If your favorite parts of the film Apollo 13 are not the scenes from space, but the brief insights we get into the lives of the astronauts' families, you'll probably want to pick up a copy of Lily Koppel's compelling The Astronaut Wives Club, currently the shelves at Brazos Bookstore. Koppel will discuss her book at Brazos on Monday, June 16, at 7 p.m., and she recently took time to talk to us about the women who captured a nation's attention in a way that would foreshadow our future, collective fascination with Real Housewives.
"These women were, in many ways, America's first reality stars," said Koppel, who chatted with us by phone from New York City about her latest book. "Their job--given to them by [NASA] and their country--was to project a perfect American housewife image; they had to remain cool, calm, and collected while their husbands were riding what is essentially the world's largest stick of dynamite into space, and then make him the perfect apple pie for when he returned home."
Koppel was waiting for inspiration for her next book when she came across a photo of the "Astro Wives" in an old issue of Life magazine. "I was looking for a 'hit by lightning' book topic, and I turned a page and saw this incredible photo of [the wives]. They had these skyrocketing beehives, and these candy-colored dresses, and I wondered why I had never heard their side of the story." The more she learned about the astronauts' wives, the more convinced Koppel became that she had been struck by that proverbial lightning bolt she had been waiting for. "They have a club that goes back to the '60s, and they would get together for coffee, tea, martinis. They raised their families in these Houston 'space-burgs' as they called them; it was a tight-knit community, and I thought the whole thing was incredible." Traveling around the country, Koppel met with thirty astronaut wives to hear their stories, firsthand.
Describing the wives' experience as a Cinderella story, Koppel explained that the astronauts weren't the only ones expected to display "the right stuff." Like their husbands, the Astro Wives were expected to be stoic, and keep their fears private. In the meantime, their public role required more than stoicism--it required downright star power. In looking behind what she calls "the heroic NASA image" Koppel unearthed the womanly angle in what was previously a very macho tale. "When the husbands are chosen [as astronauts], these are the new heroes who are going to beat the Russians and represent the best of America." The wives became famous; a source of curiosity for a public that turned them into media darlings. Neiman Marcus outfitted the wives with new wardrobes, and designer Emilio Pucci created garments especially for the wives. And then there was that Life magazine photo shoot.
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The shoot made the women nervous, said Koppel. After so many years of living in the shadow of their famous husbands, but now the spotlight was shining on them. The women went on diets together, and decided to color coordinate their outfits, choosing pink as their best color. "They thought pink would be the perfect color for them, but when the magazine came out they were all wearing red," said Koppel. When the wives asked what happened, the editor explained that patriotic red was far more appropriate for a group of astronauts' wives.
The public had their favorite character/wives: Annie Glen was the perfect, apple pie American wife--exactly what the public (and NASA) expected, while Renee Carpenter was a vivacious Marilyn Monroe-type (President Kennedy's favorite, natch) who went on to write a feminist column that was syndicated in newspapers across the country. Astronaut Wives goes beyond the public persona, and gives us a glimpse into a story previous books and movies have only hinted at until now, all the while giving us a time machine-tour of 1960s Houston.
You can purchase Astronaut Wives at Brazos Bookstore, and meet the author Lilly Koppel on Monday, June 16, 2014 at 7 p.m.