Forty-five years later, author Rob Kirkpatrick looks back at the year that changed America and some of the people who shaped history that memorable summer.
The last year of the Sixties was, arguably, its most momentous—a year that began with the inauguration of a divisive president, Richard Nixon, and ended with the ill-fated free concert at the Altamont Speedway. The summer of ’69 alone provided many indelible memories for an entire generation.
The Stonewall Riots broke out in Greenwich Village in late June. In July, Easy Rider premiered in New York City, though Americans were glued to the small screen as they watched American astronauts walk on the moon and, later that same week, tuned in to see Senator Ted Kennedy give his version of what happened in the Chappaquiddick incident.
August saw three days of peace and music at the Woodstock festival in upstate New York, while dark days descended upon California as the San Francisco Examiner received its first letter from the Zodiac killer and the Manson Family launched its grisly murder spree in western Los Angeles. In early September, the “Miracle Mets” moved into first place for the first time in franchise history and would go on to win the World Series that fall.
Forty-five years later, here’s a look at some of the famous names who made history during that memorable summer.
Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins
Armstrong, an Ohio-born test pilot and Korean War veteran, became the first civilian ever to command an American mission into space on Gemini 8. Collins had been the pilot of Gemini 10, and Aldrin, the pilot of Gemini 12. Aldrin had originally been tapped to be the first to walk on the moon, but in March, NASA officials changed their plans and decided Armstrong would be the one to take the most famous steps in the history of the world.
On July 20, with Collins watching from above in the command module, Armstrong and Aldrin manned the lunar module Eagle through dramatic descent and landed on the moon’s Sea of Tranquility. Just before 11 PM EDT back on Earth, Armstrong placed his left foot onto the moon.
“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” he said, uttering the first words spoken by a human from an alien surface. He had intended to say “a man,” and even after careful analysis of the transmission, it remains unclear whether the dropped a was the result of a glitch in the transmission or merely the most famous oral flub in human history.
Armstrong and Aldrin remain two of only twelve people to walk on the moon. All three men have craters on the lunar surface named after them.
Michael Lang and Artie Kornfeld
Twenty-three-year-old band manager Michael Lang had produced the Miami Pop Festival the previous year. His plan, along with 26-year-old Capitol Records executive Artie Kornfeld, was to build a recording studio in the artistic community of Woodstock, New York, and they soon joined forces with venture capitalists Joel Rosenman, and John Roberts to form Woodstock Ventures, Incorporated. As a way of raising funds for the planned studio, they decided to hold a music festival in Woodstock.
They zeroed in on a possible site in Woodstock, but with visions of the 50,000 concertgoers who were projected to attend and images of recent rock music festivals fresh in their minds, residents protested and forced Woodstock Ventures to look for an alternate site. Lang and company arranged to lease a 300-acre industrial park in the Town of Wallkill, in Orange County. The local zoning board granted initial approval—until a memo about marijuana that was circulating among the construction crew became public and touched off the fears of local residents. A group of local citizens circulated a petition against the festival, and a court injunction was obtained against Woodstock Ventures.
With approximately 50,000 tickets having already been sold, Lang rode his motorcycle up to the bucolic roads of Sullivan County and came to the 600-acre farm owned by dairy farmer Max Yasgur near White Lake, in the town of Bethel. The land formed a natural amphitheater in a 37-acre field. “It was made in heaven. It was a bowl with a rise for a stage,” Lang would later remember. “What more could you want?”
Thus, the eventual site for Woodstock Music & Arts Fair was found—nearly 70 miles away from the original town that had inspired it. Kornfeld hired director Michael Wadleigh to film the festival, and his classic documentary Woodstock would preserve the three-day event that took place August 15 to 18, 1969 for future generations.
“Penelope Ashe’s scorching novel makes Portnoy’s Complaint and Valley of the Dolls read like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm,” exclaimed one review of Penelope Ashe’s steamy novel published in the summer of 1969, Naked Came the Stranger. Bearing the cover photograph of a kneeling girl’s bare behind, the novel caused a scandal with its racy content. The novel’s plot revolves around a radio cohost who plots revenge against her cheating husband by sleeping with one man after another.
But when talk show host David Frost introduced “Penelope Ashe” on his show, a group of writers from New York Newsday walked onto the set. In actuality, the novel had been the joint effort of columnist Mike McGrady and twenty-four of his colleagues. Convinced that sexual titillation could make any book sell, McGrady had enlisted his coworkers to write a formulaic sex novel that would possess no sustained plot, deep characterization, or social commentary—just sex. McGrady’s sister-in-law played the role of Penelope Ashe for publicity appearances before the hoax was revealed, appearing on talk shows in low-cut dresses to embody the spirit of sexual liberation in her novel and of the times.
Sales of the book increased dramatically after the David Frost Show segment, propelling the novel onto the New York Times Bestseller list.
Tom Seaver & Jerry Koosman
The New York Mets had finished with losing records in each of the franchise’s first seven seasons of existence—and had never even been more than one game above .500 at any point during any season. But in 1969, the Mets turned the baseball world upside down by winning 100 games en route to a National League Eastern Division title and then going on to win both the National League Championship Series and the World Series. Under manager Gil Hodges, the Mets found a winning formula of pitching, timely hitting, and more pitching behind staff ace Tom Seaver and lefty compatriot Jerry Koosman.
In his third season with the team, the former Marine Corps reserveman from Fresno, California, emerged as the best pitcher in the majors. From April through September, he started 35 games and won 25 of them. Koosman, a southpaw from Minnesota also in his third year with the club, won 17 games during the season and pitched in the 1969 All-Star game.
Behind Koosman, the Mets won a 2-1 nail-biter to tie the World Series with Baltimore at one game apiece. After a blowout win for the Mets in Game Three back at Shea Stadium, Seaver tossed all ten innings in another 2-1 victory to put New York one game away from immortality. In Game Five, Koosman rose to the occasion and threw a complete-game win to clinch the series for the Amazin’ Mets.
Seaver would win 311 games while pitching 20 seasons in the Majors. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1992 with the highest percentage of votes for any inductee. Koosman pitched for 19 seasons and won 222 games. When the Mets traded him to the Minnesota Twins in 1978, New York received pitcher Jesse Orosco—who would get the final out for the Mets in the 1986 World Series.
Rob Kirkpatrick is the author of 1969: The Year Everything Changed, Magic in the Night: The Words and Music of Bruce Springsteen, and Cecil Travis of the Washington Senators: The War-Torn Career of an All-Star Shortstop. He was a featured commentator in the History Channel documentary Sex in ’69: The Sexual Revolution in America.