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From Ball to Wayne: 5 Fascinating '50s Icons

By Ashly Moore Sheldon • September 18, 2020

A Country on the Verge

A look back at the icons of the fifties reveals the hidden influences of a country on the verge of massive social change. On the surface, images of the era look deceptively tidy: clean-cut young men in white t-shirts and pony-tailed girls in poodle skirts. But under the surface of this veneer, a heady mix of insurgent forces simmered: cultural integration, political turmoil, and sexual freedom. At the center of this rising tension was an ecclectic pop culture mélange made up of artists who balanced precariously on the edge between tradition and innovation.

Lucille Ball

It may surprise many to learn that a young Lucille Ball struggled to stand out at the New York City performing arts school she attended. "I was a tongue-tied teenager spellbound by the school's star pupil, Bette Davis," said Ball. Read about her hardscrabble childhood and hard road to stardom in her autobiography, Love, Lucy or Ball of Fire, an excellent biography from Stefan Kanfer.

Indeed, it would take more than two decades before Lucy hit her stride in the groundbreaking I Love Lucy, created by Lucy and her real-life husband, Cuban bandleader Desi Arnaz. The hilarious family sitcom was the first of its kind, paving the way for many that followed. Revisit the offbeat, multicultural Ball/Arnaz household with a few dishes from the I Love Lucy Cookbook by Sarah Key and Vicky Wells. For an intimate look into Ball's later years from one of her closest friends, pick up a copy of I Loved Lucy by Lee Tannen.

Elvis Presley

Known as "The King of Rock and Roll," Elvis Presley ushered in an exciting new musical era. But his personal life was often tumultuous. Published on the 40th anniversary of his death at age 42, Elvis the Legend by Gillian G. Gaar offers a comprehensive illustrated biography of the star. Get an inside peek at his relationships in memoirs from two of the people who knew him best: Me and a Guy Named Elvis by his lifelong pal Jerry Schilling and Elvis and Me by his wife Priscilla Presley.

Presley's innovative musical style was coined rockabilly, an uptempo fusion somewhere between country and R&B. Asked once to describe his music, he responded, "I don't sound like nobody." With his swiveling hips and brooding good looks, he was, at once, both wildly popular and dangerously provocative. Music writer Peter Guralnick wrote a set of companion books about the artist: Last Train to Memphis chronicles his rise and Careless Love, his fall.

Eartha Kitt

Known for her ethereal beauty and distinctive purr of a voice, Eartha Kitt has written three memoirs, including I'm Still Here: Confessions of a Sex Kitten. Celebrated filmmaker Orson Welles declared her the most exciting woman in the world. Superstar Diana Ross has said she modeled her own look and sound after the singer, dancer, and actress.

Kitt began her career in 1943 as a dancer in Katherine Dunham's innovative African-American modern dance company. (Here's a book Dunham wrote about her work.) The multitalented Kitt went on to record several hit songs and garner notable roles on stage and screen. But in 1968, her reputation in the U.S. took a hit after she made anti-Vietnam War statements at a White House luncheon. Ten years later, she made a successful comeback on Broadway and has showcased her singular voice in relatively recent roles in animated Disney films such as The Jungle Book and The Emperor's New Groove.

John Wayne

Over the course of his long career, John Wayne came to epitomize American masculinity. His brawny swagger represented the gold standard for Hollywood heroes. Born Marion Morrison, he won a football scholarship at the University of Southern California, but left college after an injury sidelined him. Wayne got his start in the movie industry as an extra and a prop man, eventually finding his place as a Western hero. Michael Munn's John Wayne: The Man Behind the Myth offers a comprehensive biography of the star.

Wayne was married three times and had seven children. John Wayne: My Father comes from Aissa Wayne, his daughter with third wife, Pilar. For diehard fans, The John Wayne Code offers a veritable cache of his manly brand of wit, wisdom, and advice. Finally, you can hear from the man himself in Duke in His Own Words, a compilation of letters, notes, and personal photographs curated by his son Ethan Wayne.

Marilyn Monroe

The term blonde bombshell may not have originated with Marilyn Monroe, but she claimed it as her own. Known for her intense sexual appeal, the actress embodied the era's changing attitudes around sexuality. Written at the height of her fame, her autobiography My Story wasn't published until more than a decade after her shocking death at age 36. The revelatory book poignantly shares the story of her lonely childhood as an orphan and her rise in the film industry. By Gary Vitacco-Robles, Icon: The Life, Times, and Films of Marilyn Monroe offers a more complete view of her life and career.

Many believed that the actress—whose death was ruled suicide—was actually murdered. Here are two books supporting this premise: The Last Days of Marilyn Monroe by Donald H. Wolfe and Monroe: A Case for Murder by Jay Margolis. Despite much investigation into these claims, officials have insisted that no evidence of foul play has been found.

For more great books about the era of sock-hops, soda fountains, and drive-ins, check out our Nifty '50s page.

Read more by Ashly Moore Sheldon

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