Bunny Ears in Saigon, and Other News


On the Shelf

The Playboy Club, Chu Lai, Vietnam, 1969. Photo: The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University, via the New York Times


  • Remember when the magazine industry had real cultural currency? Me either—by the time I turned eighteen the Internet was “a thing” and you couldn’t even find Reader’s Digest stacked beside the toilet anymore. But Amber Batura has a story from magazines’ heyday that’s no mere nostalgia exercise: looking at how Playboy came like manna from heaven to the soldiers in the Vietnam War, she’s found one of those rare historical moments where the media really did broaden readers’ horizons. And no, I’m not just winking about soft-core porn here. Batura writes, “The Washington Post reported that American prisoners of war were ‘taken aback’ by the nudity in a smuggled Playboy found on their flight home in 1973. The nudity, sexuality and diversity portrayed in the pictorials represented more permissive attitudes about sex and beauty that the soldiers had missed during their years in captivity. Playboy’s appeal to the G.I. in Vietnam extended beyond the centerfold. The men really did read it for the articles. The magazine provided regular features, editorials, columns and ads that focused on men’s lifestyle and entertainment, including high fashion, foreign travel, modern architecture, the latest technology and luxury cars. The publication set itself up as a how-to guide for those men hoping to achieve Mr. Hefner’s vision of the good life, regardless of whether they were in San Diego or Saigon … Service in Vietnam put many soldiers in direct contact with diverse races and cultures, and Playboy presented them new ideas and arguments regarding those social and cultural issues.”
  • I just want to say: hooray, vans. Hooray Econoline; hooray Sprinter; hooray Ford Transit. Justine Kurland sings a love song to vans everywhere, with their distinct claim to the open road: “The enclosure of a van is security to some and a threat to others. It’s a space that seems to exist outside law and convention. I took pride in its wildness, in how feral I became when I traveled in my van. I didn’t need anybody or anything; in my van, I was self-sufficient. If I stayed with a friend, my van was my bed. I could leave at any time of the night without waking anybody up … When I drew up the plans for my van and outfitted it with the things I would need, I felt complete in a way that’s hard to quantify. Yes, I do happen to have a Phillips-head screwdriver, a pee jar, a cast-iron pan, a copy of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, tampons, the Rand McNally road atlas, peanut butter, and a memory-foam mattress pad. But it’s more than that, more like the love a turtle has for the color, rather than the usefulness, of her shell.”

  • Someday, I hope, we’ll all look back on this Yale episode and ask why it took so long to get John C. Calhoun’s name out of there (and why so many mistakenly conflate the elimination of a name from a building with wholesale ejection from the annals of history). As Joshua Jelly-Schapiro writes, “It mattered that Calhoun was widely recognized, in his own day, as not merely a defender of slavery but a fierce advocate for it, whose central legacy is as a man whose hateful ideas shaped history … There are countless examples of changes like the one Yale is now making—Stalingrad was renamed, though it retains many symbols of people who endured or even shaped that leader’s era. We have long made distinctions, in building monuments or changing them, between history’s chief advocates of cruelty and compliant followers. There’s a reason we don’t cross squares or gaze at monuments named for Goebbels in Berlin. And in this regard, it’s hard not to credit the rigor of the process behind Calhoun’s removal at Yale.”
  • A hundred years ago, an ensemble called “the Original Dixieland Jass Band” laid down what’s regarded as the first-ever jazz recording: “Besides the novel animal effects, the music was unprecedented in its lively tempo, noisy humor, brash energy and overall impertinence. Its musical subversiveness challenged established conventions. The band reveled in outlandish stage antics—such as playing the trombone with the foot. And it employed a fun and audacious slogan: ‘Untuneful Harmonists Playing Peppery Melodies.’ Leader Nick LaRocca piqued the press with statements like ‘Jazz is the assassination of the melody, it’s the slaying of syncopation.’ ”