Visitors danced the mashed potato down the corridor from the Gutenberg Bible, as the 1460s met the 1960s in a festive party to mark the 50th anniversary of Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
The thrilling notes of “Be My Baby” by the Ronettes and the Crystals “Da Doo Ron Ron” provided a potent musical time machine, several hundred normally staid archivists, curators, librarians, security folks, and their families filled the great echoing corridors of the library Friday night.
“When do we burn our bras?” called out Jennifer Drury (pictured above), a city teacher and Occupy New Havener who missed the 1960s but said she would have liked them.
The crowd donned dancing shoes to mark the October 1963 opening of one of Yale’s most iconic buildings, architect Gordon Bunshaft’s windowless rectangle of floating book stacks that sits light as a ballerina on delicate piers.
Or, as the 1969 Hollies’ eponymous song put it: “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother.”
Special collections curator Paula Zyads said that if the Gutenberg Bible [full disclosure: it’s closer to the 1450s than the 1460s] could speak about its first encounter dancing to the Shirelles, it would say “Holy Moly.”
Before a reporter might ask her if the Gutenberg would express that in German or Latin, Zyads and her many equally young colleagues went off to cut a rug, excavating their versions of the twist, the monkey, and the mashed potato.
It took a real 1960s veteran like Karen Nangle, who works at the public service desks at the Beinecke, to show how it’s done.
As in the 1960s, the dance floor featured lots of women dancing with each other—although a few guys in suits were game— and thus the feminist movement emerged terpsichoreally speaking.
Nangle recalled her experience of one of the most emblematic moments of the early 1960s, JFK’s assassination. She said she was home with her 1-month-old son when, “They broke into WQXR, the New York Times radio station, to say he’d been shot. I called my husband at [publishing company] William Morrow. The switchboard operator was in tears.” Everyone at the publishing company had gone home.
The later or at least lighter side of the1960s was evoked by partiers wearing go-go boots, such as this pair that belongs [along with the legs] to Julie Dowe, of Branford.
“I remember when they landed on the moon,” she recalled one of her peak moments from the 1960s; it was one of the few she could recall from when she was a little girl.
“We were lying on the floor with the old black-and-white TV on. My dad [had] put aluminum foil on the ears. My cousins and I were amazed.”
Dowe works in computer support at the Beinecke. Right on cue came visual support for Dowe’s fashion choice: An image of Nancy Sinatra in white go-go boots appeared projected inside one of the slate squares of the Beinecke wall.
It was one of scores of images including Che Guevara, Mao, Carol Burnett, Dylan and Baez singing together, and Sandy Koufax on the cover of Time. The images appeared on the Beinecke walls along with ecstatic Woodstock-ers, tripped-out Maharishis, and draft-card burners.
Meanwhile, elegant foods were supplemented by stations serving bobbie-soxer burgers and mini malteds.
True to the curatorial heart of the Beinecke, the party planners’ choice in food and image underscored that the 1960s did not emerge whole cloth but grew out of the 1950s.
“‘Those boots were made for walking,’—Nancy Sinatra, one of the the great beneficiaries of nepotism,” quipped Jim Caudle, who works with James Boswell’s early journals, after the image of Nancy Sinatra appeared on the wall. Then a pair of white gloves landed on his shoulder.
These holdovers from previous decades were worn by a woman who remembered wearing them well into the early 1960s, along with girdles.
Which brings us back to the bra-burning query.
It remained unanswered, although you never know.
The Beinecke Director E.C. Schroeder said the party was a kick-off to the current exhibition “By Hand,” a survey of its manuscript collections, and the beginning of a year-long celebration of the library’s half century.
At the time it opened it was the largest library in the world devoted to rare books. As he stood beside an ice sculpture and demonstrated how to open an Abba-Zaba, [he was not aware it is the title of 1960s Captain Beefheart tune] Schroeder said it would be a mistake to think of the Beinecke as a staid place not given to change, and thus the change-y 1960s theme is appropriate.
He said their collections may begin with incunabula of the distant past, but include material published as recently as if not yesterday, then last year.
“We collect modernism, futurism, post-World War Two. We have lots of 21st-century items,” he said, as Aretha Franklin belted out “Respect.”
Karen Nangle agreed and said the Beinecke has, for example, one of the world’s most important collections of LGBT literature.
Schroeder refused to speculate on the theme of the party for the Beinecke’s 100th birthday. He announced his plans to retire before the 75th anniversary party.
Schroeder received congratulations from colleagues for the fine bash, as others danced to Del Shannon’s “Little Runaway,” while an even smaller more intense cohort was seen still trying to decipher the lyrics to “Louie Louie” that boomed across the incunabula.
Click here for more photos by Chris Randall on I Love New Haven.org.