When Richard Gilbert, titular head and chief account executive of The Gilbert Agency, severed me from employment as his copywriter on January 2, 1960 because my presence on the premises gave his art director nosebleeds, I hadn’t yet learned the way to succeed in print advertising was to jump before being pushed. At that time there was no such thing as copywriter job security unless you also owned the business. (Whether there’s such a thing now, in any line of paid endeavor, I also doubt. But that’s a whole other topic.) Sooner or later someone with more clout than you would not like you. Moreover, copywriters who could turn out catchy little phrases to go with gorgeous photographs were a dime a dozen; New York was swarming with young college graduates who had majored in English and now needed to eat.
Another thing I should have already realized from my earlier job search experiences but had disregarded in the touching but misguided belief that if the agency owner liked you, you had nothing to fear from others who might not: it’s easier to get a better job (or any job) while you still have a job, since everyone likes to think they’re stealing someone valuable from a competitor. On the other hand, if you present yourself as a writer unwanted at your last place of employment, why should the guys at the next place hire you?
Thus it was that I embarked on another two and a half months of outdoor unpaid work, also known as job search, in the chill of a New York winter — further embittered by weekly visits to the unemployment office at Broadway at 90th Street, which involved standing in long lines of New York’s downtrodden poor, a category apparently now including me, except I was somewhat better dressed and educated. These visits were supposed to produce not only (in my case) $55 a week for six months but also some assistance in finding the next job. However, the unemployment agent to whom I had to demonstrate each time where I had looked for work in the preceding week confessed she would be unable to assist, since New York State knew of no openings for which I wasn’t highly overqualified and did I think I could find something on my own?
There was even more ignominy attached to my situation in that the ads in which I had had at least a small hand at Gilbert, all prepared well ahead of the dates on which they ran, now greeted me in the Sunday Times and in the copies of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar through which I leafed in various neighborhood public libraries to break up my unemployed trudge through dirty snow to the next employment agency.
For instance, the blatantly untrue ad for Promise high-top girdles by Poirette at the top of this post appeared in a March issue of the Sunday Times, by which time I had used up one-third of the unemployment benefits available to me. Had I been less desperate to locate someone who would pay me to go on churning out such verbal chicanery, I might have smirked at the lovely young model thanking heaven she was now encased in Promise‘s exclusive “Biaband” control for magnificent unmistakeable smoothness of line and the most beautiful contour her curves could achieve, and at the implication anyone with a waistline up to 38″ in circumference could hope, by purchasing a Promise, to emulate such magnificence of curved contour herself.
(The folks at Poirette so much loved this photo of a sylph, who in her private life would not have gone near their cripplingly uncomfortable garment, that they used the same photo for a series of such ads, headlined by me with Poirette’s full approval: “Why Do So Many Women Trust A Promise by Poirette?” and “The unseen power that shapes a world of women!” and “Why put off till tomorrow the lovely new figure you can put on today?” and “The unforgettable 2 1/2 ounce hi-waist you actually forget you have on!” For that last one, we should all have grown Pinocchio noses.)
So I suppose advertising was also teaching me that if you really need a job, professional ethics may be an unaffordable luxury. As in this ad, which brought considerable praise from employment agents asking whose idea it was to show the tape measure and believing me when I claimed the credit. (Although maybe that wasn’t such a white lie; I had just begun to grasp what Gilbert’s art director wanted from me when he ran out of patience.)
Now fifty-five years later, I especially like the post-modern line offering the impossible — “Promise doesn’t just push unwanted flesh from spot to spot, either — its four-inch high waist molds you to supple smoothness from midriff down to mid-thigh” — and leaving unanswered the surreal unasked question, “Where does all that unwanted flesh go?”
Another thing I learned from this after-Gilbert job search was that my portfolio was as good — i.e., as interesting to potential employers — as the art work in it. It didn’t really matter what I had written to go with the picture, because employment agents didn’t take the time to read anything except perhaps very large headlines. If the ads looked good and I had been associated with them in some way, I looked good. Thus I got kudos for:
and for this one promoting Kislav’s cotton glove subsidiary, Gant Madeleine:
In a way, they were right. Print advertising has about two seconds to catch the eye before the consumer turns the page. The copywriter who can inspire an art director to eye-catching feats on the page is the one who gets hired. So I was ahead with Gilbert’s ads in my new leather portfolio, even though they were the same ads his nosebleeding art director would have shown if he were looking for a job. (Except of course he wasn’t.) In fact, a representative at Jerry Fields actually deigned to call me in from the outer room where I had filled out a preliminary card and sit me down at her desk while she looked at every eye-catching miracle the nose bleeder had wrought.
Jerry Fields was then the pre-eminent employment guy for ad agency jobs. If one of his representatives smiled on you, it meant work was coming down the pike sooner or later. The first time I knocked on his door two years before, I had got no farther than the outer room and “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.” This time, invited into the large inner sanctum where his representatives sat, it was “Stay in touch. It may take a while, but something will almost certainly open up.”
What was I doing during that “while,” other than going through the motions of job searching to keep the unemployment office satisfied? Experiencing a continued steady decline in marital satisfaction, that’s what. You may extrapolate from the following abbreviated summary of events something of what I was feeling.
(1) After interviewing strippers didn’t work out as a professional way of life, Ed (my unemployed husband) bethought himself of the $900 his literary agent had never forwarded to him after finally selling a manuscript of his to a paperback publisher of juvenile delinquency novels. He filed a pro se court complaint for recovery of this money and then persuaded me to act as the (free) process server. Reluctantly, I impersonated a girlish young thing seeking advice on writing a saleable novel and secured a rendezvous; once arrived at the literary agent’s door, I thrust the requisite papers into the hand he extended for my coat and declaimed (as I had been coached), “You have been served!” While he was still immobilized by surprise, I beat a hasty and terrified retreat. Outcome: agent caved. $900 arrived a few days later.
Ed used the money — plus $1000 for his next juvenile delinquency paperback, received directly from the publisher — for us to meet up with his four young children by his first marriage in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, the following summer. It was during the two weeks their mother, his first wife, and her second husband, a Canadian army officer stationed in Medicine Hat, Alberta, used for a two-week vacation in, of all places, Spokane, Washington. (Don’t ask. That’s how it was.)
They were nice children, and the three younger ones soon had me beginning to yearn for at least one of my own. But — here I first admitted it to myself — not with Ed. I would then have had two children to take care of, and support. In any event, Idaho was no vacation for me. I shopped for, cooked, and cleaned up after three meals a day for four young children, and also read stories aloud to the three youngest, who couldn’t yet read well for themselves. We went to a rodeo, and local playgrounds, and a lake, and I wiped noses and sometimes wiped away tears. The oldest sulked the whole time. He remembered when Ed had been at home with his mother and was angry, more at him than at me, for his not being there any more. Ed shrugged it off. As for me, he said I’d already had my vacation during the time I was out of a job.
(2) After the process serving, he talked West Side News, a weekly local newspaper, into appointing me their unpaid drama critic; I would do a weekly column of one-paragraph reviews of everything that opened on Broadway that week (even if it closed the next day). In order for me to do this, Ed was then able to obtain two free second-night orchestra seats to everything I was going to review, including the clunkers. The paper could subsequently sell ads to the theaters against my reviews. I asked Ed why he couldn’t be the reviewer, since he was the one who was so interested in having the tickets and going to the theater, but he said he would be too busy with the third juvenile delinquency novel (“Go Man, Go!”), so we could have a second summer in Coeur d’Alene after the one coming up.
(3) During his stripper-interviewing period, Ed met a man who published illegal pornographic novels. He reported back to me that the man paid well. As I wasn’t doing anything at the moment, why didn’t I try my hand at this new and challenging genre? Well, he was still my husband. Dutifully, I set to work and produced a typed page and half of the first chapter. As best I can now recall, what I wrote purported to be the beginning of the lost journals of George Gordon, Lord Byron (which Murray, Byron’s London publisher, is thought to have thrust into the fire, so inflammatory were their contents). My version of this lost work began in a brothel in Ravenna in 1818, where the lame and handsome Lord was disporting himself between luscious Italian mistresses. Older and wiser now, I will spare you the details on the page and a half. Suffice it to say that Ed hurried off to the law-flouting publisher with this incendiary phantasmagoria, delightedly counting chickens before they were hatched. And what do you know? The publisher reacted just as Murray in London had about 130 years before. Great writing, he told Ed. But too hot for him to handle. How I would have gone on should he have said yes, yes, yes, I had no idea. God was merciful.
In any event, since calling Jerry Fields regularly did not seem to be making something “open up” soon enough for me, I finally fell back on the Sunday Times Classifieds — not really for a job in advertising, as I didn’t believe one could be found there, but just to find something that might pay at least $55 a week, and hopefully more, while getting me out of Ed’s sight before he developed any more bright ideas about what I could do.
Seek and ye shall find. Unlikely as it seemed, it was through the Classifieds that I found Harold M. Mitchell, of Harold M. Mitchell, Inc. Advertising and he found me (without paying a commission). His was not exactly what one would call a Madison Avenue ad agency, but it was mysteriously solvent and welcoming. Although he had had no copywriter till then, he felt it was time. He had a large empty office space next to his just waiting for me, he said, and even had boxes of special copywriter paper (which I had never seen before and never would again) — both top sheets and the onion skin sheets used for carbons embossed with the name of his operation at the upper right.
He thought $7,500 a year (what I had been earning at Gilbert) was a mite high to start, as what he would be doing with my help was pitching clients he didn’t yet have. But if I would consider $6,500, he would be happy to have such an educated and refined young woman in his employ.
Here, dear reader, we must leave me for now — not exactly as happy as my new employer (how could I be, given the state of the marriage?) but certainly relieved. More about Harold, and his French art director, and what I wrote on his embossed Copy Department paper next time.