Revolving Doors on Madison Avenue

[We've now and again asked Grieve-Smith to provide us with anecdotes of a Bildungsroman character. While the story below hasn't much to do with music, it's fun to learn what people we know and admire do or did off the reservation. The girdle bit is especially piquant. Grieve's a tad older than I; with respect to this maneuver, not all that much. Ed.]

W.A. Grieve-Smith

[January 2003.]

After I decamped from grad school at Princeton I needed some sort of gainful employment. After studying for a Ph.D. in Greek and Latin, what do you qualify for? Not hardly much in the New York business world of the 1950s. But there was always advertising.…

I couldn’t pass the typing test to qualify for the steno pool (commonly known as the Pig Pen), usually reserved for Ivy League girls. Guys went into the mail room. Wearing my crewcut and (only) Brooks Brothers grey flannel suit, I pushed the mail cart on its appointed rounds. A well-intentioned lady copywriter asked me if I would like some business advice. “Quit this dumb job, go to college, and make something of yourself.” I didn’t have the heart to tell her that this was the result of seven years of college!

Back then, before birth control, most proper young women wore Playtex rubber girdles similar to the rubber gloves still sold by the same firm. It took considerable tugging and hauling to peel one off. And never once did any young lady offer to help. The girdles had small holes to allow the skin to breathe, but the result was that the girl’s derriere was covered with bumps like milk glass!

Before I got to suction one babe out of her Playtex, I did manage some hot petting and kissing. Subsequently it turned out that she had the measles. I came down with the measles, a raging fever and what turned out to be an intestinal obstruction. My roommate was a medical student at NYU-Bellevue. He called a doc he knew who came over, took one look and ordered me into the Emergency Room.

It was pouring rain on a Saturday night, so we had to call the police for an ambulance. The ambulance arrived and I hobbled inside, doubled over in agony. Well, the ambulance was some kind of stretched Chrysler, and not the newest. Wouldn’t you know it broke down twice and finally had to be towed to Bellevue!

Once in the Emergency Room, I was placed on a cot six inches away from the next one. While I was going in and out of consciousness, the smell of burning snapped me to attention. On the next cot they were cutting the clothes of a fireman and opening his trachea for a breathing tube. Welcome to New York!

For the following nine weeks, I survived on intravenous needles, which broke every vein in both arms and legs. An exploratory operation left a nasty 15-inch scar across my abdomen. It was at this time that the Army called me for a physical when people were being drafted for Korea. After discharge from the hospital, I got another notice to report to Whitehall Street for induction. They were obviously taking anyone who could stand up. Weighing about 90 pounds with a humongous scar and tracks up and down both arms and legs, I looked like an escapee from Dachau and breezed through all the physicals! The last stop was the psychiatrist, a Marine major in the full-dress uniform with the Salvation Army standup collar. In a Southern drawl he said:

“Son, have you ever used any … uh … drugs?”

“No, sir! I do drink some beer sometimes.”

BAM! The major pulled out a big rubber stamp. “PSY DISQUALIFIED.” I guess he wasn’t going to get caught admitting an obvious junkie into this man’s army. So I didn’t have to go to Korea after all. I assumed the draft board would reclassify me, but they never did. I remained 1-A for the next 15 years, but the Army never bothered me again. I decided not to push my luck by asking for a new classification. Maybe my papers had slipped beneath a drawer or something. I let sleeping papers lie.

And returned to the ad biz and started writing TV commercials for some big beverage and cigarette accounts. TV was a new arrival and not at all popular with the graybeards who ran the agencies. For starters, they were only trained in print and couldn’t write their names in wet sand when it came to composing dialog for an actor to read. And the radio specialists had no apparent ability to visualize, so their work didn’t cut it either.

There was another, unspoken factor at work: Before TV, advertising was almost exclusively the property of the white-shoe Ivy-League old-boys’ network. Some even wore their white bucks to the office in the summer! But TV let the Jews into advertising. Many came straight from Hollywood, the venue for those dreadful, one-color-with-sparkles movie commercials for the local furniture store.

During my first year most of us worked 90-hour weeks. As an “executive,” I didn’t qualify for overtime, so I was actually making less than the peons who worked under me. The stress got to one older print art director, who committed suicide. I did not hear one word of sympathy for the poor guy. Only: “Guess he couldn’t stand the gaff.”

One morning at five, I was in the art department checking copy on storyboards for a seven a.m. meeting when in walked the chairman of the board of the whole shebang. I groaned and he said, “I know we shouldn’t be here, but we’d feel better if we could see what you’re going to present at the meeting.” I allowed as how, since he’d asked nicely, I’d take him through the boards.

Afterwards he said, “Maybe you can help me. I have a problem with storyboards. And our clients have a problem with storyboards. Since we own a production company in Hollywood, we want you to go out there and shoot demo commercials to show our clients.”

Said I, “I’ll be only too happy to get a trip to Hollywood if you can answer one question.”

“What’s that?”

“Do you also have trouble understanding Little Orphan Annie?”

The agency soda machine had only one brand: ours. Same with the cigarette machine. I once got stuck supervising a recording session for the voiceover for a cigarette spot when the ad manager walked in and asked who the guy behind the mic was. I replied that he was the voiceover talent for the “Song of the Cigarette.”

And Mr Exec said, “Get rid of him!”

And I said, “But you haven’t even heard him speak.”

And he said, “It doesn’t matter. He doesn’t look masculine enough.”

For an unseen voiceover? The producer got rid of the guy. You don’t challenge Authority.

In 1958, I moved to another agency at double my previous salary. A buddy of mine was a brilliant young writer who worked on our breakfast-cereal account. He came to my desk almost in tears and said he was being let go — just couldn’t cut it. I got him to take a walk with me outside the office at lunchtime and asked, “What about those crazy spots I saw in your office?” And he said:

“Oh, my boss wouldn’t let anyone see that stuff.”

So I said, “Can you get the account supervisor to come to your office?”

“Sure. He loves to mingle with the creative types.”

So I told him to line his walls with the cartoon storyboards and call the supervisor.

“And then what?”

“That’s it.”

So Mr Supervisor came to his office, took one look at the storyboards and said, “This stuff is terrific! Why haven’t I seen any of this?”

My pal stammered, “Well … my boss….” With that Mr Supervisor dialed the creative director and said, “I want Mr X removed from the account for obstructing the creative work.”

Now Mr X was an executive vice president and member of the board of directors and every year got six weeks vacation to play golf at St Andrew’s in Scotland. On Friday he left for his vacation. The following Monday movers came in and removed all his personal furniture. Then a guy with a sledge hammer bashed down the office wall!

When Mr X returned all rested and tanned, his office had vanished! That’s how he got the message. And my pal got to keep his job. Naturally, Mr X had no idea of the part I played. A few months later it was my turn to get fired. By this time Mr X had surfaced at another agency and I called him to offer my services and was hired. To this day, I don’t think Mr X ever dreamed I was instrumental in his downfall.