The past is a foreign country," the novelist L.P. Hartley famously observed. "They do things differently there." Well, yes and no. When Anne Bernays and Justin Kaplan decided to write a joint memoir of their lives in the 1950s, they found plenty of differences. That was the decade of McCarthyism, The Lonely Crowd, "I Like Ike" and Sputnik, and of manners and mores that now seem downright quaint. But in Back Then: Two Lives in 1950s New York (Morrow), Bernays and Kaplan (who are wife and husband) also found lines of continuity with the present, and the roots of who they are today.
Bernays, 71, is the author of eight novels and two nonfiction books and is a writing teacher. Kaplan, 76, is a biographer and an editor, whose 1966 study Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain won a Pulitzer Prize. They live in a tony neighborhood in Cambridge, Mass., a few blocks from Harvard, on so-called Professors' Row, which real estate agents refer to as the smart street because such high-IQ figures as John Kenneth Galbraith, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Henry Louis Gates Jr. have called it home. It was a long leap from there back to Manhattan at mid-century.
"There were a lot of codes that asked to be broken in the '50s: codes about sex, codes about drinking, codes about what you wore, codes about what you saw," says Bernays. But, she adds, "it was easy to be rebellious, if you didn't make too much noise doing it."
In their book--which is written in alternating chapters, a lovely duet--the couple notably break the code against frankness about sex, describing in detail their sojourns through the bedrooms of New York. "Sex before marriage remained vaguely illicit for members of my generation," writes Kaplan. "This gave it an extra thrill--the thrill of 'sneaky sex.' We were cat burglars of pleasure." However, their sexual adventurousness ended at the altar, the couple say: their long marriage has been monogamous.
Both Bernays and Kaplan came from privileged backgrounds. Bernays was the daughter of Edward Bernays, who pioneered the field of public relations. Hers was a gilded childhood on Manhattan's East Side, with servants, chauffeurs and private schools. Sigmund Freud's spirit hovered over their home; she was the psychoanalyst's grandniece, and was named after Anna Freud, Sigmund's daughter. Kaplan was raised on the more intellectual, arty West Side. His father, who had studied to be a rabbi in Vilna, Russia, founded a shirt factory in New York that made him rich.
After finishing college (Bernays at Barnard, Kaplan at Harvard), each settled in Manhattan seeking a job in publishing. She landed at Town & Country, where she accidentally set a fire in a pail. She moved on to the literary journal discovery. He found a job at Simon & Schuster. Through work, the two met, and sparks flew. "Annie had a core of sweetness, shrewdness and merriment," writes Kaplan. She was "immensely attractive, a proto-feminist, self-assured, easily amused, wary of anything pretentious, street-smart, privileged without ostentation or snobbery, comfortable with luxury but unspoiled by it, and professional minded." Bernays was equally attracted. She writes, "He was adorable--sweet, a little sad, greatly humorous, generous, and blessed with what teachers call 'character' and Jews call Menschlichkeit."