1957 Books – Award-Winning Biographies

1957 was a banner year for biographers. Of the eighteen books honored with National Book Awards for non-fiction, nine volumes told the tale of lives lived in dramatic and historic ways.

American readers were interested in leaders. United States Presidents and Senators, and one English King were profiled in six books. Science was also a topic of interest. Two multi-talented men – a physicist and a naturalist – penned autobiographies. Finally, the only female biographer memorialized the only female subject – a nun.

The Presidents? Franklin D. Roosevelt – who the public still revered – two volumes. John Quincy Adams – one volume. The Senators – one volume exclusively dedicated to Thomas Hart Benton, and another volume covering a selection of eight iconoclastic legislators who defied their parties in memorable ways (including then-Senator John Quincy Adams and Thomas Hart Benton). The King? The embattled, possibly deformed “Son of York” – Richard III.

Physicist Arthur H. Compton recounted his contribution to the Manhattan Project. Naturalist Edwin W. Teale took readers on a cross-country autumn jaunt.

And Kathryn Hulme shared the early experiences of Belgian-born Sister Luke, still alive at the time The Nun’s Story was published. Hulme met Sister Xaverine (Marie Louise Habets’ real religious name) when they were both serving in the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration after World War II. Sister Luke’s story was also made into a 1959 popular movie, starring Audrey Hepburn.

Americans were not only interested in leaders as subjects of biography, they were also interested in leaders as biographers. Then-Senator and future President John F. Kennedy penned the senatorial collection, Profiles in Courage, which won the Pulitzer prize for biography in 1957. Profiles in Courage is also one of only two awarded volumes still in print. Professor Paul Murray Kendall’s Richard III (still considered the academic standard biography) is the other.

The list of award finalists (in alphabetical order by author):

  • John Quincy Adams and the Union, by Samuel F. Bemis
  • Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox, by James MacGregor Burns
  • Old Bullion Benton, by William Chambers
  • The Atomic Quest: A Personal Narrative, by Arthur H. Compton
  • Franklin D. Roosevelt: The Triumph, by Frank Freidel
  • The Nun’s Story, by Kathryn Hulme
  • Richard III, by Paul Murray Kendall
  • Profiles in Courage, by John F. Kennedy
  • Autumn Across America, by Edwin W. Teale

Image Credits: Alfred A. Knopf; Harcourt, Brace & Co; Little, Brown & Co; Oxford University Press; Allen & Unwin; Harper & Brothers; Dodd, Mead & Co/abebooks.com


July 19, 1957 – First Genie Nuclear Rocket Test at Yucca Flat

John Operation Plumbbob

On July 19, 1957, the Nevada Testing Site (NTS) hosted the first test-firing of the AIR-2 Genie air-to-air rocket.  Part of Operation Plumbbob, the “John” test over Yucca Flat involved the successful launch and detonation of the nuclear-warhead-tipped rocket from a Northrup F-89J fighter without demolishing the aircraft itself.  The AIR-2 Genie was designed to destroy incoming enemy bombers with its 1.7-kiloton, plutonium core Genie W-25 warhead.  The rocket traveled 4240 meters in 4.2 seconds, achieving about Mach 3, before detonating approximately three miles over five volunteers and a photographer at ground zero in Yucca Flat’s Area 10.  Their presence at the test site was intended to show the apparent safety of battlefield nuclear weapons to personnel on the ground.

Image Credit: U.S. Air Force

July 18, 1957 – Cyd Charisse Shines in “Silk Stockings”

On July 18, 1957, one of the last great Hollywood movie musicals premiered in theaters.  Silk Stockings, a song-and-dance remake of Ninotchka, starred Fred Astaire as Steve Canfield, the Paris-based director of a new production for aquatic movie star (think Esther Williams) Peggy Daiton (Janis Paige): a musical adaptation of War and Peace. Steve enlists Russian composer Peter Boroff (Wim Sonneveld) to compose the score, but the Russians want Boroff back.  Commisars Brankov (Peter Lorre), Bibinski (Jules Munshin), and Ivanov (Joseph Buloff) are dispatched to persuade Buloff to return, but succumb to the pleasures of decadent, capitalistic Paris themselves (with help from Steve).  The Russians back home then up the ante with their “secret weapon”: special agent Ninotchka Yoschenko, who personally puts the “cold” in the Cold War.  Cyd Charisse takes on the role of Ninotchka, originally played by Greta Garbo in the 1939 version.  Will Steve win Ninotchka over?  Will Peggy’s movie career make the transition from pool to steppe?  Will Brankov, Bibinski, and Ivanov settle for bad vodka after tasting French champagne?

Embed from Getty Images

Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse as they appear in “Silk Stockings.”

With Astaire and Charisse, we know there will be great dance numbers, and Cole Porter’s score provides plenty of humor and opportunities for dazzling footwork.  Silk Stockings was Astaire’s last movie musical; his hint for this post-release announcement was smashing his signature top hat in his final solo number, The Ritz Rock and Roll (a parody of the emerging musical genre).  Cyd, while an actress not quite up to par with Garbo (a tall order), shined as brightly as the City of Lights in her dance numbers.  She held her own with Astaire (another tall order). She also partnered well with Gene Kelly in several films, including Singin’ in the Rain, Brigadoon, and It’s Always Fair Weather.  Charisse had previously paired with Astaire in Ziegfeld Follies and The Bandwagon.  The beautiful (former) Tula Ellice Finklea from Amarillo, Texas was able to make a wonderful new name for herself in America’s movie star elite.

Image Credit: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer; Evening Standard/Getty Images

July 17, 1957 – Second Anniversary of Walt Disney’s “Black Sunday”

Disneyland Opening Day

Opening day at Disneyland, July 17, 1955

On July 17, 1957, Disneyland employees sported badges celebrating the second anniversary of the opening of Walt Disney’s fabulous theme park in Anaheim, California.  Walt’s memories of July 17, 1955 were less than rosy, however. In fact, he and his company’s executives had good reason to look back on “Black Sunday” as a public relations nightmare.

Opening day for Disneyland’s 20 attractions was to be celebrated with a nationwide television broadcast called an “International Press Preview”.  Three of Walt’s good friends in the entertainment industry – Art Linkletter, Bob Cummings, and Ronald Reagan – anchored ABC’s live coverage.  Eleven thousand honored guests and media were invited, but a flood of counterfeit tickets swelled the attendance to 28,154.  Movie stars scheduled to appear at staged 2-hour intervals showed up all at once.   The usually mild climate gave way to a scorching temperature of 101 F.  A plumber’s strike required Walt to make a difficult executive decision: water fountains or working toilets – choose one.  Walt chose toilets, and the hot and thirsty crowd accused Opening Day sponsor Pepsi of a orchestrating a cynical soda sales push.  Asphalt newly poured that morning softened in the heat, trapping well- and high-heeled female guests.  Vendors ran out of food for the unexpected crowds; a gas leak shut Adventureland, Fantasyland, and Frontierland early in the afternoon.  The day went so badly that Walt invited everyone back for a private second day.

Crowds began lining up at 2:00 AM for the July 18th public opening.  Before the day was through, around 50,000 people had experienced the “magic kingdom” that Walt envisioned as “a happy place . . . a source of joy and inspiration to all the world.”  Less than three months later, Disneyland welcomed its 1 millionth visitor.

Image Credit: Tom Simpson & Neato Coolville/The Walt Disney Archives/www.designingdisney.com

July 16, 1957 – Major John Glenn Sets Transcontinental Air Speed Record

John Glenn Project Bullet

John Glenn at the cockpit of his Vought F8U Crusader

On July 16, 1957, Marine Corps Major John Glenn flew coast-to-coast in 3 hours, 23 minutes, and 8.4 seconds to set a new transcontinental air speed record.  His flight, dubbed Project Bullet by Glenn because his Vought F8U Crusader would fly faster than a .45-caliber pistol round, originated at Los Alamitos Naval Air Station in Orange County, California and touched down at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, New York.

Glenn’s mission objective was to prove that the Crusader’s Pratt & Whitney J-57 engine could tolerate extended flight times at combat power, or full afterburner, without damage.  The success of the flight led to removal by Pratt & Whitney of all power limitation on J-57s.  The particular Crusader model Glenn flew was a photo-reconnaissance F8U-1P equipped with a camera but no search radar.  Glenn filmed his entire trip while refueling in mid-air three times using direction finders to home in on the AJ Savage tankers’ beacons.

The air inversion layers in the western United States prevented the excited public from hearing the sonic boom of Glenn’s passing, but in the eastern states the layers disappeared and his expectant mother and her neighbors heard the aural explosion right on schedule.

Glenn’s record-setting average flight speed, including slowdowns for refueling, was set at 725.55 mph, or Mach 1.1.  His achievement put the Major on the radar for a soon-to-be-selected astronaut team for NASA.  He went on to pilot the first manned orbital spaceflight of the Earth in Friendship 7 in February of 1962.

Image Credit: Rob Getz/www.stellar-views.com

Where Were They Then? – Dr. Henry Jones, Jr.

I have evidently been living under a rock. Only this week did I discover the whole alt-world of “fandom.” Fandom, according to Wikipedia, “is a subculture composed of fans characterized by a feeling of empathy and camaraderie with others who share a common interest.” Members of social-network fandoms are different from ordinary fans in that they obsess over “minor details,” create “particular practices,”  and spend a “significant portion of their time and energy” on their shared interest. Sounds a lot like blogging.

Recently, I was strolling the internet for 1957 Time Capsule items when I stumbled across a timeline for the 1957 escapades of . . . Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones, Jr.! The timeline was so replete with “minor details” that it took me a moment to remember that Professor Jones was not a real person!


In 1957, Indy was embroiled in the events portrayed in the movie, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Soviet agents, on the prowl for an ancient, telepathic crystal skull, kidnap Indy’s former lover, Marion Ravenwood, and old friend Harold Oxley. Indy finds a new, energetic partner in Marion’s son, Mutt Williams as both the KGB and the FBI join in the chase. A dangerous trip to Peru and Brazil results in the rescue of Marion and Harold and the restoration of the precious, spooky skull to the Temple of Akator. Interdimensional beings say, “Thank you!” and flood the temple valley on departure.

Quite a year for Indy! But not quite all quiet yet. On October 18th, Indy says “I do” with Marion and discovers along the way that something he “did” nineteen years earlier has had a lasting effect. Spoiler alert! Mutt is his son. And someday, just maybe, Mutt will inherit his father’s “mantle” – a dusty fedora.

Image Credit: Lucasfilm Ltd/Paramount Pictures

July 15, 1957 – LA Times Publisher Norman Chandler on the Cover of Time Magazine

On July 15, 1957, Los Angeles Times publisher Norman Chandler appeared on the cover of Time Magazine.  The city, the man, and his paper were the subject of the lead story, “CITIES: The New World“.  Norman’s grandfather, Union Army Colonel Harrison Gray Otis, had arrived in Los Angeles in 1882, bought up a quarter-interest in the Times, served as its editor, and four years later bought the publication outright.  In 1886, the paper had a  circulation of about 2500.  By 1957, what had once been a small pueblo settlement on the Pacific Ocean had transformed into a 455-square-mile city of over 2 million inhabitants, with satellite communities covering 4853 square miles, three times the size of Rhode Island.  As of the date of the Time article, the LA Times circulation numbered 462, 257.

Harrison Otis’ tenure at the paper saw the arrival of two railroads and a population surge into the city.  Around the turn of the century, ambitious circulation boss Harry Chandler married Harrison’s daughter Marian.  Chandler took over the paper soon after and became a major driving force in the growth of the City of Angels.  He played a significant role (and enlarged his personal fortune by many millions of dollars) in the construction of an aqueduct to bring water and agricultural prosperity to the San Fernando Valley. Harry was also instrumental in establishing LA as the center of a $2.5 billion aircraft industry (Douglas, Lockheed, North American, Northrup), and had a hand in the development of the California Institute of Technology, the Memorial Coliseum, Union Station, and the Hoover Dam.

Norman Chandler, age 57 when the article was published, politically conservative, grew up on his family’s ranch north of LA and studied business at Stanford University.  He married Dorothy Buffum (“Buffie”, namesake of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion), came back to work at the Times and then took over when Harry retired in 1941.  Norman and Buffie managed a multi-million dollar business empire which included paper manufacturing, real estate, securities, television, commercial printing, ranching, and oil.  They funded the construction of the Hollywood Palladium, the Los Angeles Music Center, and the restoration of the Hollywood Bowl.

“Today’s Los Angeles is too amorphous for one man to rule, one newspaper to command,” the article pronounced.  Republican Chandler and his paper nevertheless strongly backed California G.O.P. political candidates, including Vice President Richard M. Nixon.  “I think Dick Nixon would make one of the finest Presidents the U.S. has ever had, ” Chandler asserted.  “[California U.S. Senator] Bill Knowland is a fine man, but if they are both candidates for the G.O.P. nomination in 1960, Mr. Nixon will get the support of the Times.”

Image Credit: Time Magazine