Monday, December 20, 2010

Scott and Rene Carpenter

NASA, it seems, used to have a WHOLE LOTTA STYLE going on. I recently came across these photos from the Mercury 7 space mission (1959) and was blown away by how much they look like Astronaut Barbie. It got me on quite "the tear", if you will. I hope you'll bear with me as I derail from my clothes posts and cookbook scans into the (Walt Disney Presents voice) "worrrrrrrld of late 1950's/early 1960's spaaaaaaace travel".

When Babu bought me the recent re-issue (right) of the 1965 doll (left) as an anniversary present, I was, one, totally happy about his excellent choice and two, surprised to notice that Barbie's hair had been re-styled à la Mai Britt. I kind of like the entirely falsely colored, bubble style cut in the original, but ah well. In spite of the coiffure change, the designers did retain the original costume design, and my doll even came with a helmet and tiny American flag. Totally great. So. I thought, "Wow. Look how sharp Barbie is in her zippered boots, her plastic bucket helmet, her shiny utility onesie. So stylized. So retrofuturistic!" What I did not know was how close this costume resembles the actual suits our astronauts wore into space. I'm familiar with the NASA logo, which has always looked like a gorgeous hood ornament, but really hadn't ever inspected an actual NASA crew photo from back in the day. Usually, when I would see this kind of suit, a good looking actor or maybe a chimpanzee in a tiny scaled version would be in it. The real deal is actually pretty impressive. These men from Mercury 7 might actually look better than Barbie in their outfits! Please note the silver jump boots, and oddly ranger-ish Sam Browne belt. I love it.

As you would expect from a space-obsessed, Kennedy era America, the late fifties' public was curious as all get out to know what the pioneering spacemen of 1959 looked like. What were their families like? Where did they live? Life magazine obliged its readers with not one but two covers featuring the most glamorous of the husbands and wives of the Mercury space program, Scott and Rene Carpenter (above and below), and I obliged myself to unscrupulously use their online archive and cull each and every photo I could find from those two articles. That said:

Dig. That. Couch.

Project Mercury (1959-1963) was the first manned flight to orbit the Earth. Thirty-four year old Scott Carpenter and wife Rene (rhymes with "lean") became one of the more popular faces of that mission, for reasons you can see in the photos-- they were young, photogenic, and very All-American. Not to mention SHARP dressers... see Mrs. Carpenter's yellow slacks and pink and black print blouse, and Mr. Carpenter's Eames-ish print tie in an otherwise staid official photo. Mr. Carpenter was the fourth American in space, and the second American to orbit the earth. When you think of what a small, handful of people have made it out into Captain Kirk's final frontier, it's really a special kind of neat.

Cheescake-ish shot of the whole group in the initial training program on some kind of beach, possibly in some part of their training? How SHORT men's swimshorts were back then! I await the day men's swimshorts return to their Magnum PI level length . Briefer shorts just...look so much better to me. Alll those knees! Also note that many of the guys are wearing little rubber ankle-length galoshes, and are carrying snorkeling gear. Our man Carpenter is in the plaid shorts at the front and far right... with hands-down the best abs in the bunch, he looks like a perfect 60's Ken doll.

This set of photos feature the men of Mercury in civilian dress, and their wives in the same. The color and tone of these photos remind me of reclaimed slides I keep seeing people posts on their personal sites, just too bright, too perfect clarity. I love how similar everyone looks-- living in an age today that rejects homogeny at all costs, it's kind of neat looking back to see six out of seven men wearing the same shoes (the guy on the far left is a fashion trailblazer, wearing grey suede shoes AND grey slacks) and seven out of seven women sporting similarly shaped short hair and practically matching red lipstick. Even out of uniform, you could be in "uniform". Click on either photo (or any of these posted in this article, or any posted in any of my blogs for that matter) and get a better look at their duds. How high those waistlines, men... how high those waistlines.

You can see in particularly the photo above and the one that succeeds it just below this paragraph how Rene Carpenter distinguished herself from the group: while all the wives are pleasant looking, she's the only one with platinum blonde hair. While all the other women are wearing pretty, solid colored, high-neck-ish dresses, it's Rene Carpenter again in the red-flower print wiggle dress. She already looks like a star.

Here's a typically effusive description of her from Time magazine: "BLONDE, bronzed, deep-dimpled, green-eyed and shapely. Rene Carpenter, 34, is by anyone's standard a dish. She is also self-possessed and wise. Wearing a navy blue skirt and white middy blouse, and carrying a red scarf in her hand, she stepped before newsmen at Cape Canaveral after her husband's space voyage was over. Said she: 'I was dry-eyed the whole day. I'm not a brooding person by nature.'"

A 1969 article in Cosmopolitan magazine (I've been addicted to reading the bound copies in the stacks-- Helen Gurley Brown foreverrrrrrrrrr....) had a particularly nice picture of her, especially considering she was in her forties at the time but-looking-not-a-day-over-thirty, with long blonde hair and a short, short mini dress, and a pretty, piquant look on her unlined face. The accompanying copy was saying something about her not giving up the super short hemline any time soon, Washington wags and fashion trends be damned, and that just because she was a very famous service man's wife, she could also be a popular hostess and gadabout town? God love her. Go tell it on the mountain, Rene Carpenter.

Scott Carpenter also went on to spend the longest (a record 30 days) period of time in SEALAB, an US Navy-created underwater habit where "in addition to physiological testing, divers tested new tools, methods of salvage, and an electrically heated drysuit". I am amazed that there is a real life inspiration for both the television show Sealab 2020 and its at-times searingly funny parody series Sealab 2021. I am even more amazed that the men of the real life Sealab had a dolphin named "Tuffy" to "ferry them supplies from the surface". I read that today. In that article. The number of times I have told people about that one line of that one article will probably be in the dozens by dinnertime. The line between reality and fiction is so blurry.

Speaking of! that...why, it's Barbara Streisand in a pose with Carpenter! Yes, he was that kind of famous. Check Streisand's mildly irridescent, striped mod pullover, her hair, eyeliner, and mile-long nails. Take notes, so you can quiz me on my identical appearance tomorrow, as I want to copy EVERYTHING about this look. On the right, you can see close-up that the space suits look to be made of the same material as shiny air conditioning ducts. The orange around the collar is a neat kind of emphasis for the neckline, though I'm sure it has some practical purpose, and as said earlier, that NASA patch is totally great. I wonder how hard it would be to make a similar outfit for Halloween? Babu would make a great astronaut in theory.

Rene Carpenter went on to have her own morning television show segment (I think it was local to Boston?) and a weekly column in the women's section of her local newspaper. She was also on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show twice, but the tapes have been lost. The Carpenters divorced in 1972, but both are still alive today. In Scott Carpenter's case, that makes him one of TWO survivors of the original "Astronaut Group 1". The other is John Glenn. So cool. These pictures just make me want to read all about Mid Century travel! I might have to have a peek at Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff again-- I got through three chapters before I had to return the book to the school library on a one-day substituting job. Second time's a charm!

Postscript: It is my sincere wish, that if Babu DID become an astronaut, we could let our kid play with his flight helmet including ventilator tube. I looked at the photos above twice before I realized the sweet little guy in rolled Levis, Chucks, and a striped shirt IS WEARING A FLIPPIN FLIGHT HELMET. The luckiest kid. Not to mention making a heckuva fashion statement. What a great photo.

Search "Scott and Rene Carpenter" on Google Books and you should turn up the Sept, 21, 1959 article she wrote titled "There Are No Dark Feelings".

A lot of the images from this post were borrowed from a space enthusiasts' message board HERE , which Rene and Scott's daughter KC frequents. On this occasion, she actually helped a contributor get in touch with her mother! The wonder of the internet never ceases.


  1. 1.) It was important for astronauts to be fashion conscious because "people on the moon are looking different from people on the earth."

    2.) If I become an astronaut I might accidentally get reclaimed by the citizens of my home planet.

  2. This is one of the loveliest tributes to my mom, Rene Carpenter, that I've ever read! You've captured her great style and joie de vivre. Your photos (some of which I've never seen) attest to her beauty. So happy to have found your post. It's one of the top hits for a Google search using her name. Thank you, again!

  3. You are so very welcome! What a thrill to read your comment and see you enjoyed it! :)

  4. Great insight on the Langley photoshoot. I just finished watching the first episode of The Astronaut Wives Club, and her colorful dress came up during the scene.



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