At 21, Merle Levine had already seen more of the world than he wanted from the top gunner’s turret of a B-17 bomber. Like so many other American GIs just home from the war, he simply wanted to get on with his life.
Discharged two months after the U.S. dropped the atom bomb on Japan, he took his first step accepting a blind date with a pretty Venice High School graduate named Edna Levy, in the fall of 1945. The following March, between bites of a chopped liver sandwich at the old Simon’s drive-in on Olympic Boulevard, he proposed.
They wed 50 years ago today, on the last day of June 1946; the glowing 18-year-old bride wearing a borrowed satin gown, the groom in a rented tuxedo. They were one couple among tens of thousands who exchanged vows in Los Angeles County that year--a watershed for marriages, when weddings in California and across the nation hit a per capita peak never seen before nor since.
After marching off to war, an entire generation, it seemed, was marching down the aisle.
Elated over the Allied victory, encouraged by an expanding post-war economy and happy to be alive and in love, couples like the Levines tendered whirlwind romances into lifelong partnerships that conceived the nation’s baby boom.
Now, many of those same couples are celebrating their golden wedding anniversaries, recalling what was to many America’s golden era. The choices they made--how many children to have, where to live and work, and how to spend their money--shaped Southern California in ways that no one could foresee when they exchanged their vows.
“People used to ask Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman if they knew they were making a classic movie when they made ‘Casablanca.’ No, they were just going to work. And it was the same way with us,” said Merle Levine, now 71, of Van Nuys. “We just lived our lives, although I guess some people now would consider it a classic.”
With grateful soldiers, sailors and airmen returning home by the plane, boat and truckload, the number of marriages in the U.S. jumped 42% between 1945 and 1946. A total of 2,291,045 nuptials were recorded during the first full year after the war, nearly the number recorded in 1993, when the U.S. population had almost doubled.
Los Angeles led the state’s wedding boom. In 1946, the county issued 114 marriage licenses a day--approximately one for every 93 people.
By today’s standards, most of the weddings were simple affairs. Marie and Irving Young of Compton, friends since age 13 and now both 72, wanted to spare their parents the expense of a formal ceremony. So they eloped on a Saturday night in February 1946, accompanied by four friends.
“It was not the thing to do to go to a hotel and make a big splash. I remember three or four like that and everyone gossiped, wondering who they wanted to impress,” said Judith Berman of Calabasas, who married her husband, Barry, in her parents’ Chicago apartment on Dec. 22, 1946.
Having lived through the harsh economic conditions of both the Depression and World War II, young couples in the late 1940s did not expect material wealth when they launched their lives together, said Richard Easterlin, a USC economics professor and expert on the baby boom generation. Many did not have cars or jobs when they married and it was not uncommon for newlyweds to live with relatives for months or even years after their wedding as they waited for housing to be built and wages to be saved.
The labor market in 1946 was booming as companies converted from the war effort to servicing a peacetime economy. So finding a job with decent wages was comparatively easy.
“That is one reason the boomer parents had as many kids as they did,” Easterlin said. “They came to adulthood with fairly low material aspirations, but they had a relatively high amount of money.”
The Benjamins’ story is typical.
“I could have gone back to school on the GI Bill, but after five campaigns in the European theater trying to keep my fanny from getting shot off, I was ready to settle down,” said Melvin Benjamin, 74, of Tarzana. “You realized how good life was at home while you were away from it.”
Benjamin and his wife, Roz, married in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Sept. 7, 1946, five months after he got out of the Army. She was a 19-year-old secretary, the proverbial girl-back-home. Although they had dated only once before he enlisted, they came to love each other through letters exchanged while he was overseas.
Within weeks of their traditional Jewish wedding, financed largely by the money Benjamin made playing cards on the boat back from Europe, the young couple packed up their clothes, books and letters and moved from New York to Los Angeles, where there were more jobs.
“The community was young in those days and they welcomed young people into the city,” Mel Benjamin recalled. “Wherever I went to look for work, you had the feeling of, ‘Gee, we need new blood, new ideas.’ ”
He ended up selling textiles, a trade he still plies five decades later.
While jobs were plentiful, housing was not. The frenzied home construction--financed by the GI Bill--was just getting underway. The Benjamins had to pay a landlord a $1,500 “finder’s fee,” virtually all their wedding money, to rent a studio apartment with a fold-down bed a few blocks from Los Angeles City College.
Other couples made do with little, too. Unable to find an apartment, 21-year-old newlyweds Peter and Catherine Romano lived with her parents south of downtown for the first nine months after their July 21, 1946 wedding at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in East Los Angeles. The couple met dancing at the Hollywood Palladium in November 1943, while he was stationed at Fort Meyer in the Mojave Desert.
“We didn’t think about money. We started out with maybe $200 or $300 in the bank, although afterward it sure was important,” Catherine Romano said. Because they didn’t own a car--those, too, were scarce after the war--the Romanos took buses to work. She was a secretary at a car dealership and he installed equipment for Pacific Telephone.
For many couples, children quickly followed.
The first of Merle and Edna Levine’s four daughters was born in August 1947, 14 months after their first wedding anniversary. Their second baby followed two years later and the third two years after that. They waited another two years and eight months before they had their youngest daughter.
That pace was fairly average for the time. Soon, the Levines and the Benjamins and the Romanos were looking to buy their first homes. The San Fernando Valley, where affordable houses were being built at a furious pace, beckoned them all.
In 1949, the Levines and their two oldest daughters settled into a 1,300-square-foot house in Van Nuys, brand-new, at a cost of $9,500.
“Practically all of our neighbors were war veterans,” said Merle Levine, who worked with his twin brother at their father’s radio store. “In those days, you could buy a house on the GI Bill with almost nothing down, and if you had a house payment, it was $80 a month and that included the taxes and insurance.”
Recalled Edna Levine, “It was just a wonderful period in our lives. When we moved out here, the Valley was still walnut groves and apricot orchards and chicken ranches. I think all my dreams were evolving while I was living them.”
Many of these families prospered. The husbands, and sometimes the wives, worked at the same jobs for decades. They saved. They scrimped. As a result, their children grew up with an affluence their parents never could have imagined as kids, a standard of living aging baby boomers now find hard to duplicate.
“We have made a very, very nice life,” said Roz Benjamin, who went back to work as a secretary after the couple’s three children were almost grown. “We have a nice house with a nice swimming pool, I always feel grateful because I did not come from this background and neither did Mel.”
For a time, such conventional, Ozzie-and-Harriet-style unions fell out of favor with the baby boomers they produced. Company men such as Peter Romano, who stayed with Pacific Telephone for 36 years, moving up to a management job, and stay-at-home moms like Edna Levine were often pitied instead of admired.
But recently, the criticism has quieted and the conventions have made a comeback. As they celebrate their golden anniversaries, these marital survivors find themselves surrounded by awe-struck offspring who want to know their secret.
Simple but not easy: communication, mutual respect, shared goals, laughter and lots of it. These are the qualities long-married couples cite as the glue that kept them together long enough to reach a milestone just one out of five married couples can expect to reach these days.
To celebrate, the Levines will be toasted by 140 close friends and relatives during a dinner-dance at the Calabasas Inn. Area banquet facilities report more bookings than usual for golden anniversary celebrations this month.
Manny and Louise Pinsky of Woodland Hills, who met on a blind date near the Rose Bowl on July 4, 1942 and married three years and 11 months later, recently celebrated their 50th anniversary by renewing their vows in front of 148 teary-eyed party guests. The couple’s three children recited the ceremonial blessings, while Louise’s twin sisters, now 54, reprised their original roles as flower girls in pink dresses.
The bride’s siblings wrote a song to the tune of “My Darling Clementine” that comically summed up the couple’s post-war years--and unwittingly, the experience of so many others.
It went like this:
Off to war went Manny Pinsky
To fight for liberty.
Wrote love letters by the bundle
Because the postage, it was free.
To the alter, never faltered
Our Manny and Louise,
Then came Randy, Lynne and Margie,
What a perfect fam-i-ly.
Louise says the ceremony was even better than their first.
“The days just fly by very, very fast,” she said. “We are enjoying every minute we have left.”