I was looking forward to this book -- it's an original topic, a slice of the 1960s that hasn't been done to death. I enjoyed the first chapters, about the Mercury astronauts and their wives, but mostly I found the book disjointed and unsatisfying.
Lily Koppel never seemed to settle on a voice for the book, so that parts of it came across with a wink-wink attitude, such as the way she referred to the women as "astrowives" and the children as "astrokids," and went into great detail about clothes and hair and jewelry as well as various Astro-spats between wives. Other times, the book seemed surreal, as in a description of a get-together after the Apollo 1 tragedy, which described astronauts' widows and families consoling each other and "watching a NASA man perform handstands." There's no further explanation, so we're left with that odd image that seems as if it belongs in a David Lynch movie.
The book covered the families of all the astronauts from the Mercury Program beginning in 1958 to Gemini to Apollo until its end in 1972. This was about fifty families, which was too many for me to keep straight.
Then there were the factual errors. Simple mistakes such as "Senator" Nixon and Khrushchev at the 1959 Kitchen Debate (Nixon was Vice President and had been since 1953), and that Eugene McCarthy beat Lyndon Johnson in the 1968 New Hampshire Democratic primary (Johnson won but was alarmed by how close McCarthy came.) An astronaut wife wears a pair of seventy dollar heels in 1959. (A little internet research finds that Marilyn Monroe paid an extravagant $39.95 for a pair of Ferragamo heels in 1959, so it's unlikely a Navy wife is wearing shoes nearly twice that expensive.)
I read an advance copy, courtesy of NetGalley, and there was no index or notes or other information about the sources. The acknowledgments reveal that Koppel talked to a number of the surviving astronaut wives, but they don't say if the women relied on their memories or kept journals. Perhaps the trade edition will contain that information.
on 21 June 2013
This was a fascinating read it took me just a couple of days to read it at every spare moment. It is beautifully written and gave such an insight to the lives of the families.
I have always been fascinated by space flight and the moon landings.
I was just 9 years old and remember everything about the landings. I remember the splash downs and seeing these very women at the sites.
To read the details of their lives and the hold that NASA had over all of them was interesting to say the least, it was almost as if they were indentured to NASA and they must adhere to the rules or their whole world could crash land too.
I cannot believe that my childhood hero's the astronauts had such feet of clay with their philandering and total lack of understanding of the families needs and difficulties and support for their wives in most cases. Perhaps John Glenn was the wisest who kept his wife and family out of the NASA circus that the other ladies were exposed too. Or was there an ulterior motive there too.
The women were the Barbie to the astronauts Ken, look pretty and stay quiet and you will get it all, seemed to be the attitude of NASA and also it seemed that the American people also expected the wives to be a bit like Julius Caesar's wife "above suspicion" too, but were totally blinded to what the husbands got up to.
How most of these women survived was down to (it appears in a lot of cases) vast amounts of alcohol and smoking.
I felt for all of the women in this book and I'm sure when they have reflected on their lives they must feel at least some anger towards their husbands who were so focused on their careers that they just forgot the rest of their lives.
BRILLIANT READ I've already recommended it to several of my friends.
As the Mercury phase of the Space programme begun, the magazine `Life' was given exclusive access to the programme and traveled to specially designated Space town where the astronauts lived. They took photographs of the astronauts' wives and trampled their front yards, to get whatever photos they could. The journalists wrote about their makeup, their dresses, their kitchens, their cookies; here were the first reality stars, proto-footballers' wives who were as strait-laced and pretty as their husbands were silent.
Ms Koppel's book writes an important piece of American social history, and in parts the book is very good and well researched. However, as other reviewers have commented the writing here is not succinct and seems to ramble on at `talkative' fashion. For certain threads of the narrative had no beginning nor was there any explanation for them given. While accounting for the many characters that made up the main subject, this reader found it hard to fathom who was who, and I soon found my attention drifting and the reading become more of chore. This review begin with the way the astronauts' wives, were constantly scrutinized and photographed by Life magazine, and I believe the author, of this work, should have taken note and introduced photographic material, it would really helped the narrative and under pinned the time period and given grounding to the subject matter at hand. This is a good and important historical narrative; however, there are number flaws and there lies its' Achilles heel.
Amid all the endless books written about NASA's space program and the men involved in it - the Mercury Seven, the Gemini Nine, the Apollo astronauts - it is amazing to me that no-one has ever written about the Astrowives before, about the women left behind as their husbands reached for the stars. These women were simultaneously splashed before the public in the pages of Life magazine and on television screens, moulded into perfect cookie-cutter roles with perfect smiles and perfect hair, and yet at the same time utterly in the background, heralded only for being wives and mothers, prevented from sharing their real thoughts and feelings by NASA's conspiracy of silence.
I really enjoyed this behind-the-scenes romp through the years of the golden age of the space program from the point-of-view of the wives. It doesn't cover the actual program in any great depth - the drama of Apollo 13 is done and dusted in just a paragraph, for example. What it does focus on is what life was like for the wife of an astronaut - the adulation, the free homes and cars and trips, the attention, the ever-present reporters and photographers, and the stress and fear of watching their husbands strap in on top of an explosive rocket for a trip they may never return from, and indeed some never did.
Life as an astronaut's wife could not have been easy: imagine all the fears and worries of a military wife and then multiply them. And the men themselves did not make it any easier - away from home all week training, high-risk trips into space, macho men personalities, many with a 'Cape Cookie' on the side, and shielded from the stresses and worries of home life by NASA, who instructed the wives not to 'bother' their husbands with domestic concerns. It's no surprise that so many of the marriages failed after the death of the space program. I can only admire these women for holding up as long as they did.
on 27 June 2013
The Astronaut Wives Club investigates the unique group of women who supported their husbands as they transformed into the A-List of America's space race. Spanning the 1950's up until the termination of the space programme in 1972 this fascinating commentary details the lives of the wives of the NASA astronauts. This group of exceptional and very different women juggled with portraying the all-American family dream, with lunch at the White House and fending off the space cookies. These are women everyone should know about.
Koppel is the first to make a giant leap (sorry small Armstrong ad lib) into the world of these women and it is a truly remarkable one. Plucked from relative obscurity, wives of test and army pilots, these women were thrust into the limelight, every aspect of their lives documented by the media and completely taken over by their husbands careers. It was fascinating to learn about the network of support these women built but at the same time the complete loneliness they felt at the same time.
It was also extremely fascinating to have the thread of American Social History running through the book, especially Koppel's insightful detailing of the Women's Liberation movement. This is effectively woven into the `wives' story, in reference to when accidents did occur and they were left widowed, and the brutal reality of what they should do next hit them.
Although these women didn't physically walk on the moon it was eye-opening to read of the pressures of being married to the `rock-stars' of the mid- 20th Century. The importance of presenting strong family values, when your husband was away doing god knows what was a constant struggle. The fierce competition between the astronauts also made it difficult for the wives to voice any real fears, if they claimed to feel anything other than, `Joy' and `Pride,' there was the chance their husband could be demoted down the flight order. It is clear these women deserve awards, as I'm not sure how many women these days could juggle all these balls whilst rocking a beehive.
The only downside I had, if you can call it that, was that Koppel is dealing with a vast group of women in her book. As a result, at times it was difficult to remember who was married to whom and exactly what their trials and tribulations were at the time. The chronological nature of the book is effective but it's definitely a story that needs a flip back to the cast order every now and then.
This was an exceptionally interesting and at times shocking read about a topic that has been sidelined in the recounting of history.
On the back of Lily Koppel's book, "The Astronaut Wives Club" is a reading recommendation from noted author and historian, Douglas Brinkley. He writes about the book, "A fun-loving romp about the devoted women behind NASA's herculean Moon Shot effort." Well, I don't know what book Brinkley's writing about but it certainly isn't Koppel's book. There is no "romping" going on in the lives of the NASA groups one, two, or three; the wives led very constrained and restrained lives that were molded into the "model wifehood" that NASA officials wanted to project to the American public. Koppel's book is an interesting - yet sad - look at women whose lives in public were not at all as they were in private.
The 1950's were a time of quiet desperation. "Manly" men were chosen as astronauts and part of the reasons they were chosen was the presence of the little woman behind the man. Wives who fixed large breakfasts at 5a to send their fighter-pilot husbands off to their day's work, and kept the house "up" and the children well-behaved. Their husbands would return that night - or if they were off on a training mission - some days later, to a straightened house, well-scrubbed children, and a wife who took care of everything for him. But "manly men" often had trouble communicating with their pleasing wives and children and quite a few had trouble keeping their zippers zipped.
The seven wives of the first group of astronauts chosen for the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions were instantly in the press limelight. Feted and revered, these women - Rene (pronounced "Reen") Carpenter, Annie Glenn, Marge Slayton, Trudy Cooper, Betty Grissom, Louise Shepard, and Jo Schirra - were "handled" by the public relations mavens at NASA in much the same way as their astronaut husbands were. They were seen in selected coverage in Life Magazine as helpmeets to their glamorous husbands, keeping the "home fires" burning while their brave men were off conquering our "last frontier". But the press didn't cover these women's "real lives" - absent husbands, emotionally-distant husbands, and those husbands chasing the "Cape cookies" who'd throw themselves at the "manly" astronauts, like groupies at a rock concert. No, their "real" lives were not much like the lives ghost-written in Life Magazine.
But the wives of the first generation of NASA astronauts had an informal structure that helped the women cope with the strains of astronaut-wifehood. Since a man's assignment in the program often depended on how his private life was perceived, the wives could not make official waves. Seeing a psychiatrist for personal or marital problems was verboten and might jeopardise the husband's place in the mission schedule. As more astronauts were accepted into the program and the staid 1950's evolved into the swinging 1960's, the wives began to look inward to what they really wanted to do. Divorces happened with greater frequency. Of the seven original astronauts, only two stayed married to their first wives. And of those two, only John Glenn had a faithful record to his wife, Annie. The other couple, Alan and Louise Shepard, had had a marriage with rampant unfaithfulness by Alan.
Lily Koppel has written a perceptive and interesting book about these women who stood behind their men and supported them in their quest for space glory. There's no "romping" here; just a solid look at the last generation of women who accepted the restrictions placed upon them by society.
on 5 June 2013
Having read and been fascinated by the accounts of the Apollo astronauts in Andrew Smith's excellent "Moondust" I was intrigued enough by the idea of hearing their wives' side of the story to request this book to review.
Unfortunately, this is no "Moondust". The prose is breathless, disjointed and written rather in the style of a downmarket women's magazine, replete with cliches. I found it difficult to decide whether the author was celebrating American achievements and the American Dream or being sceptical and sarcastic.
As for the women themselves - they were poorly served by NASA, and they've been poorly served by the author. NASA wanted identikit perfect American housewives, so that they could portray the astronauts as perfect clean cut American heroes, all smiles and stoicism. So NASA manipulated the women, and the media coverage into showing that. Never mind the constant living on the edge as your partner risked their life, never mind the affairs the men had, the endless absences ... the wives had to smile, look immaculately groomed at all times, raise their children, and be the perfect hostess with a sparkling house. And the women - on the whole - went along with this. Yes, they formed their own tightly knit circle, but not one of them put their stiletto heel down and said "no". One of them even went back to her husband so as not to jeopardise his place on the space programme!
I would really have liked to have found out why the women behaved as they did, but I didn't get that from this book. I found out what they ate (a lot of devilled eggs and moon cakes), drank, smoked (but not on camera) and wore, even the shade of lipstick they used, but nothing about how they felt, how they coped. I found it ironic that there was much made of Buzz Aldrin's lack of communication skills and emotion and yet his wife Joan's diary extracts published were incredibly bland too.
The author claims to have won the trust of the women. Maybe she did. But they still weren't saying much, but after a lifetime of keeping their true feelings hidden, it's not really surprising. Or maybe they did speak, and it was an authorial decision to tell the story through what the women wore.
An excellent subject for a book, but I feel it was let down by the author's writing style and focus on trivialities.
The writer has clearly done a lot of research in gathering the media coverage of the "astronaut wives" as well as interviews with many of the wives. there is a lot of material here but somehow, for me it rather loses its way. The book can't decide whether it is a piece of academic research/commentray or article for Hello Magazine. There were a few interesting observations about how the wives represented the all American wife of the 1950/60 - but it never really explored this fully. By the end of the book I found it rather repetative and a bit of a disappointment - it could have been so much more.
When seven men were named in 1959 as the first Americans to rocket into space, their wives could have had little idea of how their own lives were to be transformed. The Mercury astronauts had more than enough on their plates to keep them busy, taken away for days or even weeks at a time to complete their training while all the time competing against one another for the crown of being the first to make it to orbit. The women were military wives, used to moving from barracks to barracks, living on little pay and most with very small children. But from the moment that their husbands became household names, the very epitome of the American Dream, the wives were caught up in an inescapable whirlpool of cameras, reporters, White House visits and press conferences. They also had to put up with their husbands and in some cases that was no easy task. And then there was the fear... when one wife asked, she was informed that there was a 50/50 chance that her husband would return home alive.
The Astronaut Wives club, a non-fiction account, follows the lives of these women and their exclusive club from the beginning of the Mercury programme through to the last Apollo missions in the early 1970s. This covers the Mercury, Gemini and Moon wives, a group that grew to include about fifty women but when it all began there were just the seven, going where no woman had gone before while all the time maintaining their motto `Proud, Thrilled and Happy'.
This is such a fascinating story and there is a lot of story to tell. We hear about the special arrangement that the astronauts and their Astrowives had with Life magazine, an arrangement that was really a glorified life insurance policy that took over much of their lives. There was also the pressure on the wives to be the perfect American housewives, well-turned out with perfect hair and makeup and a kitchen full of the newest appliances to go with it. The meetings with the Kennedys added to the pressure although to most they were a great pleasure. The wives were able to cope to varying degrees - some were confident and assured, others had speech impediments and extreme shyness. Some had husbands who protected them and were well behaved, but many did not.
I was riveted by the lives of these women, especially Marilyn Lovell, Susan Borman and the other Apollo wives who had to endure those hours of darkness when their husbands were on the far side of the Moon. Of course, not all of the men survived and their wives' experiences are especially poignant and tearful.
So, all well and good - a riveting story. But the problem with The Astronaut Wives Club is that the writing does not do justice to the lives of these women. There is almost no depth, no insight into how the women thought. The book is built upon interviews but there is little evidence of that. The focus throughout is on reeling off what the wives were up to, one thing after another, with no kind of analysis, while focusing on their shopping and makeup issues. These were intelligent women but you wouldn't know it. I know that this was the 1950s and 60s but there is no need for the misogynistic ways of the past to have coloured so completely this interpretation of these women's lives.
More than once I came close to putting the book aside, exasperated by the narrative's triviality - the thrilling is made mundane time after time. In the latter part of the book when terrible tragedies had harmed these lives the style does pick up a little - it was in the nick of time - but it never gets close to revealing any true thought into what these wives and their husbands went through. The bouncy, cheery narrative also flits between the wives with such speed that it was very difficult to get to know more than a couple of them. It's all so superficially touched upon. I would have loved to have learned so much more about the women, their husbands and children. There is a very brief recap of how their lives turned out since the space programmes as well as a few photographs, but I would have welcomes an awful lot more.
I was compelled to carry on by my deep interest in the extraordinary experiences that these wives went through, when they were almost treated like aliens from another world. It reminded me of reading Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff many years ago but it isn't in the same class. The Astronaut Wives Club might serve to give the reader a taste or a glimpse into its subject but as a whole it does not do the women justice. I'm grateful for the review copy.
on 25 July 2014
Lily Koppel tells the story of the wives of the first three sets of NASA astronauts, spanning the period from 1959 (when the "Mercury Seven", the first astronauts, were announced) until 1972 (when the Apollo missions ended with the last man leaving the surface of the moon).
A lot has been written about the astronauts and their missions, but this is the first book about their wives. The first seven had no idea what was in store for them when their husbands were chosen out of the many applicants. Up until then, they had been test pilot's wives, moving from base to base with their husbands, raising their children in ever-changing environments, trying to establish new friendships with the other families living on base all the time.
All of a sudden, their husbands were in the limelight - and so were they, gaining celebrity status from one minute to the next. None of the ladies was prepared for this, and nobody did prepare them or help them. They did make a few mistakes at first, but quickly learned, and found they could cope much better with the pressure from being constantly under the public eye when they helped each other.
Of course, there were also the plus sides: meetings with "Jackie" at the White House, balls and dinner parties with a host of Hollywood stars, nice dresses given to them by well-known fashion companies to be worn as living advertisments, dream houses and cars for symbolic amounts of money (such as a corvette for just 1 $ a year).
The price to pay was their privacy; a deal was struck up with LIFE magazine that reporters and photographers would have access to them and their homes nearly 24/7, covering every meal they prepared for their children, every outfit they wore, and every emotion in their faces during launch and mission times.
The second set of astronauts were nominated, and their wives were no better prepared than the first ones. Because there was always a competitive undercurrent between their husbands as to who was going to fly the next mission, the first wives were at first reluctant to welcome the new wives into their circle. Eventually, though, they all became members of the Astronaut Wives Club, being there for each other in times of need.
While flawless All-American families were presented to the world, it often was a different story behind the scenes. There was cheating and alcoholism, coldness and jealousy, and one couple even gave up their separate lives in order to make sure the husband got the job, and moved in together again, hoping their secret would not be found out (it wasn't until long afterwards).
Inevitably, some women became closer friends than others, but whenever their husbands were up there, or when disaster struck and terrible accidents happened, they all put their differences aside and rallied round.
The book ends with a chapter about a reunion of the wives in the mid-1980s. I enjoyed it very much, although I must admit I was a bit disappointed at times with the writing style. Some chapters read like a simple row of paragraphs having little to do with each other, jumping from one wife (or couple) to the next, without a recognizable thread between them. But the overall reading is good, giving what I believe to be an accurate picture of life in "Togethersville", the nickname given to the "space suburb" in Clear Lake City, where most of the astronauts' families lived.