What Shall We Wear to This Party?: The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit Twenty Years Before & After

ISBN: 0877951195
ISBN 13: 9780877951193
By: Sloan Wilson

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1950s Literature Books I Have To Read

Reader's Thoughts


Wilson is the author of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, a novel that reportedly struck a chord during the fifties. In this wonderful autobiography, Sloan describes how and why he became an author. His parents were quite wealthy—mostly money derived from his grandmother—so much so that they were able to travel by private rail car and purchase a yacht (requiring a crew of fifteen!) during the Depression. His father, an extraordinary man, had an immeasurable impact on the young man, and his early death was traumatic for the entire family. Sloan captained the family’s yacht during a college summer while at Harvard, and this experience gave him enough knowledge to pass the written exam for a Coast Guard commission at the outbreak of WW II – the services apparently were accepting anything with a pulse. He was assigned to trawlers that had become Coast Guard cutters that hauled supplies and patrolled for submarines on the chilly North Atlantic run to Greenland. His experiences under a demanding, seemingly harsh, but very competent captain provide some hysterical moments. Sloan really had no idea what he was doing, but despite that, he eventually gained command of his own little ship, successfully surviving a harsh Greenland fall hurricane that battered much larger ships. He went on to become a writer, having first worked as a reader for Houghton Mifflin. Ironically, his experiences as the captain of a navy supply vessel in the Pacific led him to feel that The Captain’s Palm (one of the first books he was asked to read) took place on a vessel similar to his, was “fundamentally dishonest,” because all the crewmen did was play practical jokes on one another and everyone was an idiot. In real life they never would have known how to get the ship anywhere. He wrote a scathing review for Houghton Mifflin’s editors, recommending thay turn the book down. It went on to become the hugely successful and immortal Mr. Roberts; just one of life’s delicious little ironies. While writing, he needed to feed his family, and his increasingly injurious drinking problem, and he worked on several studies of American education during one of the periodic clamorings to right the wrongs of public education. Mostly because of his skill at writing, he became viewed as somewhat of an expert, and was chosen to work for the Eisenhower administration. His book has several trenchant comments about the workings of the typical educational reform committees, usually mountainous in scope though delivering only mouse-sized proposals. In this case, the vast committee could only agree to put up billboards all over America proclaiming the slogan: “Better schools make better communities,” the same message being repeated via radio and advertising. “It took months for all these brilliant people to decide on a name for their group, but they finally settled on the National Citizens’ Commission for the Public Schools,” which later was shortened to “Better Schools, Inc.” They hired a staff of thirty and rented an office in New York. Wilson became the assistant director and was kept busy scurrying around the country writing about school problems. He was hired to write about education for Time magazine, but it was the personal attention and recognition of his talent by the publisher of Scribner’s that provided the confidence to rewrite the novel that was to make him famous. It’s unfortunate that the accompanying successes led not to happiness, but to divorce and more problems with drinking. It was only by meeting his second wife, a compassionate, much younger woman, that he finally found the courage to pull his life together, and this book is the humorous, yet poignant illumination of that life. It’s a wonderful story.


This is like a time trip. Even though I was a kid in the years he describes, I forgot about how grown-ups were constantly boozing and smoking. Every time you turn around, someone in this book is pouring a fresh bourbon or lighting up a smoke.Still, this is a brilliant snapshot of the time. Following success, Wilson found himself in a smothering marriage, in a household he couldn't abide, working with men he couldn't stand. His discontent was deep although he tried to make a go of it and when he broke away, he cast off wife, children, and job and didn't turn back for at least another thirty years.

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