Review: ‘Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.’ by Sam Wasson

by Kim on September 21, 2011 · 18 comments

Post image for Review: ‘Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.’ by Sam Wasson

Title: Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and the Dawn of the Modern Woman
Author: Sam Wasson
Genre: Narrative Nonfiction
Year: 2010
Acquired: From the publisher for a TLC Book Tour
Rating: ★★★★☆

One Sentence Summary: The first line of the book pretty much sums it up: “Like one of those accidents that’s not really really an accident, the casting of “good” Audrey in the part of “not-so-good” call girl Holly Golightly rerouted the course of women in the movies, giving voice to what was then a still-unspoken shift in the 1950s gender plan.”

One Sentence Review: Although I liked the part of the book about how the movie impacted culture more than the part about the making of the movie, on the whole Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M. is a fun look at the making of an icon and how that icon changed culture.

Why I Read It: I’m not a superfan of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but I love books that explore the connections between culture and pop culture.

Long Review: One of the things I’ve always loved about studying books is the way analyzing stories can be a way of understanding our culture at large. But of course, books aren’t the only ways to do this — all forms of pop culture can be used as a lens to learn more about ourselves.

In Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M., author and social historian Sam Wasson uses Audrey Hepburn and her 1961 movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s to explore the changing idea of modern womanhood through the 1950s and ’60s. Wasson begins the book with what I think is a provocative statement about what it meant to be a woman in 1950s America:

With an unprecedented degree of leisure time, and more media access than ever before, the fifties woman was the single most vulnerable woman in American history to the grasp of prefab wholesale thought, and by extension, to the men who made it. The message of conformity poured in through every opening from the outside, making it impossible for her to shut it out without shutting out the world. Banish the crazy, she discovered, and sit in silence, or sit in silence and go crazy. Either way, the unwanted voices of rebellion were quieted by the self-soothing mantras she learned from TV, print, and movies.

Hollywood movies of the ’40s and ’50s had only two ideas of what it meant to be a woman — sweet and wholesome like Doris Day or a sultry sexpot like Marilyn Monroe. As Wasson explains,

Since the era of Hollywood’s first stars, American moviegoers have been devouring a steady dosage of self-image. Whether it’s man or woman, boy or girl, the screen holds up mirrors to its audience, reflecting the shoulds and should-nots of family, love, war, and gender — sometimes knowingly, sometimes not, but always with an eye on sex. And in the fifties, if you were a woman, too much of it was wrong, and too little of it was honorable. You were either a slut or saint.

According to Wasson, Audrey Hepburn helped break that mold because she started her career as a good girl (embracing all the “good girl” things like marriage and motherhood), but used that charm to embody call girl Holly Golightly. This public love for the call girl helped make it permissible for women to start stepping out and exploring their own individuality. At least, that’s the most simplified version of the story.

One of the best things about this book is Wasson’s breezy and light-hearted writing style. He clearly writes with a love of movies and the people who make them, and love shows through in how affectionately he writes about everyone from the composer to the costume designer. It’s a fun book, but has enough seriousness (the exploration and evolution of gender norms) that keep the book from feeling fluffy.

I liked the first couple thirds of the book best, when Wasson focused on the evolution of Audrey Hepburn as an actress, the story of how all the players that made Breakfast at Tiffany’s come together, and the cultural context of the film. Once the book switched to actually making the movie, I found it a little less interesting, but that’s mostly my bias towards enjoying social history.

Despite that, Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M. was delightful to read and I finished it in a single afternoon. It also prompted me to request a bunch of Audrey Hepburn movies from the library and Truman Capote’s original Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I can’t wait to delve into this whole time and place more. Any book recommendations?

TLC Book ToursOther Reviews: Wandering Thoughts of a Scientific Housewife | Reviews from the Heart | Reading Lark | A Cozy Reader’s Corner | Books Like Breathing | Elle Lit. | Amused By Books | Iwriteinbooks’s blog | Alison’s Book Marks | A Library of My Own | The Road to Here |

If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Stephanie September 21, 2011 at 9:30 am

I would like to read this but I have never read the book OR seen the movie. So I feel I need to at least read the book before moving on to this one.

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Kim September 21, 2011 at 6:57 pm

I saw Breakfast at Tiffany’s a long time ago, so it definitely wasn’t fresh in my mind. I’m not sure it’s even necessary to be very familiar with the movie, just some basic plot points, probably.

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Kailana September 21, 2011 at 9:52 am

When my library first started the ebook system, this was one of the first books I requested. I just thought it sounded interesting and it was actually pretty good. If they had more variety at the time, I probably never would have read it…

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Kim September 21, 2011 at 6:57 pm

Interesting! I’m glad you had an excuse to read it :)

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Belle Wong September 21, 2011 at 12:45 pm

I think I’ll be adding this one to my tbr list. My daughter might be interested in it, too – she’s in a film program right now, and while she hasn’t seen Breakfast at Tiffany’s before, I wouldn’t be surprised if she’ll be encountering it in one of her courses.

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Kim September 21, 2011 at 6:58 pm

I bet a film person would enjoy this book. I think the film analysis might be a little elementary, but the film as it connects to culture might be a good addition.

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bermudaonion (Kathy) September 21, 2011 at 1:01 pm

I love Breakfast at Tiffany’s and do think it would be fun to take a peek at how they made it.

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Kim September 21, 2011 at 6:59 pm

It’s an interesting story, how they convinced Audrey Hepburn it wouldn’t destroy her career to play a call girl, plus all the other behind-the-scenes drama that played out in getting the movie through production.

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Jess - A Book Hoarder September 24, 2011 at 10:05 pm

I am a big Audrey Hepburn fan and I actually watched something that went into a lot of her career but didn’t cover much of Breakfast at Tiffany’s so I think I would enjoy the end of this book as a way to fill in the gaps. I know I would like the beginning. Guess I’ll just have to pick this one up!

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Kim September 27, 2011 at 9:11 am

Yes, if you’re a fan of Audrey Hepburn then I’m sure this would be a great read. I loved how the book explored her movies and life as an example of how gender norms were changing during this time — totally fascinating.

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Heather J. @ TLC Book Tours September 27, 2011 at 10:15 am

I’m glad you mention that this one is light without being fluffy – that’s a definite plus for me. It actually sounds like FUN non-fiction so I think it will appeal to people who don’t generally read the genre.

Thanks for being a part of the tour Kim!

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Kim September 29, 2011 at 8:49 pm

I love nonfiction that can strike that balance, feeling fun to read while still making me feel like I’m learning and thinking. It’s hard, and I know not all nonfiction readers enjoy that, but it makes me happy when authors can do it well.

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Meg September 27, 2011 at 11:25 am

I’m ashamed to even admit this, considering Audrey Hepburn is a personal idol, but I’ve never actually seen “Breakfast At Tiffany’s.”

Gulp</i. I know.

After reading your review, I placed a hold for the DVD from the library (thanks for reminding me I can do that!) and will look forward to cracking my own copy of Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M. open soon!

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Kim September 29, 2011 at 8:50 pm

Fantastic! I can’t wait to hear what you think of the movie. Now that I live in a town without a dedicated movie rental store (yes, it’s that small), the library is one of the main ways I’ll be getting DVDs (aside form Netflix). It’s awesome that it’s free, so maybe this will be a good thing.

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Care September 30, 2011 at 7:29 am

I adore Audrey Hepburn. I think the movie gets better and better the more you see it. Plus, it reminds me of friends and New Years – we used to get together for a sleepover and we ALWAYS had to watch this flick. Fun times.

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Kim October 2, 2011 at 9:51 am

That sounds like so much fun! Once I finish the book (today, hopefully), I’m going to watch the movie again.

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