The Way It Was

UPDATED 03/05/1984 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 03/05/1984 at 01:00 AM EST

In the year that Nixon resigned and Patty Hearst was kidnapped, marching in protest was eclipsed by streaking.

Think of it in context. The war seemed to be nearing an end in 1974 and, shutting our eyes tight against all the obstacles, we were mightily wishing it there. Maybe it was that half-imagined crack in the long gloom that made us think of someone's taking a sprint in the buff—through university quadrangles, across the stage on Oscar night—as oddly likable, a defiant show of health. It was a trivial thing, set against the oil embargo, inflation, the disgrace of the President, but as a primitive assertion of self instead of principle it was a signal gesture. The bad news had been coming thick and fast for years, and the temptation was growing irresistible just to turn it off, switch the channel, see if something good was on.

Same time, new station: Muhammad Ali decked George Foreman in Zaire and the Champ was the Champ all over again. Hank Aaron smacked No. 715. The "love match" of pro tennis, Jimmy Connors and Chrissie Evert, won deep, approving sighs along with the singles' titles at Wimbledon. Escape went into our beach bags too, notably the scare novel Jaws. And after all those years of old blue jeans and tie-dyed T-shirts, there was a refreshing fad under the sun: String bikinis!

The campuses were quiet that autumn—eerily so, it was thought—and into that quiet Barbra Streisand sang a song about The Way We Were. In it were echoes of a longing that had nothing to do with the movie or young Redford's good looks—it gave voice to a common hunch that things were better in some misty back-then, in the peace before the war and the antiwar, before hippies and yippies and drugs and children who talked back, before whatever evil it was that made things go sour. That sentiment could not be appeased by streakers or by switching the channel; no escape could deflect it. Its demand was a simple and insistent one: Turn back all the clocks. In this wishful view it did not matter how long and how strange our time away had been. Someday, somehow, we would all be coming home.

That dream died fast. Too much had changed, the changes were too basic. By the time Jane Fonda and Jon Voight opened the wounds for inspection in their images of Coming Home (1978), the bankruptcy of nostalgia had become painfully apparent. Emotionally, there was no home to come home to.

The order of the day was clear. The command was forward, to anywhere. Just somewhere else, somewhere up ahead where the future became the present.

We felt a heart-struck sympathy that year for another soldier who came home. Hiroo Onoda, a profoundly loyal lieutenant in the service of Emperor Hirohito, walked out of a jungle in the Philippines to announce his surrender, only to learn that his war had been over for almost 30 years.

Not incidentally, this magazine began against that backdrop, in 1974.

A marvel of timing, though who could have known it? Americans, discouraged by what Woodward and Bernstein had found out, were cynical, cranky: People were no damn good. In this new world we were disoriented—not unlike Lieutenant Onoda, coming out of our own jungle—and we would, at first desperately, then more frankly, base our directions on a new criterion: What's in it for me?

That turn inward was a critical juncture. The energy that had filled the streets was about to go indoors; the freedoms that had not been achieved by public action we were going to find in private life. Some would say it was narcissistic, downright unbecoming, all this Me-Me-Me. In fact, though, the idea was distinctly protestant: Traditional values and powers-that-be were to be replaced with a new center of authority in the self.

This new self wanted a revolution as much as the '60s had. You couldn't walk down the street or go to a party these last 10 years without getting into some kind of revolutionary skirmish. Women, men, gays, old people, teens, preteens—everybody had a movement. Right to Life. Right to Die. The whole social contract was put up for renewal, and the questioning went as deep as it could go. Also as skin-deep: a dervish-whirl of change, upheavals almost weekly, in fashion, diet, exercise, therapy—a real show. The new personal authority cared deeply about the freedom to choose—anything and everything. We formed ranks in an eager new class of emotional consumers who went shopping for choices the way our parents went shopping for groceries. Hundreds of them, some scary, some hilarious, some that would make Caligula blush. The self decreed, "Experiment!" and that is what we did.

Looking back, it's hard not to feel a fresh ache of nostalgia for the way we were 10 years ago. Elvis, Freddie Prinze, John Belushi, John Lennon: They were all alive and thriving. Tatum, Brooke and Barbie dolls (first sold in 1959) were just minors, and Farrah Fawcett was still Majors. There was a simple certainty beyond death and taxes, such a truism it was a joke: "Is the Pope Italian?" The much-invoked Majority was still Silent, not yet Moral. T-shirts had not yet become a literary form. Fellow pedestrians did not wear headphones or in them seem to be moving through other, alien planes. Phil Donahue was all but unknown beyond the Midwest. Prince Charles was a swinging bachelor. There was not yet a Gong Show, nor any room, even in our radically enlarged repertoire of conceivable ideas, for the prospect of Elizabeth Taylor living on a farm (even John Warner's). Gasoline, coffee and marijuana were cheap. No one had yet thought of basing a campaign for the Presidency on a promise not to be a liar.

But look again: Taking a spin through the year of 1974, you can see in it the whole decade writ small. IUDs came on the market, and on TV there was a singles' spin-off from MTM, Rhoda. Betty Ford and Happy Rockefeller, First and Second Ladies of the land, talked openly about their mastectomies. Transsexual Jan (neé James) Morris told in Conundrum what it felt like to be a self-made woman. Marabel Morgan's Total Woman sold like lipstick, and cellulite was Topic A at the water cooler. Cher filed for divorce from Sonny, Henry Kissinger got married, and two radicals who had once plotted to kidnap him—Father Philip Berrigan and Sister Elizabeth McAlister—were discovered living quietly in Baltimore with their 1-year-old son. Margaret Trudeau announced she was seeing a shrink ("I'm pretty much an out-front, straight-forward chick," the Prime Minister's wife explained). The National Soap Box Derby was won by 11-year-old Laura Cross. A book and TV show by Mario Thomas, Free to Be...You and Me, told boys and girls they're not so different after all, and girls signed up for Little League. Chuck Colson announced he was born-again. Top model Ann Schaufuss left Seventh Avenue to join the Krishnas. "In my next life," she said, "I'd like to be a little blade of grass so Krishna could poise his foot on me."

That year was only the beginning. The themes introduced in those 12 months were elaborated throughout the decade that followed in a thousand surprising ways.

Start with relationships, where much of the action had its roots. As the decade unfolded, reversals of the norm became normal. Consider these three examples:

In 1981 a 17-year-old boy in Connecticut, tired of fighting with his mother all the time, sued his parents for "divorce"; the court declared him a legal adult. In 1982 a mother in San Ramon, Calif., fed up with being "everybody's servant," went on strike, walking alone with her picket sign in front of her house. In 1983 Liberace was sued for palimony by his chauffeur.

Everything went up for grabs in nearly every kind of relationship during these 10 years and, like much else, women started it. They leaned against every barricade they found, and if the ERA failed to pass, much of what it sought was achieved anyway. Here's a sampler of "first women" stories of the past decade: first into the Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard and Merchant Marine academies, first to Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar, first Episcopal priests, first rabbi, first U.S. astronaut, first TV network chairman, first Supreme Court Justice. TV did its part, in its fashion, with Charlie's Angels, The Bionic Woman, Police Woman and Wonder Woman, which spun off into a Saturday morning cartoon; our daughters—and our sons—got the message.

Along with better jobs would come more confidence, more money, more self-assertion. Victories for women of a private nature would decisively alter the sexual balance of power, reorganize for millions the institution of the couple and rock the foundations of the American family.

Here's how that went. "In every marriage there are two marriages," as Clare Boothe Luce put it. "His and hers. His is better." Right on, sister. And as for you, honey, if I'm out there busting my hump every day just like you, there are going to be some changes around here. Stasis was no longer an option: Refusal to compromise frequently meant divorce.

Lots of women said never mind to marriage. Some chose to have what one wag called "elationships" with lots of people at once, inspired in part by Erica Jong's disquisition in Fear of Flying on the pleasures of ziplessness and the like-minded Hite Report. Others chose to take other women for their lovers. Despite the fulminations of Anita Bryant, gays, both female and male, found this an excellent time to come out of the closet. There were gay-pride parades and new gay businesses (newspapers, real-estate companies, a bank). There were gay dates to high school proms, even gay marriages. When Billie Jean King confessed her lesbian relationship with Marilyn Barnett, she lost endorsement contracts, but there was more compassion for her than there were snickers or clucks of the tongue; increasingly it was bigotry that dared not speak its name. Spurned lovers, on the other hand, would not shut up; they would see you in court. Michelle Triola broke ground for that with her palimony suit against Lee Marvin.

In the decade after the Supreme Court's 1973 decision on women's right to abortion, the average number of abortions per year doubled. But by 1983, 96 percent of all unwed teenage mothers were deciding to keep their babies instead of putting them up for adoption, and they had role models in high places. Faye Dunaway and Jessica Lange, among others, decided they just wanted the babies—forget about husbands.

For some women, palimony made it easier to live together without grabbing for the gold ring. Prenuptial agreements hedged the marriage bet. "During the '70s," author John Naisbitt (Megatrends) observes wryly, "there were days when I was sure that the only people in this society who really wanted to get married were priests."

Medicine helped the revolution along. David Rorvik's book, In His Image, about a man who had had himself cloned, turned out to be a clever hoax, but it wasn't far off the mark. Sperm banks, surrogate motherhood, test-tube motherhood—reproduction was running away from home. Only California could come up with the Repository for Germinal Choice, a sperm bank with a difference. A sort of Hall of Fame for genes, the Repository freezes the semen of high achievers only, a few Nobel prizewinners among them. Afton Blake, a 39-year-old psychologist from L.A., drove down to Escondido one day and chose No. 28 from the catalog, a scientist with a nice face who liked music, and nine months later delivered a healthy baby boy whom she named Doron—and who was surely a genius, just as all first babies are.

Where did all this leave men? Some took it well. John Lennon and Ted Koppel were among those who adapted for a time to the role of house husband. Others found all the changes too drastic to make, and the man whose wife ran off with another woman—Woody Allen in Manhattan—was the stock schlemiel of the era. At times some of us wanted to punch Phil Donahue right in his with-it-ness, imagine him spanking Mario, and crawl under the covers with a flashlight and a copy of Real Men Don't Eat Quiche. (Sample girl-boy caption: "It was nice meeting someone so sensitive, aware, and vulnerable. Too bad you're such a wimp." Take that, Alan Alda.) The last line of defense for such men was upper-body strength, which formed the basis for Andy Kaufman's challenge to wrestle "any woman at all" and his taunts: "No brains—they were meant to wash potatoes." In the end, of course, Kaufman lost, as Bobby Riggs had done before him. For men who would not be reconstructed, the battle of the sexes was a losing proposition.

When it got too heavy, you could visit your local transcendence emporium and they'd fix you right up. LSD therapy, groups that sought self-fulfillment by watching soap operas, primal screaming, doing psychodramas, marathon encounters, lying in isolation tanks. One beneficent therapist in L.A. actually set up a stand on a downtown street, where for a time he purveyed counseling, like Peanuts' Lucy, for 5 cents. Everyone had to have a shrink: Jackie O did. So did Princess Margaret, Dudley Moore, Cary Grant, Julie Andrews. The list goes on and on. The champ has to be Woody Allen, a 28-year veteran ("and now that I know who I am I want to be somebody else"). Beach Boy Brian Wilson had a 24-hour-a-day shrink (license plate: HEADOC), while his brother Dennis was going out of it more quietly and ultimately to his death.

Still short on transcendence? Join a cult—plenty of those on the shelves. Krishnas, Moonies, Children of God, Divine Light Mission. Deprogrammers pulled down heavy overtime in this decade to wipe away those spooky smiles. You'd think Jonestown would have taken some of the spit out of the recruitment drives. But even the daughter of Congressman Leo Ryan, whose investigation of Jim Jones' Guyana compound started the mass suicide, joined the cult of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, where she still lives.

Others of us ran, millions of us ran. Here the Walkman came in handy. Nothing like the Rocky theme to run to, or the disco anthem I Will Survive or, better yet, Fame: "I'm gonna live forever/I'm gonna learn how to fly." That was what it was all about, all the huffing and puffing on 10-speeds and roller skates and Nautilus machines and judo mats. There and in the pumping-iron subculture, where women were men and men were relief maps, the whole point was to live forever, keep fit for your eternal youth. Just take a little massage (another supermarket for that: Shiatsu, acupressure, reflexology, polarity, rolfing, the Madame Renna Method, Mongolian skin-rolling for the cellulite) and get right back at it. The best-seller Life Extension swore we could live to at least 100, and the Gray Panthers were there to see that mandatory-retirement laws went the way of the Model-T Do not go gentle, head Panther Maggie Kuhn urged: "Fight retirement. Enjoy sex. Don't become a wrinkled baby."

The national diet—which one nutritionist called "a form of oral suicide only slightly less efficient than direct intake of arsenic"—improved. Less sugar, salt, fat, red meat, additives. Thank you Adelle Davis, Nathan Pritikin and the health-food supermarket. And on came the Diet diets—from Cambridge to I Love New York to Beverly Hills. Hearing that Jean Harris had shot Dr. Herman Tarnower, creator of the Scarsdale Diet, Joan Rivers was heard to say: "Oh really? I didn't think his diet was that bad." But none of the diets tasted good. Perhaps it was a voice from the collective unconscious that spoke through the mouth of the woolly blue monster who had just one thing to say: COOOOOKEEEEE!

The body grew stronger, and the impulse to decorate it ran wild. Fashion? Spinach. You wore what you damn pleased: the layered look, the Annie Hall baglady look, mink coats with cowboy boots, spiked heels with jeans (but designer jeans, if you please, our new mating call in denim). Punk never quite caught on, probably because you had to dye your hair five or six iridescent colors, cut it in a Mohawk and stick a safety pin through your nose. Still, we did put our hair through hell to keep up with all the people whose heads we had to have: Farrah's, Dorothy Hamill's, Bo Derek's, Di's and somewhere in there a flirtation with the Angela Davis 'do.

We followed celebrities into all these things. They got into therapy long before we did, and now Jane Fonda and Victoria Principal lead us in our thigh-thinners, and Dallas' Linda Gray and Dynasty's Joan Collins (a Playmate at 50, bless her buns) stand before us asking why we, at their age, look so old. They led us into plastic surgery (Mariel Hemingway with her Star 80 breasts and Michael Jackson with his new nose are the latecomers; the pioneers were people like Lana Turner and Joan Crawford), and of course they preceded us in knowing that the only lunch a beautiful person is permitted consists of one perfect, very expensive lettuce leaf. At Ma Maison, naturellement.

A word here about celebrities, who all through the decade have been a distinct presence in our lives. To a degree greater than ever before we have brought them into our living rooms, sat them down among us as members of a new kind of extended family. We were encouraged to do this by the parts they played. Unlike earlier stars, such as Gable and Lombard, who afforded glimpses of lives more glamorous and romantic than our own, these personalities, though often dressed to the nines, played out a kind of hyperreality. On TV's prime-time soaps—Dallas, Dynasty, Falcon Crest and the rest—we were served up infidelities, abortions, rapes, nervous breakdowns and bereavements in rapid succession. Sooner or later they touched some wound in each of us. Country music hogged the charts with songs that did the same—from Loretta Lynn on cheating and The Pill to Johnny Paychek's Take This Job and Shove It. When the stars then came off the screen or tube or radio to tell Johnny and Merv and PEOPLE about their troubles, we took them to our hearts even more. All this was good for their business. The power of celebrities, after all, lies in their charisma, their ability to create in us a longing to be them.

But there are new perils for the famous as they come closer. They become lightning rods for all the troubled loners who are looking for a way to right what wrongs them. A psyche that is a bit cracked soaks up television shows, movies and concerts more deeply than others do, takes away from them more vivid projections and meanings. John Lennon's murder was without precedent: not assassination, not random or passionate killing. Mark David Chapman, self-appointed hit man from the Global Village, set out to waste a celebrity. A few months later John Hinckley, triggered by Jodie Foster's performance in Taxi Driver, tried to kill the President to get her attention. Another neo-killer. A shot aimed at the screen.

Between the fan and the celebrity there is a tacit but binding agreement, a bargain not unlike Faust's with Satan. The public gives the celebrity money, fame and power; in return, the celebrity lives out the fantasies of his fans—inhabits magnificent mansions, drives priceless cars, sleeps with other famous, desirable people, snorts boxcars of cocaine, whatever the fan wants, since in the celebrity supermarket there's someone to suit any script we can dream up. Warren Beatty, for example, is our Don Juan; true or not, millions assume that if there are any beautiful actresses of the last 20 years who have not spent a night of ecstasy in his Beverly Wilshire penthouse, they can be counted on the fingers of one foot. Or consider Cher, who has played out several soaps' worth for us. There she sits with a zillion dollars, no cellulite and an acre of crazy clothes. Could have any man she wants, and what does she take in? A druggie, among other failed choices. Oh, but it makes such wonderful reading when we're stuck home with a sick cat and the canary has a sore throat. Celebrities can have that much and that little importance to us.

Their side of the story is cautionary. It may be a groaner but it's true: They pay retail for their fame. They're stared at, gawked at and known only as objects of our projections, creatures of the Fame Zoo. Even their friends get the image and the person muddled, and sometimes they do too, and then it gets dangerous.

Think, of Elvis behind the walls of Graceland at the end, crashing around in the middle of the night, popping pills like a kid in a barrel of M&M's, insulated by bodyguards. He was 42 when he died. Say he gave up a third of his life for his celebrity—a fair bargain? Promoters bought one of his Cadillacs after his death and melted it down to make commemorative medallions and pendants and, as Baretta used to say, that's the name of that tune. You give yourself away in pieces.

Or think of Pryor running out of his house into the night, on fire and screaming, when his cocaine-free-basing kit blew up in his face. Or Belushi.

Limelight can be blinding. In interviews over the last several years celebrity after celebrity has been moved to declare, in so many words, "I am a survivor, I've got the stuff to stay on top." The survival routine has become one of the trade jokes of personal journalism. When you stop and think, though, it isn't funny at all.

Lee Marvin has survived, and this is how he describes what it means to be a celebrity: "They put your name on a star on Hollywood Boulevard, and you find a pile of dog manure on it. That's the whole story, baby." Words to live by.

It was all a bit much at times, this Me Decade. But then, just when it seemed there was no safe haven from this ego-driven culture, some redeeming figure of fad-proof humanity would be there to give us heart to go on.

People like Dr. William Larimer Mellon Jr., an heir to a multibillion-dollar fortune, who has spent 28 of his 73 years treating the poorest of the poor in the Haitian hinterland. Or Al and Sandy Williamson, who were sharing their home in Winter Park, Fla. with a dozen young schizophrenics at a time and boasted of reaching three quarters of them, far better than traditional therapists could report. Or the people of Plenty, a group of men and women from a rural commune who decided they could better serve their ideals ("There's plenty for everyone, we just got to make sure everyone gets a share") by starting a free, 24-hour ambulance service in New York's crime-ridden South Bronx. And people like Jim Mayo, a Vietnam vet who had lost half his right leg to a land mine—then lost a friend to suicide, a fellow amputee at the VA hospital in Long Beach, Calif. Mayo decided on a show of strength: After 40 days of hard training in his wheelchair, he drove himself down 130 miles of Pacific coast highway to San Diego—"to show that a disabled person can do anything if he puts his mind to it."

And then there were people who spoke the unspeakable in the hope of encouraging someone else to do the same. Shelley Bruce, a former "Annie," on her fight against leukemia. Actress Diane McBain on dealing with having been raped. Singer Phoebe Snow on mothering a brain-damaged daughter. Joseph Heller on Guillain-Barré syndrome. Carol Burnett on her daughter's drug problem. Sen. Larry Pressler on the pain of losing his father to Alzheimer's disease. People like these have made living in this decade more than just interesting.

The temptation to roll out the crystal ball at this point and take a shot at some long-term embarrassment with predictions about the next 10 years is great. But not that great. Safe enough to say, though, that computers promise an abundance of delight and grief. Already they've revolutionized music, from putting the beat under disco to suggesting, in the synthesized compositions of Steve Reich and Philip Glass, among others, the first chance for a reconciliation of pop and "serious" music since Gershwin. The technical wizardry of Spielberg and Lucas, the charms of Yoda and E.T., were made possible by computers, as were the fascinating, mad anachronisms of Woody Allen's Zelig. The hackers who are dreaming up WarGames scenarios and the Whiz Kids tinkering with their software have the future on their bedroom desks, and it will be more than academic what havoc and dreams they will program for us. With the proliferation of television news in this decade—McNeil/Lehrer, Nightline, two new morning shows, late-late news, 24-hour news—and the coming-of-age of cable in the next, we will assuredly be plugged in. But people already seem to be tiring a little of TV news, and with the agenda of life-and-death issues before us—from genetic engineering to the fate of the earth—the urge to switch channels again seems likely. We'll need our streakers and breakers and MTV and ail the fun our culture's computers can supply.

Machines won't solve the human problems. We probably have a lot of yelling and screaming at each other left to do before the terms of our new relationships are settled—at least for a while. But our most basic longings have been highly resistant to change. One of them is reconciliation. Two years ago we erected a monument to the soldiers killed in Vietnam; it took a long time but we did it, and many of that war's survivors felt welcomed back for the first time. A recent Harvard-MIT study projected that, given the centrifugal pulls on the family, there would be no fewer than 13 different kinds of households by 1990. Maybe. But last month new government figures reported the first decline in the divorce rate since 1962. Reconciliation? All the hard bargaining between men and women is at least a sign that the stakes are precious to both sides.

More and more, we're dealing as individuals with individuals, making up the rules together as we go. It isn't an easy way to live, but it's an honest and responsible way. There's some reason to believe that a decade which began in cynicism is ending with some modest but genuine gains for trust.

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