The Years of Billy Joel's 'We Didn't Start The Fire' - 1956
Created | Updated Nov 1, 2006
Title Page | 1949 | 1950 | 1951 | 1952 | 1953 | 1954 | 1955 | 1956 | 1957 | 1958 | 1959 | 1960 | 1961 | 1962 | 1963 | 1964-1989 (Part 1) | 1964-1989 (Part 2) | 1964-1989 (Part 3)
Princess Grace, Peyton Place
Trouble in the Suez
Billy Joel cruelly overlooked such crucial events as the first Eurovision Song Contest and IBM creating the first hard drive (a whopping 5MB!). These aside, 1956 was the year of births as far as Hollywood is concerned: Mel Gibson, Geena Davis, Tom Hanks and...er...Bob Saget all popped out of the womb over these twelve months.
And God Created Woman, according to the title of the 1956 film (Et Dieu... créa la femme in its original French). On the evidence, God made a fairly fine fist of it: 38-24-36 in old money. Playing the lead role in the film - a curvaceous nymphette with a voracious sexual appetite - was a young blonde actress called Brigitte Bardot. This role would catapult Bardot into international superstardom.
French magazine Elle had been one of the first to cotton on to Bardot's traffic-stopping allure, featuring her seductively pouty visage on their cover when she was just 15 years old. Three years on, she had met and married film producer, Roger Vadim, their union postponed by young Brigitte's parents until she had turned 18. The year, 1952, also marked her movie debut, as Javotte Lemoine in 'Le Trou Normand'.
By 1956, after a handful of roles, typically portraying women both sensual and sexy, in films with titles such as The Girl in the Bikini, The Toy Wife, and Female and the Flesh, she had become the archetypal sex-kitten, and a source of tremendous fascination to earnest young men all over, especially throughout the United States.
During the 1960s, Bardot's popularity and fervour for her films eventually waned and she was eclipsed as Europe's favourite actress by upcoming Sophia Loren. In 1973, shortly before turning 40, she retired from moviedom and became a spokeswoman for animal rights.
In order to understand the significance of Budapest in 1956 it is necessary to know a little about the history of Hungary and its people.
As early as 1526, Hungary had laboured under foreign rule. It was first subjugated by the Ottoman Turks and then the Austrian Habsburgs. In 1703 Ferenc Rákóczi II led an uprising against the Austrians which lasted 8 years. Although unsuccessful this time, it demonstrated the Hungarian reluctance to be ruled by a non-Hungarian government. The Hapsburgs, however, were finally ousted by a second rising in 1848. For a brief period the state was free of occupation and a real sense of patriotism was born. This optimism was short-lived as the Russians lent support to the Hapsburgs through the provisos of the Holy Alliance and retook Hungary in 1849. With careful negotiation an uneasy balance was struck and, by 1867, the Austro-Hungarian pact was sealed, awarding Hungary equal parity with Austria.
Events took a turn for the worse after WWII when Franklin D Roosevelt, failing to recognise the potential danger of Stalin, 'handed' Hungary over to Soviet Russia. Stalin appointed Mátyás 'Little Stalin' Rákosi as premier of the People's Republic of Hungary. Hungary was transformed into a satellite state where even expressing a mild anti-communist or anti-Soviet opinion was punished with torture and death. Thousands died, the most telling statistic being that over ninety-five percent of the prisoners were jailed for political rather than criminal reasons.
Things improved slightly from 1953 when a more liberal leader, Imre Nagy, was appointed premier. His relaxed attitude to communism led to his dismissal in 1955 and he was replaced by a far harsher man, Ernö Gerö - Rákosi's right hand man, who resumed the political purges of Rákosi. The Hungarian people, who had enjoyed a brief respite from persecution, were once more living in fear and started to show their anger and frustration by gathering to show support for the Polish uprising.
On October 23, in Jozsef Bem square, in Buda, a small group of students assembled to declaim the Soviet occupation. Shouting slogans such as Ruszkik haza!1, the numbers swelled to over 10,000 and soon people were cutting the Soviet symbol from the Hungarian flag. Hungarian soldiers, watching from a nearby barracks, refused to fire on their countrymen and even ripped the emblems from their uniforms. By now more crowds had formed outside the national radio building in Pest and The ÁVO2 began firing on them. What could have been a massacre was averted by the intervention of workers from nearby Csepel Island who produced weapons for the demonstrators.
Imre Nagy appeared outside the Parliament building and led the crowd in singing the Hungarian National Hymn, Isten áldd meg a Magyart3, long-banned for its Nationalistic words and sentiments. In Heroes Square, a giant statue of Stalin was, over the course of a few hours, pulled down, decapitated and the head dragged through the streets to the accompaniment of jeering and spitting. The protests continued. On October 25, a child was killed by the ÁVO. After an impassioned plea by its mother, the Russian general in charge ordered his troops to realign their tanks to fire on the ÁVO rather than the crowd. The revolution was in full swing.
Two major battles took place in the city. The first was in Széna Square in Buda. Protestors barricaded the streets and the square with carts forcing the tanks to skirt the outside. This made them easy prey for the Hungarian youths who had been well-trained (by the Russians!) in the art of disarming and disabling tanks. The second was at Killián Barracks which was manned by youths and defecting Hungarian soldiers. Under heavy fire, they played a waiting game until the tanks came into range. Then, armed with machine guns, Molotov cocktails, a hastily repaired anti-tank gun and the knowledge supplied to them by the Soviets, a few boys single-handedly destroyed several tanks in front of the barracks and stopped seven advancing tanks. When a second wave of tanks arrived other students kept watch and gave warning and these, too, were destroyed by the freedom fighters.
The unrest spread throughout Hungary; most notably in the border town of Magyaróvár where 85 unarmed civilians were slaughtered by the ÁVO. Incensed, their family and friends soon exacted retribution. The ÁVO here and in Budapest either fled or were killed. Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty, Prince Primate of the Hungarian Catholic Church, was freed alongside many political prisoners - although many still perished because the entries to their cells were concealed. Nagy renounced the Warsaw Pact and declared Hungary a permanently neutral nation. He dissolved the one-party system and for the first time since 1946 multiple parties emerged. He ordered the Soviets out of Hungary and, for a while, they complied.
This wasn't the end, however. On the morning of 4 November, Russian tanks returned to Budapest and bombarded the city. General Maléter, the hero of the Killián Barracks who had been made Minister of Defense, had been removed from the scene - kidnapped by the Soviets during peace talks. The freedom fighters were weakened by hunger and short of ammunition. The battles were short and bloody with no distinction made between fighters and innocent civilians. After a few days the Russians gained the upper hand and installed a new premier, János Kádár. Imre Nagy, who had taken refuge in the Yugoslav embassy, was promised safety if he returned home. His bus, however, was intercepted by tanks, the two Yugoslavian guards thrown off and the bus driven to Romania. After months of torture he was executed in 1958.
Waves of refugees attempted to leave Hungary, most choosing to escape into Austria via the bridge at Andau. This was dynamited in mid-November. About three hundred thousand people left Hungary and tens of thousands were deported to Siberia to serve out the rest of their lives in the infamous Gulags.
Although the freedom fighters lost, Budapest became a symbol of the fight against enforced communist rule. It proved that the mighty Russian army could be brought to its knees by a minor country and that, above all else, people yearn for the freedom to express themselves. The phrase Communism is the friend of Man no longer ran true.
Following the American Civil War many states enacted laws that enforced segregation between the races. Some of these laws required separate rooms in restaurants for whites and for coloured people with separate entrances for each room (sometimes even requiring separate restaurants altogether); separate schools for white and coloured children; separate toilet facilities; separate drinking fountains; different rail cars for each race or sometimes different sections of a partitioned rail car.
In Alabama in the 1950s public transportation was segregated so that black patrons had to sit in the backs of the buses, while white passengers had a reserved section at the front - unless that section was full, then black riders were required to give up their seats for white riders. This is exactly what Rosa Parks refused to do on 1 December, 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama. The white section of her bus was full when a white man boarded the bus. As she was seated in the front seat of the black section she was ordered to surrender her seat to the white man. When she refused the bus driver called for the police and Rosa was arrested.
Rosa Parks was well-known in Montgomery; in response to her arrest the Womens' Political Council organised a boycott of the buses for 5 December, 1955, the date of Rosa's trial. The boycott was largely a success with only a handful of blacks riding buses that day, but Rosa was found guilty of disorderly conduct and fined. That evening, relative newcomer to town and pastor of the local Holt Street Baptist Church, Dr Martin Luther King called a meeting at the church to discuss further action. It was decided to continue the boycott of the buses. Also at the meeting the Montgomery Improvement Association was formed, and the members selected Dr King to lead the organisation.
As black passengers made up at least two thirds of its ridership, the bus company was forced to cut schedules and raise fares to compensate for lost revenue. This angered the white riders who retaliated against blacks with harassment and terrorism. Blacks waiting for a cab or a ride were arrested for loitering, blacks giving rides to others were arrested for picking up hitchhikers. Near the end of January 1956 Dr King's home was bombed, although his wife and daughter managed to escape harm.
The Montgomery Improvement Association filed suit in federal court on behalf of those discriminated against by bus segregation. The federal court ruled in favor of the Association in June 1956, but the decision was appealed to the US Supreme Court. In November the Supreme Court upheld the lower court's ruling, declaring that Montgomery's bus segregation laws were unconstitutional. On 20 December, 1956 the court order was served to Montgomery officials, ending the boycott 381 days after it began. The following day Dr King and Reverend Glen Smiley, a white minister, shared the front seat of a public bus.
Nikita Kruschev was born in the Ukraine in 1894 and was a young miner when the Bolshevik revolution took power in 1917. He joined the Communist Party soon after the revolution, in part, to take advantage of the educational opportunities that Communist government offered. It was through this that he became a firm believer that the communist system was superior to capitalism and that it would eventually win out.
Kruschev was recognised as an intelligent and motivated individual, and rose quickly through the ranks of the Party, becoming a member of the Central Committee in 1934 and the Politburo in 1939. He also had the good fortune to be the Chief Political Commissar in Stalingrad during the 1942 battle for the city, and so his standing in the Party was raised when the victory was won.
When Stalin died in 1953, Kruschev became the Party's First Secretary in a collective leadership. This didn't last for long as he soon grabbed power for himself when the tensions in the collective approach to leadership threatened to pull the top ranks of the Party apart.
As leader he changed much of the focus of Soviet foreign policy. He dropped the aggressive posture towards Western Europe; withdrawing Russian troops stationed in Vienna, and putting out peace feelers towards the breakaway Yugoslavian communist government. In its place he stepped up the political involvement in the rapidly decolonising Third World, particularly India and Egypt, the latter which he armed and henceforth had a say in Middle Eastern geo-politics.
At home the key event of his leadership was the 'secret session' of the 20th Party Congress of 1956 in which he outlined the crimes of the Stalin regime, and the damage that it had caused to the Party. He also signalled that there would in future be a liberalisation of the Party's control. Unfortunately, the Hungarians took this a bit too much to heart and tried to break away from the sphere of Soviet influence. This was unacceptable to the Russian government and was forcibly repressed by Soviet armed forces in November 1956.
Kruschev had a deep-seated belief that the communist system was superior to capitalism, and one of the ways that he wanted to demonstrate this was through improved agricultural production. There was an attempt to convert vast tracts of Siberia and Kazakhstan to corn production, and even plans to redirect the flow of some of the great Siberian rivers to help irrigate these southern plains. This all ended in disaster and the desertification of much of the new land that had been farmed.
Probably Kruschev is best known for the event that signalled his eventual downfall - the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. In a direct response to the US's deployment of nuclear missiles in Turkey close to the Russian border, the Soviets made preparations to place missiles in Cuba. When this was discovered by US spy planes a blockade of Cuba was ordered by President Kennedy to stop the ships carrying the missiles from getting through. In the stand-off it was Kruschev who blinked first and the ships were turned around, averting what at the time had seemed like a certain nuclear war between the USA and Russia.
This loss of face on the international scene, coupled with a particularly bad harvest in 1963 led to growing dissent within the Politburo, and Kruschev was sacked from his job of First Secretary in 1964 to be replaced by the more 'Stalinist' Leonid Brezhnev. Kruschev lived out the rest of his days in quiet retirement - the first ever Soviet leader to do so - and eventually died in 1971.
On 14 September, 1982 Princess Grace of Monaco died after a terrible car accident when her car careened off the winding roads of France. Her daughter Princess Stephanie, who was in the car with her, survived the ordeal but Princess Grace had suffered a mild stroke which caused her to lose control of the vehicle. Both were taken to hospital where Princess Grace was operated on and connected to oxygen tanks to keep her alive. In an early instance of euthanasia, Princess Grace was allowed to die when Prince Rainier gave the order to disconnect her from the tanks. Her body rested in state at Monaco's Cathedral.
Grace Kelly was born on 12 November, 1929 in Philadelphia to parents John and Margaret. She had two sisters and one brother, and her father was an Olympic gold medal winner4 and rich bricklayer. When she graduated from high school she modelled clothing and joined the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. Later she appeared in many theatre productions and television programmes.
Grace Kelly made her stage debut in 1949 in the Broadway production of The Father by August Strindberg. She also starred in High Noon, High Society and won the Best Actress Oscar for two films including The Country Girl. Grace also starred in three Hitchcock classics: Dial M for Murder, Rear Window and To Catch A Thief. Grace earned a Gold Record for her duet with Bing Crosby of the marvellous song 'True Love'. Clearly talented, she also embraced poetry, and around 1978 she attended many poetry recitals.
In 1955, Grace Kelly was engaged to Prince Rainier of Monaco and on 19 April, 1956 her wedding was considered 'The Wedding of the Century', due to her rising popularity as an actress. The marriage and subsequently retirement from the film industry for life consequently gave her sky-high popularity.
On 18 April, 1956 in the Monaco palace throne room, Grace attended the first part of her marriage, the civil ceremony, which was essential by Monegasque law. The next day the public wedding ceremony occurred in Monaco's Cathedral. MGM filmed the wedding and the beautiful wedding dress was created by MGM's clothes designer Helen Rose. Princess Grace's wedding ring was a 10-carat diamond. After the wedding, the grounds of the palace played host to a garden party and the people of Monaco gave the new Mr and Mrs Rainier gifts of a Rolls Royce, a diamond necklace and diamond earrings. Then Prince Rainier's yacht set sail for their honeymoon.
After the honeymoon Grace soon fell pregnant; Princess Caroline became her first child on 23 January, 1957. Just over a year later, on 14 March, Prince Albert was born and, seven years later, on February 1, 1965 Princess Stephanie was born, completing the Monegasque royal family as of the time of Princess Grace's tragic death.
Though it had been a best-selling novel (written by Grace Metalious) and a feature film, when people talk about Peyton Place, they're almost certainly referring to the soap opera that held TV audiences in its grip in the mid-1960s. One of the first soaps to break into primetime - shown on the ABC network in the USA and ITV in the UK - its heady mix of sexual intrigue, deception and betrayal cast the mould from which evolved many other melodramas, including Dallas, Dynasty and Twin Peaks. Though initially it drew flak from critics for being morally dubious, viewers loved it - it topped the ratings in America just a month after it first launched.
Most soaps revolve around families, and Peyton Place was no exception. The filthy-rich Harringtons were the descendents of the Peyton family, the founders of the town. Martin Peyton (played by George Macready) was the head of the family and the wealthy owner of a large part of the town. Much of his involvement in the show came from the many power struggles in and out of the boardroom as he challenged opposition from other businessmen. Peyton's extended family included his grandson, Rodney Harrington (played by Ryan O'Neill in one of his first major TV roles). Rodney found himself in a love triangle, having been entrapped into an engagement by the scheming Betty Anderson (Barbara Parkins) while secretly in love with Allison MacKenzie (Mia Farrow), illegitimate-but-virtuous daughter of Constance MacKenzie (former 1950s film star Dorothy Malone). Though Rodney married Betty believing she was pregnant with his child, when he found out that she had miscarried long before their wedding, he abandoned her and ran away with Allison... and so the melodrama continued for five years.
Like most soaps, popular cast members came and went. Mia Farrow's high-profile departure from the show (having abandoned her husband André Previn for Frank Sinatra) unsettled audiences, though her character's offscreen adventures were alluded to for many years to come (one storyline saw the arrival of a woman carrying what was claimed to be Allison's child - the story's proximity to the release of Farrow's film Rosemary's Baby was unlikely to be a coincidence). However, plenty of other actors, old and young, were keen to play a part in proceedings, including Patricia Morrow, Gena Rowlands, Leslie Nielsen, Wilfrid Hyde-White and John Kerr.
In its final years, though, changes in front of and behind the cameras led to a drop-off in viewers. Too few of the original stars had stuck with the show, the schedule was changed and the show was reshaped in an attempt to capture the attentions of the lucrative youth market. When this failed, the show was given its eviction notice. After 514 episodes, Peyton Place was closed down.
There have been a number of revival attempts and TV movies in subsequent years - including one that reunited many of the original cast members and finally solved the mystery of what had happened to Mia Farrow's character all those years before. But what was once shocking and fresh seems twee and way too cosy for audiences who have grown up with modern television.
Trouble in the Suez
Considered to be the most significant turning point in post-war British foreign policy, the Suez Crisis5 refers to the British decision to ally with France and Israel in a military intervention attempting to prevent General Nasser of Egypt nationalising the Suez Canal in the autumn of 1956.
On July 26, 1956, the Egyptian government seized the Suez Canal in accordance with a decree of nationalisation issued by President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Nasser announced that Egypt planned to use the proceeds from the operation of the canal to finance the Aswan High Dam.
On October 29, 1956, Israel invaded Egypt. Two days later, British and French military units attacked Egypt for the announced purpose of ensuring free passage through the canal.
In retaliation, Egypt sank 40 ships in the canal, effectively blocking it. Through the United Nations, a truce was arranged in November, and by the end of the year Israeli, French, and British forces were forced to withdraw from the area as a result of intervention by the United States. Following removal of the sunken vessels by a UN salvage team, the Egyptian government reopened the canal in March 1957.