I WAS BORN IN THE middle of the century in the middle of the country to middle-class parents. My dad was a small-town Nebraskan and a veteran of the Pacific war who wore a tie to work every day; my mom was a lifelong Omahan and college graduate who’d worked in army cryptography but whose occupation was raising my three siblings and me. I grew up on a busy street lined with old Dutch elms on the prosperous suburban edge of town, where the houses and yards were neither huge nor tiny, neither old nor new. Six blocks west was a cornfield. Where I lived it seemed nobody was rich, and nobody was poor. I walked to school, where my classmates were exclusively white. When I wasn’t at school, I spent most of my time watching television.
As a stereotype, it is close to perfect. At the time and certainly in retrospect, that era did and does seem like a pure and total embodiment of normal. But for all the supposed placidity and tameness, I have a different take now.
The 1950s were freaky and fantastical.
Start with two defining pieces of the stereotypical American 1950s—TV and the suburbs. Both were expressions and enablers of our American appetites for immersive make-believe. After suburbia and TV became so pervasive so fast—Currier & Ives on the outside, private electric cinemas inside—we lost any sense of the radical peculiarity of our new fantasy-drenched postwar way of life.
When my eldest sister was born, just seven years before me, a fraction of 1 percent of Americans had TVs; by the time I started school, there was a TV in practically every household. Television’s supply of superrealistic fantasies (including the ads) was free and abundant and required no reading, no trips to theaters, not even the imaginative work of listening to radio plays. By the end of the decade, the average American spent a third of his or her waking hours watching TV. Nowhere and never had more people spent more time consuming fictions and advertising, and never in such a continuous quasi-hypnotic state.
From the end of World War II to 1960, the fraction of Americans living in suburbs doubled, faster than ever before or since. All at once we spread out over the countryside, replaying our westward-ho! past, déjà vu all over again. At the beginning of the century, two-thirds of Americans still lived in old small towns and on farms. By 1960, only a third did—and another third now lived in suburbia’s new simulations of old-time countrified America. As the land closest to cities became built up and saturated and more distant parcels developed, the implicit nostalgic model shifted from the New England village to the pioneer homestead. Suburbia became the nearly mandatory ideal, one’s own separate house on one’s own acreage the requisite embodiment and expression of American individualism. No other developed country has such a huge fraction of its people living at such low densities on such massive amounts of land.
At the time, America’s total embrace of TV and suburbia during the 1950s didn’t seem like symptoms of a national immersion in fantasy. To the contrary, all serious observers saw reason and rationality cruising to victory on most fronts, led by America. The United Nations was established. Colleges and universities were growing fast. Science was unchallenged, the genetic code was broken, computers and transistors were invented, government and big business and even the big churches were run by technocrats, and ideology seemed passé. “Our culture is unique,” a historian and sociologist of the period declared, “in its…outlawing of the irrational.” The Secret Life of Walter Mitty became a box office hit in 1947 by satirizing an American freak who fictionalized himself as a dashing hero, living in his own private dreamworld. Yet the new normal—driving in and out of suburban pastoral fantasies, immersing in endless new televised fantasies—was turning all Americans into Walter Mittys without them realizing it.
The 1950s, that stereotypically homogenous and conformist and regular American decade, generated extraordinary new alternate realities as well. To people then, they looked like bits of strangeness and pizzazz on the side, but they turned out to be prototypes for what would become mainstream American life. In this chapter, I’ll look closely at a half-dozen creations of that era that became important foundations for ultimate Fantasyland—including Las Vegas, Playboy, the Beats, Scientology, McCarthyism, and revived Christian evangelicalism. Most promulgated happy fantasies, some of them scary fantasies. Some were hedonistic, others not hedonistic but nevertheless countercultural—and thus were attacked by Establishment antibodies that tried to quarantine or co-opt them. One was happy and hedonistic but not remotely countercultural, a synthesis of confabulated small towns and television, a manufactured city on a hill inspired by P. T. Barnum and Buffalo Bill devoted to weaving together reality and fiction: Disneyland.
WALT DISNEY WAS born at precisely the right moment (1901) and had precisely the right skills (drawing, storytelling) and sensibility (high-quality populist) and instincts (entrepreneurial) to do what he did. His father had worked as a carpenter on Chicago’s Columbian Exposition, and during Walt’s childhood, America had three big world’s fairs—in Buffalo, St. Louis, and San Francisco. Suddenly too the whole country was thick with amusement parks, hundreds of them. However, they were just better-capitalized versions of a familiar, itinerant form—bigger rides, more freaks, supercarnivals permanently installed on a piece of real estate the operator owned.
By the 1930s and ’40s, when Walt Disney was busy turning a peripheral show business medium, animation, into an ambitious, high-end popular art, amusement parks had regressed to their seedy, quick-buck carnival roots. For Disney and other middle-class Americans, they were too urban, not enough like the new, orderly suburban ideal. They were, he said as he started imagining Disneyland, “so honky tonk with a lot of questionable characters running around, and they’re not too safe. They’re not well kept. I want to have a place that’s as clean as anything could ever be, and all the people in it are first-class citizens.”
His initial idea was one that any other show business executive might have had—a dinky eight-acre Mickey Mouse Park in Burbank next to the studio where he made his animated movies. But no, he decided, that was too modest, and too small potatoes. He was now the mogul Walt Disney, so his second act would need to wow people. The Tivoli Gardens amusement park in Copenhagen was suitably tasteful and influenced his vision, but it wasn’t big enough, just twenty acres crammed into the middle of an old city. America needed something more incredible, more fabulous, more fantastic.
In the 1940s there were newly hatched models in America on which Disney drew as well, museum-like tourist attractions that mixed and matched the actually old and the pretend old. One was just south of L.A. in Orange County. A farmer named Walter Knott had started growing a freakishly large new berry, which he named the boysenberry and sold at his farmstand—and then built attractions to get more money out of the fruit buyers: a nineteenth-century hotel hauled in from Arizona, a fake ghost town and saloon, a reproduction Old West theater. In Virginia, the Rockefellers had just funded the rebuilding of Williamsburg as it had been in the 1760s, a who-can-tell-the-difference mélange of hundreds of restored old and new fake-old buildings. And in Michigan on some acreage near an automobile factory, Henry Ford had created Greenfield Village, consisting of the actual buildings, transplanted from Pennsylvania and Ohio and Illinois, where Stephen Foster and the Wright brothers and Abraham Lincoln had lived and worked. It was a totally new species, “a dream of assorted history as might have come out of ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ ” an astonished New York Times reporter wrote in 1931. “It is a kind of history unknown to school textbooks, for it has small reminder of politics and none of war,” filled with “actors, carrying on all kinds of American crafts,” performing an “archaic theatrical show” amid “objects…[that] are not to appear as antiques corrupted by moth and rust, but as when new.” There were also plans, he reported, for a “Jules Verne house of the future.”
Walt Disney visited all those places during the decade he was dreaming up Disneyland. He was the Steve Jobs of his era, a visionary impresario taking pieces created by others and integrating them to make a shiny new branded invention greater than the sum of its constituent parts. In 1953 he bought an orange grove in Orange County—160 acres, a quarter-section, the elemental American land parcel—just south of Knott’s Berry Farm.
The Disneyland that Disney envisioned was even more fantastic than the one he could afford to build. He wanted voice-activated doors that would “obey…like a Genie,” a “working farm operated with real live miniature horses, cows, oxen, and donkeys,” plus a “Lilliputian Land” with tiny talking robots. Nowadays we take it for granted when we encounter people walking around in costumes, playing beings from movies or TV shows or comic books or the past or the future. We routinely shop and eat in spaces designed and built to look like “authentic” places from other times and other countries. Before Disneyland, these were not routine experiences.
When it opened, Disneyland had five thematic zones, only one of them called Fantasyland. At the time, Hollywood studios didn’t routinely let tourists in to see their fake-neighborhood sets—and Disney had created back lots with none of the seams and gears showing and all the employees acting. Main Street USA, while the most naturalistic of the “lands”—an old-fashioned town center, with real shopkeepers selling real merchandise—was Disney’s single most world-changing 3-D fiction of all. It was more or less a replica of Marceline, Missouri, the small town where he’d grown up—indeed, an amazing dream version of the sort of place where only a few decades earlier three-quarters of Americans had lived and shopped. It wasn’t just a story or show about the good old days—it practically was the good old days.
On Main Street USA, there were no giant twirling teacups or mechanical crocodiles: it was imaginary—always bright and clean, charming and happy—but it seemed uncannily real, life with the dull and charmless bits cut out. One’s disbelief approached complete suspension. The illusion was brilliantly reinforced by design tricks such as forced perspective: in each pseudo-nineteenth-century building, each story was slightly smaller than the one below it, which made the streetscape both friendlier and grander than the real things. Just as the century of American rail travel was coming to an end, diesel replacing steam and freight replacing people, at the foot of Main Street was an old-fashioned station, the head end of Disneyland’s own steam-powered passenger railroad.
When the Disneyland opening ceremonies were televised like a prime-time news special in 1955—Dateline: Disneyland on the ABC network, a major investor—who was one of the on-air celebrity hosts? The movie star Ronald Reagan, a decade before he was transmogrified into the governor of California and then president of the United States.
Walt Disney, the Disneyland-loving novelist Andrew O’Hagan has written, was “king of the irresistible falsehood.” Photographs often show Disney with the index and middle finger of his right hand together as though he’s about to give the Cub Scout salute: he chain-smoked (and died of lung cancer), but every time they could, he and his handlers had photographs retouched to eliminate the Lucky Strike. “With Disneyland,” O’Hagan says, “Walt Disney felt he was giving America a better version of itself….What he created was a new way of thinking about life and dreaming, a kind of American Eden.” After Disneyland opened, the term theme park was coined, and more and more of America proceeded to be themed. That bit of Anaheim may have been the Most Magical Place on Earth, but…why stop there?
DISNEYLAND AND MODERN Las Vegas were born simultaneously. Disneyland had been inspired by disapproval of “questionable characters” and “honky-tonk” atmosphere. In the badlands three hundred miles across the Mojave Desert, Vegas was created by questionable characters to behonky-tonk, the Pottersville to Disneyland’s Bedford Falls. Just as Disney did with amusement parks, the creators of the new Vegas took seedy American artifacts—gambling halls and roadhouses—and reinvented them as something grand. It was Adventureland for people who hungered after a different hormonal and neurotransmitter mix, one requiring high-stakes indeterminacy—the chance of getting instantly rich or laid, going broke or on a bender. Vegas and Disneyland were just two different new brands in the expanding line of the fantasy-industrial complex.*1
Like the agricultural towns of Los Angeles and Miami before their reinventions, Las Vegas in the early 1900s existed as a nub of its future self. Nevada had uniquely permissive laws concerning gambling, matrimony, and prostitution, but in the 1920s and ’30s, Las Vegas was still a shabby little burg where men working in mines and on Hoover (né Boulder) Dam could gamble and screw, nationally known only as a place where movie stars and millionaires sometimes visited to marry or divorce quickly.
The proof of concept for its transformation into a satanic Disneyland happened during World War II, as tens of thousands of aviators came through for training at the Las Vegas Army Airfield. At first, the fantasy references were strictly local and nostalgic. The Hotel Last Frontier, its architect and manager explained, “was conceived to be as near western as we could make it,” by which he meant convincingly and fictionally pseudowestern. “The ceilings were of hewn timbers—logs—rough-sawed boards antiqued in such a way as to look many years old.” He installed an old bar from the local red-light district, to which he added custom-designed bar stools in the shape of horse saddles. He built an adjacent Last Frontier Village, another pastiche of real and fake: an 1870s jail and an 1860s Chinese-railroad-workers’ temple were trucked in from northern Nevada, with a church and a Texaco station in brand-new nineteenth-century-style wooden buildings. Guests could travel to and from the airport in horse-drawn stagecoaches.*2
During the decade after the war, Vegas took off, and its theming purview expanded from the Old West to the desert in general to anywhere hot and exotic to…any era anywhere at all. The New Frontier opened just before the space age with the slogan “Out of this World,” chandeliers shaped like spacecraft and a mural of extraterrestrials heading for Vegas. In the Venus Room after the late show on Saturday nights, the fantasies on offer switched from worldly to metaphysical: a Roman Catholic mass was performed at four-thirty A.M. every Sunday morning. By the way, the Strip and most of what we know as Las Vegas are not technically in the city of Las Vegas. Rather, they are even today located in the unincorporated town of Paradise, Nevada.
YOU COULD HAVE your fill of naughty fantasies in Las Vegas in the 1950s, but southern Nevada was a long way from anywhere. A copy of Playboy, however, was available on newsstands everywhere and cost only fifty cents. At the moment when Vegas was becoming the branded hub of American bacchanalianism and construction was about to begin on Disneyland, Playboy was created by an American, Chicago born, the twenty-seven-year-old advertising copywriter Hugh Hefner.
Like Walt Disney with animation and Disneyland, and Bugsy Siegel and his associates with Las Vegas, Hefner took a disreputable thing and reinvented it as something modern and classy and singular. Existing girlie magazines were grotty black-and-white pulps, furtively sold, with minuscule circulations. Playboy’s first issue, in 1953, featured a fancy two-page color picture of Marilyn Monroe, nude, in its centerfold (a word coined by Hefner); three years later American men were buying a million copies each month. Photographs of naked women had never before been the raison d’être of such a large publication. Of course, like its skeevier print-porn predecessors, every copy of Playboy was a masturbation facilitator. But Playboy’s dream girls weren’t the poorly photographed victims in Pep! and Spot.
Hefner’s genius was not just in providing more upscale make-believe—color pictures of unequivocally beautiful women shot by good photographers, skillfully retouched and printed on glossy paper—but in building out a 360-degree fantasy that seemed normal, an aspirational template for his wankers to reimagine their everyday lives fantastically. “The Playmate,” he instructed his staff in 1956,
should be posed in a natural setting….The model herself should look relaxed and natural….Some simple activity like reading, writing, mixing a drink, trying on a new dress….We like a healthy, intelligent American look—a young lady that looks like she might be a very efficient secretary or an undergrad at Vassar….Playmates are real people and they are one of the good things in life that you can enjoy.
One of Hefner’s brilliant innovations was to provide a few details about Playmates’ lives, the more banal the better—their hobbies, their favorite books and foods. The fantasy seemed more real. And the rest of the magazine allowed its readers (and “readers”) to imagine themselves living fantastically sexier lives. You are not a scared, lonely chump with dreary domestic responsibilities and a crappy job, every page told them. You are masculine and sophisticated and witty and suave and well dressed and cool, with good taste, in a fun America full of women eager to have no-strings sex with you.
James Bond was a new model of manhood in the 1950s. The first Bond novel was published the same year Hefner published the first Playboy, and a new book appeared every year. “I’m sure James Bond, if he were an actual person,” Hefner said, “would be a registered reader of Playboy.” Indeed, as soon as Hefner created Playboy Clubs in the actual world—in order to “let people get a glimpse of what the fantasy world was all about,” as his brother explained—Ian Fleming wrote Playboy Clubs into his fiction, making Bond a member.
While reading Casino Royale or Goldfinger, one knew that James Bond wasn’t real, whereas Playboy was mainly, nominally nonfiction. Its photo spreads of naked women, its advice columns, its articles about (and ads for) hot cars and cool bachelor pads and hi-fi and hep new cultural products, constituted an imaginary world presented as perfectly real and available. Reality and fiction were a total blur for Hefner. He donated to John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign, he said, because he figured he would be “a Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Meet John Doe president.” Plus, Kennedy was the ultimate Playboy man—urbane, Ivy League, great-looking, oversexed, a real-life fantasy figure. JFK, Hefner said, “was one of us.” (And as soon as he became president, Kennedy confirmed that, announcing that one of his favorite books was the Bond novel From Russia with Love.)
A few years after inventing a magazine that allowed men to fictionalize themselves, Hefner stepped through his looking glass, turning his own life into a full-blown public fiction, with himself as its main character: the pipe, the bathrobe, the friendship with the Rat Pack, the Playboy Mansions, the harem of permanently youthful Playmates in residence, the whole shebang.
IN THE LATE 1950s Playboy paid Jack Kerouac to write an article called “The Origins of the Beat Generation.” The following month the centerfold featured their “Beat Playmate,” an actress and daughter of jazz musicians the editors claimed to have discovered in one of “the beat coffee houses of Hollywood.” Her interests included “ballet, the poetry of Dylan Thomas, classical music (‘Prokofiev drives me out of my skull!’). She has strong opinions and is more than a bit of a rebel, frowning prettily on conformity,” and “confesses to being ‘somewhat of a nut’ about health food,” which she eats at “an ‘organic food restaurant’ called The Aware Inn.”*3
Hefner and his magazine were ambivalent about the Beats. They were members of adjacent new Fantasyland denominations—sex! booze! bennies! jazz! selfishness!—but mutually contemptuous, not unlike the two-way suspicion between Christian evangelicals and Pentecostals. Hefner even coined and used the term Upbeat Generation to distinguish his affluent go-go sophisticates from the slackery beatniks.
We think of the Beats as un-American creatures, the anti-1950s exceptions who proved the rule. But they were highly American. For one thing, the founders became enduring pop celebrities. More important, their animating impulses grew out of that old American search for a sense of meaning that devolved into dreamy, grandiose unreasonableness. Kerouac first spoke the phrase Beat Generation to a novelist who—in 1952 in The New York Times, of all places—published a mission statement. Being a Beat wasn’t about having a bohemian way of life, he wrote: “A man is beat whenever he goes for broke and wagers the sum of his resources on a single number.” Members of the Beat Generation “have an instinctive individuality,” a “lust for freedom” that dug “bebop, narcotics, sexual promiscuity” but also William F. Buckley’s God and Man at Yale. “Unlike the Lost Generation, which was occupied with the loss of faith, the Beat Generation is becoming more and more occupied with the need for it…busily and haphazardly inventing totems for [God] on all sides….This almost exaggerated will to believe in something…a will to believe…a perfect craving to believe.”
This is what made the Beats such an American phenomenon. They were all about their mystical, individualist beliefs, and all in. They rejected bland rules to live lives of antimaterialist and quasi-religious purity. They were like some freaky renegade Protestant sect who didn’t focus on Jesus but otherwise took the original priesthood-of-all-believers idea to the max. The Beats’ self-conception descended from a particular American lineage—mountain men, outlaws, frontier cranks, lonely individualists, and narcissistic outsiders sounding their barbaric yawps over the rooftops of the world. The hippie dream that followed drew as well from a parallel lineage—Cane Ridge, the communes of the 1830s and ’40s, Transcendentalism, pastoralism, Thoreau. Both were enactments of classic American fantasies.
Kerouac, the king of the Beats, nicely embodied a couple of recurrent themes in this history—mythologizing the good old days, living life as if it were a piece of fiction. “Nostalgia,” the Harvard cultural historian Louis Menand has written of On the Road, was “part of its appeal in 1957. For it is not a book about the nineteen-fifties. It’s a book about the nineteen-forties,” the “dying…world of hoboes and migrant workers and cowboys and crazy joyriders.” What’s more, the novel was not a fictionalization of adventures Kerouac just happened to experience—rather, “the trips in On the Road were made for the purpose of writing On the Road.”*4
The novel’s fictional avatars of Kerouac and his buddy Neal Cassady visit the fictional version of their friend William Burroughs, the noir fantasy writer. The Burroughs character, the narrator tells us, has a “sentimental streak about the old days in America…[when] the country was wild and brawling and free, with abundance and any kind of freedom for everyone,” and says that “mankind will someday realize that we are actually in contact with the dead and with the other world.”
The character, like Burroughs himself, was in the thrall of an “orgone accumulator” that he’d built, a wooden box on which “he tied bush bayou leaves and twigs” and then sat naked inside. The fictionalized Kerouac explains that “orgones are vibratory atmospheric atoms of the life-principle. People get cancer because they run out of orgones.”
Like mesmerism and homeopathy in the nineteenth century, orgone therapy was an import from German Europe. Its inventor was the psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, a protégé of Freud—who finally concluded Reich was nuts: he “salutes in the genital orgasm,” Freud wrote a colleague, as “the antidote to every neurosis.” He got nuttier, announcing he’d discovered fundamental new substances—“bions” and, after he emigrated to the United States, “primordial, pre-atomic cosmic orgone energy,” the very source of human vitality. In America he was taken seriously for a while and not just by the Beats. His work was cited in the major medical journals. Cancer victims came to be cured in his orgone accumulators. Farmers paid him to point his “cloudbuster” at the sky to unleash atmospheric orgone energy and make it rain, and he also said it’d work to ward off extraterrestrial invaders. He believed a secret cabal of highly placed allies in the federal government would save him from his various enemies—the Rockefeller family, Communists, the FDA, the Justice Department. The feds ordered him to stop advertising and selling his quack medical devices; he refused; they prosecuted and finally imprisoned him. A month after the Soviet satellite Sputnik began orbiting Earth and two months after On the Road was published—coincidence?—he died in a federal penitentiary.
Drug use would become part of the Fantasyland transformation, and the Beats started making drugs cool during the 1950s. Burroughs loved his junk, Kerouac his speed, Ginsberg his weed. Regular Americans also discovered and embraced new, legal psychotropic drugs in the 1950s. The synthetic amphetamine Benzedrine was available over the counter in the United States until 1959, and its more powerful sibling Dexedrine had just been introduced. By 1960, amazingly, Americans’ legal-speed dosage averaged one hit per person per week. People also started taking tranquilizers by the barrel. In 1957, two years after the miracle “nerve pill” Miltown appeared in pharmacies, it accounted for a third of all U.S. drug prescriptions.
Like so many of their American predecessors and successors, the Beats cobbled together a patchwork doctrine that included exotic religious belief. Cassady, Kerouac, and especially Ginsberg considered themselves Buddhists, and Burroughs became a devotee of Scientology, proselytizing his pals.
Ah, Scientology. The entrepreneurial fabulism of L. Ron Hubbard—L.A. science fiction and fantasy author turned pop psychologist turned religious prophet—was another artifact of the American 1950s that belies the decade’s stereotype. Hubbard may have been a knowing charlatan, but to me, at least at the beginning, he seems more like Joseph Smith, a true believer who thought he’d discovered a singular “mix of Western technology and Oriental philosophy” that offered the secret to human happiness. Does a con artist submit his findings to the Journal of the American Medical Association? His book Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health was a national bestseller for two years running in the 1950s. Then he expanded and transformed the whole thing from a pseudoscience into a religion, the Church of Scientology.
Like Reich with the orgone accumulator, Hubbard put a gadget at the center of his purification scheme—the patented electropsychometer, or e-meter, transistorized and battery-powered, totally 1950s-modern. And as a spiritual leader, he was ahead of his time. Decades before New Age therapists/shamans started hypnotizing people to fantasize past lives, Scientology “auditors” were doing that with e-meters. Decades before American Christianity made its full left turn toward “charismatic” abracadabra, people feeling and imagining they saw the supernatural, e-metered audits induced in Scientologists a comparable certainty that they were in touch with their godlike souls. What made Scientology so perfectly American was its emphasis on practical self-improvement of an entirely subjective kind: If it makes you feel better, let alone omnipotent, it must be true.
Hubbard had a brazen indifference to the line between nonfiction and fiction—specifically science fiction, and not just e-meters. Scientology’s theological backstory is staggeringly ridiculous sci-fi, 2001 meets Star Trek meets Star Wars meets The Matrix meets Prometheus. In short, each of us contains a thetan, one of the ethereal beings who created the universe but each of whom, after being shipped to Earth and hit with nuclear bombs by the evil dictator of the Galactic Confederacy, was brainwashed to forget its godlike origins and believe in the false reality most people consider real.
I could devote an entire chapter to L. Ron Hubbard.
IN THE SPRING of 1957, a few months before Wilhelm Reich died in prison, another persecuted, angry, reckless, middle-aged anti-Communist zealot died in a different federal facility, Bethesda Naval Hospital—Senator Joseph McCarthy, the man who had proudly given his name to McCarthyism.
Almost immediately after World War II, our most important ally, the Soviet Union, became our most serious adversary-cum-enemy. For Americans in 1950, it was not delusional to worry about international Communist aggression or Soviet espionage in the United States. But that’s the problem with a conspiracist mindset. After some kernel of reality triggers exaggerated fears and a possible explanation, it grows into an imaginary labyrinth of all-powerful evil, an elaborate based-on-a-true-story fiction that passes for nonfiction, such as the fantasy that thousands of committed Communists were covertly using movies and TV shows to propagandize on behalf of Communism and the Soviet Union. Anti-Communism was realistic; McCarthyism was fantastical.
A year after the end of the war, before McCarthy had even been elected to the Senate, the Red Scare was launched in Hollywood. Being a Communist was not against the law. However, Congress had launched an investigation. The result of those House Un-American Activities Committee hearings was the refusal of ten subpoenaed screenwriters and directors to answer questions about their beliefs or associations; the Hollywood Ten, many of whom had been Communists in the 1930s, served prison terms for refusing to talk and were blacklisted by the entertainment industry. But among the people who eagerly testified was one who identified himself as “a producer of motion-picture cartoons” and another who’d just been elected president of the Screen Actors Guild, the Hollywood union. Both had particular axes to grind, and it is striking, a measure of the hysteria even before the Soviets had the atom bomb or China was Communist or the Korean War started, how fast and loose they played with the facts.
“In the past,” Walt Disney told the congressmen when asked about subversives at his studio, “I had some people that I definitely feel were Communists.” He was still pissed about the five-week strike by his animators six years earlier, which he told the committee had resulted in “smear campaigns” by “Commie periodicals” and “all the Commie groups.” One animator he named, an “artist in my plant,” had been “the real brains of” the strike. “I looked into his record and I found that…he had no religion.” A congressman asked about two other animators who’d been leaders of the strike. “In my opinion,” Disney said, “they are Communists. No one has any way of proving those things.”
Nor did the new president of SAG, the young actor Ronald Reagan, have any hard evidence that his opponents in the union were Communists. “That small clique,” however, “has been suspected of more or less following the tactics that we associated with the Communist Party….I have heard different discussions and some of them tagged as Communists.”
A few days later the owner of the Hollywood Reporter became a chief public instigator of the Red Scare, insisting the industry create a formal blacklist of left-wingers. He was a remarkable guy who married three of his six wives in Las Vegas and developed the Flamingo hotel-casino before bringing in Bugsy Siegel and other mobsters to take over. Just before publishing the Reporter’s first attacks on the Communist conspiracy, he went to confession at a Catholic church on Sunset Boulevard, where he got his priest’s go-ahead to name names of people he figured were Reds.
“Any man or woman,” he wrote, “who, under the guise of freedom of speech, or the cloak of the Bill of Rights, or under the pseudoprotection of being a liberal, says things, causes things to be said, or who actually is involved with many of the conspiracies that have now infested this great land of ours, has no place among us, be he commie or what.” And a few weeks later the studios complied, issuing a joint statement in which they said that while “nothing subversive or un-American has appeared on the screen,” the industry’s leaders “deplore the action of the 10 Hollywood men” who hadn’t cooperated with HUAC. Henceforth the studios wouldn’t “knowingly employ a Communist” and would “invite the Hollywood talent guilds to work with us to eliminate any subversives.”
An influential pamphlet called Red Channels listed 151 show business subversives, people responsible for “commercially sponsored dramatic series…used as sounding boards, particularly with reference to current issues in which the [Communist] Party is critically interested: ‘academic freedom,’ ‘civil rights,’ ‘peace.’ ” Various blacklists eventually included more than three hundred names.
The Soviets tested their first atomic bomb. The anti-Communist hysteria quickened and spread. “Loyalty boards” were set up in every federal department, and thousands of U.S. government employees were fired or forced out. In 1950, after just three years in office, the junior senator from Wisconsin made the Communist conspiracy his issue. “Karl Marx dismissed God as a hoax,” McCarthy explained in a speech. “Today we are engaged in a final, all-out battle between communistic atheism and Christianity.” He said he had a list of dozens of State Department employees who were “members of the Communist Party,” “names…known to the Secretary of State.” His list, he variously claimed, consisted of 57 or 81 or 205 officials. It was not true. But the press continued covering the allegation—he was a U.S. senator!—and it became the most consequential piece of fake news in American history.*5
McCarthy’s fantasy grew more elaborate and absurd. A year later, during the Korean War, in which thirty-six thousand U.S. soldiers and Marines would die, he gave a speech on the Senate floor explaining that President Harry Truman was the puppet and “captive” of some of his Communist cabinet members, “the executioners” of “a conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man…a larger conspiracy, the world-wide web of which has been spun from Moscow.” Preposterous, for sure, but Americans believed. Before long a Gallup Poll found that 50 percent had a favorable opinion of Joseph McCarthy.
After five years of such recklessness, the public and the Establishment finally had enough. McCarthy’s fantasies were no longer just geopolitical: he was hospitalized for alcoholism, and at a social gathering in Wisconsin, he hallucinated that he was being attacked by snakes.*6 The Senate officially condemned him by a vote of 67 to 22.
The tendency to explain the world in terms of conspiracies, conspiracies on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such ventures in the history of man, didn’t begin with McCarthyism. McCarthy as an individual was rather quickly discredited, and McCarthyism became a universal pejorative for false and hysterical and unfair accusation. Exaggerated fears of Communist subversion, however, lasted for the whole Cold War, letting modern Americans’ antisubversion fantasies take root and spread and grow as never before. The basic McCarthyist vision—a conviction that a powerful conspiracy of Americans in government, media, and academia, in alliance with foreign Communists, was hell-bent on the ruin of their own country—had several generations, from 1940s into the 1990s, to become an entrenched American habit of mind.
FOR INCITING BELIEF in history’s greatest conspiracy, it didn’t hurt that two-thirds of Americans were Protestants, a large and pious fraction of whom subscribed to a stark prophetic version of history and the future—divine virtue fighting it out with satanic evil. America was an exceptionally Christian nation; the Soviet and Chinese regimes were atheistic. So when the new superstar preacher Billy Graham reckoned that “over 1100 social-sounding organizations…are Communist or Communist-oriented in this country [and] control the minds of a great segment of our people,” that was an American synergy. Even as McCarthy was being purged, Graham explained that Communism was “master-minded by Satan….There is no other explanation for the tremendous gains of Communism…unless they have supernatural power and wisdom and intelligence given to them.” It was just like with Satan’s Native American warriors in the 1600s.
Since the 1920s, the new-old-school Christians, having gone off the mainstream radar, hunkered down, quietly building their own institutions to propagate their alternative reality. It was a counterculture willfully resistant (and mostly invisible) to the contemptuous mainstream. A hundred evangelical Bible institutes had opened, as well as full-fledged colleges and universities. Fundamentalist and Pentecostal churches multiplied.
And then came this new evangelical Billy, the perfect vessel for a resurgence of Christian fundamentalism lite in the 1950s. Billy Graham was young and tall and good-looking, with a great head of blond hair. He was Southern but no Elmer Gantry—upright, earnest, upper-middle class. He was a skillful speaker and performer who oozed conviction and sincerity—with none of the carny brashness of Billy Sunday or cultish creepiness of Aimee Semple McPherson. After attending two of the newly created evangelical colleges in the South, he’d graduated from Wheaton, an older, more respectable Christian institution in the North; he’d been ordained by the Southern Baptists, the largest and most venerable of the conservative denominations. He was in every way perfectly double-coded, fit for the embrace of the die-hard base as well as midcentury middle-American Protestants and the media: Southern but no redneck, populist but with gravitas, apocalyptic but not wild or angry, simultaneously an outsider and an insider. And like all the megasuccessful American preachers before him, Billy Graham was filled with the spirit of entrepreneurship and of show business as well as of God.
At twenty-five, he left his job as host of a weekly Christian radio program in suburban Chicago to be the main preacher for a popular new evangelical road show called Youth for Christ—“Anchored to the Rock but Geared to the Times!”—playing to stadium audiences, bringing fundamentalist Christianity entirely out of its bunker and into the modern fantasy-industrial complex. The Youth for Christ performances were glitzy arena rock shows decades ahead of their time: a giant prop Bible carried to the middle of the Rose Bowl or Soldier’s Field, stentorian religious narration blasted over loudspeakers, a charge of flash powder loudly detonated, a mushroom cloud produced, one hundred white doves released.
Graham started freelancing, staging several of his own days-long revival encampments in small cities. His breakthrough happened in Los Angeles, where dreams could come true on streets of gold and a zillion corrupted sinners needed saving. He pitched several circus tents in a downtown parking lot—that is, he created the Greater Los Angeles Billy Graham Crusade at the Canvas Cathedral. There was a searchlight, as at a Hollywood premiere—the Steeple of Light. Signs exhorted people to COME AND EXPECT A MIRACLE SUPERNATURAL EXPLOSION IN THE HOLY GHOST MIRACLE TENT. The L.A. crusade was scheduled to run three weeks and draw 125,000 people; it lasted eight weeks and played to 350,000. The national news coverage was extensive, some of it explicitly flattering (“Puff Graham,” William Randolph Hearst had cabled the editors of his newspapers), all of it invaluable. Time reported that “nearly every prominent minister in Los Angeles had put in an appearance on Billy Graham’s crowded platform….‘Very rarely do I find an atheist,’ Graham said. ‘People aren’t so smart-alecky any more.’ ”
Graham’s crusades went national, attracting phenomenally huge crowds everywhere. He pushed no particular denomination and avoided doctrinal niggling. He declined to get into disputes over exactly how and when God created everything, and he downplayed the end-time. He carved out a new Christian space between liberals and fundamentalists: theologically backward and enthusiastic compared to the mainline Protestant denominations but apparently not too deranged.
He was clubbable and brilliantly political in all senses. Three weeks after the Korean War broke out—and just a year after he’d become famous—he was praying with Harry Truman in the Oval Office (then pissing off the president when he posed by himself for photographs kneeling in prayer on the White House lawn). He attended Eisenhower’s inauguration and made a point of buddying up to the president after him, and the next and the next—giving each of them, unlike their thirty-one predecessors, the convenience of a single Protestant leader with whom the president of the United States could be publicly friendly. In a country both overwhelmingly Protestant and madly sectarian, he created and filled a new ad hoc national position of Pastor-in-Chief, our Archbishop of Mayberry. The year he turned thirty-five he appeared on the cover of Time.
In fact, all American Christian boats were rising. In his first year as president, at age sixty-three, Eisenhower was baptized. He appeared at the first National Prayer Breakfast, an event organized by a fundamentalist group, which became annual. The following year Congress and the president stuck “under God” into the eighty-seven-year-old Pledge of Allegiance, then gave America its first official motto, “In God We Trust,” to be printed on currency. Eisenhower made prayer a regular part of cabinet meetings, the first one led by his agriculture secretary, a leader of the Mormon Church.
American go-getterism was also ripe for a certain kind of Christianizing in the 1950s. For two decades, the Reverend Norman Vincent Peale had been one of New York City’s big-deal pastors, with a fancy Presbyterian church right off Fifth Avenue, CEO pals, and his own vaguely Protestant radio show and national magazine. In 1955 he published The Power of Positive Thinking, which stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for three years. Peale’s approach was perfect for its American moment: breezy self-help motivational cheerleading mixed with supernatural encouragement, Dale Carnegie plus the Guy Upstairs.
In his book, Peale taught people to repeat bullet-point affirmations over and over and to suppress any doubts that might lead to an “inferiority complex.” He shrewdly chose a nonreligious title, and chapters included “When Vitality Sags, Try This Health Formula” and “How to Get People to Like You” and “I Don’t Believe in Defeat.” But Christian faith is key to making the big sale, getting the great job, and being a winner. “A sure cure for lack of self-confidence is the thought that God is actually with you and helping you….The secret is to fill your mind with thoughts of faith, confidence, and security.” God had always tipped the scales for America economically and militarily, but now in the 1950s He was also looking out for you, the individual middle-class American busy bee. Peale mass-marketed two strains of thought that had wormed their way into American Christianity since 1900: magical thinking about wealth and success (“God’s ability is mine,” a prominent turn-of-the-century pastor had preached. “His success is mine. I am a winner”) and see no evil–hear no evil–speak no evil as practical means of getting there. Lots of prominent Protestant theologians hated The Power of Positive Thinking—it was egocentric, materialist, and escapist, a cult. Billy Graham loved it.
The mainstream, for all its embrace of the Grahams and Peales, still considered the wilder and crazier Christians mortifying leftovers from another age. The New York Times discovered in 1955 that “fringe sects” such as Pentecostals, though “not widely known,” were still around and practicing their “excessive emotionalism.”
The following year, when the Pentecostal minister Oral Roberts bought time on hundreds of TV stations for a weekly show and faith-healed people on the air, the Times TV critic was appalled by this “gospel preacher making his own extemporaneous medical diagnoses and claiming magic results unsupported by the slightest shred of rational evidence….To allow the enormously influential medium of television to be used week after week to allow undocumented ‘miracles’…seems contrary to the spirit…of the industry’s code governing mature and responsible broadcasting.”
Growing up on the northwestern edge of the Bible Belt, most of the people I knew were churchgoing Christians, but I’m pretty sure none of them ever mentioned Jesus to me. During the 1950s, the fundamentalists and evangelicals started coming out of the closet, but they still looked like curiosities, marginal rearguard diehards, not the shape of things to come. At the end of the 1950s, big Hollywood movies explicitly disparaged redneck religion—adaptations of the satire Elmer Gantry and of Inherit the Wind, the Broadway hit about the Scopes Trial, with Spencer Tracy as Clarence Darrow. It was a victory lap for modern seculars. Everyone serious believed that crude, vestigial, old-time religion was about to fizzle out at last in America. Official Protestant belief and practice seemed to be evolving as they had in the rest of the developed world, toward something low-key, subtle, and amorphous that could comfortably coexist with modern reason and science and American optimism. In a 1961 Redbook magazine survey of students at seven leading American Protestant seminaries, only one out of a hundred expected Jesus to return.
As the 1960s arrived, the mainline Protestant churches absolutely ruled. Back then, in fact, nobody called those churches mainline—compared to what? Mainline was still a term reserved for discussions of railroads and electric power, not to distinguish the big, respectable denominations that kept supernatural fantasies on the down-low. Their attendance had increased by a third since World War II. They were thriving. As it turned out, they were also peaking.
*1 A decade after Disneyland opened, it capitulated a bit: its first new “land,” New Orleans Square, was Disney’s own version of louche, with a private “speakeasy” that was the only place in the park serving alcohol, and the Pirates of the Caribbean, in which money-mad mechanical men cracked jokes about rape.
*2 If time travel were possible, the Ramona Room at the Last Frontier would be on my itinerary, twice. On Christmas in 1944, with Army Air Force men and officers in the audience (maybe including members of the Enola Gay crew, training nearby for their mission to drop the A-bomb on Hiroshima), the twenty-five-year-old Liberace was performing, his first Vegas gig. And then on Washington’s Birthday in 1955, not long before he introduced Disneyland to TV viewers, Ronald Reagan was paid the equivalent of $130,000 a week to perform with chimps. “What about the hoods and hookers in the ringside seats?” he’d fretted to his promoter beforehand. “What about my image?”
*3 The Beat Playmate was Yvette Vickers; you might recall the 2011 news of the discovery of her “mummified” corpse in her house in Beverly Crest—the L.A. neighborhood built in the 1920s with fake English castle towers. Her Playboy photos had been shot by Russ Meyer just before he became the soft-core-porn auteur of movies such as Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! The owner of the Beat Playmate’s “organic food restaurant” was Jim Baker, who in the 1960s and ’70s, as Father Yod, led an L.A. cult called the Source Family.
*4 Considered in this light, with William F. Buckley as a crypto-Beat, it starts to make sense that Ayn Rand’s didactic novel Atlas Shrugged, a founding text of libertarianism, appeared in the same 1957 publishing season as On the Road. The heroes of both are extreme, do their-own-thing American individualists who reject the comfy Establishment.
*5 “Today the advent of McCarthyism has thrown real fear into the hearts of some,” a young Washington reporter wrote a few months after McCarthy’s speech in 1950, “fear of what a demagogue can do to America while the press helplessly gives its sometimes unwilling cooperation….But who knows? One greater than McCarthy may come.”
*6 Another moment of harmonic convergence in Fantasyland. This gathering was in his Wisconsin hometown, where Harry Houdini had also spent most of his boyhood, at the home of McCarthy’s best man and former Senate campaign manager, Urban Van Susteren. Van Susteren’s daughter Greta, then a toddler, grew up to become an anchor on Fox News for fourteen years—as well as a Scientologist, whose founder, L. Ron Hubbard, like McCarthy, lied about having been wounded in action during World War II.