LIFE’s Den Mother to the Astronauts

An invitation only dinner on the eve of the first moon landing.

It was July 15, 1969, the eve of Apollo 11's launch. There was electricity in the air at a huge banquet at Cape Canaveral in honor of rocketeer Wernher von Braun. The dinner was organized by Fifi Booth, seated at the far end of the table in the photo below. Click here for a larger version. As director of special projects at LIFE Magazine, she handled many promotion and advertising efforts, and was present for every mannned Saturn V launch, Apollo 8 through 17.

The cut-ups table at an Apollo 11 banquet.

While responsible for bringing the senior executives of LIFE's heavy-hitting advertisers in touch with space program celebrities, Booth was also a self-described "den mother" to the astronauts and their familes. "I was concerned that the families were well treated, that no one tried to intrude, or invade their privacy," she says. Now retired in Los Angeles, she sticks to that commitment, remaining tight-lipped about how the families handled the stress of astronaut life. She keeps in touch with several astronaut wives, but won't name names.

In the photo, astronaut Wally Schirra sits third from right, next to his wife Jo. "Wally Schirra was a big cut-up," recalls Booth. Once, when she was scheduled to visit an abandoned launch bunker from the Mercury era, Schirra, her guide, warned her about the alligator that had moved into it. He duped her into donning a protective outfit thrown together from a contractor's jump suit, gloves and boots, and a head piece that looked like a bee-keeper's hood topped by a hard hat. "I was gullible. He told me there were snakes in there too." After a tentative duck inside, she came back out to roaring laughter from Schirra and the techs who were in on the joke.

Speaking of cut-ups, few matched Bill Dana, far right, who was famous for his alter ego José Jiménez, created in 1959 when he was a writer on the Steve Allen Show. José's skit about wanting to be the first man in space was a favorite for Alan Shepard, Schirra, and other Mercury pilots, and Dana was adopted early on as a friend of the astronauts.

Marge Slayton, wife of chief astronaut Deke Slayton, sits at far left. Deke and others directly involved in the Apollo 11 mission could not attend, and were presumably asleep when this photo was taken after dessert, as they would rise well before the sun to prepare for a 9:32 a.m. launch. Von Braun, the exception, gave some remarks after the meal, and flew in and out on a helicopter.

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