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Smoke Signals from the Land of No Appointments

A Memoir of the Psychedelic Sixties

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New York, New York


I had just turned twenty-one when I arrived in New York. My uncle had gotten me a job in the mailroom of the advertising agency where he was a television producer. He wanted me to become a page at NBC, a traditional way of rising in the entertainment business. The network wasn't hiring, however. He also arranged an informal interview for me at RCA Records in Rockefeller Center. The interviewer suggested that I first get a college degree, while admitting that he himself didn't have one. On my way out, he laid three or four albums on me, including recent releases by the Jefferson Airplane and the Jimi Hendrix Experience.

Having little interest in career advancement, I instead became the nepotism candidate at Wells, Rich, and Greene, Inc. For the first week or two, I commuted to work from my uncle's house in Westchester County. Once settled into the job, I checked into a small hotel just off Washington Square in Greenwich Village. If I remember correctly, a room went for thirty-five dollars a week, which was a little more than half my take-home pay. I liked the convenience of living in the Village, but my so-called friends from the suburbs objected to the idea of my living in a hotel. (That was back in the days when I still cared what my friends thought.)

WRG was a "boutique" agency that had received much publicity due to the efforts of its hard-driving president, Mary Wells Lawrence. I heard that her salary was a quarter of a million dollars a year. That may not sound like much today, but it then made her one of the highest-paid businesswomen in the country. I later learned that she was also the first woman president (now called CEO) of a company that was listed on the New York Stock Exchange. Unlike Mary, most of the other high-profile businesswomen in the country had inherited their businesses.

Before starting her own agency, Mrs Lawrence, as we called her, had done the colorful Braniff Airlines "End of the plain plane" campaign at another agency. Other clients at WRG included American Motors, Trans World Airlines, and Benson & Hedges cigarettes.

Mrs Lawrence wrote in her memoir that she wanted to create an agency that would place creative people, rather than business people, at its center. She would provide the business common sense along with the creative leadership. Together, they would "theatricalize life with dreams" in their ads and commercials. After I left the agency, they theatricalized the gastrointestinal tract with their "I can't believe I ate the whole thing" Alka-Seltzer campaign. They theatricalized auto assembly work with their "Quality is Job One" campaign for Ford Motor Company. This came at a time when most people perceived a lack of quality to be a problem for American cars. In the late 1970s, they re-theatricalized the City itself with their hugely successful "I♥NY" public-service campaign. It gave the City a lift at a time of financial crisis, when many believed that big cities like New York had become unlivable and ungovernable.

In early 1969 the main offices were at 575 Madison Avenue at 56th Street. They assigned me, however, to a satellite office a couple of blocks north at 625 Madison, which housed some of the less sexy departments, like accounting and media buying. James Scott, who was from Harlem, was my coworker in the mailroom there. Cheryl Wheeler, a cute girl with a big, beautiful Afro hairdo, was a secretary (now called an administrative assistant) there. We young people quickly identified with each other and formed a kind of quiet underground conspiracy dedicated to seeking humane treatment for ourselves in a world controlled by older people.

A couple of months after I arrived, we moved to more spacious quarters in the new General Motors Building. It was on 59th Street, across from the Playboy Club, and on Fifth Avenue, across from the Plaza Hotel. That's the location at the southeastern corner of Central Park where the horse-drawn carriages originate.

Dennis Galway, who was a couple of years younger than me, joined us in the mailroom. He had grown up on West 48th Street — the notorious Hell's Kitchen. He was also looking for a place to live, so we looked together. We ended up in a second-floor loft on East 29th Street between Third Avenue and Lexington. The neighborhood is now known as Rose Hill. The rent was $175 per month, split two ways.

Along with Stew Greene, who was an art director, the top managers at the agency included Charlie Walsh, the operations manager, and Fred Jacobs, the legal counsel. Nat Waterston, who could sometimes be seen practicing his ballroom dancing moves in the hallway with a random, unsuspecting young woman, was the creative director. Dick Rich, a copywriter and the third principal in the agency, had already left.

Back to earth. Tyrone Lewis, my boss, was the office services manager. Adam Richter, a grizzled, crewcut World War II veteran, was second in command. Hazel Ellerby was the messenger dispatcher and the all-important keeper of the petty cash box. Israel Schreff was a mail clerk. Lester Gould, who was hard of hearing, was the stingy supply clerk. There was much turnover among the grunts like us at the bottom, the messengers and mail clerks.

I guess that Ty was about thirty years old, based on the way he acted. Himself a self-made and self-motivated man, he often complained about the younger generation of workers who he said were lazy and who took everything for granted. For some reason, he usually looked at me when he said this. I wished he had looked at someone else occasionally, as I was sure I wasn't the only one in the mailroom who was shiftless and lazy.

Nevertheless, the mailroom had a reputation for being the first step toward a serious career in advertising. Several guys who were looking for creative jobs started there. Jack Akers worked with us awhile before landing a writing job in the agency. Another aspiring writer whose name I forget found the office politics discouraging and left. I had no interest in writing, and I knew I couldn't draw.

Gil Rivera and Robert Smith were the projectionists, and John Weston was their boss. I was thinking of trying to learn how to work the projector. Not being mechanically inclined, however, I was sure I'd goof it up somehow. Especially under the pressure of performing in front of the big executives and their multi-million-dollar clients.

The main receptionist on the twenty-eighth floor, the executive floor, was Ramonde Duchatellier, an astonishing beauty with radiant cafe-au-lait skin. One could almost hear the tropical breezes of her Caribbean homeland in her lilt.

Some of the names and personalities in the office were original. Bryce Birdsall had a beautiful face, exceptional bone structure, and an icy personality. She was sometimes called Birdy. Lenore ("Lennie") Blauvelt was riding a motor scooter to work long before it became fashionable for women to do so. Aurora "Rory" Ave was one of Mary's secretaries. Lynn Luneberg was a little spacey, so we used to call her Lynn Loony Bird.

Sydney Isaacson was a sweet girl, if a little old for me at the ripe old age of twenty-four or twenty-five. Nevertheless, she had a crush on me and gave me a copy of her favorite book, The Little Prince, as a gift. She even told me I could sit on her lap. Such behavior was way more forward than I was able to handle. Having attended all-male prep and pre-prep schools, I wasn't used to being around any women, forward or otherwise.

Beverly Lubin had an interest in me, too. She was even older than Sydney, maybe twenty-seven or twenty-eight. Old enough to know better, I thought. Betty Bromberg, who was one of Mary Wells's assistants, had a brief infatuation with me despite being married.

I did, however, develop a fondness for Roberta Rothbart, the manager in charge of the telephone receptionists. She was much older, maybe fifty or fifty-five, but she dressed meticulously and took perfect care of herself. Go figure. How can you explain sex or love? Unable to contain my affection for her, I surprised her with an impulsive kiss on the lips. To her credit, she accepted the kiss graciously, but that was the end of that. The awkwardness and abruptness of my behavior had embarrassed us so much that we both ran and hid.

I was hot for Eleanor Pravato, who was slender and slinky with long, straight, dark hair, and who dressed in the rakish mod look of the late 1960s. Not surprisingly, the other men had a passion for her, too, including her boss, Harold Singer, the print production manager.

Robert Smith, whose personality was as bland and unexceptional as his name, paid a great deal of attention to me. This was before many gays were out of the closet, even though it seemed as if every other guy in Manhattan were gay. The Stonewall Riots, the beginning of the modern gay movement, happened in the West Village during my first summer in New York. I was, however, unaware of them at the time.

Dennis was dealing pot at work. On one occasion, when he was away for a few days, I sold two ounces to Lynn Luneberg's sister, who also worked in the office. Those two lids were nearly the extent of my career as a drug dealer. This was before the Rockefeller laws; a marijuana sale was still a relatively minor offense. Dennis, however, tried to sell some drugs to a couple of suburban frat-boy friends of mine. The deal blew up and John Panzer, one of the so-called friends, came to our loft with a gun to collect his money. I vowed never to see or speak to him again, a vow I quickly broke.

If it sounds like we didn't get much work done, it's probably because we didn't.

The senior executives at the agency had their own secretaries, and the junior execs needed to share theirs. Mrs Lawrence, however, had four full-time assistants. Kathie Durham had worked her way up from line secretary to Mary's executive secretary and multipurpose personal assistant. Kathie even sometimes stood in for Mary at meetings she was unable to attend. Rory handled the reception duties in the president's office. Betty took care of Mary's personal business, like picking up her shopping at Bergdorf-Goodman and taking it to her apartment on East End Avenue. Another woman, who was less beautiful than the others, and whose name I forget, did most of the work. She was the most efficient typist and secretary in the company.

Uniquely among the executives, Mary had her own bathroom in the office and her own uniformed chauffeur. One could often see John waiting patiently outside her office.

If Kathie Durham were the boss's smiling public face, then Grace Feldman, the office manager, played the role of chief office witch. A longtime friend of Mary's, Grace did the dirty work, the chicken-shit hiring, firing, and disciplining of office help. Everybody hated her guts. We in the mailroom were lucky enough to have our own bosses and didn't need to worry much about Grace, except to suffer her face from time to time.

Part of my job was doing personal errands for the executives, like picking up a sandwich at Reuben's restaurant for Mary's lunch, or taking Stew Greene's car to the AMC shop on West End Avenue for repairs, or taking him some paperwork to sign while he was shooting on location, or taking a stereo system up to Charlie Moss's hotel suite. I think it was either the Carlton House on Madison Avenue or the Sherry Netherlands on Fifth Avenue.

My own lunch usually consisted of a street-vendor hot dog with sauerkraut and mustard, and maybe an occasional toke or two off a joint at "the Rock" in Central Park near Fifth Avenue and 63rd Street.

We messengers sometimes padded our big, fat salaries by walking to our destinations and pocketing the thirty-five cents that Hazel gave us for the bus or train fare.

One of our coworkers in the mailroom was Benny Rivera, a middle-aged, slightly rotund Puerto Rican with a heavy accent. A good guy, Benny took his job seriously, as still-eager immigrants often do. It may be that he had a family to look after. He even carried with him tables that indicated the cross street for any address in Manhattan — the sign of a true professional in our business. I, on the other hand, preferred to simply wing it, not caring much about how long it took me to get to my destination.

The office technology of the day consisted of the land telephone, the touch-sensitive IBM Selectric typewriter, liquid paper, and the mimeograph machine. The huge, noisy, newfangled Xerox machine was quickly replacing carbon paper, but it had an unfortunate tendency to break down frequently, much to Tyrone's despair. Automated in-house telephone switching had yet to be invented, so they had to hire young women to work the manual switchboard in an airless closet. Can you imagine saying all day, "Wells, Rich, Greene, can I help you?" I guess that the invention of modern, automated phone hell has passed the suffering, in a kind of zero-sum way, from the suffocating phone-closet workers to the clients.

Relative to other agency heads, Mary had a good record regarding the hiring and promotion of women. Ann-Marie Light, Carole Anne Fine, and Jackie End were among the hardworking and accomplished creatives who held responsible positions at Wells. As elsewhere, however, the majority of the women in the agency were concentrated in low-paying, low-status jobs, such as secretarial or the typing pool.

Among the other personalities at the agency was the late Pat Weaver, the former NBC executive who had invented the Today Show and the Tonight Show. A former radio man, he had also invented the idea of having the network, not the sponsor, produce the shows, which would then sell advertising minutes to multiple sponsors. He is, perhaps, even better known to the public as the father of Sigourney Weaver, who is two years younger than me.

I never met the future actress, but I did meet Kitty Hawks at the agency. She's the daughter of Howard Hawks, the director of many classic Hollywood movies. Kitty, who is a couple of years older than me, has in the meantime become a hall-of-fame interior designer. She lists Tom Brokaw, Mike Nichols, and Diane Sawyer among her clients.

Stan Dragoti, a top art director at the agency, married the supermodel Cheryl Tiegs in 1970. He went on to direct several Hollywood movies, including Dirty Little Billy (1972) starring Michael J Pollard. Charlie Moss, a top writer in the agency and its future president, wrote the screenplay for the movie. The joke around the office that everybody had a screenplay in their bottom drawer turned out to be no joke at all.

I learned that most campaigns are done in teams consisting of a writer and a director, if it were for TV, or a writer and an art director, if it were for print. And that a campaign succeeded if and only if the two creatives were able to work together as a team. An important part of the creative manager's job was, therefore, knowing who to pair with whom.

Advertising is a high-stakes, hardball business, and Mary's detractors sometimes called her the "queen of the black widow spiders." Perhaps this was because she was well focused on her agency's success, or because she sometimes dressed entirely in black. Most agencies were, and probably still are, old-boy, mirroring the culture of their Fortune 500 clients. Mary, however, was neither old nor a boy, and the rest of the industry resented her taking away some of what they felt was "their" business.

Sydney, the woman who once had a crush on me, worked for one of the account executives. Unlike the rest of us, they needed to deal directly with their corporate clients. Conspicuous in their gray business suits, they were known for being exceptionally unhip. As far as we were concerned, anyone who wore a suit was taking an aggressive, in-your-face, sellout position.

If, on the other hand, you were over thirty, but you worked in the art department and wore multicolored, flowered shirts, bell-bottom pants, and Carnaby Street leather boots, then you were sort-of okay. After all, being over thirty wasn't entirely your fault.

Looking back, it seems that to succeed in the high-flying world of Mary, Charlie, and Stan, you had to be exceptionally talented or intelligent; you had to be aggressive, energetic, or ambitious; and it didn't hurt to throw in a little personal style as well.

As far as my own career in advertising was concerned, I was oh-for-everything.

Living In The City

This was before the automatic teller machine. You had to stand in line at the bank and cash or deposit your paycheck at the teller window. This was also before graffiti. Public art (and outdoor advertising) had been around in New York for a long time, but it had never before taken on such a destructive or vandalistic character.

One thing you had to love about New Yorkers, even before September 11, 2001, was that they had great battle stories. Like the worker at our agency who on two separate occasions was stuck underground in Queens on the E or F train. To escape, she needed to crawl through the same manhole both times. And she was a large woman. Welcome to New York, where the people are tenacious and can endure almost anything.

I felt bad for the horny thirty- or forty-year-old men in the office who had come of age at a time when you had to marry a woman before you could see her naked. The young women of the late 1960s blew their minds by fucking them with abandon and introducing them to the joys of guilt-free and romance-free sex.

Leaving the complications of sexual activity to others, I discovered that the best way to see New York after hours was by foot. I walked the neighborhoods and soaked up the smells and noises of the City from Houston Street to the Eighties, and from river to river. (What is now called South of Houston Street, or SOHO, was then largely undeveloped.) One of the few things I knew about the City after growing up in the suburbs was not to get caught in Harlem after midnight while white.

The gay guys in Greenwich Village looked at you as if you were a piece of meat. I quickly learned how to affect a fast and purposeful walk.

There are several foods I can't get outside New York and miss terribly. To name three: bagels, deli sandwiches, and great Chinese takeout. For years after leaving the City, I often awoke in the middle of the night with the most powerful craving for a hot pastrami sandwich. I was like a pregnant woman — nothing other than that specific food would satisfy me. Life away from New York was a tough proposition, and the first few decades were the hardest.

Take the simple bagel. Wherever I go outside the City, merchants will try to sell you what they loosely call a "bagel." This is a piece of bread in the shape of a doughnut. I've eaten many pieces of bread in the shape of doughnuts in my day, but no matter how tasty they may be, they aren't bagels. A bagel is chewy, not bread-y. Any New Yorker can tell you that a bagel is made by boiling the dough in water before baking. I say, let's have some real bagels outside of New York.

Dream on.

Ditto for deli sandwiches. I've had one or two decent sandwiches outside of New York, perhaps, but I've never had anything even remotely approaching an authentic delicatessen ham and Swiss cheese on rye bread, with lettuce, tomato, and mayonnaise, which you could get anywhere in New York.

Double ditto for Chinese food. You could get great take-out in almost any residential neighborhood. The more of a hole-in-the-wall, the better. To this day, whenever I see a Chinese restaurant with no ambiance whatsoever, with nothing on the walls except maybe a crooked, out-of-date calendar, I'm tempted to try the egg rolls. When I do, I'm usually disappointed. As far as food is concerned, New York has spoiled me rotten.

For good food, I say, move over, California, New York is the place. California is about rules, do's and don't's. New York is about enjoyment. California is about your hippie Mom telling you to eat your vegetables, because they're good for you. New York is about your Jewish or Italian Momma cooking all day for you and insisting that you eat some more because you're getting too skinny, already. The former is about ideology, the mistaken idea that the body is a machine; the latter is about love, the recognition that you are in fact spirit.

The streets of New York, however, were dangerous. I was mugged twice in two years. Both times, I was close to home, as often happens. This may seem quaint, but there was then a kind of gentleman's agreement, if you will, that said that if the muggee gave up his money, then the mugger would let him go unharmed. That was before the escalation of weapons from knives to guns. I'm told that now, they'll take your money first, and then kill you for good measure.

Even if you're a white boy from the suburbs, you learn a little street smarts. Like avoiding any sidewalk that doesn't feel quite right. And if the opposite sidewalk is no better, learning how to walk down the middle of the street, doing the mambo and the shake with the maniac cab drivers.

Congratulations, you are now a New Yorker. It's a solemn honor that you must never let anyone forget.

Dog droppings littered the sidewalks in the residential neighborhoods, creating quite an obstacle course. After I left, Mayor Ed Koch would introduce New Yorkers to the pooper scooper.



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