In April 1959, the United States introduced the world to the Mercury Seven: the guys with the right stuff to become the nation’s first astronauts. Not long thereafter, their wives graced the cover of Life magazine, launching them into the public eye and making them fashion icons and models of domestic bliss–whether or not their marriages were on stable ground.
In her brilliant and breezy collective biography, The Astronaut Wives Club, Lily Koppel explores the lives of these women, who sacrificed privacy, happiness, even husbands in the name of space exploration. Although the Astrowives are not really remembered today, they were once considered essential to America’s victory in the Space Race. NASA believed solid marriages were a prerequisite to flight (it was the fifties, after all). The wives were expected to run happy homes and make sure their brave boys had a hearty breakfast before blasting off.
While some Astrowives–namely John Glenn’s wife Annie, whose stutter seemed her only imperfection–embodied domestic goddesses, others had to hide their true identities from NASA. Marge Slattery concealed her scandalous status as divorcee, while Trudy Cooper never let on that she was separated from her philandering husband when he was chosen as an astronaut. And then there was platinum blonde Rene Carpenter–JFK’s firm favorite–who wore a sexy rose-print cocktail dress to a photo shoot when all the other wives agreed on conservative shirtdresses. She’d go on to espouse the virtues of the diaphragm on her own talk show. My hero!
Despite their differences in background and personality, the gals bonded over coffee and their unique, shared situation. Sending a spouse to space was thrilling, troubling (Susan Borman was told that her husband had a 50-50 shot of surviving a mission), and wrought with additional stress caused by groupies, the press, and competition among the men. But these women supported each other through moments of celebration (blast-offs! baby showers!) and tragedy, as fellow wives were first on the scene when NASA reported explosions and crashes. Many of them still remain close today.
On the other hand, very few of the astro-marriages lasted. The only Apollo 11 astronaut to remain with the woman he was married to when he went to the moon was Mike Collins, the one who orbited the moon solo while the other guys made their giant leap for mankind. Buzz Aldrin told wife Joan there could be no more normalcy in his life after he’d been to the moon. And then there were the wives who lost their husbands in NASA calamities, like Betty Grissom, who promised her husband she’d have a party if he died and wore navy blue to his funeral because he thought black was morbid, and Pat White, who committed suicide after years of being unable to recover from her husband’s death. No matter what Life magazine depicted, there was much sadness and strife in seemingly perfect Houston.
Despite the high divorce rate, the book is not without romance. Who can help but gush when Apollo 13 astronaut Jim Lovell named a mountain on the moon “Mount Marilyn” or delivered a mink coat from space on Christmas morning with the universe’s most romantic message: “To Marilyn from the Man in the moon.” Those words, to me, are more immortal than his far more famous “Houston, we have a problem.” And, yes, the Lovells survived the Space Age and are still together.
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