The offer of a first Madison Avenue agency job in September 1958 at $7,500 a year was cause for initial rejoicing. Compared to retail advertising, agency work had all the professional prestige. (Even if the agency hiring me was a block and a half west of Madison, on 55th Street.) And it paid $2,500 more than I had been happy to get just eight months before. I never thought to ask what had happened to the previous copywriter. How could I know it was an era when the agency art director was king and the copywriter chopped chicken liver?
To be entirely self-referential, it was unfortunate that about four years previous, three guys named Doyle, Dane, and Bernbach had gotten together to transform the industry. Before then there had been heavy emphasis on what ads said (which was the client’s pitch on his product), the headline identifying what was being sold and the picture serving mainly to show what the product looked like. The bright star in this universe of ad thinking was David Ogilvy, a man who brought great literacy as well as imagination to wordy ads. He showed us a photograph of a Rolls Royce without the expected “Greatest car in the world” underneath. Instead, his headline ran, “The only thing you hear at 60 miles an hour is the ticking of the electric clock.” This was followed by two columns of small print extolling the excellence of every detail of a Rolls, which you had to read if your own car was giving trouble, because what other vehicle could make that claim, even when new.
Alas for me, the times (as I said above) they were a’ changin,’ and Ogilvy’s agency — almost one of its kind — was very hard for copywriters to get into. The change came with Bill Bernbach, whose new agency produced a stream of work that brought admiring “ah!”s from art directors throughout New York. It was mostly picture, clever headline, very little text. One famous example: A subway billboard of a little Asian-American boy beaming as he bit into a large slice of rye bread. The headline? “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s.” (Levy’s being the maker of the bread, natch.) Another was an ad featuring a photograph of the original Volkswagen — the bug — shot small against no-seam white paper. The headline? “Lemon.” (The copy went on to explain, briefly, that this particular car had failed Volkswagen’s exhaustive testing before release into the market.) My particular favorite was a full page picture of a cat’s face looking right at us in the New York Times. The headline? “I found out about Joan.” (Joan managed to afford all those designer clothes by shopping at Orbach’s, the discount store that was the client.)
Ads like these made art directors saddled with Seventh Avenue merchandise (dresses, pants, blouses, sweaters, coats) unhappy. They tried to be clever. (See above, with the butterflies.) But the constraints of making the clothes look good enough to please their manufacturers defeated them every time. No Art Directors Association awards for them. And guess who they blamed?
But I am there before my legs. (To quote Shakespeare.) The Gilbert Agency that had hired me consisted of its owner and principal, Richard Gilbert, a nice-looking man in his late thirties or early forties who sat in the only good office in the agency, the one fit for meeting clients because it had a window facing the street. It was Gilbert who brought in the business, with some help from his brother-in-law, an older gentleman with droopy cheeks. There was also a lady of fifty or so — Bess, I think she was called — a relative of the brother-in-law, who kept the books in a nook behind the receptionist’s desk and tried to be friendly when she came out of her nook, but that wasn’t often. Myrna the receptionist, was nineteen and engaged; she seemed always preoccupied with her switchboard despite there being so few of us making or receiving calls, but that was all right with me because her mind, when not preoccupied, was on getting-married-related matters and I was disinclined to discuss my own marriage, with her or Bess or anyone.
The disinclination was perhaps understandable. My husband Ed — he of the MFA from Yale — had given up looking for a respectable job to write unsaleable novels. Now he had finally sold one, after agreeing to take out the tender, sensitive parts and put in some sex. The publishers had also changed its title from “Rose on the Vine” to “The Fires of Youth.” It was to be marketed as one of a paperback genre then popular called “Juvenile Delinquency” and was dedicated to me. Unfortunately, the literary agent who had managed this feat of sales legerdemain after thirty rejections was not forking up our $900 of the $1,000 the publisher had paid. Perhaps he thought he had earned the whole thing. Undeterred, Ed was now at intermittent work on a second opus, to be called “The Young Wolves.” He had also recently connected with a man who managed strippers for clubs and burlesque houses and was planning to interview prospective strippers in our apartment. Only in the evenings of course, when I was home.
The rest of the agency was down a corridor away from the street and Myrna; it had two offices facing a dark narrow courtyard and a unisex bathroom at the end. The first smaller office was for me; the second larger one was for the art director, who we shall call G.G. G.G. and I were supposed to work together as a “creative” team — coming up with bright ideas that G.G. could translate into award-winning visuals without too much copy in them. (You see how small the type of my job-winning copy is on the Aileen ad at the top of this post?) This obligation did not at first seem an insuperable obstacle to job security because there were still a few more Aileen ads already photographed that required no colloquy with G.G. I only had to come up with copy for them. Here’s a second one:
Just in case you can’t read it because G.G. made the type so small, this is what it says: “Angel! If you want to see something out of this world, keep an eye on the guy who eyes you in your heavenly cotton knit coordinates by Aileen!” [Never mind the colors, sizes and “at fine stores everywhere” bits.]
Not so incidentally, we may be at a good place here for me to explain the difference between retail advertising (my last position at Lane Bryant, for instance) and agency advertising. Retail, as its name implies, was designed to move a particular product out of a particular store or chain of stores right away. It ran in daily newspapers and was directed at the hoped-for consumer. Agency advertising was intended to persuade retailers to acquire the branded product by showing them it had appeared in various magazines and the Sunday Times Magazine section, where the ultimate consumer would see it and therefore be familiar with the brand name and want the item when the retailer ran its own ad. That’s how agency art directors were able to squeeze words out of their ads so easily. All they absolutely needed to show was the product and the brand name. Therefore all they really wanted from the copywriter (unless the client insisted otherwise) was a headline that caught the eye, just in case the merchandise failed to do so all by itself.
[Sometimes, however, agency ads ran directly in trade publications; when they did, the same strictures about relationship of visual to copy applied. Here, for instance, is an ad from Women’s Wear Daily, I think, inviting shoe buyers to see the fall line of Mannequin shoes showing at the New York sales office, and also to see Dick Nahouse at the Pittsburgh (Shoe) Show and Dave Spivack at the San Francisco (Shoe) Show the following weekend. Don’t ask me about Dick and Dave; I have no idea who they were.]
But I digress. Let us return our attention to Aileen, which I had to do more often than I would have liked. Never a man for a word when a picture might do, G.G. soon “persuaded” me, in his monosyllabic way, that what this account needed was one short snappy line per ad and more photography — inspired by the short snappy line. Who was I to protest? After a week or more of collegial distress, we moved on to: “FUN IS MORE SO WITH AILEEN!” and “A GIRL IS MORE SO WITH AILEEN!” Notice how this maneuver gave the photographer and the art director so much more leeway to push the merchandise off to the side and gambol through the ad with a camera, almost as if they were making a movie. Girl, boy, garment: who needs writers? (They also pushed the sizes and colors off the page too.)
I can’t remember what came next. “Life is more so with Aileen?” “Love is more so with Aileen?” Since we worked six months to a year ahead of publication date, I was out of there, not voluntarily, before later “More So with Aileen”s hit the newsstands. So you will forgive me for failing you to fill you in on the continuation of this entirely forgettable campaign.
You think sitting around being half of a creative team with G.G. was easy? It was a relationship made in hell. This man who had somehow become my office husband literally couldn’t talk. In sixteen months of cringing when he walked past my door or called for me from within his own office, I never learned much more about him other than that he was married, had a small son, deeply admired Bill Bernbach and hated the merchandise we had to work with. He was skinny and losing his hair, something he never mentioned, even in jest, and had absolutely no interest in me or my life before advertising. When his unhappiness with work, or life, or the universe, reached some undefined nadir he developed nosebleeds and needed to retire to the unisex bathroom. Gilbert thought the world of him.
One of our clients made French leather gloves, said to be washable. The brand name was Kislav. (Qui se lave: “that which washes itself.”) Ads for Kislav were nightmares. We sat together in G.G.’s office in miserable silence, me doodling on a pad and hoping for a a drop of blood from his nose that might permit retreat to my own office for a while, he arranging the sample gloves in various configurations on his drawing board and probably hoping a hole would open in the floor and swallow me. Once, after a week of agony, he brought in some of his little boy’s toys, from which I squeezed a drop of inspiration (“child’s play”) and the following finally emerged:
Don’t miss the ungloved little hand coming in from the right: G.G.’s idea. For once, he seemed not unhappy with me. A temporary triumph over adversity.
I spent nearly every lunchtime in the public library on West 53rd Street just off Fifth, as far away from merchandise and advertising as I could get for an hour. My preference there was biographies of mistresses of poets of the early nineteenth century, when women were taken care of and didn’t have to work if they picked the right poet. But I didn’t see how I could really leave my life. I suppose I could have abandoned both job and Ed and fled west again to my parents, who might have sheltered and fed me while I tackled the dissertation that would have enabled me to take up an academic career. [I was toying with this dissertation some evenings, after making supper and cleaning up, but it was barely budging. I was always tired and cross and often didn’t give a damn any more about placing Edmund Wilson, my dissertation subject, among other mid-twentieth-century literary critics, especially since it required reading William Empson’s Seven Levels of Ambiguity first.] But I didn’t have any savings with which to buy a train or plane ticket. And more to the point, I did still think marriage was forever, so that I had either to make this one work or endure it as it was.
By now Ed was indeed interviewing strippers in the evening. I sat on a kitchen chair and watched when I wasn’t running the sound: we used “Let Me Entertain You,” from the record of the musical Gypsy. One candidate had a monkey, who had been trained to undress her garment by garment. Another had no gimmicks, not even underwear. I had to loan her a pair of my underpants for her eventually to take off. When she gave them back after her audition, they had blood stains on them. She had got her period. She didn’t even apologize. Ed said I should try to wash them, but I threw them out. There were certain depths to which I couldn’t sink.
I have no idea how I lasted sixteen months with G.G. I know he complained about me, because Gilbert called me in and said he knew G.G. was difficult but could I please try to humor him because he was a very good art director. My education did kick in to help with ads for the Great Lakes Mink Association — Ranchers and Producers of North American Natural Dark Ranch Mink. That may have prolonged my stay. We didn’t have to show mink coats, thank God, and by now well steeped in early nineteenth-century poets, I became irreverent. “Earth has not anything to show more fair!” I declared. “What?” G.G. demanded, not believing his ears. “It’s Wordsworth,” I said. “But he wasn’t talking about mink coats.” G.G. didn’t care. I had served my purpose. He was happy all week:
I was also reasonably conversant in French. Once G.G. grasped the idea that “American” could be said in other languages, his dour face lit up. With help from the language section of the closest bookstore, he was on his way:But my days were numbered. Ed and I spent Christmas 1959 in Rochester, New York visiting his parents and aunt. We drove up with a shelter German Shepherd, his no-cost present to them. The dog loved hard boiled eggs, and consumed a dozen of them which I had pre-prepared to keep him occupied while we packed for the trip. (I didn’t yet know much about dogs.) He was so eager for more he swallowed the last six whole. Somewhere near Albany, the last six eggs came up, unchewed, in the same condition in which they had gone down. That’s about all I remember of that Christmas. When I got back to work on January 2, there was no more work. With some expressed regret from Gilbert, I was let go. Two weeks severance pay. I did not bid G.G. farewell. Who ever said life on Madison Avenue was glamorous?
[More to come on request. If you’ve had enough, give a shout out and we’ll go back to cats.]