Lily Koppel hadn’t been born the first time men landed on the moon, but fate sent her there anyway. The author of The Red Leather Diary, 33, was looking for a subject when she happened to flip through a collection of Life magazine photos on her coffee table.
One picture changed everything.
“I was trying to look for an untold women’s story,” says Koppel, who appears at a Books & Books luncheon on Friday. “There were all the pictures of Neil Armstrong, the flag on the lunar surface, and then I saw the photo of the wives with these rocket-shaped beehives in mini dresses, and it was such a welcome contrast to the macho side of the space race.”
And so The Astronaut Wives Club — released in paperback by Grand Central in time for the 45th anniversary of the moon landing — was born. Beginning with the Mercury astronauts, Koppel examines the lives, friendships and marriages of the military wives thrust suddenly into the media spotlight, sharing tea with Jackie Kennedy and becoming fashion icons.
“They were America’s first reality stars,” says Koppel, who lives with her husband in Manhattan. “Their husbands were picked for missions, and their lives changed overnight.”
The book reveals fascinating details about the women, who went from living in drab military housing to a neighborhood called “Togethersville” in Houston. Their husbands were often in Cape Canaveral training (and being stalked by groupies). Living a normal life was impossible. To escape reporters they’d hide under blankets in their neighbors’ back seats to go grocery shopping or to the beauty parlor.
“They were given a daunting task by NASA — with no publicity training — to beam out this image of the perfect American housewife at the apex of the ’60s,” Koppel says. “It was the height of the Cold War. It was all propaganda, and they had to remain calm, cool and collected.”
The era pays such a huge part in this story. Why are we so fascinated with it?
This book was really inspired by the feel of the Mad Men series. I saw that photo of the wives after I’d had one of those weekends where you inhale several seasons at once on Netflix. The ’50s and ’60s are so different to us. Today we’re all obsessed with our phones and doing yoga to stay calm. Our gaze is small now. But in that time period the magic nature of it all was Kennedy saying, “We’re going to the moon!” and astronauts giving their all to fulfill this endeavor. And of course the wives fulfilled this dream as well. I wanted to capture the texture of the era. Women’s stories do that well. I would ask something like, “Do you have any of your dresses from back then?” And Betty Grissom said, “You want to see my hot pants?” Those frivolous details show what a different time it was. The country is in utter turmoil; the women’s lib movement is starting, and looking back from our era it seems preposterous reading the articles in Life about such perfect housewives. The women are being asked to play a role, and it’s all falling apart. It’s like Valley of the Dolls goes to the moon.
How do the wives look back at this time?
I think it’s defined their lives. Many of them wear a gold charm bracelet with the charm of a whistle on it. That was their symbol — whistle and I’ll be there. They raised each other’s kids and supported each other. Many women went through divorces before the end of the program, which speaks to the emotional cost of having your husband away all week and treated like a rock star. These are the problems of modern-day celebrity. But it was also totally exhilarating. Jane Conrad, whose husband Pete was the third man on the moon, said “It’s like a dream. It seems like yesterday and a thousand light years away too.” It was an incredibly exciting time for them.
What was the hardest part of their lives?
The most difficult thing was that each wife, even though she had camaraderie of her friends, was out in orbit alone. It was a very intense, competitive atmosphere. The wives were living in Houston in a Jetson’s bubble while the men were in Cape Canaveral, and that was their playground. The wives were expected to smile for Life magazine when really they’re sitting on this emotional time bomb.
Are the women still friends?
This is a very exclusive sorority. The Space Sisters, as they’re called, go on cruises and meet for reunions. It’s a more tight-knit group than the astronauts, who are still competitive in their 70s and 80s. … The women had been thinking for years about writing their story, but they had given up on it when I knocked on their door.
ABC is developing a series based on the book. Are you involved in the production?
Stephanie Savage, who developed Gossip Girl, is writing and producing; I’m consulting to make sure the series is true to the spirit of the book. I just think there’s nothing as cinematic as going into space. … It’s so ripe for filmic representation! I would pore over these pictures of the splashdown parties with martinis and deviled eggs and all the polyester and think, “Can I just push play on this page?”
Connie Ogle is the Miami Herald’s book editor.