the fall of 1964, on a visit to the World’s Fair, in Queens, Lewis Altfest, a twenty-five-year-old accountant, came upon an open-air display called the Parker Pen Pavilion, where a giant computer clicked and whirred at the job of selecting foreign pen pals for curious pavilion visitors. Within a year, more than five thousand subscribers had signed on. It would invite dozens of matched couples to singles parties, knowing that people might be more comfortable in a group setting. They wound up in the pages of the New York subscriber.You filled out a questionnaire, fed it into the machine, and almost instantly received a card with the name and address of a like-minded participant in some far-flung locale—your ideal match. He called up his friend Robert Ross, a programmer at I. M., and they began considering ways to adapt this approach to find matches closer to home. “This loser happens to be a talented fashion illustrator for one of New York’s largest advertising agencies.You can get to thinking that the single ones are single for a reason.
They approach the primeval mystery of human attraction with a systematic and almost Promethean hand.The twentieth century reduced it all to smithereens.The Pill, women in the workforce, widespread deferment of marriage, rising divorce rates, gay rights—these set off a prolonged but erratic improvisation on a replacement.Civilization, in its various guises, had it pretty much worked out.Society—family, tribe, caste, church, village, probate court—established and enforced its connubial protocols for the presumed good of everyone, except maybe for the couples themselves.
Each client paid five dollars and answered more than a hundred multiple-choice questions. (A previous installment had been about a singles bar—Maxwell’s Plum, on the Upper East Side, one of the first that so-called “respectable” single women could patronize on their own.) She had planned to interview Altfest, but he was out of the office, and she ended up talking to Ross.