LIFE LESSON FROM LAW SCHOOL

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[As some of you may know, I became a lawyer in my mid-fifties.  The process of becoming one has therefore probably remained clearer in my memory than it might have been if I had done it in my twenties. I’ve even occasionally blogged about certain aspects of law school that seemed to me to remain relevant to life outside the law.  This piece, and the one to follow, appeared in “The Getting Old Blog” about four years ago. But who digs back in the archives that far? So here they are again, in slightly different form — because they’re still useful to me, even now that I’ve embarked “On Being Old.” This lesson is instructive.  The next one will be illustrative.]

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WHAT TO DO WHEN YOU’RE TOO NERVOUS TO DO IT

In England I believe it’s known as “reading law.” That makes it sound very grand, although I understand you can get right to it after finishing secondary school, as long as you’ve passed three A Levels in “hard” — that is traditional academic — subjects. Here in the United States, it’s just called, quite casually, “going to law school.” But you need four years of college or university education and an undergraduate degree in something or other in order to apply.

Nonetheless, unlike many other graduate programs, and contrary to what you may have thought, law school is much more a glorified trade school than an immersion in higher thought. When you finally acquire the J.D. degree — “J.D.” meaning juris doctor, or doctor of law — you’re not yet entitled to practice. There’s another hurdle ahead: you must take and pass one last big test in a state or states of your choosing. And that’s what you really need the J.D. degree for. It’s your entry ticket to “sitting for the bar.”

“Sitting for the bar” means you register to take, and then actually take, a two-day examination — three days if you’re sitting for two state bars at a time. Each day’s part is six hours in length, with an hour’s break after the first three hours for lunch and for standing in long bathroom lines. It’s administered in a huge aerodrome or covered stadium designated by the state in question as the place where its bloodless torture takes place twice a year. The size of the venue is driven by the fact that as many as 1500 newly minted J.D.’s may be taking the bar exam at the same time, in addition to the ones who failed their first or second try and have to try again.

Only when you’ve at last “passed the bar” may you finally proceed to the practice of law, and find out how little you really learned about it in law school. You will either (1) become an associate at a private law firm; (2) find a municipal, state or federal government job as a lawyer; (3) go what is called “in house” as a member of the legal staff of a corporation; or (4) “hang up your own shingle” — quaint phrase — usually because none of the other three possibilities have panned out.

But let’s back up. Although I don’t know what’s involved in learning how to be a plumber or electrician, I imagine the subject matter to be mastered for those trades must be broken down into manageable bits.  So it is in law school. Allegedly learning how to be a lawyer is broken down into various subject matters to be mastered, most of them in year-long courses. The specific choice of first-year course work may vary from law school to law school. In the end, however, all law schools will cover the six courses we took during my first year. Four of them ran from September through May: Property Law, Contract Law, Tort Law, and Civil Procedure. A fifth course, in Criminal Law, was tested at the end of the first semester and replaced in the spring by Constitutional Law, which was tested at the end of May, together with the four that had run for the whole year.

That’s right: five examinations at the end of the first year — and the first and only examinations we would have on each of those five subjects. Each exam lasted three hours, and consisted of three long-paragraph accounts of complicated hypothetical fact situations which between them raised every possible legal issue that had arisen in any case discussed or even mentioned in that course since September. We were advised to write for an hour on each hypothetical, but for no more than an hour, quickly identifying and explaining every legal issue we had spotted. Bathroom break? Take it at your peril! Leaving the room would mean less time to write, fewer issues spotted. Brilliance on one hypothetical did not compensate for ignorance on another. Failing an exam meant having to repeat the year-long course. Doing poorly in any exam adversely affected one’s class rank, an extremely important consideration in securing a first job — unless one of your parents or relatives knew somebody.

Understandably, there was much growing tension in the classroom as the weeks of May rolled by. Many of us, myself included, were there on federally backed student loans which would need to be repaid irrespective of the outcome of these exams. Some students were the first in their families to go to graduate school. Not making it would mean not making a family’s dream come true. The school had thoughtfully provided a ten-day study period following the end of classes before the first exam was scheduled to take place. But how do you study when you’re too nervous to focus on anything except the possibility of impending doom?

The youngest of our professors was an attractive woman who may have been a bit past thirty but certainly no more than thirty-five. This was only her second year as a member of the law faculty. It was known that she had taught fourth grade for a few years before going to law school; she brought a touch of the kindly and patient manner with which one instructs young children to teaching us, which was perhaps an error of style when addressing an auditorium full of twenty-somethings, plus me. What’s more, although she taught Civil Procedure — which governs courtroom practice in civil cases –she had never actually practiced law. She may not have even sat for a bar. She was slender, shapely, had great legs, and wore high heels to show them off — which was much appreciated by the young men in the class but did nothing to enhance her reputation as a professor to be respected for her knowledge.

On the final day we met with us, she did a quick review of what we might anticipate could be on the Civil Procedure exam. At last she put down her pointer and chalk, turned to us, and said she knew we were all very nervous. She had been through it herself not so long before, so she understood completely. And then this pretty woman with the gorgeous gams said something so important, and so applicable to so many other aspects of life, that I’ve never forgotten it, although by now I’ve forgotten almost everything I memorized that year.

“You may be so nervous,” she said, “that you’re too nervous to study. So this is what you do.”  Now no one was looking at her legs. We were all listening very carefully. “What you should do when you’re too nervous to study,” she said, “is study. And then the nervousness will go away.”

I was nearly fifty-two, as old as the mothers of my classmates. They called me Mrs. Mishkin very politely, but not one of them had invited me into a study group at the beginning of the year. I had to do all the class outlines by myself. I hadn’t taken an exam, except the one in Criminal Law, for twenty-seven years. The word “nervous” doesn’t begin to describe my state of mind. My husband had been out of work for well over a year. I had two adolescent children. I had done this all on loans. But I took her advice. And studied. And studied. And studied some more. And the nervousness did go away.

When the class rankings were posted after the grades were in on all five exams, I found myself tied for first place in a class of 345. That rank opened doors for interviews in major Boston law firms, despite my age. One of those interviews — and all it takes is one — one of those interviews led to a job that brought money into our family again, paid for braces, sneakers, music lessons, good private schools.

That’s why what I heard on the last day of the Civil Procedure class in May 1983 was the most useful lesson I learned in law school. There would be many more nervous-making situations ahead, beginning with sitting for the bar. Then came standing up in court in front of judges known to be misogynist. Leaving a marriage after twenty-two years. Being let go in my sixties and having to find respectable, interesting work again at that age. More recently needing to pull myself up from a nearly fatal medical experience and its aftermath. But I’ve never forgotten that when you’re too nervous to do something, just do it. The nervousness will go away. And then who knows what good things will happen next?

 

 

 

 

PROUSTIAN MEMORY

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Nearly every morning, after filling a small bowl with fresh organic berries, I spread a tablespoonful of raw crunchy organic almond butter on two brown rice crackers while the water boils for coffee. The reason I’m so precise about the amount of almond butter is because almond butter is caloric. Healthy but caloric.

When raw, without added sugar or salt, it’s also surprisingly expensive, which is interesting to consider. Why should doing nothing to organic almond butter cost more than roasting, salting, and sweetening it first? If I were a culturally responsive and critical blogger, I might have posted about that. But as I’ve always been at heart a me-me-me (and mine) person, I have other thoughts whenever I dip the knife into the glass jar of almond butter and spread the measured amount I’ve allotted to myself on the crackers.

It would be easier to keep dipping until I had enough to cover all the cracker surfaces, preferably thickly. However, given that I’m still vain (admittedly with less and less to be vain about, except I still fit a size 6), I don’t do that. Instead, I try to get as close to the edge of the crackers as possible with the almond butter available on the knife, carefully scraping it thin and out with the blade.

And then nearly every summer morning, rising out of the depths of me as I wield my knife, comes a picture of a narrow-boned slender young woman of perhaps twenty in a miniscule bikini. There’s no extra flesh at all — does she ever eat? — yet you couldn’t call her underweight. She is perfect for her purpose, whatever that may be. She has deeply tanned Mediterranean skin and long nearly straight dark hair. She sits dockside under a café umbrella with two dark men in the sparkling port of Leros, a Greek island in the Dodecanese between the Greek mainland and Turkey. Are the three Greek? Italian? (This part of Greece is a summer getaway for many Italians.) The sun is high, the water — just yards from the café — a saturated gorgeous blue which makes anyone who’s ever seen it long to be back in Greece again. The dark men, in stylish sunglasses, are shirtless; they wear only shorts. Leather slides dangle from their bare feet. They have tangles of dark chest hair, dark straighter hair on arms and legs.

I can’t see her face because she’s bent over two thick slices of warm Greek white bread on a white plate; she’s preparing the bread for one of the men. He’s twenty-six or twenty-eight. He must know she’s doing this for him; he doesn’t touch the cup of bitter black coffee that was part of his order. He’s talking with the other man and smoking while he waits. I can’t hear them well enough to make out the language. As is customary, the bread is served with a lump of butter and a small cuplet of Greek honey. Her hair falling over her face, the young woman spreads the butter slowly and meticulously over the entire warm surface of both slices, until the bread is thinly covered all the way to the soft crusts.

Then she begins again with the honey, teasing it out patiently and slowly over every bit of surface of now melted butter. And again. And yet again. What is this all about? Is it what he expects of her? What she feels is fitting for him? (God forbid a morsel of un-honey-buttered bread enter his mouth?) Why not order more honey? Because he’s the one who’s paying and might not like her not making do? None of this breakfast is apparently for her. And he seemingly ignores her. Not even a friendly pat of thanks. The other man nods, rises and leaves.

We have to leave too. We came to Leros earlier this morning from Lipsi, an even smaller island where we’re spending the summer, to pick up some prints made from a memory stick sent with an acquaintance the week before. Now the noon Flying Dolphin is coming into harbor.  It will soon turn around for the return trip to Lipsi. No waiting for stragglers.

I hadn’t thought about that young woman for a long time. Then I discovered almond butter. Now suddenly, more than ten years later, she comes to me in the mornings as I ply my knife out to every cracker edge, just as she did with the honey. What was their relationship back there on Leros, the dark man with chest curls and his lean subservient handmaiden? I don’t want to think she was just for fun. I like to imagine he had brought her to Leros for a week or two to get her away from some laborious, repetitive job, either in Athens or Naples, because in his way, whatever that was, he cared about her. I want to think they had some kind of relationship; her body wasn’t quite beautiful enough for her to be just arm candy. At other times, on other islands, we saw vacationing men with gorgeous, scantily dressed young women brought along to the beaches to have their luscious glistening near naked flesh everywhere shamelessly palmed and squeezed and fondled, day-long foreplay on public display.  Then when the sun went down, these beauties were fed, doctored with alcohol, and taken to bed, where presumably whatever skills they had, if any, were put to use behind bedroom doors. These young women did nothing all day but lie extended on the sand on their stomachs, idly turning the pages of the same magazine over and over, apparently without shame at their soft supple bodies being so openly degraded by idle male hands, like large pieces of silly putty without feelings.

I hope my young woman wasn’t like that. She’s in her early thirties now. If he didn’t marry her (or she decided in the end she didn’t want him), I hope she found someone else. I also hope she eats now and then, and that whoever she’s with talks to her and loves her. Anyone so dedicated to making two slices of warm white bread as perfectly appetizing as possible, given the limited resources available, deserves at least that, if not more.

You might also wonder why another woman, this one in her seventies, who was sitting near the water in a Greek café while waiting for the Flying Dolphin to take her back to another island, would be so focused on a young woman more than fifty years younger as she buttered bread and spread honey on it. I can only speculate. Because I never had a body like hers? Because dark Mediterranean men with curly chest hair had never looked at me, even in what might have been called my “prime?” (Whether I would have wanted them to is another question.) Because I’m always interested in food, even when I might not let myself eat it because it’s bad for me, has no nutritional value, etcetera etcetera? Or just because I’m always watching other people, listening to them if I can get them to talk, trying to learn something more about life and how we live it, each in our different way, before my own comes to an end? Whichever it was (or all of them), it has now led to me having Proustian memories in the kitchen nearly every morning.

It would be a lie of omission if I didn’t add that when the young woman on Leros comes to mind while I’m putting almond butter on rice crackers, those hot, bright blue and white summers on Lipsi also rise up, almost as alive as they used to be. As Proust observes about the effect of dipping a petite madeleine (a little fluted French cake) in a cup of limewater tea such as his Aunt Leonie gave him as a child when his family brought him from Paris to visit her house in Combray:

And as in that game enjoyed by the Japanese in which they fill a porcelain bowl    with water and steep in it little pieces of paper until then indistinct, which the   moment they are immersed, stretch and twist, assume colors and distinctive           shapes, become flowers, houses, human figures, firm and recognizable, so now all        the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann’s park, and the water lilies of the          Vivonne, and the good people of the village and their little dwellings and the    church and all of Combray and its surroundings, all of this, which is acquiring         form and solidity, emerged, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea. [From Lydia Davis’s translation of Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way.]

It seems almond butter – organic, raw and crunchy – is my petite madeleine. I once wrote a first chapter of what was going to be a novella about Lipsi. It was called “An Island of Their Own.” (I did cast it in the third person then, but now there’d be no need that. Almost everyone who’d be in it is either dead or doesn’t read English.) And that was before I discovered almond butter. Maybe I should resurrect it and continue. Not a promise. But I’m not stopping the almond butter in the foreseeable future. So who knows?

LOSING FIFTEEN POUNDS: PART SIX

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[…continued from previous five posts.]

Gathering clouds obscured all traces of sun as I traveled north to meet my friend Emily in Ogunquit – first on a train from New York to Boston, then on another train to Portland, Maine and finally on a bus. During the long trip I mused pleasurably on what the next two days might offer. Cozy confidences while Emily’s new friend Kit was otherwise occupied? Confessions of wrongdoing? Appeals for help? Less pleasurably, I was also quite hungry by the time I reached the Ogunquit bus terminal where they were waiting to pick me up. Emily looked glad, but Kit was merely polite, which made me suspect my presence was some kind of peace offering to Emily.

The weather was both cloudy and cool; beach was out of the question. Not to worry, said Kit, there were plenty of other things to do. Since they’d already had lunch, we stopped at a grocery for two apples I could eat in the car. Then we went from art gallery to sculpture workshop to arts-and-crafts gift shop to seafood restaurant. The proprietors of all these establishments seemed to know Emily and Kit quite well; they were soon engaged in warm conversations about local people and events to which I couldn’t contribute. I smiled whenever anyone looked at me, which was now and then but not often, until I realized smiling was unproductive of anything but a return smile.

There was no private time with Emily; she participated fully in all this Ogunquit-based chitchat. After dinner at the seafood restaurant, I pleaded I really wasn’t up for anything more. By then it was actually true. Kit agreed it was probably time for bed. My mother had been wrong about the house. It was an A-frame, with an open area that served as living room, dining room and kitchen. There was only one bedroom — with a double bed, I noticed as we passed by the door. “Will I be using the sofa?” I asked when we got back after dinner.

“Oh, no. You’re going to have a place of your own,” said Kit, as if this were wonderful news. “We’ve fixed up a bed and lamp in the barn. I left an extra quilt out there, too.” What was wrong with sleeping on the sofa? Their bedroom had a door. If they were very noisy doing whatever they did, couldn’t they refrain, just for this one weekend?

I let myself be led to the barn. An oval braided rug had been laid down in a corner and a few minimal furnishings arranged on the rug. Kit lit the lamp. The light showed the rest of the barn floor to be tramped-down dirt with bits of straw scattered on it. They showed me how to bolt the barn doors from inside. “Now let’s go back so you can do whatever you need to do in the john,” said Kit. “As you can see, there isn’t one here.”

After hurrying into pajamas in the cold barn and burying myself under the blanket and quilt, I tried to imagine for a few moments what might be going on in the main house. Had I been sent out here because they preferred doing whatever they did in front of the fireplace? Just what did they do, anyway? Absent factual knowledge of such matters, my thoughts soon faded into sleep. I awoke to dim cloudy light filtering in from a skylight at the top of the barn and checked my watch. Morning. Very early to be sure, but time for the bathroom. If they weren’t up yet, I would sneak in quietly.

I scuffled into my ballet slippers and opened the barn doors. There was the A-frame, just down the path. I walked around the house in the damp grass to reach the door and set my hand on the cold doorknob. It wouldn’t turn. It definitely wouldn’t turn. It was locked. They had locked me out. How could they!

Back in the barn, I rocked on the bed, really a camp cot, holding in pee but not rage. If there’d been anything to eat within range, anything at all, I’d have gobbled it up. But the barn held nothing edible. Why should it? It belonged to Kit, who pushed food around on her plate as a prelude to smoking.  An hour later, I returned to the house. The door remained locked. Now it wasn’t too early to knock, and I certainly did.  Nothing.  I put my ear to the door. Nothing. I knocked more forcefully. Nothing. What were they doing in there?  I picked up a rock from the flowerbed by the door and pounded. Still nothing.

What choice but return to the barn? This time I found a crumpled piece of Kleenex at the bottom of my purse, took off my pajama bottoms, stepped off the rug onto the dirt of the barn floor, set my feet wide apart and let go with a vengeance. Only a little dribbled down my legs, and the Kleenex took care of that. Then I put on the pajama bottoms again and slid between the sheets to brood. If the whole barn stank of stale urine when I was gone, what did I care?

At ten o’clock, I finally heard voices outside calling “Wake up, sleepyhead.” We had brunch, prepared by Kit, who now seemed in exceptionally good spirits. Of course, she ate none of it and neither did I, since it was fried eggs and bacon, followed by pancakes with syrup – a meal that could have undone a week of fast walking up Forest Hills Boulevard and down Austin Street. Like Kit, I had only cigarettes and black coffee. Emily, who’d never dieted in her life and had apparently worked up a tremendous appetite overnight, was glad to eat my share as well as her own.

The meal over, we cleaned up and read the Sunday Times and went to a summer playhouse matinee of Harvey and had another early seafood dinner. I read more of the Times in the evening while they went through the local paper. There was no talk, except about the play and what was in the news. Before I again retired to the barn, I asked them please to leave the house door unlocked so I could get to the bathroom. They professed surprise they hadn’t done it the night before. “Force of habit,” Emily explained.

And that was the whole visit. Next morning, after more black coffee and cigarettes for me and Kit (and eggs benedict for Emily), we all three exchanged hollow thanks for how great it had been and I embarked on the long trip home. Reading furiously without remembering a word of what I read, I tried not to think how much I had wanted Emily to be my friend again, how hurt I felt and also how starved. I remembered when I reached Grand Central I could buy eight or ten candy bars to eat on the subway ride home to Kew Gardens.   But it was Labor Day, and the newspaper stands were all closed.

When I returned to college a week later, the bathroom scale did indeed read 128. Despite my own subterranean (and not so subterranean) urges, I had finally managed to succeed. By anyone’s definition, I was thin.  For now.

LOSING FIFTEEN POUNDS: PART FIVE

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[…continued from previous four posts.]

Three weeks before returning to college,  I had a long distance phone call from Maine. It was Emily, with whom I’d shared a dormitory bathroom the year before. My mother left the room ostentatiously, to show she wasn’t going to listen.

Emily — plump and until recently lovelorn like me — had probably become my closest girlfriend by the end of our sophomore year. We shared some difficult elective classes and the same sense of humor, enjoyed the same kind of movies, and on dateless weekend evenings indulged together in making up time-travel fantasies over half-pints of ice cream delivered from the town drugstore. As rising juniors, we’d even chosen adjoining dorm rooms (with that shared bathroom).

But in our third year, Emily began spending several evenings a week, as well as many weekends, with someone else:  an emaciated and chain-smoking special student who had neither waist, hips, stomach, breasts or, when she occasionally joined us in the dining hall, interest in food.  Kit’s very narrow jeans required a broad leather belt to keep them up. She wore her straight hair chopped short like a boy’s and (Emily reported) could really hold her liquor. Rumor had it she’d been on suspension during our first two years for having come onto another girl. The object of her desire had complained. Now, after mandatory therapy to address her conduct, Kit was being permitted to finish her degree, provided she lived off campus.

Emily and her new friend were always affable when I ran into them together, and occasionally even asked me along when they went somewhere. But I always sensed they were sharing something from which I was excluded and about which I tried not to speculate. Perhaps I’d been invited to serve as camouflage? They did speak mainly to each other on these occasions.

I had very much resented the entry of this hermaphroditic-looking person into Emily’s life, and still did. Emily had been my friend, always available to complain about our respective mothers, critically examine everyone we knew, faculty included, and discuss the difficulty of meeting a really nice boy. [She had also served as a kind of control on ice-cream eating in the evenings; when we ordered a delivery from town, she was inclined to ask for two half-pints, whereas I would have gone for a pint each.] My simmering hostility towards Kit achieved nothing. Emily’s father was in the foreign service and her parents were therefore always overseas; she went home with Kit for Christmas and Easter. Then she announced she’d be spending the summer with Kit too — at a country house in Ogunquit, Maine.

On the telephone, Emily now said she was sorry she hadn’t been in touch earlier in the summer but things had been a little crazy. (What did that mean?) Would I like to come up for the Labor Day weekend? I asked if that was all right with Kit. Well sure, she answered. And added she’d really like me to come. She’d mail travel instructions. And I should bring a sweater. It was already getting chilly in Maine, especially in the evenings.

“Your friend must be rich,” said my mother when informed about this sudden uptick in my social life. “They’ve got to have a big house up there, if there’s also a room for guests.” I explained the place in Maine was just a summer house, and anyway it belonged to the family of the friend of my friend.  “She’s not your friend, too?” asked my mother.

“Yes and no,” I said. “I’m not exactly wild about her.”

“Why are you going then?”

It was too hard to explain, so I changed the subject. “I just hope they have stuff up there I can eat.” Stupid of me to bring up food and dieting. She must have been waiting for weeks. Now she pounced. “What difference does it make what they have when you eat cookies?”

I tried to keep my eyes steady on hers. “I don’t know what you mean.” My face felt very hot.

“You know.”

She waited a few moments for me to say something more. What could I say? Then she walked away. I heard the vacuum start up in the living room. I hated her. Over and over I told myself how much I hated her. What did she know, anyway? Did she think I’d merely been nibbling away at her hidden treasure one or two fig sandwich cookies at a time — the way she would do it, if she’d been me? Except, of course, she wasn’t me. She had “will power.” How could she imagine, much less understand, that once I began there was no way I could keep myself from emptying an entire box — or even two, if there had been two — in the middle of the night?

[…to be concluded in next post.]

LOSING FIFTEEN POUNDS: PART FOUR

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[…continued from previous three posts.]

My nights were hungry. Often I had to drink two glasses of water to fill me up long enough to fall asleep, but then I would wake at two in the morning to pee. One night, the empty gnawing in my stomach after a bathroom trip was intolerable. Barefoot, I felt my way into the kitchen without turning on the light, opened the box of Social Tea biscuits my mother had left on the kitchen table as quietly as I could, and reluctantly put one between my lips.

But somehow I found the will to keep from biting into it, and after a while was able to put it back in the box, close the lid and drink more water before feeling my way along the wall back to my room. There I lay in the dark, listening to the tick tick tick of my bedside clock. Where had she hidden the European fig sandwich cookies? They had to be in the kitchen. Behind something, where they couldn’t be seen. And probably high up, not easy to get to. I really needed to know.

Returning again to the kitchen, I carefully lifted one of the chairs out from under the kitchen table, set it softly down in front of the grocery cabinet and climbed up to find out what was in the back of the top shelf. A very faint light that was almost no light came through the window from a street lamp around the corner, so that I could just make out oatmeal, sugar cubes, and bags of rice and coffee along the front of the top shelf. I took them all out, leaning over the back of the chair to set them on the counter. Now I could see the back row: baking soda, cornstarch, tapioca pudding, Jell-O, and – aha! – the package of cookies, unopened.

I had to do it. Had to.

Quietly I removed the whole box from its hiding place, arranged the coffee, sugar and rice so as to conceal the gap in the back row, replaced the kitchen chair under the table, tucked the box under my arm, felt my way back to my room, silently closed the door and took a deep breath. And now, quickly quickly, to bed again.

It would have been easier if she had already eaten one or two. Without prior experience in stealing crackers or cookies undetected from unopened boxes, I had to improvise. No thought now of the seven or eight pounds already lost with such difficulty or how I might feel tomorrow. There was only the box with me in the dark under the sheet, and my fingers carefully prying open the glued-together folds of paper at one end without tearing them, so as to make a paper sleeve, and sliding the sleeve from the cardboard box, and feeling for its opening, and reaching the first double cookie, and trembling as I brought it to my lips in the dark and tasted it. I chewed slowly and swallowed, and oh the pleasure of it. Then the cookie was gone. So I felt for another and then another and ate faster and was happy, and felt for more double cookies and ate them, and went on eating and eating, and then could it be there were no more left in the box?

I felt around in the paper cups. Empty. All of them. What to do now? I had to get the box out of my bed. That was the first thing. Best to return it to its original place, so that everything would look as it had when my mother reached up for the coffee and sugar in the morning.  I closed the empty paper sleeve, licked and pressed shut the folds at the end as best I could, slid it into its box and tiptoed the box into the kitchen again. Up behind the sugar, rice and coffee it went, very light with nothing in it. But it would probably look all right up there.

Back in bed for the fifth time that night, I made careful plans for next morning. I would have to buy a replacement box when I went out and smuggle it back into the apartment. Also I would have to double the length of my daily walk for the rest of the week at least, to make up for all those cookie calories. That solved, I had no trouble falling asleep.

Everything went like clockwork. I carried another package home from the A&P in a large straw handbag, and while my mother was in the bathtub after her housework had plenty of time to get it up into place at the back of the top shelf and dispose of the empty package in the incinerator at the end of the third floor hallway. And I walked so furiously and dieted so conscientiously that by the end of the week I had even lost another pound! So where was the harm if I did it all again a week later, when midnight hunger gnawed once more? None, apparently.

Wrong. What I had left out of my calculations was the possibility there would be no more packages of European fig sandwich cookies in the A&P when I turned up a second time to replace the box emptied the night before. I asked for the store manager. No, they didn’t stock those on a regular basis, he said. They were something new, which the company might or might not order again, but how about Fig Newtons? They always had Fig Newtons. Frightened, I rushed to “Alice’s – Delicacies from Around the World.” Double fig cookies in an oblong box were not anything from around the world the snooty saleslady in “Alice’s” had ever heard of.

Maybe my mother would forget about the cookies. I didn’t think so. She never forgot a thing. Or maybe she wouldn’t open the box till I was safely in school again. So as not to tempt me. Maybe, maybe. Days and then weeks passed, and she said nothing. Did she know? Did she not know? How could she not know? I lost more pounds. By the middle of August, the bathroom scale read 130. I had done it: I was fifteen pounds lighter than I’d been at the beginning of June! But there were still three weeks to go. Could I reach (and hold) 128 by the time I went back to school? Two more pounds in three weeks: why not? Now that would make the whole wretched summer worthwhile!

[To be continued…..]

LOSING FIFTEEN POUNDS: PART THREE

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[…continued from previous two posts.]

Back in Kew Gardens again after the Atlantic City fiasco, I settled into a weight-losing routine.  First, a breakfast of an orange followed by a cup of coffee with skim milk and saccharine. Then walking for at least an hour every morning, often more, from our apartment house down to the corner and then along Queens Boulevard to the Forest Hills subway stop. This was not so tedious a route as it had been when I used to walk it before I’d gone to college. In the intervening three years, several new specialty stores had come into being between the A&P, the kosher butcher, the non-kosher butcher, the one remaining dairy, the dry cleaner, the hardware store, and the bakery that sold mostly rolls, challah and poppy-seed Danish.

Now there were two more bakeries, with large windows full of trays of delicately iced cookies and lavishly decorated birthday and wedding cakes. There were also a Barton’s and a Barricini’s — candy stores displaying in their windows open boxes of dipped chocolates and a few larger boxes of interesting-looking little fruit cakes in paper cups. And four blocks after the Barricini’s, there was a place called “Alice’s –Delicacies from Around the World.”

The windows here generally featured enticing square tins of Peak Frean cookies, bags of cheese straws (what could they be?) and something called “fruit tarts” (how English!), as well as large tablets of Lindt and Tobler chocolate (colorfully packaged in sophisticated paper wrappings) that came in European flavors I hadn’t known existed — not just milk or “bittersweet” but also mocha, hazelnut, and at least three other kinds whose names I couldn’t read from the sidewalk. I would allow myself a breather in front of these windows, especially when the displays changed, but always made myself turn away and walk on after a few minutes, perspiring in the summer morning sun.

I also tried to give equal time to the “ladies’ sportswear” in the windows of the two new clothing stores along the way. Nothing I ever saw there looked really fashionable, but for at least a couple of blocks I could divert myself from the hot boredom of the walk by imagining a future me sufficiently slender to enter either of those stores and try something on without shame. At Forest Hills Boulevard, I almost always circled back towards home on Austin Street, which ran parallel to Queens Boulevard, and to fill out the hour (or more), went up and down the side streets, an area known as Forest Hills Gardens, past stately homes set far back from pavements.

I never saw another person on these streets, and only rarely a car. Perhaps everyone was away for the summer. These were what I thought of as mansions, and I wondered what sort of people lived in them and what it might be like to live in one myself. I couldn’t imagine. All I knew was here was another desirable world probably closed to me, even if I was a Sarah Lawrence girl, unless I could alter my appearance sufficiently to invite entry into its exclusive precincts.

Finally home and showered, I would read until lunch, a carefully measured repast consisting of a half-cup of cottage cheese, two Ry-Krisps and an apple, or four apricots, or two very small peaches, or some other fruit listed in the diet books as a hundred calories. I didn’t eat bananas, because one banana, a hundred calories right there, always left me wanting another. And I wasn’t sure how to count grapes (five calories a grape?), so I avoided them.

Without further agenda to occupy my days, I began to accompany my mother when she went out in the afternoons, just for something to do besides read. This seemed to please her. Her routine was invariable: every morning, housecleaning (“because the windows are open and everything gets dirty even if I just cleaned yesterday”); every afternoon, shopping at the A&P for dinner, with a stop on the way home at the newsstand on the corner for the World-Telegram and maybe a magazine; and – because she now had me with her, whatever protection that might provide from the dangers lurking outside after dark — sometimes a movie in the early evening.

At the A&P, under my supervision, she ordered round steak with all the fat trimmed away and put through the grinder just for us. She bought frozen string beans, frozen asparagus, frozen chopped broccoli – frozen was a godsend, she proclaimed, no more cleaning and cooking vegetables! She sometimes also bought a box of Social Tea biscuits, because she “had to have something sweet with her coffee after dinner.” This didn’t bother me because I didn’t especially like Social Tea biscuits. But one afternoon she hid away under her other purchases in the shopping cart a box of those new European-style cookies you could now buy even at the A&P. It was an oblong package of round scalloped butter cookies dusted with powdered sugar, sandwiched around a fig filling visible through a circle cut from the cookie forming the top of the sandwich.

Did she think I wouldn’t notice when the cashier rang everything up at the checkout counter?   “Just to have in the house in case,” she explained. In case of what? Company? She never had company. But how could I reproach her? She wasn’t on a diet. Nor did it occur to me to consider it an act of sabotage. She was my mother. The oblong package disappeared as soon as we got home. I opened all the grocery cabinets in the kitchen while she was in the bathroom and couldn’t see it anywhere.

She did try to help me. (Would a saboteur do that?) Although she had several times declared with conviction the regular whole milk yogurt in the store wouldn’t “hurt” me, she showed me how to make yogurt on top of the stove the way she had learned in Russia, so I could try to make it with skim milk. It took several days, and then turned out watery and very sour. But I ate it anyway, in measured portions, since it was only ninety calories for an eight-ounce glassful.

The summer dragged. This was the domestic life I had scorned, the life I’d gone away to college to escape, and here I was living it. I thought about my college don, who had also been my Shakespeare professor this past year; he had written a really appreciative final report based on my long “All’s Well That Ends Well” paper, calling it graceful criticism and telling me to publish it! He must really like me. We had been don and donnee for three years already, and he hadn’t suggested a change might be a good idea, as some other dons had done with friends of mine.

He was going to be on sabbatical the first term of next year, but would be back for the second and third terms.   Maybe when I was thin, he would see me in a new light. Not just brilliant. Irresistible too. True, he was married, but that hadn’t been an impediment to Amy’s exciting romance. He was about the same age as her professor-lover, too. Forty or forty-one. Wasn’t that when a man was most susceptible? Especially to a lovely twenty-year-old?

And he was taller than I was, with broad shoulders. What might it feel like for such a knowing man, a grown-up man, to put his arms around me (when there was less of me) and kiss me? Would it be with tender yearning? Or savage hunger? I wrote a hesitant little note thanking him for the report and wishing him a good sabbatical, making sure to print my home address legibly on the envelope.

I even telephoned Amy, who seemed glad to hear from me. She was having a dreary summer, too. She hadn’t heard from Him. It was too late to apply to the graduate program at Juilliard. She wasn’t practicing. And her parents didn’t like her just sitting around the living-room sofa thinking about Him. They said if she wasn’t going to continue her musical studies, she should get a job. She wished she could die. Except she wasn’t brave enough to kill herself. Also, He still might call. I said I would come in to Manhattan if she wanted to go to a movie. She said I was welcome to come over for a visit, but she didn’t think she could enjoy a movie the way she still felt. I told her I had lost nearly six pounds since Atlantic City. “Oh,” she exclaimed. “Did you want to?”  I said I’d call her back about the visit.

My don wrote I shouldn’t thank him for the report because I’d earned it. He wished me a good summer. He also said he was looking forward to hearing about what I’d been doing when he saw me again after Christmas break. I couldn’t find anything in this disappointingly brief reply that implied suppressed desire. It was because of my weight, I knew. Wouldn’t he be surprised when he saw me again after I reached goal! I didn’t quantify this goal in pounds. I would know when I reached it.

[To be continued….]

LOSING FIFTEEN POUNDS: PART ONE

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As I’ve mentioned before, I spent a major part of my adult life losing fifteen pounds. It wasn’t always the same fifteen pounds. But I did it over and over again, until I probably had lost nearly a cumulative thousand of them. And then when I was already collecting Social Security, which was many decades after the first loss (and re-gain), it began to seem a foolish preoccupation. If every year there was less and less life left to live, why spend so much of it agonizing about how much of me there was or wasn’t, when I could spend more of it actually living?

That was when I invaded my savings to join a non-pretentious, non-judgmental low-profile gym that cost quite a bit of money, which made it clearly counterproductive to comfort myself with chocolate cake when things didn’t go my way. As they used to say in the old country, we grow old too soon, and smart too late.

It began long before, of course, with the well-known “freshman fifteen.” Except in my case, I arrived at college an unnatural fifteen pounds down from the comfortably rounded weight I carried through high school. Once I learned I had won a full scholarship to a prestigious girls’ college my parents could never have afforded on their own, I went into serious training to take complete social advantage of this opportunity, guided by visions of the slender and narrow-boned models who appeared every year in the college issue of Mademoiselle magazine. I myself had peasant bones, but that didn’t keep me from limiting my daily nutritional intake to a spartan 750 calories divided between breakfast and dinner, with a vigorous hour’s walk during lunchtime to speed the fat-burning process.

I arrived on campus successful: I looked properly emaciated, with my hipbones jutting out in my narrow new college clothes. I was also starving, and soon began to eat back the lost pounds – aided by starchy college food, coke and candy machines in every dorm, and a disinclination to get drunk on disappointing dates, preferring food binges by myself in my room when life let me down. The first time the fifteen pounds came back, I panicked. What would my mother say when I got home? (It was she who had invested her household savings in my fashionable new college wardrobe, dreaming no doubt of potential wealthy son-in-laws.) In the three weeks before the end of the college year, I drank unsweetened tea, swallowed amphetamine-laced diet pills from the local drugstore, and savored only two thin slices of roast beef for dinner (250 calories?) until my new clothes fit again.

Coping mechanisms tend to be habit-forming. I also gained and lost a “sophomore fifteen” between September 1949 and June 1950 and gained them back during my junior year. That spring, alas, I had two major papers to write – one on “All’s Well That Ends Well” and the other on the minor novels of Dostoevsky; I needed nourishment right until the end. I came home in June 1951 without a summer job and with my skirt held together by safety pins.

My first college summer I had worked and had a serious boyfriend. The second summer I went to Europe on the money I’d saved to go to college and now didn’t need for that. But this third summer, the boyfriend was gone, my father was working in Texas, my mother was all alone in the apartment, it seemed too late to look for temporary work, and so I decided to make it my full-time job to get rid of those fifteen pounds for good.

It would be my last chance before I had to contend with “Real Life,” a last chance to have the glamorous college year I hadn’t had so far. I therefore embarked on training for this final year as seriously as I had trained for the first, except that then I hadn’t anticipated the possibility of eventual failure. Now, with several dietary defeats already under my belt (I speak metaphorically; the belt itself was in a drawer, pending a smaller waistline), I was not only determined but desperate. I had already learned my worst enemy was me.

[To be continued…..]

STICK SHIFT

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It seems the kind of car I drive gives my age away.  Not that I’m hiding my age. Certainly not on this blog.  And not that the car is so very old.  Actually it is, by some people’s standards, but lots of youngsters drive eleven-year old cars. So it’s not that.

What is it then? I recently learned what my car reveals about me from M., whom Bill discovered after we both decided he should not drive me to the Newark airport and then pick me up again at the other end of my recent trip to Tampa.  He tends to get lost outside of Princeton, GPS or no GPS. We also decided I should not drive myself because of the aggravation and cost of parking for all those days away and because Bill declared he would worry. [Isn’t that sweet?]

M. is a fit-as-a-fiddle former police officer,  probably in his early sixties, who has built a thriving business subsequent to retirement by driving people anywhere (including quite long distances) in their own cars for set fees far lower than those charged by commercial limousine services, plus $35 an hour waiting time (in the event he is taking you to a hospital or doctor’s appointment, or something like that).

His client base is now so large he has six other retired policemen working for him and his fees are as low as they are because he has no need to pay for vehicles, or insurance, or gas. Since the six other drivers are independent contractors for whom he acts as booking agent, he need pay no employer contribution to social security either.

M. got behind my wheel on September 1 and commented:  “A stick shift!  I haven’t driven one of these in a long long time.” Well, that made me feel like Methuselah.  Mind you, back in 2004 when I bought the car, I had specified that I did not  want an automatic transmission. Apparently no one does that anymore.

M. explained that people used to think you got better mileage per gallon with a stick shift but that was no longer true.  I have about twenty years on M. and recall that the stick shift was once preferred because you supposedly had better control of the car — and for all I know, you still do.   But I simply smiled and nodded.  Especially as M. hurried to assure me that I shouldn’t trade the car in because my stick shift was still working fine.

Well, I wasn’t going to. And I knew it was.  (Although all I said was, “That’s good to know.”)  The truth is when on occasion I’ve rented cars at airports, always with automatic transmissions because that’s all car rental places seem to have these days, my left foot doesn’t know what to do and taps the floor uselessly while the right one moves from gas to brake and back again, nervously expecting it’s about to strip the gears.

It all comes down to your past catching up with you.  I learned to drive in Los Angeles on a 1937 Plymouth coupe. It was fifteen years old by then, but no cars had been manufactured from 1942 through 1945, so many pre-war cars were still on the road. None of them had that new-fangled automatic transmission yet. Once I had my license, my father replaced the Plymouth, just as it was about to die, with a used 1946 Chevrolet allegedly driven by a little old lady in Pasadena who took it out of the garage only to go to church.  Whether or not that was true, the Chevy was in fine condition. And yes — the little old lady had driven a stick shift.

The Chevy lasted me a long time. It brought me back to New York, where it was followed by a used Studebaker belonging to my first husband, nine years older than I was, and then a snappy Volkswagen bug convertible belonging only to me, in which I found my second husband, two years older. The second marriage featured two more Volkswagens. [Given their respective ages, it goes without saying both husbands preferred stick shifts.]  By then, you might conclude about my selection of transmissions that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.  My post-husband-pre-Bill period featured a stick-shift Nissan. Why not? My first serious boyfriend, one year older and then being recycled, drove a stick-shift Nissan of his own. [The Nissan service station was two blocks away.]  Now I have a 2004 stick-shift Honda. Wouldn’t you know? Bill, three years older, has a 2002 stick-shift Honda.

I have been reproached by many of the stick-shift men in my life (although not by Bill) for riding the clutch.  I must not ride it too much though because, as I’ve already told you, M. said my stick shift is still working fine. You might also be interested in knowing what M. said about my age — yes, I let it out, just to see what would happen — when he picked me up at Newark on September 4.  “Well, there’s 84. And then there’s 84.”

Tactful, wasn’t he? But who am I to argue with a cop, even a retired one?

WRITING SHORT: 30/50

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[Come summer heat, much of my blogging momentum melts away. Hence an experiment until Labor Day: fifty minimalist posts about whatever.]
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Our bed in its prime.

Our bed is leaving us. The cats have torn several holes in its underside in which to hide. The whole thing squeaks whenever we sit or turn, and not just when something interesting is happening on it. It’s time.

I bought the box spring and mattress from Mattress King in February 1988, under the guidance of the man who’d been my first serious boyfriend when we were young and was then being recycled, as my older son put it, after my second husband and I had separated. That makes the sleeping part of the bed twenty-seven years old.

The headboard and footboard came later, purchased with a year-end bonus after the boyfriend’s second departure from my life.   I had always favored Victorian brass beds; I thought they were romantic (and still do). Second husband and I had one, but I left it with him when I departed.  This set was as close to the first as I was able to find. I could still hang on to its posts (if hanging was needed) and when made up it looked as good, or better, than the first.

Like the marital original, it was a standard double bed.  No Queen- or King-size degrees of separation for me.  If I’m alone, I’m alone; so be it.  But if I’m not, I need spooning — and always did. Second husband and recycled first serious boyfriend slept straight up and down. Alas, Bill espouses the diagonal “Z.”  I can accommodate that under protest, even in a standard double, by making myself into a complementary “Z.”  But then came the cats, who both favor my side of the bed. When the three of them are in place by the time I get there, I can hardly insert myself under the top sheet.

So this time we’re going for a Queen. (No room in the bedroom for a King.) Bill, who takes aesthetic pleasure in how things look, was prepared; he’d picked out the new bed well in advance of my capitulation to the need for it. He favors minimalist, expensive Italian design. I’m not arguing. Hanging from the bedposts at our age?  Really?  All the same, it’s hard to part. (Sob.)

Goodbye, dear bed. Goodbye.

AD BIZ FOLLIES: CODA/ENCORE

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IMG_1431 I may be pushing the envelope here, especially since the previous post in this series failed to bring a symphony of pings, but I couldn’t put away those tear sheets of print ads, demonstrating skills no longer marketable because television has swept away the market, without at least one last fond glance of farewell.  It’s a glance at a campaign I’d quite forgotten until it turned up in that stiffening black leather ad portfolio while I was gathering the illustrations for the five posts preceding this one.

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I liked doing these particular ads then; having rediscovered them, I like looking at and reading them now. They gave the finger to all the fashion advertising that took itself so seriously and made my working life such hell — and got away with it.  The client, Zero King coats and jackets for men, ran them for over a year, with apparent retail success.  Which may just show it really didn’t matter what any of us in the “ad biz” were doing with or writing about ready-to-wear (except for getting Art Director Association awards, where it mattered too much), as long as the ad had a good clear photograph of the merchandise in it.

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The campaign came about because Zero King brought an interesting request to Mervin & Jesse Levine, the agency where Jerry Fields landed me a job in June 1961.  Could the agency do a campaign on the cheap using photographs already shot for next year’s in-house catalogue?  No hiring fancy fashion photographers, no elaborate studio set-ups, no expensive team meetings to devise award-winning campaigns.

Never one to turn away a client, however small its contribution to the profit picture, Mervin handed this thorny problem to his art directors.  (He had two, plus a Creative Director who’d been an art director himself. Careful readers of this blog with good memories may recall the second half of  “Sex in the Office,”  in which I exchanged longingly horny glances and some determinative dialogue with this very Creative Director.)  Creative Director and numero uno art director were otherwise too occupied to mess around with stock photos of menswear; they had big profitable accounts, like Ship ‘n Shore, with which to wrestle.  Stingy Zero King ended up on the second art director’s desk.

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The second art director’s name — the newly legal name I knew him by — was Marty Scofield.  He was in his late twenties, had blondish-brown straight hair that kept falling over his blue eyes, a light smattering of freckles on the bridge of his tip-tilted nose, and fresh rosy cheeks.  From the look of him, you’d have sworn his parents came from England or Ireland. But as he confided later, he was really Martin Skolnick — or had been, until his last name kept him out of every big ad agency to which he’d applied after graduating with distinction from Pratt, the art school that hatched so many New York art directors.

At last someone in Personnel at J. Walter Thompson, who must have liked the look of him, suggested he lose the “Skolnick.” When he did, she hired him.  He discovered he hated giant ad agency culture. So here he was, working for Mervin, who would not have minded a Skolnick on his premises, but it was too late to change back.

Marty wasn’t exactly thrilled with small ad agency culture either. (He was also gay, although well closeted, which may have contributed to his quietly jaundiced view of our nonsensical occupation.) It doesn’t take long for the disaffected to find each other. We were already lunchtime friends. Marty took one look at the Zero King photographs and called me up. (He could have walked around the office to where I sat, but then he would have had to walk back again. Better I should do the walking.)  He had superimposed one of the photos on a blank piece of paper and drawn a cartoon figure of an admiring woman next to it. Wasn’t it one of the ten commandments of 1960’s fashion advertising that we should sell no garment without alluding to its sex appeal?

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Marty’s cartoon was right up my alley. I could be nutsy too. We chuckled our way through a whole series. And what do you know? Zero King was perfectly happy.  For the price of the magazine space and a small markup representing a tiny percentage of our salaries, they had a national campaign.  Creative Director, who also had to sign off on it, lifted an eyebrow. Then he shrugged. Let’s run it up the flagpole, he said, with stunning lack of originality.  (How could I have been eyeing him so lustfully?)   As long as I worked in all the merchandise details and the price, it seemed we were okayed for take-off.

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Success breeds intimacy.  As Marty and I laughed together (not too loudly) we grew closer.  By now I was divorced. One Sunday, he invited me up to Connecticut to see where he lived. He actually owned a whole house. In my limited experience, out-of-office socializing wasn’t much done between co-workers; I began to think I might have been wrong about him.

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With savings from his J. Walter Thompson salary, he had bought an eighteenth-century farmhouse which had been much underpriced because it had a ghost. He was now slowly restoring it.  By hand. With the help of his friend. He walked me from room to room, explaining what he’d already done and what he planned to do next.  “A real ghost?” I asked.  “Well, there are sure some strange noises in the attic at night,” he said.   “And on the stairs.”

“Aren’t you scared to live in a house with a ghost?” (I would have been.)  “He hasn’t done anything to us yet,” said Marty. He was thinking of the ghost as a “he.” I would have supposed an eighteenth-century ghost to be a lovelorn “she.” We left that one unexplored.

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Following a very good dinner, which he had cooked ahead of time, we sat by the fire. His friend, who’d been away visiting his parents that weekend, would be back later that night.  It became awkward.  I knew he liked me. I liked him, too. He was a couple of years younger than I was, but under other circumstances we would have kissed. Instead, we looked into each other’s eyes for what seemed quite a while. Then he looked away. I said I’d better be going. He became solicitous about my driving back to the city in the dark. “I’ll be okay,” I said reassuringly, not meaning the driving.  What had been such a lovely day had turned so sad. He looked sad too as I closed the car door and drove away.

Afterwards, I would ask how the house restoration was coming. We both also talked in a general way about my visiting a second time, on another Sunday.  But he never specifically invited me and I never specifically suggested it. So I never saw what the house looked like when he and his friend finally finished it.

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About a year after I left Mervin & Jesse Levine for more money at Altman Stoller & Chalk (another Jerry Fields placement), I received a letter from the Virgin Islands.  It was from Marty.  He had sold the fully restored eighteenth-century house in Connecticut, said goodbye to advertising, and with his equity bought a bed-and-breakfast in St. Thomas.  He didn’t say whether or not his friend was still with him. He did invite me to come down on my next vacation.  By then I had met the man who would become my second husband and the father of my two children. I suppose we could have gone down to St. Thomas together, except we’d already put a rental deposit on a Wellfleet bungalow. And the following summer we got married and went to Bermuda. I must have answered Marty’s letter but can’t remember what I said.

Now that it’s the twentieth-first century, I’ve been able to find almost everyone I worked with during my years in advertising on the Internet, usually through an obituary but not always.  Marty’s the only one who’s disappeared.  I’ve tried Skolnick and I’ve tried Scofield.  Nothing. He’s gone to earth. All that’s left are his zany sketches for Zero King.  (Another reason I like the ads so much?)

But Zero King —  that’s another story: A man with a taste for vintage can still pick one up on e-Bay.  Maybe not exactly a style I’ve just shown you. But something equally as appealing to the woman in your life.

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In closing, let me add that if you should miraculously run across Marty, either digitally or in real life, do let me know. I’d love to hear how he’s doing.

AD BIZ FOLLIES (#4)

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19th century Majarahah's bed of solid sterling silver.

19th century Majarahah’s bed of solid sterling silver.

[For earlier posts about my adventures in late 1950’s-early 1960’s advertising, see “How My Life as a Mad Woman Began,” and “Ad Biz Follies (#1), (#2) and (#3.)]

During the nearly three years Ed and I had been in New York, I had no discretionary money at all.  We did own a joint savings account, consisting mainly of the sale proceeds of my many college and graduate school books and also of the good used furniture my parents had given us for beginning married life. But we had agreed neither of us would touch that money.  Moreover, I wasn’t entirely sure where we had stashed the bankbook. As for my salary, once I began paid work at Gilbert Advertising in January 1958, I used to hand over all of it, less five dollars a week for transportation to and from work. At first it never occurred to me not to. After all, Ed had been managing the money and paying the bills since we married. And we barely squeaked by as it was.

In the beginning, of course, he’d been working too, so the money he managed came from both of us. But now, although I had become the only breadwinner, he remained the money manager. Every Saturday, he would hand back thirty dollars just before I trundled the shopping cart off to the A&P for the weekly marketing; unfortunately, it all went on necessities, almost down to the penny.

Then things at home became increasingly unpleasant.  (More detail might darken this light-hearted account of advertising nonsense were we to tiptoe down that path so we won’t, at least not here.)  I may still have clung to the belief marriage was supposed to be forever, but I did finally acknowledge to myself I needed some ready cash Ed didn’t know about.  Not necessarily to do anything with.  Just in case.  Unfortunately, my relaxed months at Harold M. Mitchell, Inc. Advertising for $6,500 a year (see #3 in this series) provided no wiggle room for putting something aside.

I was therefore pleased to receive a whispered call at work from an employment agent at Jerry Fields, the mega guru of “creative” placements in Madison Avenue’s ad world. (The term “creative” in the ad-speak of the time meant copywriters and art directors, and was not necessarily descriptive of the quality of their product.) The agent had heard of something for me at a place called Leber & Katz.  More later. “Heard of something?” What did that mean?

A second whispered call soon came from an excited Judy F., formerly with Jerry Fields but now branching out on her own. There was a perfect opening for me at Leber & Katz! She had Lester Leber on the other line and could she make an appointment for me to to interview with him that very evening? Innocent little girl.  (Me, not Judy F.)  Even if Lester Leber had turned me down, I would have been in trouble.  He didn’t. I lied about the salary Harold was paying me — I was beginning to learn how things were done — and Lester offered $8,500.  When could I start? How could I refuse?

You’d think I’d been Edward Snowden. Jerry Fields himself was on the line the very next day.  He didn’t whisper. How could I violate the basic rule of agency placements when he had been so good to me?  (I’d never met or spoken with him.)  He mentioned trust.  Honor.  Principle.  It didn’t quite get to “You’ll never work in this town again!” but came close. What he was really upset about, of course, was the commission for the placement.  Leber & Katz was going to pay Judy F. for sending me to them, even though their name had first been mentioned to me by a Jerry Fields agent.

I apologized. I pleaded. I said I was new to New York and its ways. I pointed out timidly that the Jerry Fields agent hadn’t actually gotten me an interview. I even asked if I should turn down the job offer.  No, no, he didn’t want that. (God forbid Leber & Katz should hear of behind-the-scenes scuffling by employment agents.)  The upshot was a stern warning. I must never, ever, do such a thing again. And then came what I didn’t realize might have been a warning of another kind:  Jerry Fields himself wished me good luck at L&K. Did he know something I didn’t?

What he knew, or suspected, was that Leber & Katz did not yet have any need for me at all.  Once I arrived at their (to me) sumptuous Madison Avenue premises in a building with a Longchamps restaurant on the ground floor, I too was at a loss as to why I had been hired.  Was it because they felt they should fill the one empty office remaining along the square perimeter surrounding a luxurious conference room and, on the other side, an impressive paste-up department?  Was it because they had grandiose plans for growth and needed to present themselves as a place with two art directors, two account executives and two copywriters, even though the second copywriter was simply waiting around for something substantive to do?  Or was it that Lester — the copywriter at the firm — had been to Columbia College and thought on meeting me that if all went well for the agency a well-educated young lady like me might be a good fit?

The firm certainly did go on to become very large indeed.  Shortly after we parted company, Lester and his partner Stanley Katz “exchanged” their third partner, the man who managed the office and who I knew as Norman, for Onofrio Paccione, a high-powered art person from Grey Advertising known throughout the industry as “Patch,” a tough guy to work for. They then became, for a time, Leber Katz Paccione.  Subsequently, as their billings grew (and Patch departed, perhaps for greener fields) — they were Leber Katz Partners, with billings reported to be as high as $550 million by 1986, at which time they merged with (or were gobbled up by) Foote Cone & Belding Communications in Chicago and were known thereafter as FCB/Leber Katz Partners.  Musical chairs on a multi-million-dollar scale. But I was not involved in any of that. Just thought you’d like to know where they were headed.

The fact is that when I arrived in late June 1960 I had nothing much to do in my new place of employment.  There was still some fashion copy to write for ads already photographed, freeing up Lester to join Stanley in chasing the big packaged goods accounts that would eventually disentangle them from fashion sold in department stores and enable profits to metastasize. But it didn’t take me long to produce the minimal verbiage required to accompany gorgeous photos or to explain, briefly, why a consumer should want to buy something for which she had no real need. As in:

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WHOEVER YOU ARE, be unscrupulous. Connive. Pretend to the wealth of a princess with Marvellissimo, Marvella’s precisely simulated pearls of genuine brilliance. Who’d suspect such cunning — from a lovely charmer like you? Triple-strand necklace, with stone-set clasp of semi-precious Carnelian, Lapis, or Jade Quartz, $22.50. Ta-da, ta-da, ta-da, etc. At the finest stores.

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I spent a lot of time trying to read Proust in the women’s bathroom with my feet up so no one looking for me could recognize my shoes by peering beneath the door of the toilet stall. That seemed better than sitting in my office with the door open doodling on a pad, or reading Proust openly, even with a pencil in my hand.

There was also some time-consuming flirting with Stanley.  He was then thirty-nine, a husband and father of three or four, and owner in fee simple of a nice suburban home in West Orange, New Jersey. He was also the partner who would invite me to sessions in the conference room to plan strategy for presentations to big-name potential clients. I had very little to contribute to these pow-wows, other than to look interested (and perhaps attractive to Stanley), take notes and pass the centerpiece platter of fruit around the table.

After one of these meetings, I found on my desk the next morning a line drawing in pencil, initialed SK, of a male figure reclining on a chaise longue with a female figure feeding him grapes from a bunch dangling from her hand over his mouth.  I knew the reclining figure was supposed to be Stanley by the round eyeglasses. Also it was slightly plump (as he was). The female figure wore a suit like mine the day before.  If I’d had more work to do, I might have tabled a response in favor of more pressing matters.  As it was, I impulsively scrawled, “Yes!” on the drawing, folded it into an envelope and, since he was out of the office, handed it back, sealed, to his secretary.

I still don’t know if she opened it before putting it on his desk. The next drawing that appeared in my office was of an open-mouthed baby’s face;  the baby had one tuft of hair coming up off its head, one tooth in its mouth, and one tear on its cheek.  Block-printed beneath the face was a single word, “Sorry.”  After that, Stanley scrupulously avoided me. No more invitations to strategy pow-wows. (Had I made him feel like such a baby?) And since we had no business reason to be together, I guess that pretty much took care of temptation for him. As for me, I hadn’t really been tempted in the first place, except that the flirting had been something interesting to do. Roundish, owl-eyed and with thinning yellow hair  — even if relatively powerful — wasn’t exactly my type. So you might say there was no harm done. You’d be wrong.

Popular wisdom to not mess around in the office wouldn’t have survived as long as it has if there weren’t more than a kernel of truth in it.  When Norman, the third partner, decided at the beginning of 1961 that I had not been a cost-effective investment since Lester didn’t really need me, only Stanley could have saved me.  Of course, he didn’t. But — as Parolles, the messenger, declared in All’s Well That Ends Well — I am there before my legs.

Despite such tomfoolery, my “employment” at Leber & Katz accomplished two very important things for me, neither connected with career advancement.

(1)  With my first L&K weekly pay envelope, I opened a savings account in my own name at a bank near the office. All it took was $25.  I could hide this much money from Ed by “explaining” that the rate of social security withholding was much higher at my new salary than it had been before. As he himself had never earned $8,500 a year, he believed me.  Thus, every week after that, while matters continued to go south at home, I was able to put away another $25.  By November of 1960, I would have $500 all my own.  Enough finally to flee.

(2) I met Serge, the manager of Christofle Silver, a new Leber & Katz account that arrived at the agency in August 1960. The Christofle showroom was on the third floor of a townhouse at 55 East 57th Street that already housed Limoges china on the ground floor and Porthault linens on the second. The company had therefore come to L&K on the recommendation of the manager of Limoges, for which Lester managed some minimal advertising.

Neither Stanley nor Lester spoke French.  I still could. (Much better than I do now.)  There was therefore no question in their minds that I should be at the initial meeting with the daughter and son of the owner, both soon to return to France, and with Serge, who would remain in New York. (This was before the line drawings of grapes and the one-tooth baby.) My presence probably wasn’t necessary as Serge, at least, was perfectly bilingual (with a charming French lilt), having recently acquired a degree from the London School of Economics.

Born in Paris and therefore thoroughly French, he nevertheless had Polish grandparents and was a Polish Baron, a title of absolutely no use anywhere except to get last minute reservations at posh New York restaurants. He was therefore a problem to the Leber & Katz guys from the start. Lester thoughtfully called him “Sergei,” in honor of his Polish ancestry.  Norman called him “Surge,” because Norman recognized no language but English.  I pronounced his name the French way and became his favorite. There was also a quasi-private exchange of Shakespeare quotations across the conference table that had nothing to do with what the others were discussing but indicated to each of us that (a) we were both better educated than the others and (b) we both thought advertising was pretty silly.  He insisted I be the copywriter on the account.

I’ve already written about Serge — although not extensively — as if he were fiction.  (He is Andre de Renski in “Those Were the Days,” which is listed on the Fiction Page to the left. I should probably write more about him; I remember enough for a novella.) Serge sometimes does seem like fiction when I think of him now, but he was quite real, and still is.  (According to Wikipedia, he remains alive and relatively well in France; he has written several French novels and now translates American he-man novels into French.)  But what was significant about him then in terms of this particular story is that based on his request, Lester and Stanley turned him over to me. An art director named Art Rothenberg and I handled all the Christofle advertising as long as I was at the agency, and I alone was able to extract from him the overdue checks for services rendered.  So in a way Serge kept me busy enough to prevent being let go by Norman until I had enough money to leave Ed — which was very important.  That he courted me and I thought he might serve as a temporary stepping stone between husbands was also a factor in  my decision to leave when I did, but is still another story.

So now we come to the bed at the top of the page.  It was a sterling silver bed made by Christofle for an Indian maharajah in the mid-nineteenth century. Both Serge and his employers back in France wanted it in their inaugural ad in America.  It was bad, bad American advertising (whatever its appeal had it run in France), but it was unusual.  In fact, Christofle liked it so much it continued to appear even after I had parted company with Lester and Stanley.  Here’s the ad, in all its glory, torn from the pages of the Times in 1961:

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A PLEASURE IN THE HOME

The prolix and troublingly coy copy read:

We trust you do not covet the unusual object below. It is not for sale. An Indian Maharajah commissioned it from us in the nineteenth century, and — as far as we know — passed it on to an heir. All that remains to us is its photograph, which we show you with some trepidation.

For, you see, we do not know you Americans very well, having arrived in your country only recently. In France we take such follies philosophically, with lifted eyebrow. But here, will you be shocked, or (as we hope) interested to learn that this so-called bed was wrought entirely of sterling silver.  One thousand pounds of it, including the ladies.

When one reposed upon it, the ladies waved their fans while a music box concealed beneath the springs released the latest Offenbach can-cans from Paris into the Eastern night. (Who could sleep with such distractions?)

As we say, however, to each man his pleasure. And, since 1839, Christofle has been giving unalloyed pleasure to maharajahs, emperors, kings and people who wish to feel like kings. If it is really your pleasure that we make you another such bed, we shall do so.

A last word about the bed. We do take a certain bizarre satisfaction in having created it. For one must admit that it is unique — until such time as somebody orders another. And to be unique is highly characteristic of Christofle.

Is Christofle only for those persons on a maharajah’s annual stipend? By no means. On the next page you see a recent creation in which we take genuine pride. It is called “Duo” and it was designed for us by the noted Finnish artist, Tapio Wirkala. The six pieces are all of heavy silver plate. (Actually they contain more silver than many settings of sterling silver.)

There is now in America hollowware and flatware by Christofle in vermeil, gilded, sterling, and heavy silver plate patterns — all within the reach of every purse. (See below for names of the purveyors.) These lovely things will not be one-of-a-klind, bed-type possessions. But they will be a peerless pleasure, none the less.

And that is because, among the foremost silversmiths of the world, the name of Christofle itself is renowned as one of a kind. Those beautiful objets d’art which proudly bear this name are without parallel, anywhere. They are, quite simply, beyond compare.

A brochure containing illustrations and descriptions of the complete Christofle collection is available on request. Please enclose 25 cents to cover mailing expenses. Christofle Silver, Inc., Ffty-Five East Fifty-Seventh Street, New York 22, N.Y.

CHRISTOFLE  Official Table Service to the Court of Kings

It goes without saying Art and I eventually talked Serge into doing something a bit more modern:

GOUT: the French word for taste

GOUT: the French word for taste

There was also a small space campaign for The New Yorker, captioned “eat, drink, and be very, very…with Christofle silver, official service to the courts of kings:”

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Art used to take me along on the photography shoots for this campaign, which helped kill even more time. One of these shoots involved a delicious-looking roast chicken on a Christofle silver platter.  To keep the chicken looking truly appetizing after its long hours under hot lights, it had been generously sprayed with lacquer and was therefore inedible.  You hang around, you learn.

In January 1961, Norman let me go.  (I had already left Ed in November, and was now on my own, with a legal separation to protect me from his appearing on my doorstep.) Norman said in my next job I should try to work harder.  Norman said I was being fired for cause, so I wouldn’t be able to collect unemployment insurance. (And the agency wouldn’t have to pay its share of it.)  I did try to defend myself; I’d done everything I’d been asked to do. Was it my fault all I’d been asked was to babysit Serge?

Spine stiffened by Stanley’s vote to get rid of me, Norman wasn’t buying any of that. He yielded just enough to concede they would give me good references if anyone asked.  Norman didn’t know it, but his head would soon roll too — because the renowned Paccione was about to join up as third partner.

Dear readers, surely you’ve had enough.  After I had spent four subsequent months at a stop-gap place much like Harold Mitchell, Inc. (but called Herrick Associates  — the associates being Mrs. Herrick, daughter Herrick and son Herrick), Jerry Fields himself rescued me.  By annoying him when I’d let Judy F. place me in a job, I had implanted myself firmly in his mind.  He personally found me the last two agency spots that concluded my “ad biz” career. I spent two and a half years at each of them, my salary slowly climbing with each jump, waddling out of the last job married again and eight months pregnant. So you could say all these follies you’ve been reading about had served a purpose (other than maybe moving merchandise), at least for me.

But I would be remiss to conclude this series without showing you how the Leber & Katz rise to riches began in 1961, soon after I left.  Unlike the ads for Serge, these print ads of theirs introducing Lowenbrau beer to the American public were really good examples of the genre. Although I wasn’t there to see for myself, I’m sure Lester and Stanley owed the successful Lowenbrau presentation and subsequent ad campaign to Patch.  There may have been some professional back-stabbing and blood-letting beforehand.  But hey, that’s how the ad-biz cookie crumbles. The rest was beer-advertising and Leber Katz Partners history:

WHEN THEY RUN OUT OF LOWENBRAU…ORDER CHAMPAGNE.

IF THEY RUN OUT OF LOWENBRAU…ORDER CHAMPAGNE.

NOW THAT YOU'VE SEEN THE LIGHT….TRY THE DARK

NOW THAT YOU’VE SEEN THE LIGHT….TRY THE DARK.

My song is sung.  Salut!

AD BIZ FOLLIES (#3)

Standard

Getting paid as a copywriter by Harold M. Mitchell, of Harold M. Mitchell, Inc., was, metaphorically, a walk in the park. As the weather in the spring of 1960 improved, it was sometimes a real walk in the park as well — Bryant Park behind the main New York library on Fifth Avenue being a pleasant lunchtime destination.  Harold did not watch the clock, and there was never a whole lot for me to do.

In fact, it was hard to say Harold was in the ad business at all, at least as I had come to know it, although he was certainly in some kind of ad business, running advertisements of another kind entirely. Moreover, the business he had must have been profitable enough to fund his spacious operation on the third floor of a Fifth Avenue building between 39th and 40th Streets, convenient for forays to Lord & Taylor across Fifth when the weather prevented midday excursions to the park.

In fact, Harold had a whole roster of clients. They were drugstores, discount stores such as Klein’s, and auto supply stores, for which he bought space in newspapers and flyer inserts, then placed the weekly (and sometimes twice-weekly) all-print ads of twelve to twenty-four specials per page which alerted client customers to come hurrying in for mega savings.  For this he did not need a copywriter, as the clients provided the bare-bones copy themselves. (I never had anything to do with any client he already had.) But he did need an unambitious art director and a humble paste-up person. These two sat alone with lots of space around them in a cavernous, decently lit studio behind the two front offices.  There they bored themselves into somnolence fiddling with the innumerable full-page “Save! Save! Save!” ads that put  bread with butter on it on all our tables.

Neeedless to say, Harold had greater ambitions.  He wanted to place ads for prestige products (or at least products sold full price in department stores) in glossy magazines (or at least the Times Sunday Magazine section) — so that Harold M. Mitchell, Inc. could at last become a real Madison Avenue advertising agency. As far as I could see within a week of joining his enterprise to assist him, he had three strikes against him in realizing this goal:

(1) His art director, a charmingly exhausted-looking dark-haired fellow from France in his early forties whose name I’ve forgotten so let’s call him Jean-Pierre, lacked all awareness of the currently favored look of print ads at the Art Directors’ Association of New York. Moreover, during our long conversations when there was nothing to do (which was often), and after he had decided he could trust me, Jean-Pierre indicated he had life plans which did not include a career with Harold. These plans were temporarily on hold because they depended on the agreement of another.  This “other,” who would frequently emerge from the elevator around five o’clock to be taken out for a drink before dinner, was a Chinese youth who looked to be no more than twenty, spoke neither French nor English well enough for me to understand him, and always wore a sulky expression which did not bode well for “agreement.”  I suspected that for him Jean-Pierre was a deep-pocket meal ticket and that both of them were therefore going to be in for a big surprise.

That’s because Jean-Pierre had also shared with me his modus operandi when personal outgo exceeded personal income. You could delay payment of bills without injury to your credit rating by writing a check for what you owed Store 1, putting it in an envelope addressed to Store 2, and vice versa. That bought you a month’s grace at each store.  Of course, this was in the days before computers, when real people in real accounts-receivable departments opened real envelopes, looked at what was in them and called you up if you had made a “mistake.”  Alas for the Chinese youth if his meal ticket was juggling stores and checks like that. I foresaw heartbreak for Jean-Pierre and hours of mutual commiseration ahead if we were both still “working” for Harold that long.

(2) Harold had no portfolio of glossy ads to show potential clients of the sort he coveted.  All he had, now that he had me, was my portfolio of ads — unfortunately designed by the art director at The Gilbert Agency and not by Jean-Pierre. But he also had the gift of gab.  He certainly did talk our way through several brand-name company doors. And he was a cock-eyed optimist.  He could make advertising sound like the answer to any poor profit picture you could describe. Since he had to bring me along on these exploratory visits in order to display my portfolio, I needed better clothes.

Ed, my unemployed husband, thought the place for me to shop (if absolutely necessary) was in the Sears Roebuck catalogue, preferably for garments made of reprocessed wool because they were cheaper.  I was therefore still wearing, in rotation, three suits bought at J.W. Robinson in Los Angeles, on my mother’s employee discount, to teach college English five years before. (To some things — like reprocessed wool — I simply could not stoop.)  Without remorse, I had thus begun keeping from Ed my father’s birthday and Christmas checks, allegedly meant for both us.  I cashed them at the bank where we had our joint savings account and kept the proceeds at the bottom of my purse, from which the money could easily have been stolen, but wasn’t.

Since there was lots of leisure at Harold M. Mitchell, Inc. to check out the sales at Lord and Taylor, Peck & Peck and the boutiques a block away on Madison Avenue, I was able to seize the day if the price tag was right. Once I had smuggled a bargain home and squirreled it away in my closet, I was safe from inquiry. Ed never noticed — new, old — what I put on.  My prize acquisition during this period was a black cashmere knitted dress from Italy. European designer imports were still very new. The dress had been $150 at The Cashmere Shop but had dropped to $20 by April. So there to reprocessed wool!

(3) Harold had abiding faith in the power of the written word. The triumph of the visual in early 1960’s advertising had completely passed him by, just as it had Jean-Pierre.  Harold loved it that I had been an English major with an A.B.D. (all but dissertation).  He loved it that I had written drama criticism in Los Angeles for a monthly magazine called Frontier and wanted me to bring in whatever copies I had kept so he could read my columns.  He even asked if he could read my master’s thesis on Edmund Wilson, the literary critic.  I dissuaded him from including these accomplishments of mine among his talking points to, say, the manufacturers of Spotstik, the coverup for facial blemishes, whose offices we visited at some point that spring. But he did insist on my drafting pages of speculative copy for every presentation we made.  Secretly I believed pages of test campaign copy were the wrong approach, but who was I to argue? Besides, they were fun to do.

SPOTSTIK PRESENTATION: SMALL SPACE NEWSPAPER TEST CAMPAIGN #1.  Should Susan Eat the Strawberries?

SPOTSTIK PRESENTATION: SMALL SPACE NEWSPAPER TEST CAMPAIGN

I never learned the outcome of what I thought of as Harold’s doomed efforts at Spotstik since — spoiler alert! — I had moved on by the end of June.  But it’s barely possible that he actually did manage to prevail over company doubts and persuade someone somewhere at the company to try a small space test campaign.  If so, it would have had a tiny photograph of a Spotstik accompanying the following:

#1. SHOULD SUSAN EAT THE STRAWBERRIES? Probably not. She knows what will happen tomorrow. She’ll “break out.” That’s what. But who can be strong all the time? And there’s always Spotstik handy to efface the traces of Susan’s dietary fall from grace.

Spotstik really works, you know. No one has ever been able to duplicate the formula. Unlike ordinary make-ups in stick form, it’s simply marvelous at completely concealing annoying little facial disturbances. Such as? Morning-after shadows under the eyes, for instance. Freckles. Once-a-month blooms. Signs of minor sin like Susan’s.

Doctors recommend medicated Spotstik as important first aid to good grooming. Have it on hand. Fastidious women everywhere do. 1.50 plus tax, at drug and department stores. A Lydia O’Leary product.

There were more, many more.  To wit: “Cheer up, Cheryl — It Happens to the Best of Us!”  and “Sheila Should Have Danced All Night!” and “What Will Debby Do When They Pass the Chocolate Candy?” Plus nine others.  But I will spare you (unless someone really b-e-g-s to read them all.)  Let us hurry right along to my major accomplishment during the time I spent with Harold.

The Myrurgia Presentation.  Myrurgia was a Spanish perfume company then new to America and seeking to wedge itself onto upscale department store counters next to Chanel No 5, Arpege, Joy, Madame Rochas and the like.  Somehow Harold had made his way, alone, into its New York office, was invited to make a presentation and brought back a bottle of Maja by Myrurgia to inspire me.  The company was talking maybe full-page ads in the Sunday Times:  Harold’s dream come true.

We opened the bottle and each inhaled deeply.  “What do you think?” he asked, after recovering from the overpowering aroma emanating from the bottle.  Personally, I thought Maja by Myrurgia smelled the way a brothel might smell, had I ever visited a brothel, which of course I hadn’t, but could imagine. I was unable to divulge this opinion to Harold.  He was such a nice appreciative man, and had saved me from near-destitution and having to spend too much time in the company of my husband.

“Mm, earthy?” I suggested.

“I’m sure you can come up with something,” Harold said, hurrying away to his own office, which had a window one could open. He had such confidence in me.

I was twenty-nine, my marriage was a train-wreck and I was getting through as much of my life as I could with the help of daydreams, mostly of an erotic nature. Over the next two days, I wrote three pieces of Myrurgia copy slowly, by hand, savoring every word — with the explicit instruction at the top of each page when I finally typed them up that the illustration should be of a beautiful, tastefully naked woman in a seductive, reclining position, front or back view being up to Jean-Pierre. Did I get somewhat carried away?

The first:

This is the woman primeval in you…

In each woman there are many women. Maiden mother, helpmate, friend. And also, this elemental woman, who dwells eternally in man’s desire, where her every golden silence whispers yes. This is the woman in you who wears Maja perfume by Myrurgia. In those hushed and precious moments for which there are no words, you will want him to sense its intimate aura about you. Something without defense, without pretense, an exhalation of your very being that warms and welcomes him with your love. Maja perfume is made in Spain, where there is deep feeling for these tender mysteries. For many years, well-bred women over the world have made it their preference. You will understand their reasons once you have worn it. No other fragrance is even remotely the same… At finest stores.

The second:

The you that only he will ever know…

Each woman to the world plays many parts…friendly, helpful, charming, kind. But only in the shelter of a deep, abiding love does she reveal the trusting, most essential she by which man knows that she is ‘Woman.’ At such an hour as this you will wear Maja perfume by Myrurgia. In those unguarded moments when you become the only woman in the world, you will want it to whisper assent to his desire…an unspoken message in the silent language of the heart. Maja perfume comes from Spain, where these tender mysteries have long been understood. It has been the preference of cosmopolitan women the world over for half a century. Once you have worn it, you will know why. No other fragrance is even remotely the same.

A-n-d:

This is the you of his most deep desire…

Because you are a woman, you are many things to a man…mother, daughter, sister, friend. And also, this primeval woman, whose trusting eyes create for him a world of tender privacy, where the sought and precious only occupant is you.  It is this woman in you who will wear Maja perfume by Myrurgia. In those golden moments which transcend description, you will want him to sense its aura about you…a poignant murmur of response to his deep-felt desire. Maja perfume comes from Spain, where such fervent mysteries have long been revered. It has been the instinctive preference of gentlewomen the world over for many years. You will understand their reasons once you have worn it. No other fragrance is even remotely the same.

It was certainly a fact that no other fragrance was even remotely the same. But the only real mystery is how Harold ever sold this fervently heavy-breathing kerfuffle to a company hoping to make it in New York with well-bred cosmopolitan gentlewomen (to use the language of the ads). This stuff actually ran in the Sunday Times, not only the following fall, but also the year after.  It’s true Jean-Pierre had toned down my specified visuals.  No more naked Maja.  Instead we saw three well-bred-looking fully dressed models as far from my hot-blooded “woman primeval” as you could imagine. It must have been his Parisian aesthetic.

Woman primeval?

Woman primeval?

The trusting most essential she?

Trusting most essential she?

Trusting eyes creating a world of tender privacy?  (Well, maybe.)

Eyes creating a world of tender privacy? Well, maybe. Is that a blanket, or sand, she’s lying on?

Nevertheless, I tore each of these disappointing pages out of the Times to save for my portfolio in the event there was a cataclysmic revolution in tastes in advertising during my lifetime  — although by the time they appeared, an employment agent at Jerry Fields had already made good on her promise that something would come along for me.

But before we move on to this next chapter in my ad biz adventures, you may ask what ever became of Myrurgia after its god-awful entry into American merchandising as designed by Jean-Pierre and me.  I’m pretty sure Saks and Bergdorf’s never made room for it on their perfume counters. But believe it or not, it’s still around today.  Perfume.com offers the eau-de-toilette for 19.95.  This is part of what you can read about it there:

Create an alluring, tempting vibe wherever you go while you’re wearing this Maja fragrance for women. Released in 1921…this timeless and captivating scent by Myrurgia has been wowing the masses for the better part of a century.  It…lingers behind, even after you’ve left the room.”

Whether “wowing the masses” is a better inducement to purchase than “woman primeval” I leave to your discriminating judgment.  In the meanwhile, I shall pass on to the story of my first six months at an agency with a real Madison Avenue address. It was there I finally achieved a legal separation from Ed in my private life while professionally having to deal with a client proud of having made this:

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That should keep you hanging till next time.

AD BIZ FOLLIES (#2)

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[For earlier posts about my abbreviated life in advertising during the late 1950’s and early 1960’s,  see How My Life As A Mad Woman Began and Ad Biz Follies (#1).]

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(Liar, liar, tongue’s on fire.)

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.)

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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:

"Rave notices for the breezy style of Kislav's supple-fingered virtuosos…"

“Rave notices for the breezy style of Kislav’s supple-fingered virtuosos…”

and for:

"A-mazing!…the way nothing phases those Kislavs!"

“A-mazing!…the way nothing phases those Kislavs!”

and for this one promoting Kislav’s cotton glove subsidiary, Gant Madeleine:

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“Signs of spring on every hand…Gant Madeleine’s fresh young gloves designed in France. Made of the finest imported cotton fabrics. Washable, color-fast, and non-shrinkable.”

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.

(Just waiting for me!)

(Just waiting for me!)

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.

AD BIZ FOLLIES (#1)

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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:

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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.]

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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.)

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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:

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CASTING A SPELL IS CHILD’S PLAY WITH KISLAV…THE LOVELIEST YOUNG GLOVES IN THE WORLD. Made of famed French kid…delectably fitted, delightfully washable.

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:

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All the world over, the letter and spirit of fashion finds its finest expression in North American mink.”  Ta-da, ta-da, ta-da.

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:

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“French, English, Swedish, Italian…whatever her native tongue may be, the wise woman of fashion asks for North American mink!” [Followed by much use of other adjectives — such as “fine,” “superb,” “superior,” “superlative,” and “treasured.” What can you do? The client asks, the client gets.

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.]

HOW MY LIFE AS A MAD WOMAN BEGAN

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Print Ad Portfolio.

Portfolio, circa 1967.

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.)

IMG_1389

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?