By Ray Schultz
Of all the writers I’ve known in direct marketing, none was more talented and charming than Joan Throckmorton.
Joan, who died in 2003, was a brilliant direct mail copywriter, and a prolific author and speaker. But she was also a gracious woman, with a certain wry reserve.
She was born in Evanston Hospital, something she had in common with the DM legend Bob Stone, and grew up in Florida. She arrived in New York in the early 1950s, and was hired by Doubleday, because friends and former classmates worked there. Her first assignment was in the art department.
“My job was literally to do character counts on new books, and all the scut work, and also to work with some of our illustrators and artists,” she said in an interview in her home in Pound Ridge, NY in 1997.
She particularly recalled one young artist who would hand her a drawing and say, “Joan, I drew you this butterfly.” After she had thanked him and he’d left, she’d promptly discard it.
He was Andy Warhol. “If I had kept some of those butterflies, I would be in a lot better financial position today,” Joan laughed. Another artist was Ted Gorey, whose ghoulish Victorian drawings later made him famous.
Eventually, Joan moved on. “Because I was a writer and an English major who wanted to write, I was allowed to go downstairs to what they called Sherman’s Alley. Charley Book Club Sherman ran the Doubleday Book Club promotions. He was known throughout the company as a vociferous, harsh, cookie-scary boss, but maybe he had a heart of gold, and I rather thought he did.”
Joan worked on club mailings. “I was Mystery Guild and Catholic Book Club. I did a few Literary Guilds here and there. Literary Guild was, as always, a high-end club. We worked with the editors, and that’s how I started to write, mostly with the thrillers., where you do sort of a film trailer or preview, the monthly club announcement. That was my introduction to direct mail.”
Most book club prospecting was done in space ads at that time. But there were also monthly selection mailings. “The package consisted of pretty much what it consists of now: a plain white out envelope identifying the club,” Joan said. “Sometimes it may have had copy lines, very simple lines, club announcements and not a series of flyers. We had a small list of many fewer books, alternate selections, that we changed and updated. Today we have many more.”
She continued that the prevailing wisdom then was that the information age was on its way, “the information age when people would be given more to read about, more data input than they could handle, due to new electronic methodologies, one of which was the photo facsimile of newspapers, not to mention the purple-inked Xerox machine.”
Making Your Own Clothes
Work aside, Joan’s early life in New York was right out of My Sister Eileen.
“I started at Doubleday at $55 a week, and we got an extra bonus at Christmas of about $20, with taxes taken out,” Joan said. “That was it. Now how did you live in those days? You lived like they’re living today—two and three people in an apartment. No real privacy. Once a week, you would go out to dinner with a friend when you didn’t have a date, and you’d have a nice meal at a modestly priced restaurant. If you had a date (the women never paid in those days0 you might go to a modestly priced little French restaurant, or to a Third Ave. bar and hang out with your mixed groups of friends. And we had lots of parties. But nobody had any money.”
In contrast to women with their $55 salaries, men started at $65 to $70 a week—not bad money at the time, Joan said. “We’re talking in weekly terms,” she added. “Nobody could understand anything more than that.”
On those tight budgets, young working women usually made their own clothes. “We sewed—we either rented or one of us had a sewing machine,” Joan remembered. “We made clothes so we’d look decent in the office.”
But Joan was a talented writer, and she jumped around, even though she was advised against it. “They’d say, ‘Why would you want to leave? You’re doing well.’”
Joan noted, though, that “we had quite a hard time for women to get promoted, so I went over to Time Inc. and applied for a job to Life Promotions. And there I worked with Bill Herringbone, and the publisher, a young guy named Andy Heiskell. Wendell Forbes was down the hall, and Bob Fisler was over in Time, and we all knew each other. Later, I became Andy Heiskell’s assistant. And I moved to being promotion director for Sports Illustrated when Bob Fisler left that book.”
Sports Illustrated was a daring start-up for the time. “In those days, they said sports was tennis and golf. It wasn’t. Tex Maule was there early, and we were doing a lot more cogent advertising. But there was no professional basketball. Pro football was just getting started, and I was dating one of the guys on CBS, so I got to know all of the New York Giants football team, which was nice for a young gal working for Sports Illustrated. It was really wild and crazy—Frank Gifford, Kyle Rote, the whole bunch.
As copywriter, Joan also worked on the first Life book—The Life Cookbook. “By today’s standards, it was a pretty antiquated-looking book, but it was a life-sized book and I did the promotions for it,” Joan said.
Time Inc was a fun place to work. “Two weeks wouldn’t go by without some floor party—a big birthday party,” she went on. “Ad salesmen met at the 3G’s across the street at 5:30, and drink, drink, drink. There were people falling down elevator shafts, being caught in embarrassing positions,” she laughed.
It was easy to party: The work day went from 9 to 5, and maybe they’d stay until 5:30 or 6 when busy. There was no weekend work.
Joan’s next stop was American Heritage, where her sometime boss at Time was now in residence: Frank Johnson.
“Frank was quite a character, not a ladies’ man, a wonderful guy,” she said. “A perfectionist, a tough guy, and Bill Jayme was writing for us, too. Jayme and Frank were very close. And Frank was a good red pencilier, on anybody’s copy. Tough, tough guy to work with.”
Later, Joan worked for Time Life Books and later on Look magazine at Cowles. “That’s where I got to know Pat Carbine and that group—the Ms. Magazine group,” she said.
Finally, Joan went out on her own and had an illustrious freelance career, writing thousands of effective packages, columns for DM News and Direct and books.
I richly enjoyed our interview in ’97. We sat in her home office, a small room with a desk and computer, a zebra painting on the wall, and large stacks of catalogs. Joan’s husband Sheldon Satin, a customer service consultant, was at work in the office next door. You could see the autumn foliage outside the window.
In the end, Joan had mixed feelings about some of her experiences–for example, Andy Heiskell’s birthday dinner at age 80, thrown by the Time Life Alumni Society. Heiskell had been chairman of Time for 30 years.
Joan felt a certain loyalty, but “they were all tall men in Navy blue blazers,” she recalled. “Just wasps—no blacks, no Jews. All the women had lovely little dresses on, and they were all wives. I thought: All the good and bad things rolled up into one.”