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Beyond Mad Men: Tales From the Mad, Mad World of Advertising
By Richard Kirshenbaum
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA Copyright © 2011 Richard Kirshenbaum
All rights reserved.
MY LONG G'ISLAND ACCENT
Mine is not exactly a rags-to-riches story, but more like a rag-trade to-riches story.
I'm not going to lie and tell you I walked three miles to school or didn't have enough to eat. In fact, memories of my family are all about eating Long Island Jewish style, which meant you had Chinese food at China Jade in Hewlett every Sunday night, and relatives plied you with every conceivable calorie while they pinched your cheeks and told you that you were too thin. And if anyone knows anyone who lives in or around the Five Towns, they will wax poetic about the seven-layer chocolate cake from Wall's Bake Shop, the Hawaiian chicken from Woodro Kosher Deli, the summer snack bar (a scoop of tuna with lemon and a Coke) at the Westbury Beach Club in Atlantic Beach, and all the buffets causing groans at bar mitzvahs, weddings, and sweet sixteens. After all, what's an affair without a good pig in a blanket and a mini eggroll? The food was really a subtext for a personality and style—a sense of sixties' and seventies' affluence and opulence, which was culturally distinct and imbued with flavor and humor. It bridged the gap between the Goodbye, Columbus years and the introduction of nouvelle cuisine (i.e., stuffed derma versus the tuna roll) where people ate with abandon, and if someone mentioned anorexia nervosa, they most likely thought it was an opera.
These days, whether someone's living in a penthouse on Park Avenue or the Grand Manor in Greenwich, I can always spot a refugee from the Five Towns (pronounced "foive" towns). The accent, however subtle and redesigned it may be, is a dead giveaway. Every once in a while, I'll be talking to people with airs, and it suddenly slips out. They'll say "like" too much or ask for a glass of "wattah" or they'll carry over the hard "g" when they say "Long G'Island." As in, "Dahling, we winter in Saint Moritz and summer in Southampton. I just adore Long G'Island." (Which, by the way, is still a better pronunciation than Long Goyland.) However, one of the first great lessons I ever learned about being creative is that if you don't embrace who you are and bring your own accent or flavor to your work, you can never truly be creative, authentic, or original. And that's one of the things that I love about my accent. I own it.
The Kirshenbaum family was somewhat of a mix of intelligentsia and high and low oddballs. (My father and his brother actually grew up spelling the last name differently. They have the "c" in Kirsch and we don't. And no one thought this was odd.) It's really no coincidence I went into the ad business. Now that I think of it, you would have, too, particularly if you had a grandfather like mine. Grandpa Harry looms large in my childhood memories because he was indeed very large. A very large man with very large opinions. The New York City policeman loved his family and friends foremost, but his brands were not so much a distant second.
My entire childhood was a dictated list of my grandfather's brand preferences that are permanently etched in my mind. His brands were not only a code of how to enjoy life but how to actually live life, and dissension was not discussed or tolerated. You were either in Brandpa's world, or you weren't. And no one wanted to be banished to brand Siberia. It went something like this: A real man always had an Anheuser-Busch beer waiting in the fridge with a tall glass frosting in the freezer. Van Heusen made the best shirts, lest there be a crease, and you always made a Windsor knot with a Countess Mara tie. Plaid and seersucker were "for suckers," or for men who weren't "dag," or couldn't flaunt it like Frank, Sammy, and Dean—his heroes. Boxers only—never would briefs have been considered, and the Izod alligator was a good friend. A real man only smoked unfiltered Camels or Marlboros, wore English Leather, and shaved with a Schick razor. Cadillacs were the "ne plus ultra." A Buick was a good second choice with a Chevy coming in third for affordability. For a man who had something like twenty-eight cars in twenty-three years, I never heard the words Lincoln, Dodge, and Ford uttered. They only existed for "the others," whoever "they" were.
Brandpa spoke like a character out of Guys and Dolls, with a burning cigarette dangling permanently from his lip. He called women dames. He totally bought into stereotypes, which affected his brandscape. "Eyetalians made the best semolina bread." You were allowed to drink a German beer like a Becks (because we won the war and his brother Bucky liberated a camp). The Pollacks (pronounced po-lax) knew mustard (Kosciusko the grainy best). Those damn French were "good for nuttin'" because he didn't drink wine ("wine is for pussies"). Entenmann's made the best coffee crumb cake. You only used half and half in your coffee because the best part of waking up was Folgers in your cup or Maxwell House. And if we didn't have Temp Tee whipped cream cheese in the fridge for his his bagels with lox, sliced, with red onion and tomato (a good kike meal), you might as well have declared yourself a commie.
Each room at Brandpa's house had to have at least three to five Sony Trinitrons ("the best color picture") all going at the same time, like an electronics store. Lawrence Welk was a "real gentleman," and The Jackie Gleason Show was "filmed right over there on the Causeway!" He would always elbow me when the June Taylor Dancers came on. How sweet it is! Bugs Bunny was funny; you could take anything else. And Miami Beach, where he retired when he was fifty, was the land of Milk of Magnesia, honey, and coconut patties. When he was ninety, he took me aside and gave me his lifelong secret: "Every night take a shot of Johnnie Walker. It's good for you down there." He kept a bottle in the bottom of his closet for a handy swig. He looked me coldly in the eye with this fact.
During school holidays, my parents would ship me and my sister, Susan, off to Florida on Delta—the only good airline—because of the orange juice and the fluffy egg-and-cheese omelet breakfast. Once settled in the sunshine state, Brandpa would sit across from me during breakfast in his white-ribbed Hanes wife beater and stubble (like the Jewish Marlon Brando) with a belt ominously on his lap so I would be encouraged to finish my Quaker Oats oatmeal ("it'll put hair on your chest") and down his elixir of life, Tropicana orange juice, perhaps the greatest brand in Brandpa's brand cavalcade. If you didn't start the day with Tropicana, you might as well not get out of bed. My grandmother Elsie and her sisters Lily, Celie, and perhaps cousin Honey would all line themselves up on their identical lounge chairs with their coiffed bouffant hairdos (clouds of Aqua Net or Adorn spray kept them in place) at the Raleigh Pool (voted "most beautiful pool in Florida") and slather me in either Johnson's baby oil and iodine for color or Sea & Ski for protection ("or you'll turn into a lobster").
I was always unsure about why Brandpa was so fastidious about his brands until he told me that at age seven he was put to work by his father, Big Grandpa, shoveling coal into the 180-degree furnace of a tenement building on the Lower East Side. Big Grandpa was the building super and, to hear Grandpa tell it, he slept next to the boiler and lived on onion sandwiches on hard black bread. (I loved my Quaker Oats oatmeal and my Tropicana even more after visualizing the image.)
Grandpa's black-and-white attitudes about brands and people sometimes served as cautionary tales. There were a lot of "don'ts." Once when I was seven years old, Brandpa took me to the Boom Boom Room at the Fontainebleau (his cultural equivalent of visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art). I was ordered to "steer clear of that little old Jewish man" dressed exactly like Brandpa (i.e., white shoes, white belt, and light blue poly Izod button-down acrylic sweater, walking a dog outside the hotel).
"That's Meyer Lansky," my grandfather mentioned, as if at seven, I would know who Meyer Lansky was. "Grandpa," I asked looking up at the looming figure. "Why should I steer clear of him?"
"You'll understand when you're older." He shook the ashes from his Marlboro, his four-carat sapphire-and-diamond pinkie ring glittering in the dusk. "On the other hand," Brandpa said, "he can't be half bad if he's driving a Caddy!"
* * *
For Brandpa, the sun rose and set on his wife, my grandmother Elsie, who matched Grandpa's brawn with her womanly graces and because her pointy-toed, silk peau de soie shoes matched her oversize handbag (very "the Queen Mother"). Not to mention she had "the coin" and provided for all Brandpa's brand needs beyond what his pensions from being a NYC police officer and working for New York Life covered. He had the brawn and Grandma had the "class and the dough." He once gambled away a brownstone of hers for a dollar! Gramps may have stocked up on Camels, but Grandma only smoked Larks. This took on significance. On their fiftieth wedding anniversary, when we asked Brandpa what his golden anniversary gift to Grandma was, he promptly answered "a case of Larks," with Grandma proudly beaming in the background. They were out of Central Casting for the Jewish version of A Streetcar Named Desire. He was not exactly PC and was a confident equal opportunity hater. She was sociable and loved everyone.
Grandma Elsie (when I was an adult, someone told me her real name was Agnes—go figure) grew up on the right side of the tracks. Her father owned a very successful button company called Acme Buttons Company at the turn of the century on Lower Broadway. His office was not so far from my own future office, in the Flatiron Building. He was considered creative by producing not only bone but decorative glass and enamel buttons. The one picture of him eerily looks like me with his blond hair. (His Victorian wife and twelve children do not equate.) When he died, Grandma and Aunt Lily opened their own lingerie store with some of their inheritance, called The Lillian Shop. It was next to the moving pictures and sold silk stockings to women even though there were not even sidewalks yet to walk on.
My aunt Lily and uncle Ira lived below my grandparents (like on I Love Lucy, and to tell you the truth they looked exactly like Fred and Ethel Mertz, except they didn't have a vaudeville act). When I discovered that my grandfather had actually dated Lily first, it was something of a shock. The only reason I could get about why he left her for my grandmother had something vaguely to do with her having "problems down there, " but more importantly because he was dismayed that she didn't buy Bumblebee white tuna in oil. (Hence trading her in for my grandmother avoided a historic mismatch.)
To hear Brandpa tell it, he fell in love with Grandma at first sight after seeing her dance the Charleston in a black silk dress (and after dumping poor Aunt Lily). Since he was considered matinee-idol good-looking, but lower class, Grandma did what any self-respecting flapper of that era did who most likely wanted some action. She eloped with him. They got married in the rabbi's study (when she needed a veil, Grandpa characteristically yanked the curtains off the wall in a fit of passion, to the rabbi's chagrin), and then they both went back to living in their parents' houses until someone's parent changed their mind or died.
Once married, they were forced to be separated for vast amounts of time. Since Grandpa had the night shift for years, Grandma never went out socially with him and even took her own vacations. She was more independent than many women of her era and would crank up their Model T and take my mother and my aunt Jackie to Florida in the 1930s before there was even a highway system. My other aunt Lily (I had two) flew in her own plane, or so I'm told, to meet them and Grandma, and she and all her sisters went to the beach, smoked, and went to the beauty parlor. Each wore Pucci-style flowered housedresses and identical bouffant hairdos with little spit curls, except for my aunt Celie, who reminded me of Mae West with her platinum waves. She was a widow whose husband had been mistakenly killed by the coppers in what always felt like a film noir moment, when relatives tried to brush it under the carpet in our presence.
All in all, I never ever heard Grandma say a word against Brandpa. I'm not sure how she handled him. For their entire marriage, he was constantly fixing up an apartment or house and then selling it at a loss and would move the entire family on a whim or would come home with a new car or TV set (the way someone would buy a new pair of trousers). The only time I ever saw Grandma upset was when she and Grandpa went to see the movie Midnight Cowboy. She came home, took a tranquilizer, smoked a Lark, and went to bed on her Sealy Posturepedic (the only mattress worth sleeping on). She obviously could deal with Brandpa, but a male prostitute and Dustin Hoffman—that wasn't something she was prepared for.
I remember my grandmother always telling me that I was the apple of her eye. I loved her laugh and hearing her chat on the phone (which was always attached to her ear). She also had her telephone therapy sessions in the kitchen with her psychiatrist, Dr. Rath, who I called The Gripes of Wrath. When I decided to become engaged to my wife, Dana, I called her up on the phone for advice and said, "Grandma, how do you know ?" I heard her take a drag on her Lark and say, "Darling, you never know, but better to be married three or four times than never at all. So why not give it a whirl!" Unlike many couples today who call it quits, I still remember their fiftieth wedding anniversary at the Rascal House. Brandpa was upset because we were staying so far away (the Doral! Ten blocks from where they lived).
Brandpa may have looked like Marlon Brando, but I was also the only male child in a family of women who had imposing busts and more imposing personalities. So gender stereotypes had little effect on me. I always got along well with women, and this would greatly impact my career. But before I get there, I need to tell you about my sister, and most of all, about my parents.
* * *
In traditional Jewish households, the mother has special status and the girls, not the boys, often tend to get things first (especially if they are older). Given that I grew up with a sister, four girl first cousins, a myriad of female second cousins, and Grandma's "sister/aunt posse," I'm well trained. My sister, Susan, has an Auntie Mame quality about her: vivacious and fun. I adore her, even though she had a competitive advantage growing up.
When I was in college, my parents told me (and my sister) that I was going to get a Volkswagen Rabbit (again, dating myself) that they had used as a station car to take to school. The whole summer, I cleaned, waxed, and polished that car. Susan, who is two and a half years older than me, was leaving for college the day before I was and was catching a ride with one of her friends. Or so I thought. The next day, I couldn't believe my eyes as I saw Susan make a mad dash into the VW and quickly pull out of the driveway, waving and crying, saying "I feel so bad" as she put her foot on the gas and gunned it ! I still see myself running down the street after her and the car—which got so many parking tickets, it was impounded a few months later in Ohio.
When Susan graduated college, she tried her hand at many things—teaching, real estate—and I was conflicted when she decided to go into the advertising headhunting business. She started as a headhunter working for and becoming a partner with my original headhunter firm where Jill Weingarten and Lori Greenberg worked. At first, I felt she was taking my Volkswagen again, and we agreed not to work together. Today Greenberg Kirshenbaum (a nice Gentile firm) is one of the top three well-regarded creative headhunting firms in the business, and I regularly go to Susan for candidates and advice. Her divining rod for talent is by far the best in the biz. But speaking of Gentiles, I can't tell you how many times I've heard non-Jewish women tell me they want me to find them a Jewish husband. At my friend Randy's recent wedding, the rabbi said (to laughs) before he was to break the glass under the chuppah that this is the last time Randy would ever put his foot down. Not so far from the truth.
Excerpted from Madboy by Richard Kirshenbaum. Copyright © 2011 Richard Kirshenbaum. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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