November 29, 2022

X-Wheelz

Your Partner in the Digital Era

Before There Was Tinder, There Was ‘Computer Dating’

Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photos: Getty

I lied on the OkCupid questionnaire. It was 2015 — peak “cool girl” era — and I wanted to be seen as chill and laid back, which I decidedly am not. The questionnaire asked something along the lines of whether you were mellow or neurotic, and obviously, I chose the former. What I didn’t lie about was that, at five-foot-seven, I wanted my dates to be taller than me. So much of online dating involves fussing about how to present yourself “on paper” so that you attract the right matches. Is it okay to post a selfie from four years ago? Fudge your height by 1.5 inches? (I did meet my husband on OkCupid. He’s six-three. He also lied about being mellow.)

You’d think this calculus would be a product of the social-media era, in which we’re constantly commodifying ourselves online and live in the parallel worlds of Instagram and reality. But when I interviewed people who participated in a wild 1960s enterprise dubbed “computer dating,” in which room-size IBMs matched up people based on detailed questionnaires they’d filled out with pencils on actual paper, I learned that these proto-swiping pioneers agonized over how to sell themselves just as much as daters do today when deciding on the perfect Hinge-prompt response.

The form for Operation Match, the most well-known computer-dating service in the U.S., asked you to rate your own attractiveness in the eyes of the opposite sex and answer the same question for your ideal date. Mimi Kennedy, who answered the questionnaire in 1966 as a first-year at Smith College, put down that she wanted her match to be “very attractive.” “This is fantasy dating. If not now, when?” she recalls. “But I couldn’t say that for myself. Was I ‘attractive,’ or ‘fairly attractive’?”

Respondents had to submit their ideal date’s height, religion, and race. One version of the form asked questions about family income, SAT scores, church-attendance habits, and sexual experience. (The questionnaire was very detailed — a bit like OkCupid’s. Coincidentally, the founder of that online-dating service married the daughter of Operation Match’s founder.) The respondents’ answers were transferred onto special punch cards and fed into a rented computer, which would spit out several matches along with their phone numbers that were then mailed back to them.

At a time when many colleges were single-sex institutions and young people had to scope out prospective partners through blind dates or awkward campus mixers, computer dating was a Jetsonian proposition. And it became a hit: In its first nine months, Operation Match, founded and run by a group of Harvard undergraduates, reportedly received 90,000 applications. By 1967, Life magazine wrote that New York singles had half a dozen computer-dating services to choose from.

Computer dating ultimately didn’t have staying power in the U.S. — unlike in the U.K., where the service Dateline, founded in 1966, survived into the 1990s. Its reach was narrow, and it focused on a limited dating pool: the elite, wealthy, college-educated, white, heterosexual. And the technology wasn’t efficient. From the time you filled out a questionnaire to when you got your matches, several weeks would elapse — an eternity for a 20-something looking for a date. “It was just a fun social experiment,” says Jeff Tarr, Operation Match founder.

But for some participants, the experiment had lasting, life-changing consequences. I spoke to five people who met their spouses half a century ago through computer dating, some of whom clicked immediately while others took a more winding road to the first date with their “perfect match.”

Mimi Kennedy, 73, is an actor best known for her roles in the sitcoms Dharma & Greg and Mom as well as Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. Larry Dilg, 75, is an actor and musician. They were first paired up through Operation Match in 1966, when they were 18 and 19, respectively, and later got together in 1974.

What was your life like before you met? 
Mimi: I come from a Catholic family, 12 years of Catholic education. I’m at Smith College, first year of secular education ever — really a liberation. It’s orientation. I have a “big sister” who’s from my hometown, Rochester. She invited us up for brownies. We saw these rolled-up papers in our cubby holes for mail: Those were the questionnaires. She went, “Oh, what fun! Let’s come up to my room, and we’ll have brownies and fill them out.”

Larry: I got the Operation Match thing in my sophomore year at Amherst College, which was right down the road from Smith. It was an all-boys school, just like Smith was an all-girls school.

Do you remember what the questions were?
Mimi: I remember “I consider religion: ‘very important to me,’ ‘important to me,’ ‘fairly important to me,’ ‘fairly unimportant to me,’ or ‘unimportant.’” “Very important”: I just had to put that in there, because I didn’t want to attract someone who wouldn’t understand why I wasn’t letting him stay the night or whatever.

And I remember the question about your perfect date, about what kind of date you wanted to be on. ‘Staying in the room listening to records,’ ‘going to dinner and a movie,’ ‘dinner and dancing.’ I thought, I really like to stay in the room and listen to records — Bob Dylan or rock and roll. But if I say that, I’m going to get a slug, a boy who doesn’t want to take me anywhere.

Larry: I filled it out with a friend, and we were fantasizing about the perfect woman. Against my fantasies about the perfect woman was the idea that I was being judged, and I wanted to be taken seriously as the authentic me, not a fake me. I sort of pulled back and said, “Well, you know, it would be interesting if I was totally honest about who I am.” Because perfection wasn’t really what I was after.

How did you first meet?
Mimi: I get Larry’s name and five other names. Two of the guys contacted me — because girls don’t call boys. Those two guys made me think, Eh, no. And by that time, I was falling in love with this guy I found on my own.

Larry: I, of course, hadn’t responded at all. I got this form back and, I mean, I wanted to get laid. I thought, Okay, finally. I thought I would get all these names and it would be great. But I got only one name. So I looked her up in the freshmen book from Smith. And there’s Mimi Kennedy’s freshman picture from Our Lady of Mercy High School. Oh my God, it’s a nun! That’s not what I asked for! I didn’t call her, because I just thought that I did something way wrong in filling this out, obviously.

Mimi: Three years into that relationship, I see Larry at a dance playing music. And I think, Oh my God, did I miss the boat on this one. So I walked up to him at a break. I said, “Hi, I’m Mimi Kennedy. I was your ‘perfect match’ mate my freshman year.” He looked me up and down. He went, “Far out,” and walked away.

Larry: Quite honestly, I wanted to go get high between sets. We only had five minutes, so, you know, meeting Mimi was just … and I had a girlfriend.

So how did you end up getting together?
Larry: I was traveling from the East Coast to the West Coast. The guy who helped me fill out the computer-dating form and another good friend both lived in New York and had met Mimi. I would talk to them every week from a phone booth. We’d go into extended fantasies about Mimi and me meeting, having the perfect computer marriage, living in Scarsdale, and having one and a half children. I don’t know that they satisfied anything in me, but they kept Mimi very much alive. When I finally left that life, drove home in a broken-down car, they got me together with Mimi within two or three days of arriving in New York. And that’s where we met and fell in love. I mean instantly. Wow.

Mimi: We met at a place called Haymarket, which had sawdust on the floor, in the theater district. We were all waiting for Larry to arrive, and in he walked, then I had that small still voice within me that said, “This one’s yours.”

Jeff Serotte is 80 years old and a retired social worker. He and his wife, Brenda, who died in 2018, met through Operation Match in 1966. He was 24 years old and in the Navy at the time, while Brenda had just turned 20.

Tell me about how you met.
I got a list of six young ladies’ names. The first one really wasn’t interested. She had just come back from vacation; she had her mind elsewhere. She wasn’t into the date at all. And the next one had no pizzaz — just a sad personality. She wasn’t fun. She wasn’t funny. She just didn’t really have anything.

Finally, I saw the name Brenda. At that time, there was a popular singer named Brenda Lee. Because of the singer, I felt that, not that I knew her, but something familiar about the name Brenda. So I called her up. I went over to her house to take her out. She lived in the Bronx. I lived in Manhattan. And we went out to a restaurant; we had two drinks.

I liked her right away. There was something about her — she was very sparkly. She made you feel good, somehow or other, and she made me feel smart. She buttered me up in the way that I liked, and she was good-looking. And to me, she had everything that I liked in a young lady. I never dated anybody else after I met Brenda. It was strictly just her. As a matter of fact, you could say I threw away the list.

Do you remember any of the questions on the questionnaire?
“How much do your parents make?” That was a big one. She told me she put down that her father made $50,000. Actually, at the time, I think he made $10,000. It probably asked about education. I had a college degree. That was another thing — she thought that I was hot stuff, because I had a college degree. And meanwhile, in her lifetime, she amassed two master’s degrees. So she superseded me in education quite well.

Did you get any sense of why the computer matched you with her?
I think it was proximity. They claimed that they were doing it on the basis of the computer questions, but actually, I think it was more because it was about a 20-minute ride from my house.

You got the form from a friend, but you were the only one out of your group to participate. Why?
I was in the service, so it was a little hard to meet people. And this seemed like a very good way. You had the feeling that this was almost a supervised date — strictly on the up and up. It was a direct route to somebody, as if you had an introduction, and for three or four dollars, it wasn’t a big risk. I had a couple of bad dates and one very good — and that was Brenda. We decided to get married, and I think that it worked out very well. I think she was happy.

Lesley Negus, 71, and Mike Negus, 78, met through Dateline in 1977, when they were 26 and 33, respectively. The retired computer programmer and retired optical technician married in 2015 after nearly 40 years of partnership. 

What did dating look like for you before you joined Dateline?
Mike: It was a bit of a hard time. My friends were getting married. I had helped lots of them in getting partners — but it’s a bit of a job to find a partner yourself. Then someone suggested this dating agency, and I thought I’d give it a go. I just sort of hoped you’re gonna meet someone, right? You might say it was a way out — or way in. Depends which way you look at it.

Lesley: It was nonexistent. I was a single parent, and single parents here are deemed desperate. I couldn’t really go out anywhere — to the pub, to the disco. I was pretty stuck, really. So my mum bought me a membership for Dateline for my 26th birthday. I think it was £45 at the time.

Do you remember what the questions were?  
Lesley: You had to tick a box of your educational achievement, and I hadn’t got any at that point. I knew I had a brain, but I had nothing to show for that. My parents were very hard up — we couldn’t afford for me to stay in school. I left with no qualifications. So I was matched up with a lot of people that also hadn’t any. But they weren’t the kind of people that I wanted to be around. I’d go have a drink outside a pub with them, and they might say something like, “You’re deep,” which basically means “I don’t understand you.”

One question was about height. I’m five-foot-ten now, but I was five-eleven-and-a-half then. And I’ve never enjoyed going out with men shorter than me. So a very important thing for me was that they were taller than me. Then they asked you an age range. I didn’t want anybody younger, especially at 26, because they’d likely be in a different life stage. I was a lot further on than my contemporaries because of my responsibilities, so I probably said up to 45.

There was something like, “What’s more important to you — going to the pub or a cozy night in?” I remember always trying to find out what kind of person I am. Am I shy? Am I confident? I met the girls’ father when I was 16. I had them really young. I was still finding out who I was. So it was quite hard answering those questions.

What do you remember about your first date?
Mike: Lesley was easy to get on with and attractive. She wasn’t too serious — I mean you gotta be serious about a relationship, but she wasn’t too serious.

Lesley: We went up to the local pub and had a drink, and I was warming to him by then. When he went in to get the next round, I pulled his chair closer to mine. I knew straight away that he was what I was looking for. I wanted Mr. Steady, and that is how he was coming across — that he would be reliable. He was 33 years old, and he was looking for a wife, basically.

So he was taller than you. 
Lesley: Six-foot-two.

These interviews have been edited and condensed.