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Hit the road, Desert Companion readers! And while you're at it, have a look around. This issue invites you to not only escape to the outdoors, but also to think about the environmental issues affecting our pursuits and our world.

Side by Side

Eydie Gorme and Steve Lawrence raise their glasses in a toast after the opening of "Golden Rainbow"
Associated Press
Eydie Gormé and Steve Lawrence raise their glasses in a toast after the opening of "Golden Rainbow"

For my family, Steve and Eydie were personal

The March 7 passing of swingin’ crooner, actor, and comedian Steve Lawrence lays to rest one of the few remaining original Las Vegas headliners, as well as the second half of a singing duo that was among the past half-century’s greatest. Lawrence and his wife, Eydie Gormé (pictured together at right), were not only household names for decades, but also admired for their actual love and devotion to one another. For an entire adult population who purchased their albums, watched them on television, or had the pleasure of seeing them perform live, Steve and Eydie represented America’s idealistic hopes and dreams for a period of time.

A wholesome fixture in popular entertainment, Steve and Eydie embodied strength in the institution of marriage — a concept that struggled during the mid-20th century as divorce rates climbed. Through recordings of songs such as “Side by Side,” “We Got Us,” “This Could Be the Start of Something,” and “We Can Make It Together,” listeners got the sense that the couple practiced what they preached. Even if you weren’t hip to their sound, you might fall apart watching their playful, adoring banter on variety specials, late-night talk shows, and Las Vegas stages.

Though both found individual success as solo singers, they seemed to work best as a team — perhaps because their rapport and mutual love were palpable. For a largely optimistic, post-World War II generation, Steve and Eydie represented class and sophistication without the drama — a departure from homewrecking Hollywood scandals such as Elizabeth Taylor breaking up Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, or unimaginable splits like Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. In a rapidly changing popular culture, Steve and Eydie offered stability to millions.

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Anthony, Elsie, and friends at Cocacobana
Raj Tawney
Anthony and Elsie (center), the author's grandparents, at the Copacabana, in 1957.

Among those millions were my Bronx-born grandparents, Elsie and Anthony. They adored Brooklyn-born Steve and Bronx-born Eydie as if the couples knew each other personally from the old neighborhood — perhaps because the desire, shared by many children of immigrant and ethnic minority groups, to assimilate and elevate into mainstream American society. In the ’50s, when the couple would appear on “Tonight Starring Steve Allen,” Elsie and Anthony watched in awe, delighting in their friends’ company. In 1957, when Steve and Eydie married, Elsie and Anthony did, too. Seemingly emulating the entertainers’ marriage, my grandparents played their records almost every day, and tried their best to dress nicely and entertain guests even if they hadn’t enough money for rent.

Success aside, Steve and Eydie offered something more valuable than material possessions or high living — they were selling the idea of honest companionship. Still, the glamour performers exuded was ever most appealing. My grandparents’ wedding was a simple church ceremony with a modest reception in the back room — they couldn’t afford a cake, so they put out a platter of cookies. Yet Elsie had saved up for months so that she and Anthony, along two other close couples, could dine at the Copacabana nightclub in Manhattan that evening. Whenever I’d sit down with my grandma and look through old photo albums, she’d marvel at the old picture that a cocktail waitress had snapped of them at their table (below left). A flattened matchbook from the club lay next to the image on the album sheet. It was the one and only night they ever visited the Copa, and that evening remained encapsulated in Elsie’s memory bank for the rest of her life.

My grandpa died in 1987 from cancer only months after I was born. Elsie lived more than 30 more years but never remarried. She continued to play Steve and Eydie records in her home daily. Perhaps the duo’s voices gave her comfort, offering an opportunity to reflect on earlier days, when the promise of hope for a bright future didn’t seem unreasonable.

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Shortly before my grandma died in 2018, I read her a news story telling how, in Atlantic City in 1990, Frank Sinatra had told then-casino owner Donald Trump “to go f*** himself,” because Trump, unfamiliar with Steve and Eydie, had tried to cancel the couple as Sinatra’s opening acts. Elsie chuckled as I read aloud to her about Sinatra, the most important voice to her generation, whose albums Anthony had also played religiously. “Shame on him for not knowing them,” Elsie said. “I hope my friend Steve got a laugh out of it.”

I hope he did, too.

Raj Tawney is an essayist and journalist who writes about family, food, and culture from his multiracial American perspective. His debut book was Colorful Palate: A Flavorful Journey Through a Mixed American Experience (Fordham University Press, 2023). His second book, a novel, is scheduled for release in fall 2024.