Cover image for Back then : two lives in 1950's New York
Back then : two lives in 1950's New York
Bernays, Anne.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Morrow, [2002]

Physical Description:
309 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
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PS3552.E728 Z463 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Infused with intelligence and charm, Back Then is an elegant reflection on transformative years in the lives of two young people and New York City. Marked by their youthful passion, this double memoir marries the authors' distinct literary styles with a riveting narrative that captures the density and texture of private, social, and working life in the 1950s.

Novelist Anne Bernays, born in 1930, and biographer Justin Kaplan, born in 1925, both natives of New York, came of age in the 1950s, when the pent-up energies of the Depression years and World War II were at flood tide. Back Then, written in two separate voices, is the candid, anecdotal account of two children of privilege, one from New York's East Side, the other from the West Side, pursuing careers in publishing and eventually leaving to write their own books. They both sought self-knowledge and realization through years of psychoanalysis. They brushed shoulders with celebrities like William Faulkner, Somerset Maugham, Marlene Dietrich, and Anatole Broyard.

Before Bernays and Kaplan met and married, each had enjoyed the sexual and social freedom that, along with the dark shadow of McCarthyism and the Cold War, was among the distinguishing marks of the 1950s. In many other respects, the story they tell could almost as well be about an earlier era.

This vibrant, balanced memoir offers an indelible portrait of postwar New York -- exhilarating, hospitable, and affordable. A striking collaboration by two prominent figures in American letters, Back Then surprises and delights as Bernays and Kaplan recall their youthful pursuits, the merging of their lives, and the city's underlying influence on them.

Author Notes

Justin Kaplan was born in Manhattan, New York on September 5, 1925. He received a bachelor's degree in English from Harvard University, followed by graduate work in the field there, but he left before earning a doctorate to work as a freelance writer and book editor. His first book, Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain, won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1967 and a National Book Award. His other works include Lincoln Steffens: A Biography, When the Astors Owned New York: Blue Bloods and Grand Hotels in a Gilded Age, and Walt Whitman: A Life, which won a National Book Award. He also wrote books with his wife Anne Bernays including The Language of Names and Back Then: Two Lives in 1950s New York. He was the editor of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations. He died from complications of Parkinson's disease on March 2, 2014 at the age of 88.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Pulitzer Prize^-winning biographer Kaplan and novelist Bernays, a married couple, present a lively collaboration, a two-voiced, parallel memoir of life in New York during the 1950s. Each comes from a privileged background, though because one is from the East Side of Manhattan and the other from the West, their experiences are quite different. Bernays and Kaplan recount their exploits as young singles, adventures of a far less restricted nature than one might think. On to professional turf, each enjoys an expedited entree into the world of publishing that only "connections" can provide, putting them in contact with writers who are now part of the literary canon, but whose early days on the literary scene they vividly detail. Bernays and Kaplan's chatty, personal tone renders this name-dropping extravaganza welcoming and informal, a friendly encounter with the authors and their fellow literati. For New Yorkers of a certain age, this will be a real nostalgia trip, but all readers interested in the city's remarkable literary history will find this polished duet alluring and pleasing. Danise Hoover

Publisher's Weekly Review

Bernays's first date with Kaplan was over lunch. Glancing at the menu, Kaplan recommended the calf's brains and Bernays made a split-second decision: I could never marry a man who ate brains for lunch or, as far as that went, for any other meal. But the not-yet-prestigious writers (he went on to win a Pulitzer for Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain; she has written eight well-received novels) did marry, and they have collaborated on this double memoir recounting their remarkably parallel lives in 1950s New York City. Both grew up in well-to-do Jewish families, she on Manhattan's Upper East Side, he on the Upper West Side; both went away to college, majored in English and returned to New York to work in publishing. What makes this book successful is the way both writers capture the diverse sounds and sense of various subcultures in the city: bohemian, literary, Jewish, upper-crust, etc. They alternate chapters, and both writers have entirely distinct voices and styles of writing: Bernays's chapters are narrative driven, personal and filled with anecdote, while Kaplan maintains a certain distance from the subject at hand (that is, himself), offering character sketches of his colleagues and associates. Though the couple eventually leaves New York, the book serves as a hymn to the city of their youth: Still relatively restrained in style, and with as yet only a subdominant glitter, chic, and Babylonian arrogance. Well written and thoughtful, this memoir gives a nice flavor of urban cultural life in the 1950s. B&w photos. (May 28) Forecast: New Yorkers and denizens of the literary and publishing worlds will love this, and it will be widely reviewed. Expect excellent sales in New York City, and good sales among literati in other urban locales. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Novelist Bernays (Short Pleasures) and biographer Kaplan (Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain), who are married to each other, have written separate narratives of their younger personal and professional lives that, artfully interwoven, provide a vivid picture of what it was like to be gifted in 1950s New York City, when a heady sense of opportunity and possibility prevailed. While they each write candidly of individual experience, they are mindful of being representative as well. The privileged daughter of PR pioneer Edward Bernays before the war, her family occupied an entire floor of the swank Sherry-Netherland Hotel Bernays writes of life at Wellesley and then Barnard, where she majored in English, and of being a member of the Silent Generation whose goal was to draw no attention to herself. For his part, Kaplan, the son of an Orthodox Jew, describes the pain of the growing distance between himself and his father's religion and Russian background. He also recalls a Harvard where learning seemed hermetic. Working in New York's publishing houses, the authors got a good sense of the era's attitudes on such topics as psychoanalysis, sex, babies, civil rights, the arms race, the Holocaust, women's clothing, and the Waldorf salad. In a lighthearted style, this work says much about all the things that made the 1950s a unique decade in American life. Recommended for all libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 2/15/02.] Charles C. Nash, Cottey Coll., Nevada, MO (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.