It was the combination of Coca-Cola’s decision to stop making Tab—the sickly sweet, slightly flat diet soda that was everywhere in my youth—and my mother finally selling her 1970s house that got me thinking about the end of all that; the end of the decade that created me and, more importantly, that willed my parents’ strange and brief marriage into existence.
The 1970s were our time. The year 1973 was when my mother, Erica Jong, “made it” with her novel Fear of Flying. Then, 1975 was the year when she went to the Dominican Republic to divorce her second husband for my father. And 1978 was the year I was born. The 1970s were peak Jong, but they were also peak Fast. My father published a number of science fiction novels, including Mortal Gods.
And my grandfather, Howard Fast, wrote a super-successful series of trashy novels, starting with The Immigrants, which were turned into equally trashy television programs. Yes, the Jongs and the Fasts would never be more famous than they were in the 1970s. That was my family’s golden age, our shag-carpeted renaissance.
Most people think of the 1970s as a cultural low point in American history, as the Jello-flavored decade between the world-changing 1960s and almost as world-changing (but in the opposite direction) 1980s. And those people are not wrong. I know this from the many artifacts of that once-great civilization: my mother’s mink-lined bell-bottoms; an incense holder; my father’s denim pageboy cap; a piece of uncleanable macramé; a pair of aviator glasses that belonged to someone, maybe a party guest. Who were these people, and why did they have such astonishingly bad taste?
In 1977, my long-haired father and my erotica-writing mother bought the house in Weston, Connecticut, a rural town right near that little peg-leg of the Nutmeg State that juts its way into New York. My mom thought being in Connecticut would help them write. They came from Malibu via a short stint in New York City. They were going to live the dream of the 1970s life. They hyphenated both their names, which I know because I found an ancient bathrobe from that period in my mother’s brown-tiled bathroom emblazoned with my father’s initials, J.J-F. I held the old white gray bathrobe between my fingers. The terry had collapsed with age. It was like holding some small piece of a world that never quite made it, like a bumper sticker for a failed presidential run.
She would be Erica Jong-Fast and he would be Jonathan Jong-Fast, and they would live in perfect 1970s equality. And why not? The 1970s were to be a time of cemented change. A young congresswoman called Shirley Chisholm was going to bring the Equal Rights Act to the floor, and in March 1972, the ERA passed the Senate. Women would finally be equal to men in the Constitution. It was a long time coming but it would happen.
Mom and dad would be equals in their bucolic equality utopia. They would write books and live in their perfect 1970s home. The house was like something out of the Woody Allen science-fiction comedy Sleeper. The house on Davis Hill Road was the picture of 1970s architecture—lots of oddly large windows and pieces of old barn cobbled together to look like the future but crafted with pieces of the past. My mother’s office was a silo-like structure that stuck out from the rest of the house. The old barn pieces were very decorative but not very practical. They gave me numerous splinters. Throughout my childhood, I was always trying to get a splinter out of somewhere.
But the house wasn’t just splinters. It represented all the elements of its decade, with carpeted platforms creating a conversation pit, a hot tub, a sauna, and so much shag carpet. My mother slept on a waterbed. In the driveway sat a brown 1979 Mercedes. We kept an enormous extra gas can in the trunk because of the gas shortages. The home and its accoutrements were like a time capsule, a museum of what could have been, of what the 1970s wished it was.
The supposition was that it was just a matter of time before my father, the son of a bestselling novelist, was going to be a bestselling novelist like his father and his wife. But it never happened for my dad. As I learned firsthand in my own misspent youth, bestselling novelist is a lot harder than it looks. The plan was that my parents would have many children, do yoga, eat organic food, and delight in the fruits of their equality. For a few years it almost happened. I was born between yoga poses. My first birthday cake was a carrot cake. My parents got married in their living room on Christmas Day with two other people there. My mother was already pregnant. They were not be stifled by any of those bourgeois values.
But the 1970s ended, and they started fighting. She started traveling. It was an open marriage (those never work, for those keeping track at home), there was a ménage à trois with a famous feminist who now bares a striking resemblance to MC Hammer. There was fighting and more fighting. She slept with Martha Stewart’s husband during the Frankfurt book fair; later, she told me, “What happens in Frankfurt stays in Frankfurt,” but that isn’t actually a saying, and that didn’t actually happen.
My mom told The New York Times around that period, “I think it’s very hard for women who are passionately committed to a career to find a man who supports them totally and emotionally. And many men in this society are raised to believe that women are supposed to serve them first and any attention they spend devoted to their career is a slap in the face.”
And a few years later, they were divorcing and America was elbows-deep in Ronald Reagan’s recharged Cold War. Around that time, the ERA expired, falling one state short of ratification before it could ever make its way to the Constitution. The marriage died one of those horrible protracted deaths that included multiple lawsuits and meetings in the court house in Stamford, Connecticut. It was like the famous 1980s divorce movie Irreconcilable Differences, except none of us were as cute as the actors in the movie. I was no Drew Barrymore.
In that same Times article from the early 1980s, my mom said, “We were really naive in the ’60s and ’70s to think it would be so easy,” she said. “If a person is really your mate and your other half, and someone you depend on, and suddenly you’re without that person, that right arm, so to speak, then it’s like an amputation.”
We sold the practically unsellable house in the pandemic real estate boom, and a large chunk of my childhood will be dislodged. And by the end of this year, Coca-Cola will give up on Tab. Some decades age less well than others, some doors need to be closed. I’m not saying we should burn all our macramé on the shore, but maybe it’s time to close the door on this particular avocado-hued decade.