It’s a classic case of ’60s sexism.
The wives of America’s first astronauts were media darlings — the press and the public couldn’t get enough of them — but no one, especially NASA, expressed any interest in the women actually saying much.
The astronauts, known as the Mercury Seven, had out-of-this-world adventures to talk about. But their wives, who were expected only to look pretty while offering quiet support, had compelling stories, too.
Imagine what it must have been like for them to have to smile confidently for television cameras while wracked with worry as their husbands were strapped onto rockets and hurled into space.
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It took five long decades before author Lily Koppel coaxed those stories out of the women.
The TV series version of The Astronaut Wives Club premieres at 7 p.m. Thursday on ABC.
Among other things, the show reminds us how dramatically gender roles have evolved over the years. The 1960s was a different decade, a different generation, a different millennia.
“I remember being in Jo Schirra’s living room — she was the wife of Wally Schirra, the fifth American in space,” says Koppel, whose book came out in 2013. “I asked, ‘How is it possible that writers like Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe came through your front door, sat in your living room, interviewed your husband, but never really spent any time talking to you? How did they miss the wives’ stories?’
“And Jo just said something cute like, ‘Oh, we would run and hide in the kitchen whenever they came.’ I think that was a reflection of those times and the mindset that everyone had back then.”
Even a half-century later, when Koppel started traveling across the country and meeting members of this very exclusive group (not just with Project Mercury wives, but also with Gemini and Apollo wives), it was very difficult at first for her to break into their ranks.
“They were a very private group,” Koppel says. “For years, they had to watch what they said in the press and in front of NASA, to ensure that their husbands got the space missions they wanted.
“And also, some of them didn’t even realize that their stories had merit. They were surprised when I wanted to talk to them. They were like, ‘Wait. Don’t you want to do a book on the astronauts?’
“I’d say, ‘There are already hundreds of those. I want this book to be the wives’ version. I want this to be about everything they experienced, from the frivolous things, like their deviled eggs recipes and the color of their lipstick, to the important things, the triumphs and the tragedies.’
“But most of all, I wanted it to be about the sisterhood that these women formed, out of necessity, and the support that they gave one another.”
That said, The Astronaut Wives Club never shortchanges viewers on the historic space missions. Alan Shepard’s first manned Mercury flight in May 1961 is there. So is John Glenn’s first orbital Mercury flight in February 1962.
The series even surpasses the best movie on the subject, 1983’s The Right Stuff, in terms of accuracy. For example, the film suggested that Gus Grissom was responsible for the blown hatch that nearly caused his capsule to sink after splashdown in July 1961; the series correctly points out that Grissom was cleared of blame.
Still, the primary focus is the women, who transformed virtually overnight from anonymous military spouses into what Koppel calls “America’s first reality stars.”
The drama in their lives wasn’t limited to worry over their husbands’ safety.
How many of us knew, for example, that Annie Glenn was a woman of few words because she had a debilitating stutter she didn’t want people to know about?
Who knew that the marriage of “Gordo” and Trudy Cooper was a sham, that they had split up before he was selected for the Mercury program?
Who knew that Marge Slayton was a divorcee, taboo in the 1960s, when she married Deke?
And who knew that almost all of the wives had to deal with the ugly reality of unfaithful spouses?
In short, The Astronaut Wives Club is adventure hour, history class and soap opera all rolled into one.
“I love stories about ordinary people who all of a sudden have extraordinary experiences,” says Erin Cummings, a Texas native (and University of North Texas grad, Class of 2000) who plays Marge Slayton. “These women stepped out of their ordinary lives as military housewives and became American royalty overnight.
“From the outside, the public perceived their lives to be so glamorous and exciting, but from the inside there was a lot of turmoil and pain. The fact that it’s a true story just sealed the deal for me.”
Odette Annable, who plays Trudy Cooper, says it’s an honor to share this story.
“As an American, you’re educated on the basics about this era,” she says. “You know about Neil Armstrong. You know about John Glenn. You know about the assassination of JFK. But I didn’t really know anything in depth until I started doing my research.
“Then you learn about these wives, these powerful women who stood beside these American heroes, and how they held down the fort at home. They were the real emotional support for these men. Without these women, I really don’t believe these men would have held it together and gone up to space.”
▪ 7 p.m. Thursday
▪ WFAA/Channel 8
Meet the ‘Astronaut Wives’
Rene Carpenter (played by Yvonne Strahovski): The platinum-blond wife of Scott Carpenter was JFK’s favorite. Life in the public eye turned her on to politics, civil rights and women’s issues. Rene “the rebel” went on to host a feminist talk show in the 1970s called Everywoman. “I have great admiration for this woman,” Strahovski says. “She wasn’t afraid to speak her mind and to be forward-thinking. We still live in a world where, as women, we’re fighting for certain rights. In that sense, this show is definitely relevant.”
Trudy Cooper (played by Odette Annable): Gordon Cooper’s wife was a licensed pilot when her husband was selected to become an astronaut. She was conspicuously quiet with reporters because she didn’t want their secret to get out: She and “Gordo” were together only for the sake of his career. “She was the tomboy of the group,” Annable says. “When everybody was wearing dresses, Trudy was wearing trousers, which was wonderful for me because I’m always cold. So put some pants on me and I’m very happy!”
Annie Glenn (played by Azure Parsons): John Glenn’s wife was the embodiment of the perfect American housewife. Despite a problematic speech impediment, she had a beautiful singing voice and performed in the church choir. “She was always very vocal with John,” Parsons says, “but when it came to public situations, it was difficult for her.” Parsons relished being on the show because she is “a space nerd. Every summer growing up, I was like, ‘Please take me to Space Camp.’ Never got to go. I still want to go to Space Camp.”
Betty Grissom (played by JoAnna Garcia Swisher): Gus Grissom’s wife was a blue-collar Hoosier who supported her man without question. She had worked the 5-to-11 p.m. shift at Indiana Bell to put him through engineering school. “These women came from all walks of life, different perspectives, different types of marriages, different in every way,” Garcia says. “Betty was more down-home and folksy. But these women needed each other to survive and became sisters and formed a bond that could never be broken.”
Jo Schirra (played by Zoe Boyle): Wally Schirra’s wife was the daughter of a four-star admiral. She was schooled in the proper way to dress, the proper way to host a dinner party, the proper thing to say in any occasion — in counterpoint to her husband, who was always a practical joker. “But Jo is also really funny,” Boyle points out. “I have never played a funny character before. It’s been so much fun to investigate that side of myself. To begin with, I was terrified. Then I just threw myself into it and loved it.”
Louise Shepard (played by Dominique McElligott): The other women called Alan Shepard’s wife “Lady Louise” because she was so serene and ladylike. An intensely private woman, she wanted no one to know that behind her calm, collected demeanor was a paralyzing fear that Alan would die. “Louise is very prim and proper and quite serious,” McElligott says. “Everything has to be a very certain way and she didn’t veer outside the lines in any way. She stuck to what was low-key and elegant and demure.”
Marge Slayton (played by Erin Cummings): Like her husband, Deke Slayton, Marge was a born leader. She ran the Astronaut Wives Club and became known as “Mother Marge.” Cummings says the women in the cast bonded the same way the NASA wives did. “The friendships you see developing onscreen mirrored what was happening behind the scenes,” she says. “I’m so thankful that this has not only given me a wonderful story to tell, but also some beautiful friendships that I am sure will last a lifetime.”
— David Martindale