Recalling the Upside of the Great Depression

Early in Studs Terkel's Hard Times, before the tales of Depression-era woe get rolling, we hear from a startling young man. Jerome Zerbe, a celebrity photographer for Parade magazine, not only remained stylish during the downturn, he remembered it fondly. "The Thirties," he told Terkel, "was a glamorous, glittering moment." In Zerbe's New York City there were no bread lines, no apple salesmen, and certainly no worried faces as he partied in the Rainbow Room with Roosevelt's heirs. Central Park was a jungle of cardboard shacks, unemployment hung above 20 percent. Yet for him "there was never any sign of poverty," just a few nattering headlines in the newspaper.

Was Zerbe's experience unusual? It certainly departs from the usual Depression gloom. But it isn't unique in its distance—emotional, social, and economic—from the worst of the '30s. Every few pages, in fact, Terkel's award-winning oral history fluoresces with surprisingly positive testimony: alongside fear, hunger, and desperation, there was also "fun" in soup lines, "hope" and "excitement" in job queues, and light-hearted resilience in the face of "hard times."

Just a few months ago, stories comparing our current financial woes to those of the Great Depression were everywhere, as reporters dusted off all the stock images of a cratering economy: tent cities, drought, abandoned boxcars, mental breakdowns, crime sprees. These days the analogies seem less prevalent, as the same forecasters who last winter warned of another historic tar pit point to the first green shoots of recovery. The bright spots are limited, to be sure, and much of the country is still in an economic stranglehold, with 16 percent of the workforce unemployed or underemployed, 7 million additional homes at risk of foreclosure over the next year, and welfare rolls on the rise. "I don't think the worst is over," Larry Summers, the president's top economic adviser, told the Financial Times in July.

At the same time, the economic skies have cleared enough for musings to emerge about the shape of our postrecession world. ("More environmentally orientated" and "less consumption oriented," says Summers.) Which leaves a lingering question: was all the recent Great Depression talk completely off the mark? Not if we use it as a guide for how we may eventually recall our own so-called Great Recession—as a period of hardship, but also a time of hope and opportunity. In more than a dozen interviews conducted by NEWSWEEK, famous children of the Great Depression—Pulitzer Prize–winners, Supreme Court justices, entertainers, musicians, and scholars who shaped our postwar world—recall an era more Jerome Zerbe than John Steinbeck. Yes, there were pitchfork mobs, bank runs, suicides, and divorces. There were dropouts, hoboes, and millions of unemployed workers seeking government relief.

But interviewees also described a parallel history of good times as well as bad, victories as well as defeats, and a surprising sense of stability, safety and optimism amid the general chaos. We forget that even during the Depression, there was a fairly conventional spread of experiences: a third of the country suffered of course, but most people were untouched by the mayhem, and many did better than they had done before. "The story of the Depression is often told as if everybody suffered, everybody worried, and nobody had a good time," says University of Washington historian James Gregory. "That's wrong."

We still don't know whether President Obama's $787 billion stimulus program will rally the economy, or when. But no matter how delayed the recovery, or how bleak the documentaries and iconic photos of crying stockbrokers, it is likely that on a personal level we will remember this period as those who lived through the Depression remember that era: as a time that wasn't all bad—but rather a mix of lucky breaks, unfair twists of fate, sweet times, and sour medicine.

In The New Yorker in 2007, author John Updike recalled the quiet, unchanging towns, safe schools, and great movies of the Depression. Many of NEWSWEEK's interviews differ in detail but nonetheless echo his surprising nostalgia. Writer Cynthia Ozick remembers a bucolic Bronx, N.Y., childhood ringed by stability and run-of-the-mill money troubles, while golfer Arnold Palmer, whose family was lashed together by their lack of cash, doubts that he would have liked growing up in a richer time. Author Gay Talese, who witnessed wealthy-looking women reduced to bartering in his mother's dress shop, credits the Depression with schooling him in the distance between reality and appearances, inspiring much of his early writing.

Much like Talese, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg believed that the Depression in many ways left the country better than it found it. Social Security, minimum-wage laws, and extra government aide for college kids, she argues, are among the more obvious legacies of the 1930s. But the Depression also had a happy impact on reading, the arts and child rearing. America had so many fighting men during WWII partly because child-labor laws enforced during the Depression drove up literacy levels, qualifying more people for military service. The Federal Writer's Project gave hundreds of artists a boost, including novelist John Cheever, who was living on raisins and buttermilk before the government signed him up as a scribe. And while the "Congress of Mothers" tried to woo fathers by changing its name to the "Parent Teacher Association" in 1924, it took the Depression to help push dads into action as role models, even if they couldn't be breadwinners. By the mid-1930s, three quarters of American men said they regularly read magazine articles on childcare, and nearly as many men as women were in the PTA.

Former The Price Is Right host Bob Barker and country-music heartthrob Ray Price both emerged from the Dust Bowl with surprisingly happy memories—Barker of sledding down barn-size drifts of dust, and Price of life being closer to the neighborly ideal of the Bible. For many, it was also a time of learning: poetry critic Helen Vendler gained an understanding of how to get by with nothing—always useful for a writer—while Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens gained, in the wake of his parent's $27 million loss in the hotel business, a string of "eventful" jobs ranging from bellhop to greens mower. Historian Daniel Aaron, playwright Edward Albee and author William Zinsser all describe cushions of family wealth—which nonetheless couldn't shield them from feelings of guilt later in life. "I can't say [that] 'I was the man, I suffered, I was there,' " says Aaron.