By Jim Hopkins
The last Tuesday in August 1956 was quite like today: A presidential race geared up for the final, post-Labor Day push, amid boiling Mideast tensions and questions about one candidate’s health. Hot and humid, Louisville distracted itself with celebrity news: a very rich New York socialite with a blue-chip name had just married husband No. 3; years later, her son would become a famous TV news anchor dubbed the “Silver Fox.” And contract talks between a major local manufacturer and thousands of employees were the business story of the day. These were the headlines on The Courier-Journal’s front page that Aug. 28, 1956.
An editor’s playful headline, “Sweat-ery,” summed up what readers should expect that day: temperatures in the 90s, news to make them wince when many employers still didn’t have air conditioning. But the workplace differed in far worse ways.
Companies openly discriminated on the basis of gender and race. The help-wanted classifieds section for women included Curl’s Tavern on Brook Street, offering $30 a week ($265 in today’s dollars) for short-order cooks; applicants had to be white. Kleins Restaurant on Broadway needed a cook, too — but “colored,” adding: “apply at rear.”
That summer’s presidential race was a rematch between the Republican incumbent Dwight D. Eisenhower, 65, and the long-shot Democratic nominee he’d beaten four years before: Adlai Stevenson, 56, and a former Illinois governor. Their dueling campaigns argued over whether the economy was adding jobs fast enough. But the greater concern was the crisis in Egypt, where new President Gamal Abdel Nasser had just nationalized the Suez Canal.
Eisenhower, a retired five-star general, was heading back to Washington after a West Coast golfing vacation in Pebble Beach, Calif., with his wife Mamie; it was a pleasure trip, but also meant to project good health after a heart attack he’d suffered the year before.
The gossipy news? It was about Gloria Vanderbilt, born into one of the nation’s wealthiest families, and still known as the “poor little rich girl” because she’d been the subject of a high-profile custody battle between her mother and an aunt over a $4 million trust fund ($67 million in today’s dollars). She was 10 years old at the time.
In a photograph on the CJ’s front page, the 32-year-old socialite posed for photographers with her new husband, the director Sidney Lumet; they’d wed the previous day. The marriage lasted 11 years until they divorced, and she married husband No. 4 — her last: Wyatt Emory Cooper. They would have two sons. The second, born when she was 43, was named Anderson Hays Cooper. (Her first son, Carter Vanderbilt Cooper, committed suicide at 23 by jumping from the ledge of the family’s 14th-floor apartment on Manhattan’s posh upper East Side, as Vanderbilt watched in horror, pleading for him to stop.)
The big business news was a strike just called against a big Louisville manufacturer: American Radiator & Standard Sanitary Corp., idling 3,500 workers at the plumbing-fixture plant at 1541 South Seventh St. Management said it would be forced to relocate its brass business if workers didn’t agree to the company’s latest offer: a pay increase of 12 cents an hour. Present pay practices, it said, were “out of line.”
Eisenhower beat Stevenson in a second consecutive landslide, taking more than 57% of the popular vote and winning 42 states, including Kentucky. That same day, British and French troops seized control of the Suez Canal.
Stevenson didn’t give up his White House aspirations, seeking an 11th-hour Democratic nomination in 1960; he lost it to John F. Kennedy. He served as Kennedy’s U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and died of a massive heart attack suffered on a London street in 1965. He was 65 years old.
Eisenhower finished his second term, and retired to his farm near Gettysburg, Pa. He died in 1969 at age 78, and was buried in his childhood hometown of Abilene, Kan.
He and especially Stevenson, known for his intellectual demeanor and eloquent public speaking, would be shocked by the raw, gutter-level tenor of this year’s presidential campaign (as should everyone).
Racial discrimination in employment was outlawed under the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Gloria Vanderbilt is now 92, and lives in New York City. Her son Anderson Cooper, 49, is one of the nation’s most prominent broadcast journalists, holding jobs as CNN anchor as well as reporting for “60 Minutes”; his brother’s suicide has strongly influenced his career. He and his mother are very close, collaborating in an HBO documentary this year, “Nothing Left Unsaid: Gloria Vanderbilt & Anderson Cooper.” Here’s the trailer:
The 1956 strike at American Radiator & Standard Sanitary Corp. ended 12 days later.
The company marshaled on as one of scores of manufacturers that once made Louisville one of the most industrialized cities in the Midwest. Its distant corporate parent was renamed American Standard Corp. in 1967, which later divested all but the heating and cooling business in 2007, and renamed itself Trane. In turn, Trane was acquired by Ingersoll Rand in 2008.
I don’t know when American Radiator disappeared from Louisville. Today, one of the few remaining really big manufacturers is GE Appliances, which at its height employed 25,000 workers at Appliance Park in the south end; employment has since fallen to 6,000. In June, China-based Haier bought the company for $5.6 billion, and two weeks ago, it started contract talks with unions representing 4,000 Appliance Park workers.
Sixty years ago, the CJ’s front page carried 13 stories, including a four-paragraph news-of-the-weird account of an 85-year-old “welfare client” in Wagoner, Okla., who died when her clothing caught fire while she was canning apples. The sheriff found $4,999.69 cash (today’s dollars: $44,000) stashed in her bedroom mattress.
That day’s page one undercuts the legend of the CJ before the Binghams sold it to Gannett, 30 years ago last month: It wasn’t always a sober, just-the-facts broadsheet. After all, Vanderbilt, with no discernible connection to Louisville, was something of a Kim Kardashian of the moment, albeit with a better pedigree and a smaller caboose.
But like all newspapers now, it’s certainly a far smaller operation. This morning’s front page had just two stories — three if you count a big promo to a college football preview section.