The Mad Men of Dallas
Amid the glamour of the advertising business at the height of Kennedy-era ambition, I learned the true name of the game: compromise and moral corruption. I loved every minute of it.
Caroline was on her second cocktail, a potent mix of vodka, gin, tequila, and rum. It was too much for me. I nursed a Lone Star instead.
“You know what my drink is called?” Caroline asked.
“The Leg Spreader. Don tried it on me. He’s tried it on every secretary at every ad agency in town.”
“Does it work?”
“It worked on me. You ever meet Don?”
“You introduced me once.”
“That’s when he first moved in with me. I’d only met him a month before, but Don moves fast.”
“Wasn’t he a time salesman?”
“Legendary salesman. Sold time for the TV stations. I was one of his biggest buyers.”
“I remember his English accent.”
“Phony English accent. He was born in Brooklyn, the son of a baker, but he wanted to be David Ogilvy, the copywriter who invented the man in the Hathaway shirt and Commander Edward Whitehead in the Schweppes commercials. He told me that I had class and called me brilliant. No one had ever said that to me before. I fell for him like a ton of bricks.”
“He’s gorgeous. He looks like Paul Newman and made me feel like Joanne Woodward. He loved to watch me work. You know how I like to figure out systems for most effectively buying time and space for my clients. It’s my obsession. Well, some of our local clients wanted to advertise on the Cowboys games but couldn’t afford it. Besides, they didn’t need a national audience. So I got this idea. Instead of one big game, why not simultaneously broadcast several regional games in local markets? The audience reach would be limited, and so the cost of 60-second spots would be radically reduced. With four or five games across the country, though, the network’s total revenue would jump. When I told Don the idea, he flipped. He said I was a genius. A week later, he returned from a business trip to the East Coast and brought me an art nouveau teardrop pendant.”
I said, “That was sweet.”
“Sweet turned sour in a hurry.” Caroline downed the rest of her Leg Spreader before finishing the story. “It didn’t take him long to sell a network on my proposal. The network was so impressed they hired him to implement it. They made him a VP and paid enough to afford a Park Avenue penthouse.”
“And you got no credit.”
“I got the pendant and I got the shaft. But I didn’t take it lying down. I told my boss and also called Don’s new boss in New York.”
“What’d they say?”
“They said women don’t watch football. They said a woman wouldn’t have thought of such an idea. Don told them I was nothing more than a woman scorned. They bought his story and dismissed mine as jealousy.”
“I’m still furious. One way or the other, I’ll get the bastard.”
Caroline tried. She wrote a long letter to Advertising Age, the trade publication, documenting the rip-off. Advertising Age never published it or even bothered to acknowledge receipt. Caroline wound up marrying a rock guitarist from Austin who looked a little like Ichabod Crane in Disney’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.
I would be writing a sale ad for Skillern’s drugstore or brainstorming with an art director about how to image Fox & Jacobs’ new Accent homes in Richardson when I’d get the call.
“Take this package to Love Field,” the account executive would say. “Get to the Braniff gate and wait for Wanda. She’s a stewardess on the noon flight to New York. Give her this along with 50 bucks.”
“How will I recognize her?”
“You can’t miss her. She’s a flaming-hot redhead.”
The ad biz lifestyle had a gloss and glamour that hid the subtext of the overall enterprise: compromise and in many cases, moral corruption.
Before FedEx, that’s how expedited delivery worked. Pilots got $100, stewardesses got $50, and your client in New York got your package that same day.
The same executive had me pick up the same stewardess a few months later and drive her from the airport to a clinic in Snider Plaza that performed abortions.
Image campaigns for hospitals, insurance companies, and prestigious civic organizations excited spirited competition among the madmen. Such accounts called for ads in which public protection—rather than public manipulation—was stressed. The stigma attached to advertising as early as Vance Packard’s 1957 best-selling The Hidden Persuaders could be mitigated by a high-minded campaign in which publicity became a force for good.
One of Dallas’ biggest health service providers had solicited a number of agencies to submit ideas. The setting was a fancy meeting room in the old Baker Hotel on Commerce Street, with its dark, wood-paneled walls, stuffy high-back leather chairs, and an ornate conference table from a previous century.
The executive board of the health provider was populated by four gentlemen in their 60s who, given their triple chins, ruddy complexions, and bloated stomachs, seemed to be health risks themselves. They sat back, drank coffee, ate powdered doughnuts, and smoked cigarettes while the madmen put on their dog-and-pony shows.
In the pre-PowerPoint era, an electric carousel of Kodak slides was the height of high-tech. The various presentations were noble, even altruistic in tone. In pitch after pitch, the well-being of the consumer was stressed in pithy slogans and visual scenarios. When the last agency arrived, the board members were spent. These guys had been there all afternoon. The coffee was cold and the doughnuts stale. When, for the last time, the lights were lowered and the carousel switched on, the old men were glad that their day was almost at an end.
The first image showed a small child being tenderly held by a concerned nurse. The second showed a young doctor examining a frail old lady. The third showed a group of pregnant women in an exercise class. The slogan was “Caring when it counts.” The fourth image that flashed on the screen was Chris Colt and her .45s, a stripper currently appearing at the Colony Club, just down the street from the Baker Hotel. Horrified, the agency account executive quickly pulled the plug on the projector. The board members nearly swallowed their Lucky Strikes.
“I’m terribly sorry,” the account executive said. “I have no idea who put that slide in there.”
You had the feeling that the board members had to restrain themselves from asking to see the image again. Rumors circulated that someone inside the agency, a disgruntled copywriter who loathed the stuffy account executive, was responsible. Other people said that the culprit was a competitor. In any event, the agency didn’t get the account. I often wondered, though, whether on some level the campaign worked. My guess is that at least a couple of the members of the board were moved to see Chris Colt and her .45s in person.
The culmination of the madmen era came in the fall of 1963, when, in the light of President John F. Kennedy’s visit to Dallas, the forces of powerful advertising and positive public relations were solicited to make sure the trip proceeded without incident. During the Kennedy/Johnson presidential campaign of 1960, Lady Bird Johnson had been spat upon in Dallas. And in October of 1963, in another dark Dallas incident, Ambassador Adlai Stevenson had been hit over the head with a sign protesting the United Nations. Extreme right-wing agitation caused some East Coast writers to label Dallas “The City of Hate.” Bloom Advertising was among the PR experts called in to calm the waters. With all the world watching, the city’s image was at stake.
I was hired to ghostwrite key addresses for Bloom and other civic leaders to deliver before the Rotary Clubs, the Kiwanis Clubs, YMCA groups, and a host of religious institutions. The word was “tolerance.” Kennedy was our president, and, whether we agreed with his politics, we would honor him.
I approached the task with dead seriousness. I must have written a dozen versions of the initial speech before I showed it to my boss. He was highly critical. The tone was wrong and the language too verbose. Back to work. I went through four more drafts before I returned with a new version. The boss still wasn’t happy. He didn’t like the metaphors and thought the speech lacked emotional depth. I switched up the metaphors, dredged up more emotion, and, after a long and difficult week at the typewriter, finally cranked out a draft that he accepted. I was thrilled.
When I learned that, in his haste to be on time for his first appearance, the speaker had left the speech on his desk, I was alarmed—until I learned that he winged it so well that he received a standing ovation. The pattern repeated several times, me struggling to formulate the perfect phrasing only to have my words replaced by a far more compelling spontaneous performance.
When that day of days, November 22, 1963, arrived, I was told that the creative portion of my work was over. I harbored a faint hope that the civic leaders, in appreciation for my ghostwriting efforts, might allow me to stand a few feet behind them as they greeted the president. Instead, I was given instructions to carry two huge Texas-size teddy bears, presents for the young Kennedy children, Caroline and John-John. When Mayor Earle Cabell, standing on a podium beside President and Mrs. Kennedy, announced the gifts, my job was to hold the things high over my head.
That morning I drove to Market Hall, where President and Mrs. Kennedy—along with the vice president, the governor, and their wives—were to arrive for a gala luncheon, the highlight of their visit and the centerpiece of the campaign to polish Dallas’ image as a city of benevolence, sophistication, and nonpartisan civility.
I arrived about 11 am. I was early—the president wasn’t due until 12:30—but so were hundreds of other guests, milling about and chatting. I felt foolish lugging around two huge teddy bears that were taller than I was. I found a chair in a corner, a place to quietly await the great arrival.
The wait seemed to last forever. A few friends from ad agencies spotted me and, when they learned about my job, kidded me unmercifully. I didn’t care. I just wanted to see the young president and his glamorous wife.
The first word came from Marian Goldberg, wife of Irving Goldberg, a prominent Dallas lawyer who, in a few years, would be appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit by President Johnson. She came up to me and said, “At first I thought they were just vicious rumors, but now they’re reporting it on the radio.”
“Reporting what, Mrs. Goldberg?” I asked.
“That the president has been shot. Now they’re saying that the president is dead.”
In a moment of surreal confusion, I looked at the giant teddy bears. I didn’t know what to do with them. After a few seconds, I took them into my arms, pressed them to my face, and, along with Mrs. Goldberg, began to cry.
There was a bizarre coda to the era-ending assassination. The presiding judge in the trial of Jack Ruby, Joe Brown, hired a Dallas public relations firm to handle press relations. It was reported to be the first time in the history of American jurisprudence that a seated judge employed an ad agency to help facilitate a trial.
Dallas’ image suffered mightily. It took years to recover, but recover it did. NorthPark opened to great acclaim. DFW Airport, publicized as a landmass larger than all Manhattan, was declared a triumph of engineering and design. The city’s landlocked deficit was addressed in ads that trumpeted the fact that “Our sky is our ocean.” The madmen survived to reinvent, repackage, and resell Dallas as a world center of culture, art, and forward-thinking business.
After starting an ad agency with some friends, I left Dallas for Los Angeles in 1976. I turned in my madman badge in an attempt to write books. And even though I have done just that, I realize now, some 36 years later, that the badge never disappears. The madmen sensibility—to make money through language, to sculpt words to excite desire—is as much a part of me as it was when, as an ambitious manchild, I first came to this beautiful, bewildering task.
In the 1970s, David Ritz was one of D Magazine’s first contributing writers. He went on to co-write autobiographies with Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Buddy Guy, Don Rickles, and many others. With Marvin Gaye, he co-wrote the song “Sexual Healing.” He lives in Los Angeles.