Two events in 1953 shook the communist world to its foundations. On March 5 Stalin died of a massive cerebral hemorrhage. The evening of March 1 Stalin had enjoyed a late dinner and drinking session with sycophants Beria, Malenkov, Bulganin, Khrushchev and Molotov at his Kuntsevo dacha outside Moscow.
Getting his underlings drunk and then waiting for them to accidentally admit to some transgression or other was a familiar ploy. He retired to bed in the early hours but did not get up the next morning at his usual time. Staff and visitors were so terrified of incurring his fury by disturbing him or doing anything without his explicit instructions that he was left alone until the following night when the bodyguard commander finally and with extreme trepidation went into the bedroom to check on the situation. Stalin was found helpless on the floor, incontinent and only partially conscious. Seeing Stalin in such a humiliating and vulnerable state was an egregious lapse and would almost certainly invite capital sanction.
Doctors were eventually called however. Stalin was cleaned up but never regained consciousness and died March 5 – he was 74. Khrushchev’s memoirs depict Beria as alternating between spewing caustic venom at his comatose boss and obsequious groveling when he thought Stalin was conscious. Beria eventually jumped in his limo and headed for Moscow and the Kremlin – jockeying for succession would now begin in earnest.
The body lay in state for three days while millions of weeping and distraught Russians filed past to pay their final respects. The crowds were so large and emotionally distressed it has been estimated 500 mourners were trampled or crushed to death trying to catch a glimpse of the casket. The embalmed body was then transported by gun carriage to the mausoleum in Red Square where it was reverently laid to rest on public display next to Lenin’s similarly preserved remains. In life, the two old comrades would probably not have relished the prospect of spending eternity together.
Beria was eventually appointed First Deputy Premier under Malenkov’s nominal leadership, but the rest of the Politburo were so frightened of the prospect of him attaining supreme power that on June 25, 1953 he was arrested at a meeting of the Presidium expressly called for that purpose. After a show trial he was executed in the basement of the secret police prison in Moscow with a bullet to the forehead, cringing and blubbering to the end.
Khrushchev eventually emerged supreme after the dust settled. Of those other senior officials present at the dacha that night, Malenkov had a short career as Premier but by 1961 he was in extreme disfavor and exiled to Kazakhstan as manager of a hydro-electric plant. He died in his bed aged 85.
Bulganin was disgraced, fired from the Politburo in 1958 and exiled to Stavropol as Chairman of a local Economic Council. Except for the most dangerous and brutal Beria, Khrushchev allowed his former colleagues to keep their lives, which was more than Stalin would have done in similar circumstances. Molotov and Kaganovich enjoyed similarly ignominious retirements from the Party.
General Dwight Eisenhower was elected President of the USA in November, 1952, taking over from Harry S. Truman. Under Mr. Truman’s guidance a number of military leadership changes had transpired in an attempt to find a formula which would end the conflict once and for all.
Of course in proxy wars, which this basically was, the surrogates will keep fighting as long as they continue to enjoy the logistical and financial support of their backers. General MacArthur thought China could be knocked out of the war if a few nuclear bombs were dropped on them, but Truman wouldn’t hear of it. MacArthur was replaced by General Ridgway who was in turn replaced by General Clark.
President Eisenhower was determined to end the euphemistically named “police action”, and let it be known that unlike his predecessor he was not above dropping a few nuclear bombs. Thus incentivized, and with such strong players on all sides, the combatants were beginning to realize a military solution was highly unlikely. Negotiations commenced at Panmunjom and a cease-fire was established in July, 1953, although three major actions were still underway at the time including the famous Battle of Pork Chop Hill.
This was not a peace treaty and the Korean War technically never actually ended. Thankfully it has never gone “hot” again despite the best efforts of North Korea to be as obnoxious and confrontational as possible. North Korea continues to insist it won the war. The UN forces lost almost 90,000 men while the communist armies are estimated to have suffered 1.5 million soldiers dead.
One of the main difficulties negotiators encountered was repatriation of captured POW’s, (Prisoners of War). Many Korean Peoples’ Army, (North Korean Army) and PVA troops did not want to be repatriated. This of course was unacceptable to communist authorities, not least because it represented a tremendous loss of face, but they eventually relented.
As a result several Chinese and North Koreans did not return home. Interestingly, 21 Americans and 1 Briton declined repatriation as well, and stayed in North Korea. In another POW repatriation, the first German soldiers return home from the Soviet Union.
Senator Joe McCarthy continued to flail about investigating communism in American life. In 1953 he variously examined Voice of America and the US Army – neither inquiry came to anything other than to disrupt, upset and ruin morale of all involved. With his credibility rapidly waning it was becoming increasingly clear McCarthy was chiefly interested in his own aggrandizement.
Interestingly, McCarthy enjoyed the support of the Kennedy family – Robert F. Kennedy was appointed assistant counsel to the investigative Senate Subcommittee.
Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation occurred on June 2, and the Royal Yacht Britannia was launched shortly thereafter. In other royal news, King Hussein of Jordan is crowned, while King Mohammed V of Morocco is deposed by the French and exiled to Corsica.
On May 23 Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay become the first to conquer Mt. Everest.
Playboy magazine publishes its first issue with Marilyn Monroe on the cover and gracing the inaugural centerfold. In other sex news, Christine Jorgenson returns home to the USA after undergoing the world’s first sex change operation in Denmark.
Everyone expected “High Noon” to win Best Picture at the Oscars, but “The Greatest Show on Earth” walked away with the prize. Gary Cooper took Best Actor for his role in “High Noon”.
This was the first Oscar ceremony to be televised.
Ian Fleming publishes the first James Bond novel, “Casino Royale”. Lucille Ball finally gives birth to Desi Jr. on January 19, 1953 and the delivery is timed to coincide with the TV episode, “Lucy Goes to the Hospital”, (or vice-versa; take your pick). The show drew the largest audience for a TV show up to that time. You could watch it on your black & white TV which cost $535 (about $5,000 today), or on a new color TV just introduced this year. That would set you back $1,175 ($10,000 today).
Of course your new TV came in a tasteful mahogany console together with an AM radio and record player which allowed you to listen to all the latest hits on your new HiFi. The Billboard charts were of course dominated by white artists, although the odd black performer would sneak in from time to time. Nat King Cole had 10 Billboard hits in 1953, the most successful being “Pretend”, a genuine million seller, that rose to second spot in February. While the Billboard songs were “pleasant”, often cute, (“How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?”), frequently funny, (“St. George and the Dragonet”), there were depressingly few real toe-tappin’, knee-slappin’ barn burners. Most of them were sweet but bland.
Lyrics were agreeable and certainly far superior to anything you might be unfortunate enough to hear today, but your ears only perked up when an R&B cross-over slipped into the radio station’s play list. These songs were almost a guilty pleasure and we seemed reluctant to reward them by placing them too high on the Billboard charts. But by 1953 we realized the inevitable, if only subconsciously – as a contemporary Les Paul and Mary Ford song put it – “The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise”.
Fats Domino’s “Goin’ to the River” hit number 24, while the Orioles’ “Crying in the Chapel” made it to number 11. The Orioles’ rendition was the original, (and the best!),
but it was covered by three white singers all of whom charted higher: June Valli (#4), Darrell Glenn (#6) and Rex Allen (#8), and by Ella Fitzgerald backed up by Bill Doggett’s Orchestra and the Ray Charles Singers. With all that star power it only made #15. This was the way of the world in 1953 – black artists with a good song were covered by white crooners who “cleaned it up”, made it acceptable for white audiences and achieved a higher ranking. A number of songs were starting to cross over from the R&B charts in their own right, and most of these, including the above, would qualify as genuine rock ‘n’ roll. Even some of the more primal and coarse offerings were crossing over and doing rather well in the rankings: “Honey Hush” (#23) by Big Joe Turner, “Shake-a-Hand” (#22) by Faye Adams and “(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean” (#23) by Ruth Brown. All these songs were million sellers, reached #1 on
the R&B charts and made the year’s top 10 for R&B. Interestingly, the top R&B song for 1953, “Money Honey” by Clyde McPhatter & the Drifters, did not cross over. Obviously a lot of mainstream listeners were enjoying R&B and they were exerting continual pressure on Billboard – its popularity couldn’t be ignored or denied much longer.
Meanwhile, the only genuine white rock ‘n’ roller in 1953 was Bill Haley, and while one of the true pioneers he was actually more rock-a-billy and didn’t crack the top 10 that year. Bill charted three songs: “Crazy Man, Crazy” (#12), “Fractured” (#24), and “Live It Up” (#25). Billboard’s #1 song for the year was “Vaya Con Dios”, a very pretty number by Les Paul and Mary Ford.
Les Paul was father of the electric guitar. When the electric guitar met Elvis Presley in 1954, the white boy who sounded black, rock ‘n’ roll was truly born. Elvis gave a white face to R&B and made it respectable, finally opening the door for black performers to become welcome in normal society.
What’s a little odd, even hypocritical, about all this is that some racially questionable songs were commonplace on the Billboard charts. For example, “The Chinese Waiter” by Buddy Hackett did not raise any eyebrows in 1953.
1953 marked the 50th anniversary of Ford Motor Company. They celebrated by decidedly dragging the enterprise back into the black and firmly making it the number 2 car maker in the world. The auto manufacturers had continued to build cars despite restrictions on some strategic raw materials, but these too were lifted in February, 1953.
The public’s patience was rewarded with a virtually unchanged 1953 Mercury. Dimensions and mechanics were identical to those for 1952. Exterior enhancements were mostly changes to the chrome and stainless. These alterations enjoyed a restriction-free chrome plating process so that was good news. The two vertical bumper guards are replaced by two similarly placed “Dagmars”.
The space between the new bumper guards is filled with a horizontally ridged panel, while the small fins on the top side of the “grille” divider bar are replaced with four much more prominent teeth. The imitation chrome hood scoop receives an additional centre highlight. Optional road lights are mounted below the bumper guards. That was about the extent of changes to the front.
On the sides, a single chrome strip runs virtually the entire length of the car in the mid-section, while three small horizontal chrome spears grace the leading edge of the rear fender relief, with the third or bottom one incorporating a larger accent just in front of the rear wheel wells. Chrome “curb buffers” cover the rocker panels on Monterey.
“Mercury” appears in stainless script on the rear fenders of all models, while an additional “Monterey” script is mounted on the front fenders along with a small badge, just in front of the doors and slightly above the side spear.
Divider bars are gone from the rear backlight which is now one-piece, while the black MERCURY stamping in the middle of the bumper is reduced in size. The trunk lock arrangement and badging has been redesigned and “Merc-0-Matic” in script appears on the right side of the trunk lid, on cars so equipped. Full wheel discs still display the Mercury Head in relief on a red centre, but now also have red concentric rings.
Station wagon trim remained essentially the same, although one wooden rail crossing the middle of the front door diagonally, and one vertical rail conflicted with the new car-length stainless spear, and so were deleted. In mid-1953 the real wood rails were exchanged for fiberglass ones in wood finish. Finally, the six-passenger version never sold well and was therefore dropped for 1953 – the eight-passenger version became part of the Monterey line-up.
Wagon interiors comprised tuck and roll vinyl in red or turquoise, combined with a durable plastic weave in tan or ivory. The cargo area linoleum flooring was replaced with a heavy rubber mat highlighted by bright skid strips.
With this sole exception, models offered for 1953 were identical to 1952: buyers could choose a Custom 2- or 4-door sedan or a 2-door Sport Coupe, while for those preferring something a bit splashier, Monterey came as a 4-door sedan, 2-door Sport Coupe and convertible.
Part way through the year, Mercury added power steering, brakes and seat, to better position it to compete with Oldsmobile.
Buyers had 15 different solid colors available for the exterior or a possible 42 two-tone combinations. Several different types of material were offered for the interior including broadcloth, nylon plastic weave, vinyl and leather. Interior roof arches became more prominent and were emphasized with stainless ribs.
Dashes carried a two-tone motif while the semi-circular speedometer featured gold rather than the previous year’s silver highlights. In recognition of Ford’s 50th anniversary in 1953, each Mercury received a dash-mounted medallion.
The same 125 hp flathead V-8 as the previous year continued to provide sterling service under the hood,
but this was to be its last year. While to all appearances the mechanics remained unchanged, performance was markedly improved. Torque increased with revamped carburetion, a repositioned air cleaner and 3.91 rear end for manual transmissions. Efficiency was also improved with “straight-through” rather than “reverse-flow” mufflers.
Meanwhile, Dodge receives a new “Red Ram” hemi producing 160 hp, but the Hudson Hornet introduces Twin H – power, a dual carburetor set-up on its own flathead, putting out 210 hp. Lincoln was the only Ford manufactured car to receive improvements to its power plant, and these were indeed significant. Horsepower was increased to 205, providing Ford’s flagship with the industry’s best power to weight and horsepower to displacement ratios.
As well, the Lincoln generated sufficient torque to pull a train. Mercury was soon to enjoy the trickle-down effect of its senior cousin’s improved technology – its new ohv engine was about to arrive in the nick of time.
The year should have been smooth sailing, however the newly commissioned Wayne, Indiana plant was hit by a UAW wildcat strike in January and February, also affecting Lincoln production.
Labor unrest at the Borg-Warner facility turned out to be an even more serious blow – availability of the Merc-o-Matic automatic transmission and Touch-o-Matic overdrive was significantly curtailed.
Despite these challenges, Mercury went on to post a very successful sales year, second only to 1950, capturing an overall 8th spot in sales, just behind Dodge. Total sold was 305,863: Custom delivered 149,524 cars while Monterey accounted for the remaining 156,339. Ford remained in second place among the manufacturers.
A siren red Monterey convertible produced in September was nominated as the 40 millionth Ford product manufactured. It spent its life in various museums.
General Motors spiced the market up by introducing the Corvette this year, (“ … a car made out of plastic?” sneered the nervous competition). Only 315 copies were sold. GM went one step further by introducing uniquely memorable, prestigious, luxurious, limited production convertibles to each of Oldsmobile, Buick and Cadillac – the 98 Fiesta, Skylark and Eldorado respectively.
The Fiesta was made one year only, the Skylark was made in 1954 as well, while the Eldorado hung on for quite a few years more, but subsequent editions were all pale shadows of the original. All these 1953 cars are of inestimable value today. The cutthroat nature of the market was further reflected in the first of the post-war mergers when Willys-Overland combined with Kaiser-Frazer. While it managed to stagger on until 1958, Packard’s breathing was becoming labored – an ill-fated attempt at
rejuvenation failed when insufficient financial resources were available to carry it through. While it’s never pleasant to witness the death of a marque, this one devolved to Mercury’s benefit. Not only did rivalry become less intense, but many Packard engineers and stylists found a new home at Mercury.