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New York in the '50s

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“New York was where there was freedom and hope.
And that was enormously appealing to me.”
                                         —Robert Redford


Filmmaker Ted Steeg ’52 takes a turn in front of the camera in New York in the Fifties, director Betsy Blankenbaker’s documentary based on the book by best-selling author and screenwriter Dan Wakefield.

Hoosiers Steeg and Wakefield shared an apartment in Greenwich Village, and in the film they join Robert Redford, Gay Talese, Nat Hentoff, and others sharing memories of the New York renaissance of creativity and expression that introduced the world to the new journalism of the Village Voice, the literature of J. D. Salinger, James Baldwin, Jack Kerouac, Norman Mailer, and Allen Ginsberg; the music of Thelonius Monk and Mabel Mercer; and the continuing efforts of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement.

The following are edited excerpts from New York in the Fifties:

“We were called ‘the Silent Generation’—the generation that came of age during the 1950s. Our own chosen place of exile from Middle America was New York, where you found your contemporary counterparts, allies, mentors, friends.

“Our ’50s were far more exciting than the typical American experience because we were in New York, where people came to flee the average and find a group of like-minded souls.”

- Dan Wakefield

Ted Steeg: Being in New York in the ’50s was, in our minds, like being in Paris in the 1920s and ’30s—it was where it was happening; all the new stuff was happening right here.

Dan Wakefield: It defined us, because it meant we were not going to stay home and marry the girl next door, go up the corporate ladder, and get the gold watch at retirement. We had decided to take risks, and we had come to New York to be the best we could be at whatever it was.

Steeg: We felt that Eisenhower and America, out there in the Heartland, was just this sort of suffocating tranquility, but in New York City things were really bubbling and boiling.

Wakefield: Everyone has this image of the ’50s as the Eisenhower Age, but what they forget is that the ’50s was also the people who came to New York to escape the Eisenhower Age. New York was like the alternative society.

Steeg: I really wanted something different from Indiana and from the very middle class kind of existence I’d had until then, and though it caused a lot of static in the family, I had to go.

Dan and I wound up in New York at the same time. That was great, because we both wanted to be writers.

Wakefield: We wanted to be part of this exciting creative thing that was going on in New York in the ’50s, where everybody was finding new ways to express themselves.

Steeg: When Dan and I first became friends, we both had arrived at a place, sort of like the [F. Scott] Fitzgerald quote—we were “a generation grown up to find all Gods dead, all faiths in man shaken”—and we sort of lived by that.

Wakefield: I remember going to Sheridan Square for the first time, which was the heart of the Village for many of us then, and feeling this was wonderful, strange—this was something new, there was no such place as this in Indiana.

Steeg: The hero for all of those who wanted to be writers was Salinger. We used to rush out to find his latest New Yorker story whenever it came out, and Catcher in the Rye was our Bible.

Wake and I moved into an apartment in the village, at 10th Street and Bleeker.

Wakefield: We had parties on the roof, where you weren’t supposed to go, with a great view of the lights of Manhattan.

Steeg: We had access there by the fire escape, and we’d go out on the roof and we’d look out over the city and say, “This is ours, ours—or one day it will be.”

Excerpted and edited from New York in the Fifties, copyright 2001 by Betsy Blankenbaker/Figaro Films




“The Whitehorse Tavern was my favorite bar because the arguments there were so fierce, about everything—race, politics, whatever. But as fierce as they were, they weren’t the sort of arguments that resulted in people never speaking to each other again. It was enjoyable to argue.”

—Nat Hentoff, editor, The Village Voice