Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Mad Men, Bad Women: A Summer in the '60s New York Ad World

I Dreamed I Got Some Great Pointers in my Maidenform Bra
     (March 2012) During my freshman year in college, in 1968, I sent a letter to Jane Trahey, who had gained fame as the first woman in the country to own a major advertising agency. I  brashly told her that I was a "goldmine of potential," and requested a summer job.
    I had become intrigued by Jane, an eye-rolling wise-cracker and a cynical curmudgeon.  I felt that I could glean priceless insights about the ad world from her, and that in return, I could cheer her up with my oh-my-gosh enthusiasm. I got the job, and the most memorable summer of my life. But I never did cheer her up. She remained totally exasperated.
Adorable Haley Mills, right, portrays Jane in "Life with Mother Superior."
    When I was in high school, I had read an excerpt of Jane's humorous but matter-of-fact autobiographical book, "The Trouble with Angels," about life in a Catholic girls' school. It was later adapted into a theatrical production and made into a movie, "Life with Mother Superior," starring Rosalind Russell and Haley Mills and directed by Ida Lupino. (The movie was so popular, it spawned a sequel. Trahey wrote 15 more books and several plays). 

    Haley Mills brought a charming freshness to her portrayal of the young Trahey that must have been hard for the tough old broad to tolerate. 
   The producers had probably said, "But Jane, we have to make her lovable!"
    And she very likely exhaled loudly, shook her head, and exclaimed, "Shit!"
     In college, I came across a Time magazine article about Trahey's groundbreaking ad campaigns, which were shaking up Madison Avenue. 
    (Even though she had gotten a master's degree from Columbia University, she had to begin her career as a receptionist at a Chicago department store. Maybe that's why she was chronically pissed off now.)

    After launching her firm in 1960, she went on to became the first woman to earn a million dollars in the business, with such fashionable clients as Bill Blass, Calvin Klein, Pauline Trigere, Danskin, Charles of the Ritz, Rolex, Olivetti, Bulgari, Blackglama Furs, and Elizabeth Arden. She was especially known in the industry for her use of offbeat humor and simple, clever slogans. Her ads were striking in their beauty and composition. 
    When I saw her interviewed on David Susskind's nationally syndicated talk show in May of 1967, I was fascinated by her description of how a charming and high-impact ad campaign is developed, even though she didn't have much charm herself.  She spoke in a flat, who-really-cares voice. She did not smile. She wore sturdy, serviceable woolens and flats, and her blonde hair was basically hacked off for minimum upkeep. 

    I was drawn to her anyway. I felt that I had always been overpraised, and it would do me good to have my ideas brutally crushed and my copywriting ripped to shreds. I also thought she would eventually grow fond of me. Dream on, silly girl.
Jane was no beauty. She was a tough, smart, blunt broad.
     When I wrote to her in 1968, I told her I'd need to be paid enough to live in the Barbizon Hotel for Women, a famously well-chaperoned, 700-room monstrosity at Lexington and 63rd Street. Considering my age, I didn't resent my mother making this a condition of my summer in the notoriously filthy and crime ridden city (at least that's how it was portrayed on the evening news: ghettos! murders! muggings! I'm surprised Mama let me go at all.)
    Jane's retort was, "I'll pay you minimum wage, and you'll earn it."
    I didn't care a bit that my job experience would actually cost me money. It was a dream come true. It was priceless to me.
The Barbizon: My home away from home
    Before giving her final approval, Jane wanted to see a picture of me. I guess image was pretty important in her business (although she could have used a bit of image-management herself), and she probably thought -- as many others back East did at that time -- that people in Salt Lake City were inbred hicks, with buck teeth and horns. 
    Thank goodness we had a picture of me that made me look deceptively presentable. (It would have been pretty crushing if she'd said, "never mind!")
    The date she set for me to show up for work happened to be my birthday, but I knew better than to mention that. She would most certainly have said something like, "Who the hell cares?"


    I showed up for my first day, with my sun-streaked hair, pink cheeks and girlish excitement, expecting -- I guess -- that everyone else would be quite perky and enthused as well.
Hi there! Let's get going!

    But things were pretty subdued at 477 Madison Avenue. I was greeted, with a warmth and interest that would not prove to be representative of the agency, by switchboard operator and receptionist Helen Denais.  She was a smartly dressed, good-looking woman who would eventually (and with considerable difficulty) teach me how to operate the switchboard, so I could relieve her at lunchtime.
    It's a bit embarrassing to admit how much I enjoyed my daily receptionist gig, since I really thought I should be in charge of a major ad campaign. Once I got the hang of it, I felt very professional and useful, juggling all those calls and saying "one moment please" with such easygoing confidence -- which I guess is how people tolerate jobs like that for 40 years. 
I was competent, pleasant and unflappable.
    Helen told me I walked like an antelope, which I assumed was a compliment; they are such beautiful creatures. About 20 years later, I saw some antelope on a PBS "Nature" program, and I was appalled to discover what a "lope" really is.  Now, yet another 20 years have passed, and I still haven't gotten rid of that icky way of walking. I think it's some sort of skeletal abnormality. Oh well, I'm sure I have other quirks that are even more unattractive.
Speaking of quirky, some of the firm's ads had a spooky aesthetic. That
adorable Norman Sunshine saw things through quite a startling prism.
    I gathered that Greg Gustafson had been assigned to sort of watch over me. He was a handsome young man who was very kind, albeit reserved and impersonal. He was from somewhere even more backwoodsy than Salt Lake City, and I somehow learned that his real name  -- something like Billy Bob Byles -- wasn't quite right for an up-and-coming Manhattan ad executive, so his current one was a sort of "stage name."

    He took me to meet the famed advertising phenomenon -- who hadn't smiled once during her Susskind interview -- and Jane Trahey didn't make an exception for me. Her office was large and modern, all done up in yellow and cream. She was editing something. 
     "Here's Sylvia," Greg said, as we stood in the doorway.
    She glanced up briefly. We barely had any eye contact.
    "Glad you could make it," she said. "Give her the tour, and put her to work."
    A bit of a letdown, but not enough to dampen my spirits.
    Greg introduced me to Sandra Kiersky, an account manager. The picture below doesn't do her justice. Why is her hair all tousled? It was always perfect! She was a goddess -- very cool, aloof and dressed in beautifully tailored, classic clothes in sherbert colors and classy pale grays and off-whites. I wanted to be like her, but at the time I was way too bouncy, too wide-eyed, too amazed by things. I got the feeling that she wanted me to get OUT of her office. And to STAY out. So I did. 
    I adored you anyway, Sandy -- you doll! I finally got hair like yours a few years later. And then I got hair that was even better!
Sandra smoked unfiltered Winstons. So sophisticated -- I loved that!
    But several years later, Sandra would leave the ad world to obtain a PhD in psychology from the City University of New York and a certificate in psychoanalysis from the Institute for the Psychoanalytic Study of Subjectivity. She lives and practices in Santa Fe, N.M. I have found her to be as cool and aloof as ever, although I'm not as tolerant of her arrogance as I was as a teenager.

    Greg then introduced me to Ruth Derujinsky. I never figured out what her job entailed, besides strolling about, looking fabulous. She was referred to in the newspapers as a "socialite," and she reminded me of Lee Radziwill, with her high-class bone structure, pulled-back hair, and her huge sunglasses. She was very tan and skinny and wore handsome mannish trousers and shirts, a designer scarf around her neck, and ballet slipper-style shoes. She glided around the office, head held high, with beautiful posture.
    I didn't know it until I began writing this remembrance, but she was a former model, whose career was at its peak in the late fifties. Here is one of her covers. It was taken eight years before I met her. I thought she became more attractive as she aged, just as Audrey Hepburn did, despite the sun damage to her skin. She became truly handsome, rather than merely pretty. 
Ruth looks ultra cool on the November 1960 cover of Harper's Bazaar.
    She wasn't yet 40 years old, but what I remember most about her is that she had a wall covered with framed quotations about the irrelevance of age and about the timeless, burnished beauty of a mature woman. I was especially struck by this because my own mother is very beautiful, and she was also trying to come to grips with what aging would do to her power, her lovability and her sense of self. It's a sad torment that so many glamorous women put themselves through.
Classy Ruth, in Vogue 1954
     Ruth, who seemed a bit addicted to being tan (I was too, to a lesser extent), obtained a patent in 1969 for a rotating sunbather's platform, so you would always be at the perfect angle for maximum exposure. I learned this just moments ago, through the magic power of Google.

    I was enchanted by Vice President and Creative Director Norman Sunshine. He was responsible for some of the agency's most clever and beautiful ads, and he was gorgeous. Although he didn't seem stereotypically gay, he had that look in his eyes -- a mixture of pain, humiliation and defensiveness -- that was common in that era, and that I still occasionally see today. 
    In my mind, he was damaged, he was devastated -- yet he pressed ahead, creating beauty with in-you-face nonchalance. I really admired him, and my heart went out to him. He seemed to assume that I was a bore, and he behaved accordingly.  When I walked past his office first thing in the morning, singing the Beatles' "Good Day, Sunshine," he didn't look up or even smile.
He was brilliant and adorable. And a little bitchy.
    My favorite work of his was the "Positively Blassfamous" series, for fashion icon Bill Blass. I got to go on a shoot -- it was in a vast marble lobby with a grand staircase -- and the dozen or so models in their exquisite gowns were arrayed throughout the space in slightly odd, perhaps absurdist, mannequin-like poses. It appeared in the major fashion magazines as a two-page spread. Other ads in the series were equally grand and striking.
    He also did a charming series for Danskin, titled "Danskins Are Not Just For Dancing," which featured beautiful women doing beautiful things, attired in one or more of the leotards, tights and shoes produced by the firm.
    He designed the riveting "Trigere Cult" ad campaign, "The Story of O Dress" theme for Paraphernalia. 
    He titled his most enduring and renowned campaign "What Becomes A Legend Most?" for Blackglama Furs. Jane and Peter Rogers managed the business aspect of the account after Norman masterminded the creative dimension (see below).
    Norman and his partner of 50-plus  years recently got married on a beach in Nantucket, and their new book, "Double Life," documents the shame and fear that gay people experienced during the eras that the couple has lived through. 

    Norman left the ad world years ago and has a thriving career as an artist in Nantucket. His partner, Alan Shayne, was a Broadway impresario and then president of Warner Brothers, until he retired in 1986.
     Joan Rivers hosted a lavish book party at the "21" club for the pair on October 28, 2011. Their book was formally released in November.  Here they are at the party: a delightful old married couple:
    When Greg took me back to Henry Wolf's studio, Henry -- who was leaning over a light table doing photographic touch-ups -- immediately jumped off his stool and declared, "This must be our delicious summer girl -- our sylvan rhapsody!"
    He reminded me of my friend Wes Bowen, who also thought of women in exclamatory, edible terms. (http://kronstantinople.blogspot.com/2011/04/i-still-love-you-and-all-that-jazz.html)
    "Please leave us alone, Greg, I must delve deeply into this rosy gift of the dawn," Henry declared expansively. "I think I must be in heaven!"
    Henry, who was Jane's partner, was one of the smartest, most interesting, curious, delightful, life-embracing and flamboyantly chivalrous men I have ever met.
    His raging hunger for women was unsettling at first, but once I realized that he wasn't a threat to me, I was able to simply enjoy him, and eventually to love him as a dear friend. Hundreds of people loved him as a dear friend.
    A few years later, when I had finished college and moved to New York's Upper West Side, he confided over dinner one night that he would be greatly relieved when he got old and his sex drive dissipated. "It is just too much," he told me. "It gets in the way of everything else!"

    He was obviously exaggerating. He was so productive, it leaves your head spinning just reading about it.
    He was a beautiful person. I adored his Viennese accent, his healthy olive-toned skin and the bemused way he peered out at the world from behind his reading glasses. He was impish yet scholarly, sparkling yet kind of drowsy, collaborative yet decisive. He had a rumpled, absent-minded quality as he roamed the office in his stocking feet, but he was one of the most highly regarded and honored people in the history of American graphic design.
Henry's covers reflected a whimsical yet existential sensibility.
     In all of our many conversations, Henry made me the center of attention. It was from others that I learned of his triumphs. He became internationally famous as a graphic designer and photographer after his groundbreaking work as art director of Esquire, Harper's Bazaar and Show magazines in the 1950s and 60s. At the age of 26, he had become the youngest art director ever for a major U.S. publication. 
    Before partnering with Jane, he worked for McCann Erikson Advertising, art directing such accounts as Alka Seltzer, Buick, Gillette and Coca-Cola. 
His photos for designers like Pauline Trigere were stunning.
    After five years, he left to form Henry Wolf Productions, devoted to photography, film and design. During  the next 30 years, he created over 500 television commercials and nine films. He photographed elegant fashion layouts and still lifes, often at his studio in a converted Upper East Side carriage house, for clients like Saks Fifth Avenue and I. Magnin, as well as advertisements for Xerox, Borghese, Karastan, Van Cleef & Arpels, IBM, Revlon and DeBeers.   
He knew how to grab your attention.
     He also taught magazine design and photography at the School of Visual Arts, Cooper Union and the Parsons School of Design. He received the American Institute of Graphic Arts Medal for Lifetime Achievement in 1976 and was inducted into the Art Directors Club Hall of Fame in 1980.
    I loved standing next to Henry as he worked at his light table. Like most people, I had always assumed that the models in all those fashion shots really were as gorgeous and luminous as they appeared to be.
One of Henry's stranger works, no airbrushing required.
     Today, we all know now about all the airbrushing and photo-shopping that goes on, but in 1968, it was done by hand, with a little paintbrush. 

     I leaned over, shoulder to shoulder with that snuggly genius, as he whitened teeth, added sheen and highlights to hair, brightened the eyes, made the brow bone and cheekbone pearly and more prominent, and plumped the lips. It felt as if he were gently, slowly making love to them, but really: It was sort of the opposite. He was saying that these beautiful women weren't beautiful enough. 
    The pictures, though, were masterpieces. And he was indeed an artist.
    He invited me to spend a weekend at Cape Cod with him, a horny young Italian photographer from our office, and a lovely Scandinavian model named Danielle to do a shoot for Elizabeth Arden's fragrance, "Bluegrass." I was afraid that things might become uncomfortable, so I declined. Here is one of the ads they produced:
Poor Danielle: She had to cope with two libidinous men.
     I later met the big, handsome, friendly and deceptively down-home Southern boy Peter Rogers, who who was an account executive and Jane's de facto office manager. He was so good-looking, he was used as the model for a luxury wristwatch ad.
    After Henry left in 1971, Peter became Jane's partner. They began collaborating on the agency's most famous campaign (launched the summer I was there), for Blackglama furs ("What becomes a legend most?") which featured the world's greatest celebrities swathed in mink. It was one of Norman Sunshine's greatest triumphs.
    Faye Dunaway, Ann Margaret, Catherine Deneuve, Sophia Loren, Natalie Wood, Maria Callas, Shirley MacLaine, Bridget Bardot, Raquel Welch and Marlene Dietrich were among the 108 "legends." So were Gloria Swanson, Judy Garland, Audrey Hepburn, Liz Taylor, Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. It is one of Madison Avenue's longest-running campaigns.
    One afternoon, Peter sent me up to photographer Richard Avedon's studio to deliver some legal documents. Bette Davis had just arrived for her Blackglama shoot. She looked me up and down, and seemed to find me reasonably adequate. She ordered me to help her remove her coat, since no man was on hand at the moment, and asked if I had any cigarettes. I was thrilled to be able to share my cigarettes with Bette Davis!
    I had been totally seduced by an ad campaign (not one of ours) titled, "This is the L&M moment."  Cigarettes were a relaxing luxury, it implied, and I deserved several moments of luxurious relaxation a day. I loved the design of the packs: Such wholesome, breezy scenes of autumn. Smoking seemed as joyful as kicking through the red and golden leaves.
     Chivalrously, I offered my pack to Miss Davis -- as she demanded to be called -- and she sniffed, "Oh God, not one of those."
    I guess someone found an acceptable brand for her, because she is smoking in the ad, which came out in the fall of 1968. 
I wonder which brand of cigarettes becomes a legend most.
    Peter Rogers, who had dispatched me on this eventful errand, went on to become "the talk of the town in Manhattan's backstabbing, gossipy advertising business," according to Advertising Age. He took over Jane's agency when she left in the mid-70s, and then launched Peter Rogers Associates.
    "He built a booming business grossing $10 million by breaking almost all the rules of the game. He has never solicited an account, yet the roster of clients he represents has grown from ten to 32 in the past two years," the New York Social Diary reported. He is now retired and devotes his time to portraiture. 
Peter Rogers remains a good-looking and warmly regarded man.
    Being used as a lowly messenger, pathetically enough, was the second most interesting task I was assigned all summer. 

     I had assumed that Jane would have had someone design a learning experience for me, perhaps having me work with a different person or department every couple of weeks.
    But that didn't happen. The morning I met Jane, she unceremoniously sent me to the typing pool and went on about her business.
    I was a terrible typist! I messed everything up so much that Gladys Tarte and Ciele, the gray-haired full-time typists, had to do almost everything over again.That was not the only way in which they were "Jewish mothers" to me (for example, they packed delicious lunches for me, those dears), and I will never forget their sympathy and good nature.
Joan Bennett in "Tears in the Typing Pool." I can relate!
     I was occasionally called upon to deliver coffee to Jane's office, when she was meeting with clients. I was terrible at that, too. The white carpet spooked me so much, my hands shook as I carried the steaming cups to her elegant visitors. I also got their orders all screwed up. Jane sat there shooting daggers at me out of her world-weary eyes.
    I'm not a typist, I'm not a waitress -- deal with it, Jane!
    I was expecting an internship. I realize now that when I wrote to Jane, I asked for a job, but I guess I assumed she would realize that I wanted to learn the inner workings of the ad world and be mentored by her staff. Maybe it was my fault for not being more specific.

    Not once did Jane invite me to sit down in her office so that we could get to know each other a bit and/or devise a work plan for me that would ideally benefit us both. She never asked how I was faring. Was I homesick? Did I get lonely on weekends? Was I enjoying New York? Was Salt Lake City preferable in any conceivable way? What were my plans for the future?
    She certainly never took me to lunch, although I was naively waiting for the day that she would ask me to join her at her favorite restaurant, Le Veau d'or.
But if we had gone, I wouldn't have ordered veal -- that's cruel!
     Once, I was desperately trying to get something typed for Jane, and making my usual mess of it. White-out everywhere. She stormed out and said, "Isn't that thing finished yet?"
    "I'm sorry -- it's taking forever," I told her.
    "Gladys, get it done for me," Jane ordered. "I can't wait all week." 

    But later that day, I got the second of my two interesting assignments for the summer. Jane called me into her office. She didn't invite me to sit down, and she was brief. "Elizabeth Arden's come up with a new eyeliner," she said. "Instead of being a pencil, it's a little roller ball that applies liquid liner. Why don't you see if you can come up with some names for it?"
    I was thrilled. This is what I had expected my whole internship to be like. Jane had done some beautiful work for Arden in the 1960s. This ad, which seems strange in today's geopolitical context, was inspired by the 1963 movie "Lawrence of Arabia."
 "Sheik - a lip shade only the chic will know."
    I am pretty good at doing the sort of thing Jane had asked of me. It's not a particularly admirable or substantive talent -- it's a sort of superficial cleverness. I left about 20 suggestions in her inbox before I left that day. I felt good about all of them.
    She never said a word to me. A couple of weeks later, I finally asked her if she'd seen my ideas.
    "They were fine," she said.
    Actually, they were great. I didn't need her affirmation, because I was proud of how well I'd performed. I think she felt that I was insufferably joyful already, and she didn't want to make me more so.

    I have wanted for almost 45 years to write a memoir about my summer at Trahey/Wolf. I was afraid I would forget the details, but everything is as vivid as ever. What's been both rewarding and odd to me is that in writing this piece, I have come to some realizations that didn't occur to me at the time, and I have remembered things I'd forgotten.
    For example, I never consciously faced the fact that no one in the creative division at the agency (except for Henry, who was always busy and often gone) had any interest in me whatsoever. 
Darling Henry was always up to something new and original.
     I am puzzled that I wasn't hurt or demoralized by the chilly reception I got. It didn't really materialize in my mind until I started writing this memoir how odd it was to be treated this way. And I apparently didn't care, which pleases me. I'm kind of surprised I didn't jump on a plane and go right back home.
    I was so happy, I guess things just rolled right off me like water off a clueless ingenue's back. 

    No one took me to lunch, or anywhere else, the entire summer, except that one day, two women from the art department -- who were appalled that I hadn't seen Central Park-- took me there for a slice of pizza and a visit to the zoo. The very enjoyable Lila Sternglass, who always dressed in a sort of gypsy-hippie-vintage style, told me that Kronstadt was her maiden name. This blew me away. I really thought our family was the only Kronstadt  in the country, if not the world. (I have since learned, via the computer, that Kronstadts are EVERYWHERE. We've gone a bit overboard!)
Kronstadt, Russia, is a nice little port city.
    Several years later, when I had moved back to New York, I obtained temporary jobs at four major advertising agencies: Benton & Bowles, BBD&O, Young and Rubicam and Ted Bates (later Saatchi). I was on assignment to write a magazine article about the inner workings of the industry. 


I got to go on a lovely, misty shoot for an Irish Spring commercial. I helped edit and organize Ted Bates’ bid to get the McDonald’s account. I got to go on an obscenely expensive luncheon at The Palms, paid for by the U.S. Navy (in other words, you). We were celebrating the success of the agency’s campaign, “It’s not just a job – it’s an adventure.”

I wrote synopses of research on homemakers’ emotional insecurities and points of pride which, I later learned, were used to manipulate women into feeling they “needed” our clients’ new and exciting products, both for their household chores and to keep themselves “desirable to their men.”

I was shocked to view a focus group behind a one-way mirror in which a group of about 12 children was being shown a series of cartoon characters. Behavioral scientists were trying to calibrate how to make a “monster” that was scary enough to compel them to want a new chocolate-puff cereal but not so scary as to turn them off.
    I developed such affection for some of the top people at these agencies -- the very people I was "investigating" -- that I didn't have the heart to write the article. I wish I could have: The cynical and manipulative mindset I discovered was chilling, even when it was housewives who were their targets, but especially when it was children. I also quickly became disillusioned by the materialism -- the consumer culture -- that advertising fuels, using psychological methods that I found to be very unsavory. 
   I had a magical Christmas Eve with the creative director of one of the agencies, who honored me by sharing an unsettling secret (http://kronstantinople.blogspot.com/2012/12/unwrapping-psyche-on-dark-and-stormy.html).
   It made me even more certain that I had correctly decided, after my first summer in New York, to change my academic focus from advertising to investigative reporting.
    I had a much more rewarding learning experience (and social life) at the firms I "spied" on, but most of it is a mere blur to me now. The people and the dynamic at Trahey/Wolf remain as clear and bright to me as ever.

    A footnote: I have mentioned that I had dinner with Henry Wolf a couple of times after I moved back to New York in 1971. I once mentioned to him that I had never figured out why Jane Trahey didn't like me. 
    His response was, "Oh my god, nobody told you? Jane is a lesbian. When people saw your picture and heard that she was bringing you here from Utah to give you a job, they kidded her about transporting a minor across state lines for the purpose of committing illegal acts. 
    "I have never seen her so mortified and shaken," Henry continued. "I'm sure she was determined to prove to everyone that she had no personal interest in you."
    She certainly succeeded. I am sorry for both of us that things worked out that way.   
Jane died in 2000 at age 76.
Henry died in 2005 at age 80. (I love you, Mr. Sweetie Pie)
Former model Ruth Derujinsky died in 2009 at age 80.
Classy receptionist Helen Denais died in 2004 at age 87. 
Beloved "Jewish mother" Gladys Tarte died in 1992 at age 84.

During my summer with Trahey-Wolf, I lived in the legendary Barbizon Hotel for Women -- what an experience!