The Rise And Fall Of The Space-Age Bachelor
Some 15 years ago I became fascinated by the midcentury phenomenon of the so-called “space-age bachelor,” whose native environment was his space-age bachelor pad.
I watched every movie I could find, and when those dried up, resorted to reading academic studies on “postwar male consumption,” such as “Playboys In Paradise: Masculinity, Youth And Leisure-Style In Modern America.” But that was mostly just to discover movies I hadn’t seen yet.
Later, for the January, 2004 issue of L’Uomo Vogue, I wrote a short piece on the space-age bachelor, who more or less became extinct — along with a lot of other things — in the late ’60s and who haunted the years after Vietnam and Watergate as a kind of louche and ghostly caricature. The story ran in Italian, so below is my original written in the language of America.
It’s a testament to the fascinating, meandering journey of life that 11 years later I’d return to the topic with a website devoted to men’s living spaces. And reading the piece over, some of the passages suggest themes and motifs that would later capture public consciousness via “Mad Men.”
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The Space-Age Bachelor
By Christian Chensvold
L’Uomo Vogue, January 2004
Every generation has its destiny, and for the young men of the Atomic Age, it was nothing less than to have the world as their oyster — and wash it down with a dry martini.
Between 1954-1964 a new masculine archetype flourished. Fresh from victory in World War II and gorged on the fruits of affluence, American men developed a democratized, pop form of dandyism for the masses, a cult of style and leisure based on the carefree life of bachelorhood. With a well paying office job and the benefits of the growing sexual revolution, the “swinging bachelor” could cultivate a carefree and sybaritic lifestyle based on everything that was modern and hip.
In short, he could become a playboy.
Founded in 1953, Hugh Hefner’s Playboy became the bible of this modern male. The magazine was a veritable how-to guide for the upwardly mobile young professional, its pages packed with the spoils of la dolce vita: stylish clothes, convertible sports cars, jazz music and tropical cocktails. With Playboy the swinging bachelor could keep up on all the latest trends, from the mambo to psychoanalysis, while dreaming alternately of taking a yacht to the South Pacific and a rocket to the moon.
Being single does not mean being alone, and for the Atomic Age bachelor on the prowl the prey was never more tantalizing. There were buxom blonde bombshells aping Marilyn Monroe, and ponytailed brunettes strapped into capri pants, quoting Jack Kerouac and smoking French cigarettes. The jackpot was a foreign stewardess: Beautiful, exotic, and only in town for a night.
Just as it was for Oscar Wilde’s drawing-room dandies, the swinging bachelor’s domain was an interior one. He stalked the savannah of his office, with its abundance of skirts-suited secretaries, the nightclub (his real work began after five), and his personal sanctuary, that automated temple of seduction known as the bachelor pad.
Located on the penthouse floor of a modern skyscraper, the bachelor’s apartment had two focal points: The bar and the hi-fi system. The bar sported a tiki theme and was covered with Polynesian bric-a-brac from mail-order catalogs. Inside the colorful bottles were magic elixirs capable of unleashing primitive desires stifled by Western Civilization.
In contrast, the high-tech stereo was a testament to the latest in sound technology. Built from scratch and at great expense, it was specially tuned to play the latest in sophisticated mood music. Grounded in jazz but spiced with exotic instruments, this forgotten genre of music was rescued in the 1990s by audiophiles and dubbed Space-Age Bachelor Pad Music. The prime exponents of these symphonic seductions include Les Baxter, Martin Denny, Esquivel and Arthur Lyman. The bachelor pad also employed the latest in push-button automation. With a mere flick of a switch the swingin’ bachelor could dim the lights, summon the music, and unfold the couch into a leopard-print bed.
Perhaps believing his skills were not on par with his Mediterranean counterparts, the American male relied on technology to facilitate the act of seduction.
Because of its sixth sense known as women’s intuition, the female sex viewed men’s exaltation of bachelorhood with a certain irony. And as the only thing stronger than women’s intuition is women’s self-delusion, females convinced themselves that these carousing Casanovas were genuine husband material hidden underneath their sharkskin suits, couldn’t possibly be happy eating TV dinners every night and staying out late with an endless variety of beautiful women, and that what they really needed was the love of a good wife.
Turns out they were right. For while each generation has its destiny, they all share the same fate. Bachelorhood is really just a larvae stage leading up to the great transformation, when the bachelor goes to sleep one night and wakes up a husband. It is one of nature’s great mysteries.
At least that’s how it happened in the movies. The swinging bachelor’s primary genre was the romantic comedy, whose muse decrees that every story must end in marriage. The team of Rock Hudson and Doris Day starred in several films in which Day played a sexually repressed prude and Hudson a womanizing rake, including “Pillow Talk” (1959) and “Lover Come Back” (1962). “Pillow Talk” owes a debt to Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest,” and includes such similarities as the hero’s assuming a false identity to woo the heroine, two male friends trying to outwit one another, and the contrast between city and country.
The group of Las Vegas lounge lizards known as the Rat Pack (including Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr.), showed that a man could maintain the image of a swingin’ bachelor even though middle-aged and married. Rat Pack films such as “Ocean’s Eleven” (1960) brims with finger-snapping Vegas style, while Martin plays a debonair playboy in “Marriage on the Rocks” (1965), and Sinatra faces the twilight of the swingin’ bachelor in “The Tender Trap” (1955).
Perhaps the finest example of the genre is “Under the Yum Yum Tree” (1963), in which Jack Lemmon plays a concupiscent apartment manager who only rents to single women. Recently the swinging bachelor genre was affectionately parodied in “Down with Love” (2003), starring Ewan McGregor and Renee Zwelleger.
As the 1960s progressed, the social climate changed. The assassination of John F. Kennedy, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the growing conflict in Vietnam, and the escalating Cold War made the swinging bachelor’s carefree life seem frivolous and irresponsible.
So as London increasingly became the world capital of fashion, music, and everything young and exciting, the swinging bachelor became a British spy.
In 1954 Ian Fleming debuted James Bond, melding the swinging bachelor archetype with a British gentleman endowed with a certain Etonian snobbery. The popular spy genre of the ’60s — of which James Bond was the king — was a celebration of the swinging bachelor archetype with its high-tech gadgets, space-age bachelor pads, sports cars and exotic women. Added to that was the dandy tradition of faultless attire, dry wit and ample aplomb. Roger Moore in “The Saint” and Patrick McNee in “The Avengers” are the best examples. Other films in the stylish spy genre include “Danger Diabolik” (1968) and “Modesty Blaise” (1966).
When the swinging bachelor returned to American cinema, he too became a secret agent. Dean Martin made four films as Matt Helm (mostly parodies of the genre), and James Coburn took two turns as Derek Flint. But the swinging bachelor’s life of interior relaxation was over. Now he had to save the world.
By the 1970s the swinging bachelor went to pasture on the sitcom “Three’s Company,” in which Don Knotts played an aging Casanova forced to live vicariously through the sexual shenanigans of his tenants.