The Birth of the Cool: Leo Braudy's Memoir of the 1950s

By Peter BirkenheadNovember 28, 2013

Trying to Be Cool by Leo Braudy

LEO BRAUDY won’t have to worry about accusations of narcissism. The accomplished cultural critic and historian has written a new memoir, Trying to be Cool, in which he is almost a minor character.

The subject of Braudy’s book is not his life but his place and time. Born in Philadelphia near the end of World War II to second-generation Jewish parents scarred by the Depression, he came of age during a period of unprecedented prosperity and the dawn of a sprawling popular culture dedicated to satisfying his generation’s every whim. That decade now feels like a collective American adolescence, forever frozen in the cultural memory as a theme park diorama of sock hops, malt shops, and “submarine races.”

But in Trying to be Cool, Braudy peels away those old, received caricatures of the 1950s to examine the living, pimply, human reality underneath, from the perspective of one particularly observant teenager — a perspective that is surprisingly, and resolutely, outward-looking.

He works from the inside out, filling a large canvas with dozens of small, affectionately drawn sketches of his mostly Jewish working-class friends and their inner-city neighborhood. His style is chatty and anecdotal, and if the book sometimes feels overpopulated with undernourished characters, many of them turn out to be nonetheless memorable.

Rob Sieckel, “‘a tough schkut’ — which tended to mean any non-Jewish white male with a leather jacket,” is a put-down artist of such virtuosic talent his name is turned into a verb by his pimple-faced admirers. (A particularly gross insult is “sieckelian” or a “robscenity.”)

Bobby Feldberg is a “slightly florid but good looking guy with dark red hair. Only it wasn’t his real hair but a wig he had to wear because he was bald from some childhood accident or genetic malfunction.” A master of an improvisational dance called “The Bug,” Bobby earns eternal fame for winning a dance-off by dramatically snatching off his wig, tossing it in the air and “clapping it back on his head, jauntily askew.”

A “thin, dour” 14-year-old with a “bitter, contented smile” named Martin Goldstein has a face that, even when he talked about his favorite subject, “new historical tortures he had discovered, [...] remained closed on itself, smooth and impassive.”

Braudy recounts a half dozen stingingly funny scenes of these and other members of his gang of friends engaging in the time-honored Philadelphia sport of “sounding” (ridicule, to you and me), relentlessly one-upping each other with gloriously clumsy, operatic critiques of each others’ clothes, hygiene, desperately appropriated hipster poses, and jerry-rigged personalities.

The young Braudy loiters shyly at the outer edge of the group, from where he notes the signals of fluctuating teenage status and desire — the too-formal pair of shoes, the badly calibrated insult, the well aimed obscene gesture — that are the unspoken language of every adolescent cohort. He decodes the jargon, fills in the cryptic musical quotes, and contextualizes the copious movie references to give us a vivid sense of the thrumming, fragile cultural web he and his friends are captive to.

It doesn’t take long to realize that Braudy was destined for his current occupation (he runs with a crowd that thinks a collection of Jean Paul Sartre stories is “a great jerkoff book”) or to discover where he learned to deftly connect personal memories with the larger forces at work in the culture, as he so often does in his criticism. He has a finely tuned sense of the roiling shifts — social, racial, economic — occurring just below the surface of American life in the 1950s, cleaving it in two and rendering tired critical categories like “high” and “low” obsolete. He observes the behavior of his generation as if through a gymnasium window, then turns around to track its roots and ripple effects in the outside world.

An obsessive book and movie fan, Braudy is clearly more comfortable in some corners of that world than in others. He is more interested in the performance and culture of politics, for instance, than in its day-to-day prosaics (the book’s scant commentary on Joe McCarthy and the Red Scare is delivered perfunctorily), but he has a great ear for the rhythms and syntax of self-righteousness and resentment, and relishes the niggling arguments his parents’ friends muster in defense of their ever-more-finely sliced political ideologies.

The dramatic political events of the era occur mostly offstage for Braudy and his friends; the belligerent paranoia of the times lurks everywhere but is rarely named or acknowledged. The most potent event, by far, in their young lives, is the advent of rock and roll, and Braudy eagerly strips away layers of lacquer from the shiny, safe, Happy Days version of its first few years. He emphasizes that the experience of early rock and roll was primarily a physical one, that it was first and foremost about dancing, and was never going to be comprehensible to anyone applying the standards of lyric and melody–based music. Which of course only magnified its appeal to him and his friends.

For Braudy, rock and roll “appealed to all the senses with its invocation of a universe of nebulous but intense feelings.” It spoke in a “code of submersion, a code of the synapses and skin, meant not to convey meaning but to separate you from the unbelievers, a code of the dream.” The polite, sexless jitterbugging being performed on Philadelphia’s own American Bandstand and other shows of its ilk was at best a tight-assed simulation of the epileptic, spiritual frenzies that were overtaking teenage nervous systems in gyms all across America.

Braudy’s descriptions of what it felt like to dance to the new, unchained, beat-based music are the most deeply felt passages of the book, dispatches from the delirious throes of rock and roll that perfectly capture the transcendent physical experience of rhythmic possession, the sweat-soaked fulfillment of a promise that mere tunes and words could never have made.

This was music capable of articulating inchoate teenage frustration, music that “presented an ecstasy beyond anything possible in normal life.” Braudy’s generation was the first since the turn of the century not to experience widespread calamity. They were sons and daughters of wary, agitated, Depression-era parents who were not as taciturn as their own parents: they talked a lot — about politics, and books, and politics again — but they rarely spoke about themselves or the past. Exhausted, hyper-vigilant fathers like Braudy’s, an engineer who made a decent living, yet still “scrutinized every penny,” and banned potato-peelers from the house because they “took off too much.” Braudy’s remarkably perceptive eye allows him to notice things about his parents and their generation that they often failed to notice about themselves.

These children of the 1930s were:

Life members of the poor but intellectually avid Jews caught in a limbo between the shtetl behind them and the academy ahead. [...] Their religion was the mind, its daily services were conversation and its liturgy was opinions about everything. […] To be free was to forget the past [...] only the future existed.

Their children’s era was bound to feel new. It seems inevitable that the period following the greatest cataclysm in history would see the birth of a new culture, preoccupied with youth and closed off to history, in which the past was yet another secret, another layer of mystery in a world that seemed to be made of the stuff.

The 1950s' combustible mix of postwar prosperity and buttoned-up propriety afforded teenagers like Braudy a characteristically mysterious psychological luxury his parents could never have afforded, a “sense of longing, the ache of knowing something was missing without knowing what it was.” Rock and roll provided, if not an antidote, then at least “two and a half or three minutes at a time to be willing to imagine how it might be searched for and pursued.”

Yet, Trying to be Cool is not an introspective memoir. Braudy and his friends were only slightly less averse to the idea of psychotherapy than their mostly unreconstructed lefty parents were. And in any case, his childhood seems to have been a happy one. Readers steeling themselves for desperate dysfunction or hidden liquor bottles will be relieved, and perhaps disappointed, to find none of those familiar tropes of the modern memoir here. There's not much in the way of score-settling or regret animating Braudy’s gently bemused account of his era. Instead, it’s his relentless curiosity, directed at the culture rather than himself, that drives the story.

The author’s disinclination toward self-analysis is mostly a good thing in a book so outwardly focused, but it delays Braudy’s reflecting on a particularly important piece of information until long after the reader might expect him to. Well into a chapter mostly concerned with his and his friends razzing each other about pimples, weight gain, and body odor, (a ritual he was rarely the brunt of, according to him) and after his rhapsodies to the transcendent powers of dance music, Braudy casually lets it be known that he had polio as a four-year-old, which left one of his legs two inches shorter than the other. Is it really possible that, while the earnest, overweight kid in Braudy’s crowd was being subjected to merciless hazing, the limping author, wearing a noticeably thick-soled shoe, somehow managed to escape unscathed? Or that his affected leg wouldn’t have interfered with his dancing in a manner worth noting? He moves on from the subject quickly, without addressing those questions, and doesn’t return to it until fairly late in the book, when he offers a grudging defense of his earlier reticence:

I suppose its time here to face the question of my leg more directly. Polio didn’t impede me in my dancing, and I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to use it as an excuse for sitting on the sidelines. There must have been some compensation going on, to get psychological about it, but making those kinds of hidden causal links was beyond me at the time. My leg was one thing and dancing was another.

It’s an admirable, completely understandable, if not very modern attitude toward affliction, but not a helpful one for the reader. Getting “psychological about it” may have been beyond Braudy at the time, but surely it isn’t now.

Still, his “nothing to see here” tone is so perfectly representative of the era’s ethos that we forgive him his defensiveness. He makes it clear that unspoken communication was the lingua franca of his spooky and elusive era: “Something was always beneath the surface in the ’50’s [...] anger, sex, The Bomb, a monster [...]” In discussing his enjoyment of the coded restraint employed by his favorite writers, Braudy observes that, “As a true child of the ‘50’s, it was reticence, repression and indirection that got my juices really flowing.”

It’s this pervasive sense of a multilayered, hidden world, fraught with invisible menace, that is most arresting about Trying to be Cool. (It even accrues an unsuspected double meaning to the title.) And it seems to be what was most memorable, for Braudy, about the era he grew up in.

He writes:

In the movies. in popular music, everywhere in the ’50’s landscape, there were indirections and innuendos, beckoning the young interpreter to search out their secrets. [...] In my grammar school classrooms, there were two sets of shades — one tan to keep out the sun, the other black to keep out nuclear radiation — which were protectively pulled down during our frequent air raid drills. Were both the threats and the safety just illusions? Only the secret knew.

One wishes he would have been, in the spirit of the times, a little more restrained himself, when it comes to discussions of sex — or rather discussions about discussions of sex. Not that the subject has no place in a memoir of adolescence — far from it — but several long passages about measuring appendages or humping inanimate objects, because they are not given the same kind of contextualizing Braudy devotes to sections about movies and music, end up going nowhere and feeling tiresome. The language he employs in these passages often seems, well, stuck in the ’50s; his two or three variations on the phrase “the large breasts fashionable at the time,” for instance, or his several unabashed repetitions of the phrase “ugly girls” have a way of clanging rather jarringly on the ear in 2014.

But for better or worse — mostly better — Trying to be Cool is very much of and about its time. It’s a smart, lucid, insightful tour of a world that is both long gone and inescapably still with us, an immersion in the early days of our media-saturated, electrified, youth-obsessed culture, a fresh, raw retelling of its creation myth from someone who was there, on the dance floor, losing himself in the beat.


Peter Birkenhead is a writer living in Washington, D.C. His memoir Gonvillewas published in 2010.

LARB Contributor

Peter Birkenhead is a writer living in Washington, DC. His memoir Gonville was published in 2010.


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