STILL LIVING 'THE GOOD LIFE' 60 YEARS LATER

STILL LIVING 'THE GOOD LIFE' 60 YEARS LATER

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It was the magazine issue that launched a hundred others.

Sixty years ago Saturday, on Sept. 6, 1948, Life magazine - arguably the most visible media outlet in the world at the time - published a cover story in which the editors sought to find the best place to live in the United States.

"If a group of Americans were asked," the Life story began, "to define the kind of city they would like to live in, they might mention some such qualities as these: scenic beauty, nice homes, good job opportunities, a wide variety of healthful recreation near at hand, first-rate schools, good hospitals and plenty of cultural activities."

The story continued: "Recently some of Life's editors set out to determine what American city comes closest to this ideal. After considering many candidates, they came up, somewhat brashly, with an answer: Madison, Wisconsin."

In the six decades since, publications of every stripe have latched onto the "best place" mantra, selecting cities as the best for this or that, and Madison has figured in many of them. The Greater Madison Convention and Visitors Bureau list of the city's published accolades runs eight pages. In recent years Madison has been chosen the smartest city; the city with the best teeth; the most vegetarian-friendly city; the best for cycling; the best for walking and the best for working moms.

But the mother of them all, and perhaps still the most impressive, was Life's rave 60 years ago.

The truth is, despite the legend, Life wasn't really the first national magazine to discover Madison. The Saturday Evening Post got here more than two years earlier with a profile of the city by writer George Sessions Perry in which he noted: "In many ways Madison and its environs are a miniature model of the ideal America of which most of us dream."

But the Life spread, with abundant color photographs by the great Alfred Eisenstaedt, is the one people remember.

Eisenstaedt, best known for his Times Square photo of an American sailor kissing a young woman on the day Japan surrendered to end World War II, spent several weeks in Madison for the cover story that was titled, "The Good Life in Madison, Wisconsin."

The cover photo showed a beautiful, smiling young woman holding a little boy over her head.

The woman was a 24-year-old West High grad and model named Jeanne Parr Noth. The photo was taken in the backyard of her parents' Near West Side home on Wanda Place.

I recently sent Jeanne Parr Noth a note, reminding her of the pending anniversary of the Life cover, and asking how she is doing.

She responded on Friday with this: "I'm still alive, well, and living in retirement in Maui. The baby with me on the cover of Life is Charles James Noth, today a lawyer living in Saranac Lake, N.Y."

She mentioned that she also has two other grown sons: "Michael Parr Noth is a psychotherapist in New York City and Christopher Noth is a successful actor ("Law & Order," Mr. Big in "Sex and the City," a TV series recently made into a movie). We all have fond memories of Madison and our mutual health and well being goes back to the fact that we were all born and lived there in our early years."

While Noth told Life magazine in 1948 that she wouldn't live anywhere else, a broadcasting career - which began here with WKOW, first radio and then television - eventually took her to the East Coast.

Noth was doing weather in New Haven, Conn., when a blooper - she was trying to point out a front in Arkansas and couldn't find the state on a map - led to an appearance on "What's My Line." (Panelist Bennett Cerf guessed her identify with the memorable question, "Did you ever lose the state of Arkansas?") A CBS producer saw that program, liked her panache, and Noth eventually became one of the first female correspondents for CBS News. Later she produced documentaries, wrote a book on the spouses of superstar athletes ("The Superwives") and started a communications consulting firm.

In 1988, the Wisconsin State Journal and The Capital Times produced a joint special section commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Life cover story.

The late Frank Custer, a colorful Cap Times reporter and devoted student of Madison history, handled a number of the stories and did one about what else was shaking in Madison in the fall of 1948, around the time of the Life cover. Among the happenings: President Harry Truman spoke at the Stock Pavilion, and the first TV set was installed in a commercial business - Crandall's Restaurant on East Main Street.

That 40th anniversary special section is now a historical piece itself. Paging through I came across an ad for the Cuba Club, a great University Avenue supper club that closed in 1988, only months after the 40th Life anniversary.

The ad made me hungry. Twenty years later, I still miss their coleslaw.

Contact Doug Moe at 608-252-6446 or dmoe@madison.com.

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