I have been asked about the ten years of my life I spent in advertising. The question is almost always driven by curiosity about the alleged glamour of life on Madison Avenue, as seen sixty or so years later on television:
Is it true we wore pantyhose and white gloves (except in winter) and sometimes hats, and smoked a lot? The answers to the first three parts of this easy and unimportant question are yes, yes and yes. (As for smoking a lot, it was optional but widely practiced.) Nothing glamorous about it, though. Just what one did in the business world in those days, if one were female. We wore slips too, but you don’t see those on television, unless the characters are immorally disrobing. Also it was best to keep the white gloves in your purse until entering the building of your employment or desired employment; if not, they might get grimy from touching newspapers or subway poles or the other dirty surfaces that tend to contaminate real life.
However, almost no one has ever asked the important question about that part of my life:
Why does a smart girl (aka young woman) who has already taught three years of Freshman English at the University of Southern California while earning an MA and an ABD (all but dissertation) in English and American Literature come to New York to seek employment for her well-trained mind and fine language skills as a mouthpiece for manufacturers of products best left unbought? Maybe no one asks because the answer isn’t so fun. She — that is, I — came to New York because First Husband, whose real name was Edward and who everyone called Ed, wanted to. He had been let go (aka fired) from teaching television production courses at that same university because he had only an MFA and not a Ph.D. Now he was going to show them. He would make it big time in the Big Apple as a director of hour-long tele-dramas. And before that happened (he conceded it might take some time), we were both going to look for whatever jobs were out there in our respective so-called “fields.”
How do you get the experience required for a job requiring some experience — if no one will hire you without that experience? Good question. And one confronting almost every young person starting out in life without familial help. (When asked, “What can you do?” — “Anything” is not a good answer.) In this instance, I did have some experience at something, and Columbia University soon offered me $3,000 a year to teach Freshman English in their extension division. Alas, mere survival in New York cost more. And Ed? It seemed teaching television production counted for nothing in actual television production. He was a beginner all over again — at thirty-five! “Only $125 a week? Were they kidding or what?” He soon busied himself writing unsaleable novels in the bedroom.
So who was going to pay the rent on our second-floor rear one-bedroom apartment on West 71st Street near Needle Park (where druggies traded needles) and enable me to go shopping with a grocery cart at the A&P on Broadway and 68th Street once a week? Another good question, especially for those emerging from their education in hopes of “following their bliss.” Fortunately, I hadn’t thrown away the tear sheets of newspaper ads I had written for Los Angeles department store ladies’ fashions during the nine disconsolate months between college and graduate school. Perhaps they too could count as some kind of experience.
We are talking autumn 1957 here. It took me three months of pounding the pavement (as they say), with long stops for ten-cent cups of coffee at coffee shops in between fruitless visits to employment agencies and department store advertising departments. Once I got so discouraged, I bought three plump cheese danish from a bakery on Broadway in the middle of the morning and walked down to a bench on Riverside Drive facing the Hudson River to console myself by eating them right out of the bag, even though crumbs fell all over my best interview suit (left over from teaching days) and my fingers became too sticky to wipe the crumbs off afterwards. (I eventually used the closed paper bag as a brush.) There was no one else around at that time of day to spy on me except for one dark-clad figure three benches away who was safely hunched over something he carefully unwrapped and put in his mouth. I thought it might be a caramel. (Another unhappy soul.) Later, with more sophistication, I realized it had been hash.
What seemed to be the problem? It was a variant of the no-job-without experience-no-experience-without-having-had-a-job conundrum. Space in Los Angeles newspapers was much cheaper than space in New York newspapers, so the ads in my scrapbook (I didn’t know from portfolios yet) were larger than any New York department store could afford to run. What that had to do with my skill as a copywriter I cannot tell you, and probably all those folks who smiled and said “Don’t call us, we’ll call you” wouldn’t have been able to either, if pressed. It’s just that my ads looked wrong to them. Which meant thank you and goodbye. (It would be something of the same story later, after I had finally crossed the great divide between retail and agency advertising: if you had only written about butter for butter accounts you couldn’t possibly know how to write about bread for bread accounts. But we’re not there yet.)
Is it always darkest before the dawn? Oh, yes. (And there is a Santa Claus, Virginia.) The cold came, the rain turned to snow, I was still unemployed, and without a warm winter coat. (Cue: tears). It was the day before Christmas Eve — I’m not making this up — when I finally stumbled into the office of nice Mary A., head fashion copywriter for Allied Stores’ New York buying office. Mary A. understood everything. She herself had come up from Georgia nine or ten years before without even a scrapbook; innocent l’il Southern gal, she had carried her Atlanta department store tear sheets around in a large paper bag. She hired me on the spot — for $5,000 a year and apologies it couldn’t be more but they had put her on a budget. Ed might have been too good for $125 a week (you do the math), but believe you me he was mighty happy I was going to be earning slightly under $100. We could go on eating.
Was I now able to buy a warm winter coat? What a considerate question! Yes, I did get a coat and didn’t even have to buy it. Now assured of a modest income stream, Ed and I went shopping in the classifieds for used furniture. We needed something to sit on in our main room, other than kitchen chairs. Not surprisingly, we got taken. A well-heeled lady on the Upper West Side who was moving to Florida unloaded an attractive Regency sofa in blue brocade on us for $100. Very soon after it arrived in our room, it developed a horizontal rip from lower arm to lower arm right across the front below the cushions. By then the lady was in Florida. And it was an “as is” sale anyway. I sewed a long black velvet ribbon over the rip and tried to think of the sofa as being in mourning for the death of George III.
Before that happened, though, and while the well-heeled lady was taking our thin coats from her coat closet to get us out before we changed our minds, she tactfully asked if I could use a three-quarter sheared beaver she would have no more opportunity to wear. She had already given her two full-length minks to her two daughters and neither of them wanted another fur coat. She waved away timid questions of “How much?” No, no, she wanted me to have it. Free. (Might she have had a guilty conscience about the sofa?)
It was heavy on the shoulders, but silky and warm. Unlike the sofa, there was absolutely nothing wrong with it. (No, I did not yet have ethical feelings about wearing dead animals, and no one else back then did either. All of that came several decades later.) I loved that coat. When I had it on, I felt somewhat above the sludge and drudgery of my life. Unfortunately, Ed declared it wasn’t necessary to put it in cold storage over the summer, and since I didn’t know he was wrong I didn’t object. Within three years it had dried out and split. Of course, within three years I had split, too. However, by telling you that I am well ahead of myself. Let us return to the subject at hand.
What was a “buying office?” Allied Stores, my new employer, was a corporation owning middle-market department stores in forty-nine or fifty-one United States cities. (I forget the exact number. Allied was always buying or trading stores.) Rather than buyers from all these stores converging on New York umpteen times a year to replenish stock, the Allied buying office replenished it for them, selecting what was thought saleable in various regions of the country. Not only that, the office thoughtfully provided a retail ad for each piece of merchandise, which could be run in local newspapers or not, as each buyer deemed best.
Now that I was employed, I sat in a dark windowless cubicle with Carol S., a recent graduate from Connecticut College, where we both churned out three to four pieces of fashion copy each per day. Sometimes we saw the garment in question, sometimes had only a scrawled description from the buyer or a drawing from the art department. It didn’t require much. A catchy lead-in and then the facts: colors, sizes, price. Examples: “Dotty Duo” for a polka-dot cotton skirt and blouse. Or, “Don’t Be Blue — Be Navy Blue!” for anything navy blue. Mary A. approved everything. “No one’s going to use these anyway,” she always said. “I have no idea why we go through the motions.”
I’m not sure how Mary A. spent her working time other than approving our eight pieces of daily copy and reminiscing with us about her time as a Georgia gal. (I learned about ammonia cokes for summer breakfast from her.) I think she was working her way up and out of copy into buying office administration, but I wasn’t there long enough to see it happen. When she was away from her desk, Carol S., who was four years younger than I was and still unmarried, filled me in on how the young cook for themselves on a hotplate. This was her recipe for chile: one pound any kind of ground beef, one chopped onion, one can of Campbell’s Tomato Soup, undiluted. Crumble and brown the meat and chopped onion in big saucepan, add soup, salt, pepper, chile powder to taste. Simmer twenty minutes. Eat with friend or save half for next day. Adding a can of rinsed beans was optional. Minute rice cooked in another pan on the other hotplate burner — five minutes from start to finish — was a good accompaniment. Fifty-seven years later I still remember.
Wasn’t it boring? Sure, although the office was a block away from the Morgan Library, at that time free. I would spend the entire lunch hour there, and then pick up a small container of cottage cheese and an apple at the takeout deli on the corner to eat while creating “Dotty Duo” and its ilk. I was also saving tear sheets which were small, and therefore suitable for a New York portfolio. Even if the job had paid better than it did — although why should it have, considering what we were doing? — it was not yet “New York advertising,” not even the retail variety. Nothing I had a hand in actually ran in New York. I needed a job in a real New York store.
Five months later, it came. An employment agency sent me over on my lunch hour to Lane Bryant, the Fifth Avenue store renowned for “fat lady” clothes. (It also sold maternity wear, and extra-tall fashions, but the “fat lady” part of the business had come first and left its mark on the minds of the public and me.) The man who ran the advertising department had also been an English major, twenty years before. We talked about Byron, Keats and Shelley for half an hour, which he seemed to enjoy very much. He hired me on the spot at $6,500 a year without even looking at the Allied tear sheets. All that mattered was that I was working in New York, so that he was stealing me away from someone else. Again Mary A. understood everything. “Of course you have to leave,” she said. “What else is this buying office job good for?” (I told you she was nice.)
When do we get to the Madison Avenue part? It’s coming, it’s coming. Working at Lane Bryant was not so different from working for Mary A., except now I got to meet the buyer of the featured merchandise, and I had to be less “catchy” because the overweight don’t care about “cute.” What they want to know from an ad (true or not) is whether a garment will be flattering. I did my best, which must have been more than good enough; my boss began to sing my praises to his neighbor on Fire Island. (We’re now in August 1958, and both men had summer houses there.) This was not wise. The neighbor, who owned Gilbert Advertising, a small fashion ad agency just off Fifth Avenue, was in need of a copywriter and called me up while my boss was on vacation. If I was interested, I could stop by after work to pick up a chrome of a prospective ad for cotton knit sportswear from a manufacturer called “Aileen,” and see what I could do with it. Bring it back when I was ready. No rush.
It was a test. I was not sanguine. How many other applicants was I competing with? I almost didn’t stop by after work. But that would have been like shooting myself in the foot. Here’s a print of the chrome I retrieved from his office. What in the world could I write about it? What would you have written about it? (Remember, it’s the clothes that were for sale, not the butterflies.)
I should probably stop right here and leave you hanging till next time. But that would be dirty pool when you’ve played along with me this far. After some diddling at my Lane Bryant desk, this is what I wrote (on Lane Bryant time):
“Social butterflies agree–the best way to make a good catch is to have the catch catch you, wearing Aileen’s two-piece cotton knit dresses!”
Reader, he loved it! He loved it $7,500 worth a year!
When could I start?