was no help. She started up with the morning's agenda as though nothing was amiss. It was then that the master pounced.

He bellowed: Had he succeeded in getting our attention? Had he caused excitement, furor? Had his gambit knocked us out? Ha! SO BE IT! he clucked to answer himself. Yes, absolutely! This is what carried for every campaign, every design, every enterprise. This was the Jam Handy touch, his signature!

As for that morning's business, what it was eludes memory. Yet the power of that little sales demonstration lingers.

During that "troubleshooting" year, I learned a lot of those shenanigans when I had to tackled slide films for Jam Handy clients. Consider this one: supposedly, conceived to teach grade school kids to "drive" an automobile, we devised an ingenious little scheme, one which was to get us into the national school curriculum! It consisted of cute vignettes for young 'uns in toy cars (coincidentally built to match the latest General Motors models of that particular year), the streets nearby filled with cheery mothers alongside their smiling kids. Of course, included in the background of each scene were full-size, parked cars, each a brilliantly printed automobile by General Motors. There it was: an America full of tomorrow's choice!

"Soft sell!" public relations, a la Jam Handy. And not a ford or Plymouth to be seen anywhere! What he stressed was childhood exposure, teaching what counted. Indeed, during my employment at Jam Handy, the power of advertising in itself revealed its potential for me, and it was more frightening than inspirational. Big Brother could have taught the class that showed a Jam Handy slide film.

But I managed to earn our keep that year, while honing my skills out there in the world of public relations. Better still was another bonus that came in that daily slog to Detroit and back. Ann Arbor was a quiet university town; Detroit offered excitement. Henry Ford's creation—that place he'd transformed at the turn of the century—conceded some cultural delight.

African Americans eager for jobs, for opportunity, the promise of a non-segregated Northern life had migrated there early. They had arrived when that industrial baron combed the South, settling in to work in the auto industry, and they brought along their jazz.

When the Great Depression hit, many were locked out of most industry jobs and reduced to poverty. They ended in a slummy "colored" district on the city's East Side, where they were to be joined by nationalities who had also arrived in better days: Poles, Mexicans, Italian and Greeks.

Paradise Valley, as it came to be known, remained its center, and their music filled clubs with "Black Bottom." They transformed every kind of music, making it their own: gospel, jazz, pop. Performers who later came to distinction, as well as the those already known, did their stuff nightly at these clubs, the likes of Pearl Bailey, Ella fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Della Reese. The district's music sang out. And we were lucky enough then to be right there!

My husband would join me in the city for those evenings. We'd grab a bit to eat before heading towards the music. Night after night, they played. Whether we headed for the jazz, for Della Reese's singing gospel, or to a pop club, it was all revelation for us, live music we'd never heard.

In those unencumbered times, and after the intensity of my husband's daily reading and my wild workload, Detroit's bustling musical magic kept us hopping. We couldn't get enough of it!


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