Park Avenue Summer
By Renee Rosen. (Penguin Random House, 366 pages, $16.)
New York City, 1965 — where the air is thick with cigarette smoke and Aqua-Net, the 21 Club is the place to be seen, and “Sex and the Single Girl” has the power to shock. Into this deceptively glamorous world steps Alice Weiss, wide-eyed Ohio girl, who stumbles into a plum job as secretary to “Sex” author and newly minted Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown. No entry-level mailroom job for this gal!
While Brown struggles to rebrand the staid literary magazine with her simultaneously liberated and retrograde ideas about women, Alice takes a crash course in office politics — sexual and otherwise. There’s a bit too much dream-come-true hokum at work here, and a digression into Alice’s family history that takes valuable time away from the Cosmo office.
Billed as a mashup of “Mad Men” and “The Devil Wears Prada,” this is a Champagne cocktail of a novel, heavily researched (yes, Google images tells us that the “scandalous” July cover was just as described) and larded with iconic names: Ephron, Friedan, Capote, Scavullo. Brown herself remains an enigmatic figure, coolly commanding one moment, sobbing uncontrollably the next. But “Park Avenue Summer” is really about her effect on the fictional Alice and a generation of young women, and in that sense it serves as a pleasant nostalgia trip.
The League of Wives
By Heath Hardage Lee. (St. Martin’s Press, 336 pages, $28.99.)
With their bouffant hairdos and pearl necklaces, these 1960s military wives would never be mistaken for “women’s libbers.” But war and desperation turned them into the activists they never expected to be.
They were focused on home and family until their husbands were lost or shot down in the jungles of Vietnam as the war ramped up against the Communist-led regime in Hanoi. Their dismay swelled when they realized that the U.S. government’s priorities did not include getting their loved ones home.
“Our children and I were an unwanted problem,” said Virginia POW wife Evelyn Grubb. The women were told to wait and keep quiet. This was the ’60s, after all, before women could wear pants to work — if they could work. But something had to be done, and Sybil Stockdale, Jane Denton and their compatriots figured out how to do it.
Author Heath Hardage Lee constructs a surprising, deeply reported story of the scores of women across the country who joined forces to birth the nation’s POW/MIA organization. Interviews and archives describe how they pressured presidents and diplomats and won over an American population growing more uneasy about the war. Their campaign would take them to Stockholm, Southeast Asia, the Paris peace talks and eventually to the White House lawn.
“The League of Wives” bears some resemblance to “Hidden Figures,” Margot Lee Shetterly’s blockbuster about the black women mathematicians behind the early NASA space missions. Both authors stumbled on the story of one amazing woman and followed the trail to uncover overlooked milestones in American history. Lee’s storytelling lacks the polish of “Hidden Figures,” partly because the larger number of characters requires more backtracking. Even so, this work is filled with OMG moments — like the coded messages Sybil exchanged with her POW husband, and cameo appearances by Ross Perot and John McCain. Altogether Lee dramatically reveals the untold story of gutsy women who need to be remembered.