Moral Parameters in the 1950s


My father died when I was four. A few blurry memories I have of him and stories I heard from my sisters years later paint the picture of my father I have now. My mother never denigrated him, and although she never talked about him much, she always told me how much he had loved me. She was not an easy liar. I once asked her if I was handsome. She looked at me thoughtfully for a minute and said, “You have very nice eyebrows.”

She used to tell one story about my father’s violent temper, but she told it as a humorous story and even with a note of pride. Rudy, a heavy drinker who later become a tenant in our house, was talking to mom in the kitchen at Clifford’s Bar and Grill where she worked as a cook. My father got the idea that Rudy was making a pass at her, came into the kitchen, grabbed a butcher knife, and went after him.  Thankfully, Rudy was a fast runner.  My mother’s account of Rudy running and my father wielding a butcher knife in hot pursuit was very comical.

There was a regular at Clifford’s they called Johnny Jump-up.  God knows how he got that nickname. He always sat at the bar and would wink at me. He looked a little like my father in photographs we had of him. Maybe it was the glasses. For a while I thought my father hadn’t really died and, disguised as Johnny Jump-up, he was keeping an eye on me.

I don’t know if domestic violence was more common in the 1950s than now, but it was certainly more accepted, at least in our milieu. A very pretty young waitress at Clifford’s was married to a very handsome young man. He looked a bit like Tony Curtis. One night there was a knock at our door, and when I opened it, she was standing there with blood all over her face. Her lip was cut, and maybe her nose was broken. My mother immediately took her in and started cleaning her wounds. What she had done to provoke such a beating God only knows. She stayed overnight with us, but the next day Tony Curtis came by very contrite, and with Mom’s blessing he took his wife back home. He was not shunned or even criticized for beating his wife. On the contrary, he came into the bar during her shift to drink and laugh with friends while her face was still bruised.

Another waitress, whose name I actually remember—Dotty—was treated badly by her husband Fitz in a way that did merit general disapproval.  Dotty would match customers double or nothing for their drinks. She did it with whole tables. Her husband Fitz was missing the middle finger on his right hand. He always told me he had to eat his finger during the war because they had no rations, but I never believed him. Dotty got some sort of cancer. In those days people talked about cancer, if at all, in hushed whispers. Dotty declined very fast. While she was dying in the hospital, Fitz took up with another woman. The general opinion was that Fitz was a worthless son of a bitch.

Wife beating was one thing, but blatant infidelity was strictly anathema.

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