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

by Kim on September 21, 2011 · 18 comments

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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!

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