Koppel (The Red Leather Diary: Reclaiming a Life through the Pages of a Lost Journal, 2008, etc.) explores the cohesiveness of a group of wives who formed an unofficial support group and their individual development during the early years of the Cold War.
With the announcement on April 9, 1959, of the “nation’s first astronauts,” the women’s lives changed, as they became instant celebrities along with their husbands. From Project Mercury to the Apollo program and the moon landings, the author traces how the lives of the wives of the original astronauts were transformed by these developments. Ubiquitous reporters, anxious to cover their most intimate moments, and their new status as American icons, intruded into every aspect of their daily lives. Being impeccably groomed became yet another challenge to their existence as de facto single mothers; their husbands were away training for their missions into space. Although they were familiar with the typical stresses facing the wives of career military officers—their husbands’ long absences (sometimes on dangerous missions), poor pay, dismal living quarters, frequent moves and more—this public exposure was a first. They had their own part to play in a less obvious aspect of winning the Cold War: the public-relations offensive. The wives were guests at the White House and joined their husbands on international goodwill tours, showcasing the much-envied American lifestyle. Not only were astronauts judged by their own performance, but their wives and children were also rated. Koppel describes their appearance on the pages of Life magazine, looking like “scoops of ice cream” in their “pressed pastel shirtwaists.” The glamor of Jackie Kennedy was a welcome change, and they enjoyed the perks that came with celebrity, including a lucrative contract with Life.
Insightful social history with a light touch.