In praise of romance

Russell Baker

March 13, 1991|By Russell Baker

CELEBRATING another wedding anniversary the other day so soon after the death of Arthur Murray, I decided to irritate our children. They are now adult enough to endure a little irritation, and afterward when I've gone off to bed it probably enhances their sense of maturity to sit around the kitchen table complaining that they have a lot to put up with.

Romance was on my mind for obvious reasons: wedding anniversary, Arthur Murray, dancing cheek-to-cheek, etc. Also the Washington Post had run a good feature that morning about Murray, ballroom dancing and popular songs of long ago which tirelessly flogged the idea of "romance."

It seemed amazing that my wife and I had once moved in this culture, and quite happily too, without ever asking ourselves what "romance" was and, for that matter, without ever learning to dance.

Well, America still had a genius then for rising above reality, and we two were as American as the next couple. For example, though my wife couldn't dance, she worked briefly as an Arthur Murray dance teacher.

Whoever hired her had said, don't worry, she'd quickly get the hang of it. There's the difference between America of the golden age and now when people without certificates needn't apply for anything but welfare.

At that time we were not yet married, so I was apt to overreach in order to show off my gallantry. Accordingly, when she didn't quickly get the hang of ballroom dancing I decided to give her instructions. Never mind that I couldn't dance either. We are talking about a time when "romance" was in the air.

Using a Murray ad in a magazine, accompanied by Strauss on the phonograph, I studied the concept of the waltz, then went to her place to demonstrate how easy it was. Some furniture was broken.

Fortunately, she found a job as a private detective almost immediately, and we were married shortly afterward and have since danced only twice. On both occasions champagne, or possibly gin, having revived my good old American ability to rise above reality, persuaded me that if Fred Astaire could do it, anybody could do it.

Dwelling on all this the other day, I realized we had accepted the idea of "romance" uncritically. It had probably been subliminally embedded in our psyches by exposure to years of Tin Pan Alley ditties, movies with the "romance" censored in, and a million magazine ads teaching that courtship was a chivalric art.

You might think children would be fascinated by the questions involved here: for instance, was "romance" a false god created by brain manipulators to sell consumer goods and imbue the masses with a meek-mannered view of life that would be conducive to social stability?

What about the history of "romance"? Popular songs before WWI didn't celebrate "romance," did they? Did Americans believe in it before the 1930s, when it erupted in every other song and movie?

Maybe "romance" was a natural Depression invention: Amid so much ugliness and deprivation, could "romance" have offered a cheap, insubstantial comfort which a later, financially loaded generation didn't need? In a typical lyric (from "My Romance") the singer says his romance doesn't need the luxury of castles in Spain.

Strange as it now seems, "romance" didn't even promise carnal gratification, which has been the main subject of the Top Forty ever since America became rich, fat and sporty.

Fred's view of what constitutes a satisfactory exchange between customers must seem preposterous to people who have come along since Bill Haley and the Comets first hit the screen announcing they were going to rock around the clock.

As I pointed out irritatingly to the children, "romance" has surely been dead and buried at least since the day John Lennon could tune his lyre to ask, "Why don't we do it in the road?" Great Lennon's name on the lips of a parent -- that's what irritates children.

Hearing it so spoken, their mature demeanor falls away and they lose all power to philosophize about the rise and fall of cultures. Suspecting a blasphemer, they become incapable of asking why in the age of "romance" no one sang, "Why don't we do it in the back seat of the Ford V-8?"

Having irritated them, I had some anniversary champagne, but not enough, alas, to make me forget I still can't dance. A fine romance.

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