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Monday, January 05, 2015


MY DAD WAS A REAL MAD MAN Move over Don Draper, he was the real thing. After he got a degree in chemical engineering and squandered his inheritance on booze and high living,dad started looking for a job. That was just before the stock market crash of ’29 and jobs for engineers were scarce so my dad decided to try something different. He took a job at Garfinkle’s Department Store at the northwest corner of 14th and F Streets, across from the Willard Hotel in Washington, DC. He wrote copy for the retail ads the store ran in the Washington papers for a year or so and then headed north to Chicago where he was copy chief on the Montgomery Wards catalog for a while and then moved east to join the advertising agency, Campbell Ewald on Lexington Avenue in New York City.

 From New York he went to Detroit to work directly with the Agency’s major client, General Motors. By then he’d acquired a family- my mom, my little brother Pat and me. I was the first born, named after my father and my grandfather who was living in Chicago at the time I was born. Dad “came of age” during prohibition and contrary to the efforts of the Temperance Union, by the time he was 18 he was already an alcoholic. His frequent job changes during the early years of his advertising career were due to the times when he didn’t return to work after lunch or didn’t show up for work in the morning. That changed when he started living with wife number three. (he had been married briefly before he met my mother). His third wife to be soon laid down the law - either he gave up the booze or she’d give him up. And it must have been true love since he stayed with Claire until her death in 1968. He would be married twice more before his own death in 1984 .

 We moved from a great big house in Birmingham, Michigan (an easy commute to the GM Headquarters in Detroit) to a smaller place in Baldwin, Long Island where I started school in the fall of 1940. My mother and my two brothers and I arrived in Baldwin ahead of dad who drove back in his new Hydramatic Oldsmobile. That was probably the first car equipped with fully automatic transmission but notwithstanding it’s high-tech efficiency dad managed to “total” it on the drive back from Detroit. We didn’t stay very long in Baldwin either. The next st0p was an apartment in Jackson Heights, Queens, NY. A doctor had been the previous tenant and the place had lots of closets with double Yale locks on the doors. I don’t know the reason for the move to Jackson Hts., maybe it was something about missing rent payments on the place in Baldwin due to dad’s spotty employment. I don’t know where he was working in ’41 but it was not a good year for our family and the rest of America. My grandparents both died that year and then in December, the Japs bombed Pearl Harbor and my parents started a separation that ended in their divorce a few years later.

 Mom, my bothers and I moved again. This time it was a two bedroom flat in Brooklyn and Catholic School for me. Dad went to live with Claire (3rd wife to be) in her apartment 0n East 48th St in Manhattan. Greta Garbo’s house was only a few doors up the street and there was a great French restaurant, The Cheval Blanc about 100 yards from the apartment. I visited there frequently until they moved to Westchester in 1943. On Saturdays, dad and I would have lunch at Costello’s Bar & Grill on Third Avenue. They had one of the best free lunch counters in the city. For the price of a drink you got a well filled sandwich - roast beef pastrami, ham or turkey with potato salad or cole slaw and a pickle . Then we’d go to one of the city’s great museums- Natural History, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Planetarium , The museum of Science & Industry or we’d go to the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building or The Public Library on Fifth Avenue & 42nd Street. Once or twice a month we’d go to the theater or a night club like the Zanzibar or La Martinique that had floor shows.

 It was about that time that dad was hired by a Boston- based ad agency to run their New York office. I think everyone that knew him was surprised he got the job and how well he did. He created a very good first impression with the people he met. He always dressed very well. Suits from Brooks Brothers (owned by his first employers, Garfinkel’s) Tripler, Paul Stuart and “Bespoke Tailors” on Madison Avenue. He took good care of his clothes. His shoes were always polished, clothes cleaned & pressed , ties from Sulka and The Custom Shop. In 1942 Dad bought a house on Sparkle Lake, just outside of Yorktown Heights, 42 miles from midtown Manhattan and a bit beyond what was then considered reasonable commuting distance from the city. There were few commuters in the neighborhood when dad bought the place but by the time he sold it 20 years later, everyone in the area was commuting to NYC and property values had increased 1000% percent. Our house sat on a hill overlooking the lake and it was a five minute walk to the beach. It was originally been built as a summer cottage and the living space was limited but soon after he bought it dad hired a contractor to remodel the whole house. He added two bedrooms and a loft plus a second bathroom and a study/den. Most of the work was done while dad and his new family visited relatives in California. It was a great place for kids. I was not a permanent resident but spent a few summers and school vacations there and made a few friends in the neighborhood. We swam and fished the lake and in the winter when the lake froze we skated and played hockey. Sometimes we would ski down from the lake and out onto the ice.

 My half-brother and sister had a full-time “nanny” named Peggy. We became close friends and she and her boyfriend, Billy and I would go out together on Saturday nights. One Saturday night we went to the church bazar in Yorktown. One of the attractions was the “Wine booth” where we could put a nickel or a dime on a number and if the spinning wheel landed on it we won a bottle of wine. We pooled all our change and eventually won a half dozen bottles of cheap wine that we drank in Billy’s car. That was my initiation and I got very drunk. Billy and Peggy drove me back to the house and left me lying at the back door. They rang the bell and took off and my dad dragged me to my room. When I woke in the morning, my dad said “if you don’t know how bad that is I’m not going to even try to tell you” and that was the only time he ever mentioned it. That was a perfect example of my father’s philosophy of parenting, he called it “benign neglect” and he practiced it faithfully with me and all the rest of his children. The result was, that my younger brother Patrick dropped out of a promising career at Lever Brothers when he was 26 and ended up in Mexico where he smoked a lot of pot and grew soy beansprouts. Nick never held a permanent job and dedicated his life to abstract expressionist painting but rarely sold anything. My half-sister Nicole survived by marrying a rich guy who supported her after their divorce until their son reached 21. Skidmore never really tried out “the American way of life” but instead headed straight down to old Mexico after graduating from Columbia and taught English until he had a stroke a few years ago. And me, I had five different careers. Made some money and lost it in the restaurant business and got a good job and a new career when I was 62 but had to give that up when my wife’s employers transferred her from California to Austin Texas.

 After a few years of running someone else’s business, dad decided to go out on his on and started an advertising agency with two partners. Dad had brought several clients over from his previous company and his partners had done the same. He also got several new clients including a guy who sold incredible rose bushes by mail. My dad was really good at mail order advertising. It was his specialty and the agency and the rose guy were doing great until one day my dad got a call from the rose guy’s wife. She said that her husband had just been arrested for mail fraud by the postal authorities. After he had the full picture, dad knew he’d been screwed by the rose guy who had also screwed his growers and the customers who had bought thousands of “The World’s Most Beautiful Roses for only $3.98” The way he’d managed to do this trick was by not paying anybody for anything. He started by by paying the growers and the agency but soon he stopped and put all the proceeds in his pocket, the growers stopped shipping, so customers complained to the postal authorities and “the jig was up” as the con men used to say. My dad was obligated by law to pay the media - newspapers, magazines and radio for all of the advertising space that he had contracted on behalf of the rose guy. About $500,000. He was making pretty good money but he spent most of it so he didn’t have the collateral to pack a $500K loan from the bank. Just when things looked very dark, dad got a call from one of his ex-employers, Ray Spector.

 Raymond D. Spector was a wheeler-dealer/ entrepreneur who dad had worked for in the early forties. Ray respected dad’s talent for copy and marketing. It was dad who created the launch campaign for a new product that became a national sensation it was Serutan “spelled backwards that’s nature’s” Their slogan was “Life Begins at Forty”. It was a huge success but two years after the launch, Spector declared bankruptcy and went to the Bahamas with the profits. Leaving my father and other key employees in the cold without back pay and promised bonuses. Naturally dad was angry but when Ray asked him to join him in a new venture - Hazel Bishop Lipstick and said he would take full responsibility with the media for dad’s $500k obligation it was an offer dad couldn’t refuse but he would regret it before the year was out. I joined the Marines soon after dad went to work for Spector. They launched “Hazel Bishop Kissproof Lipstick” with the slogan “Stays on you- not on him” Dad flew out to L.A. while I was stationed at Camp Pendleton waiting to go to Korea. I met him in LA and we went to the races at Hollywood Park. The next day we met Ray Spector at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Hollywood. We went to the swimming pool where Ray introduced us to Ralph Edwards who pitched his new TV show concept he had titled This Is Your Life. After he’d finished and left the three of us sitting poolside, Spector asked “So Neds two and three, what do you think of Ralph’s show. I wasn’t very impressed myself but after a long pause dad said “A little too corny for my taste but it might be OK for daytime TV.” and Spector then asked me, “what do you think junior?” “Same here sir, I thought it was kinda dumb” “Corny? Dumb?” “I don’t think either of you guys understand anything about TV!” “I’m going to buy exclusive rights to that show before somebody else does” and that’s what he did and it became the top show on TV and stayed on top for several years but our judgement had some merit even though it was somewhat premature By October 1960, Time magazine was calling This Is Your Life "the most sickeningly sentimental show on the air” By that time, Ray Spector had sold Hazel Bishop Lipstick and This Is Your Life” to Gilette for millions and retired. He died in Fort Lauderdale, FL in 2004.

 Dad left Spector after Gillette bought the company. He found work as a copy writer at Ted Bates & Co, then one of the country’s top agencies. By that time I had started my own advertising career at the American Banker’s Association but after a year or so my boss and I started to buck heads. He was convinced I was trying to get his job and I thought he was nuts. I had hit it off pretty well with the head of the association, Charls E. Walker, who was later to become Secretary of the Treasury. He offered to move me to any job I wanted at the ABA but I had an offer from an ad agency that was very tempting.. One day at lunch with my dad I told him about the situation at ABA and asked him what he thought I should do. Take the agency job or hang in at ABA and transfer to the public relations department? Instead of telling me what I should do, he gave some advice that I’ve never forgotten. He said “You’ve got a problem that your brain can’t handle. The brain is just a calculator - it can add, subtract, multiply and divide but when it comes to complex problems like the one you’re trying to solve it can’t help you. You need to use your subconscious mind for that. Tonight, just before you go to sleep, review the problem and try to think of the reasons why you should or shouldn’t take the agency job. First thing tomorrow, when you wake up, you’ll have the answer - accept it and live with it and never look back” That’s what I did, I took the agency job and a year after I started, things were looking pretty good. I doubled my salary and was offered a big promotion and asked to go to Milan to be co-director of the agency’s newly formed Italian operation. Shortly after I was offered the job in Milan, I got a rather mysterious telephone call inviting me to lunch at the Delmonico Hotel with some unnamed people who wanted to talk to me about a job. My curiosity was aroused so I knocked on the door of room 214 at the Delmonico and was ushered in to large suite where a table was set for linch for four. My hosts welcomed me and I soon learned that I was lunching with the the CEO of N.W. Ayer Advertising. During the course of the luncheon they asked questions about my background and experience and over coffee I was invited to join their company in a very interesting position. I said I’d think about it and was about ready to leave when the CEO asked if I knew a good creative chief with heavy petroleum experience andI said “yeah, that would be my dad who was currently working at ted bates on the Mobil account” They were interested so I gave them his coordinates and a few days later he was having lunch in room 214 at the Delmonico. In the end, decided against the move which was unfortunate because a few months later, he lost his job at Ted Bates. He then joined the Open Space Action Committee as a writer and communications consultant where he stayed until he retired. He was also active in Westchester County politics for several years and ran for Mayor of Yorktown Heights twice but never got elected. He was smart and made a good impression but never developed an instinct for the jugular vein that is so vital for a successful political career.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Robin Williams' Suicide

According to a report published in today's Morning Telegraph (UK) Robin Williams hung himself. He was evidently suffering from acute depression. The mad,incredibly inventive and totally original riffs on almost any subject, for which he was justly famous could have been stimulated by a bi-polar condition. I find it difficult to avoid associating Williams' death with that of Phillip Seymour Hoffman's heroin overdose. Both brilliant actors - both principals in their own tragedies. Only those who are completely engaged in life can experience the great highs and the terrible lows. 
Good night sweet prince, you will indeed be sorely missed.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

"Some Are Gone..." from My Life

Those aren't teardrops on my keyboard - it's just condensation. OK maybe not all condensation. A couple of tears shed for the friends who have gone ahead maybe. Someone recently remarked that he knew he was getting old when he saw frequent obituaries in the paper about his friends and contemporaries. I replied that "you know you're really old, a 'Super Elder" when you don't see many obituaries for friends and contemporaries anymore. When I stopped in Milan for a visit a few years ago, I made a few phone calls to friends I had made when I lived there for several years in the "sexy sixties" but after I got a few " No, sorry he died a couple of years ago" I stopped calling. The older I get the less likely I am to make friends -especially in a place so far from where I spent most of my life. The connections tend to be tenuous and rarely survive more than a few encounters. My tennis partners and opponents are fine- even great for tennis but not much else. Is it me? Probably but like Popeye used to say between gulps of spinach : "I yam what I yam"

Sunday, February 02, 2014

A Painful Experience

Yesterday was...August 14, 1968 My mother died in April. She was 54 and I hadn't heard anything from her since I arrived in Italy in '64. I was never very good about communicating with my mother- it was something I knew I should do but I was always puting it off and now it was too late. I struggled with her death and my guilt. Maybe if I had made more of an effort to keep in touch? I never knew she had been sick until I learned that she'd been in hospital for several months before she had a stroke. She was very high strung and perhaps bi-polar. A short, unhappy life marked by great disappointment and loneliness. My father left us - my mother and my two brothers when I was seven (On Pearl Harbor Day) and she never recovered or remarried until just a few years before she died. I fell from a cliff in the foothills of the Alps overlooking Lake Como. My first wife, Jacqueline and I had rented an apartment close to the Lake where we spent weekends. In the morning, before my fall, we had an argument and I left the house in a fit of anger and climbed the hill behind the house in worn tennis shoes. I remember reaching a point on the face of the hill which was almost vertical (I'd been there before) and I had to grab an overhanging rock to swing over to the trail. Evidently, I lost my grip or the rock came loose and the next thing I remember is lying on my back in a clearing and there was boy saying in Italian "Your Lili's father, I like Lili, she's funny" and I asked him to find help because I couldn't move and I hurt my back. The boy was known as "il cretino di villagio" ( "the village idiot" he and his brother collected and sold firewood that they collected in the forest. I lost consciousness and when I woke up I was in a hospital and a doctor was asking me how I felt and if I was in pain. I said I was and he told the nurse who was standing by the bed to fetch something for "Signor Smeeta" . The sister came back a few minutes later with a cp of tea . I then asked the doctor why he offered me a cup of tea when I was in great pain from the injuries I had sustained and he said "You Americans think that pain is some kind of an unnecessary problem that must be avoided but the truth is that pain is the only way we can diagnose your condition and help you to heal. We don't use the powerful pain killers here except in very unusual and extreme circumstances." So I learned to live with my pain and eventually walked out of the hospital on my own two legs without assistance (after I had been awarded 75% permanent disability) Now, almost 50 years later, my stupidity has caught up with me and I've been diagnosed with stenosis caused by the injuries to my spine so many years ago. So it is true that "You can run you cannot hide" from destiny.

Saturday, September 07, 2013

"What Are You Laughing At?"


One of several things that I learned rather late in life, is that a sense of humor is neither objective nor universal. Some people are completely devoid of any sense of humor and all of us will never agree on what's funny. Research in neuroscience of the brain indicates that there's a strong possibility that humor may have its origins in the frontal cortex,the most advanced or evolved part of the brain. This area is the last to develop, with full development occurring in the mid or later part of our twenties. So, it might be possible that a genuine sense of humor is probably only possible for mature adults. No wonder much of the 'humor" in popular movies and TV sit-coms seems "under my head".

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

"Wages of Celibacy"

NY Times 02/28/'13

The new Pope must revise dogma on celibacy. It's probably OK for monastics but for the parish priests it can be the proverbial "Road to hell -paved with good intentions"