“MAD MAN”…A MEMOIR – Sample Chapter

My march to madness had been steadily gathering steam since 1968—my freshman year as a grown-up.

I had just graduated from college and was sleeping on a day bed on the back porch of the home of my fiancé in New Jersey, trying to second-guess the odds of getting a job in New York versus getting my ass shot off in Vietnam.

It was a crazy time. Martin Luther King had been killed. Bobby Kennedy was about to be killed. America’s psyche was totally shredded by the war. And I had a wedding date breathing down my neck.

“You did what?” My bride-to-be screamed. She and her parents were downright apoplectic when I announced that I had decided to sign up for Officer Candidate School. “They shoot the officers first, you know. Our guys, I mean,” my fiance’s brother knowingly pronounced.

True, it was a risky move, but it was the only way I knew to resolve the uncertainty of the draft. I figured, what sense did it make to start a career, only to be abruptly yanked away for what I, and most of my fellow 18 to 21 year olds, perceived to be an unavoidable trip to Southeast Asia. Better to get on with it, I figured, and then have a life, hopefully.

My physical took place in New Jersey’s tired city of Newark. There were a handful of OCS wannabes like myself, and literally hundreds of draftees. With few gung-ho exceptions, no one wanted to be there and we all hoped for a way out, which is why I tried to get every doctor who poked at me to look at a physician’s letter detailing my medical history. Knee injuries had been the route to 4F status for a lot of guys, and I had a pretty fresh surgical scar on one of mine, owing to four years playing fullback for Rutgers. The team medicine man had noted that surgical souvenir, along with one or two other ailments from my college football days, in a letter addressed “To Whomever It May Concern.” It didn’t seem to concern any of the doctors whose gauntlet I ran that day in Newark, but one of them did stick the letter in my file.

By the time I reached the final station, where a young, black army grunt would deliver the 1A, good-to-go stamp, I had resigned myself to getting my ass shot off. I was thinking that very thing, in fact, when the young soldier said, “You have a fractured wrist that won’t heal?”  It was as much a statement as a question. I thought I was still daydreaming. Then I realized it was the kid, poised to stamp me through to Nam. He held up my doctor’s letter like it was Exhibit A for the prosecution. Instinctively, I looked down at my left wrist, fractured a few years earlier by a large, and rather angry, defensive tackle on the occasion of my very first time carrying the football for Rutgers against archrival Princeton. Six weeks in a post-season cast had failed to cure the problem—a medical fact that my doctor reported in his letter “To Whomever…”

“Yes,” I blurted. “I do.” With that, the soldier stamped my papers 1Y and said that I could only serve if manpower needs became overwhelming; something to do with the army regarding me as a walking disability claim, which seemed an odd concern for a government sending thousands of young lives to the meat grinder every day.

That young soldier changed my life. I’ll never understand why he took it upon himself to look into my file so thoroughly. Nor will I ever know how differently my life might have evolved if he hadn’t. But unquestionably, our brief encounter altered the roadmap for me—abruptly shifting my focus from the jungles of Vietnam to the canyons of Manhattan.

A month later, I was standing at a pay phone on Madison Avenue, having just finished interviewing for a media trainee job at one of the country’s leading advertising agencies. I was calling the personnel director to get the word. “You got it,” he said. “Start in two weeks. Salary’s $6,500.”

Wow. With that kind of money, I could move off the back porch at my future in-laws’ house.

Like many aspects of my life, I fell into advertising more by accident than design. The basic track went something like this: boy goes to college on a football scholarship; boy has no clue what course of study to pursue; boy flunks calculus—twice; boy finds there are precious few majors available to him without prerequisite math credits (calculus again-ugh!); boy finds journalism to be an option; boy thinks “I can write!” and signs on as a journalism major (focus on advertising); boy likes it and does well enough to make the Dean’s List; boy thinks he’s found his place in the world.

At the beginning of 1968, my final semester at Rutgers University, I landed a freelance copywriting job with a local advertising agency in Newark. It was a rinky-dink agency that operated out of a converted two-bedroom apartment in a high-rise condominium complex, but hey, I was in advertising…sort of. My first assignment was to create a print campaign for the local water utility. I wrote a headline, “Always enough water for peanuts,” and created a spokes-peanut—think Planters’ Mr. Peanut but lose the top hat, cane and monocle, thus rendering my guy as sort of the Everyman of peanut spokespersons. Everypeanut enjoyed his shower, irrigated his lawn, and washed his car, secure in the knowledge that his water company delivered darn good value. Pretty basic stuff, but the agency and the client liked it. More importantly, they paid me for it, thus reinforcing my belief that I had found my future support mechanism.

The work I did for that little agency gave me the basis for a copywriter’s portfolio that I peddled around New York City in the spring of 1968. It was tough sledding. The ’60s were golden years for advertising. A creative revolution had been spawned by campaigns like Alka-Seltzer’s comedic speecy, spicy meatballs, Avis’ forthright we’re only number 2, so we try harder, and Volkswagen’s classic Beetle ads with self-deprecating headlines like think small, lemon, and it was the only thing to do after the mule died. My little portfolio of ads for local phone, water, and limousine companies was hard-pressed to compete. It did though. At least, I got some positive feedback. Unfortunately, that feedback had a constant refrain—if only you had more experience.

Perhaps if I had stuck with it, someone might have eventually hired me as a copywriter. But the clock was ticking toward my wedding date and “close, but no cigar” wasn’t going to pay the bills. So one Sunday, I sat down with The New York Times, scoured the classifieds, and circled a tiny ad headed media trainee at major ad agency. The phone call telling me, “You got it” was a mixed blessing. Media—the business-like negotiation and purchase of TV and radio time, and magazine and newspaper space—was a world away from the creative writer’s position I had been seeking, but I was in advertising (really, this time) and that seemed pretty cool. The agency, Benton & Bowles, was one of New York’s largest and most respected, with a client base that included sophisticated marketers like Procter & Gamble, General Foods, S.C. Johnson and Texaco.

Benton & Bowles occupied several floors in the Top of the Sixes Building on Fifth Avenue. Toots Shor’s saloon was alongside on 52nd Street. The “21” Club was next to it. The three television networks were a stone’s throw away, as were the Plaza Hotel, Tiffany’s, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and many other icons that I had only previously known through the movies. It was quite a neighborhood, and a long way from Baltimore’s Pigtown, where I was born.

But it wasn’t the geography outside the ad agency as much as the people inside that would most affect me. Many of those people were highly intelligent MBA’s with impressive scholastic and residential credentials. Others were fearlessly street-smart and hard-nosed go-getters. Still others were neither, but masked their vacuity with a snobbish arrogance that created the perception of their being well bred, or well kept. Even the secretaries got into the act. I’ll never forget overhearing one of the girls in the typing pool say of her husband (so that no one could help but overhear), “I don’t know how much he makes, but I eat well, I sleep well, and he gets me whatever I want.” Implicit therein: the rest of you can just fall in behind me. Why that girl’s totally inane comment made such an impression on me is admittedly mysterious. I suspect it epitomized the inescapable fact that I had entered an environment that was brutally competitive…not to mention sexually stimulating. Agency girls were hot!

The media trainees—all guys, of which I was one of a half-dozen sitting in open plan desks in the middle of the floor—had the catbird’s seat for ogling the secretaries who paraded the perimeter, in and out of the bosses’ offices. “Can you schmell it?” my colleague, Paul, whispered, accentuating his native New England dialect, as my head instinctively rose from the mundane process of punching numbers into an ancient Monroe calculator to view the latest hottie on the move.

I didn’t have a clue what I was doing that first year, but I worked hard…or at least long. Thanks to my measly salary, I could actually collect overtime. And I had some fun…being included in the weekly lunch round-ups that media salesmen organized to pimp for the TV stations and magazines they represented. A handful of impressionable pups like myself would be wined and dined like we were important. Then we’d return to the office to slog through our trivial jobs—crunching numbers to figure out whether the cost-per-thousand housewives reached in Paducah, Kentucky (and other scintillating TV markets) favored a soap opera like As The World Turns or a game show like The Price Is Right…mind-numbing stuff. All the while, I, and my equally poorly paid associates, looked for ways to drag day into night to earn a few extra bucks. It was a strange new world…part exhilaration, part intimidation, part tedium. But it was only half of my world.

As planned (an admittedly none-too-smart plan for a 21 year old), I got married in late summer, 1968.  My wife immediately became pregnant—absolutely no planning involved there. At month four, she experienced serious complications that required total bed rest. Two months later, she delivered premature twin girls—each weighing just over two pounds. Three days later, one of the babies died and I found myself arranging a funeral, while the other infant clung tenaciously to life in pediatric intensive care for the next several months. None of the medical cost was covered by insurance; I hadn’t been working long enough. I was all of 22 now, seriously in debt, and a card-carrying member of commuter bus hell. But…I was in advertising, and that still seemed pretty cool.

It was against this backdrop that I met Ted. “Met” is stretching it a bit, but he did say hello first. Ted was the chairman of the board.

I was leaving the office late one night, disheveled as per the norm—tie undone, shirt looked like I’d slept in it, wrinkled jacket over my shoulder, shoes more scuffed than buffed, and in need of a good haircut—when the elevator doors opened and there he stood, the picture of sartorial splendor. Impeccable in a cashmere overcoat draped over a magnificent blue pinstriped suit and crisply starched snow-white shirt that could only have been put on moments before, perfectly knotted tie, manicured and coiffed to perfection, with shoes so highly buffed they looked like they should be in a display case. And man, did he smell good! I was embarrassed to get in. I figured anyone who looked that good deserved his own elevator. But there we stood, facing each other across the chasm of the open door. My self-disdain notwithstanding, we rode down 30 floors together, and he was most gracious. And me? Well, I was smitten. To be in advertising was cool, I thought, but to be Ted must be very cool, indeed.

I suppose it should have been one of my first clues of the personal crash that lay ahead for me—that in the midst of all the deeply serious, life-altering experiences of my first year as a grown-up, I would be so easily seduced by the rather shallow image of corporate success that Ted clearly represented to my young eyes. But advertising was a seductive world and I was primed to lose myself in it.

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