By Ray Schultz
On May 2, 1941, Frank Johnson submitted six direct mail letters and a cover memo to Francis DeWitt Pratt, the circulation manager of Time Inc. Although he later called Pratt “a very bad judge of good copy,” the young copywriter wanted something from him.
“Here is a try at getting everything in one letter, the whole approached from the Rich, Beautiful Prose–or Archibald Mac Leish–angle, and ending on a note of Auchincloss,” Johnson wrote, describing his first letter:
A Panzer Division raising dust clouds along the north coast of Africa…a brawny riveter earning overtime in the Newport News shipyards…a half-scared, half-thrilled youth on his first solo flight over Pensacola…the members of a Congressional Committee in Washington scrawling endless figures on foolscap as they struggle with the stiffest tax bill in U.S. history–
He went on to Number 2. “Probably a reaction from Number 1, and pretty frivolous for a sales talk. However, you’re supposed to gather that I can do these, too.”
Want to add two or three years to your LIFE?
Here are the years:
1941 1942 1943
He moved onto to Number 3, which he described as “The middle way. I like it.” It started by saying, simply, LIFE takes no bets…
The next one he described as “same idea, cut down to a page.” Johnson added that with one exception, these letters are purposely not serious in tone. This is because it’s 1941: and headlines, radio, and corner store talk are all pretty damn gloomy.
What did he want? “I shall burn joss sticks and paper prayers the week-end long, because I really want that job,” Johnson wrote. “More important, I’m now pretty sure I can handle it.” Pratt must have agreed, for Johnson was named circulation promotion manager of Life for a salary of $75 a week.
Born in 1912 in Cambridge, Ohio, Johnson graduated from Ohio State with a degree in economics in 1934, then headed for New York. His first job there was as a claims adjuster for Liberty Mutual, but he quit when a woman whose claim he was investigating threw a poker at his head. Then he got himself hired by Time Inc as a CBOB (college boy-office boy) for $20 a week. “I remember walking in the door of Time and thinking, ‘Hey, I’m home,'” he said.
The CBOBs— liberal arts graduates from good schools–earned the business by sneaking a look at the internal mail they delivered, including that of founder Henry Luce, whose red pencils Johnson picked up as part of his job.
Expected as a CBOB to “get up or out,” Johnson moved up into the circulation department in 1938. Time Inc., built on direct mail, had several great writers and circulation experts on staff, like Bill Baring-Gould and Nick Samstag. Johnson, who was passionate about Kipling, Thurber and Twain, was soon accepted as one of them.
“Everybody there talked my language,” Johnson said. “We were all the same types. Super literate. We talked too much, and we drank too much. I could drink two martinis and come back to work and not go to sleep.”
Johnson wrote his first direct mail letter for Life in 1940, describing a contraption that sounded just like the Internet, provided by his daughter Judy Thoms:
Here is an artist’s approximation of a multiperimicrotelicona-rayoscope.
The one pictured is the only machine of its kind extant.
It was designed and built by a Prof. Dr. Zanathope Johnson, whom you can see.
For thirty years he secluded himself in a great hilltop-laboratory, planning, experimenting, building–for he was making a machine which would see everything of interest, all over the World!
In 1941, Pearl Harbor was attacked and Time proclaimed in a direct mail letter that now the news is happening to us. Draftable despite his poor eyesight, Johnson entered the Army Air Force, and was sent to Wright Field in Ohio, where he put out the Air Surgeon’s Bulletin. Johnson would ruefully say, “I’m the guy who lost the war. I never got out of the country.”
After the war, Johnson returned to Time Inc., which had kept him on partial salary during his service hitch. Given postwar inflation, “It was a good time to write direct mail because you just kept saying ‘Buy now, or the price is going to double pretty soon,” he said.
In an interview in 1999, Johnson examined several letters from that period to determine authorship. One was the Cold War piece known simply as “The Crumple Letter,” from the fall of 1949. It was crumpled, as if someone had rolled it up in a ball.
This is the way this letter might look (after it had been fished out of the wastebasket and somewhat smoothed) if I had sent it to Andrei Vishinsky or Maurice Thorez or Ana Pauker.
For this is an invitation to subscribe to TIME–and Communists have as little respect for honest journalism as they have opportunity to read it.”
“I think I had something to do with that,” Johnson said. “We had one that was burnt on the edges, too. And we had a hell of a time with that. In the first place, we had a hard time setting it on fire. Finally, it took blowtorches. And the blowtorches tended to set the whole damned file on fire. People complained when they opened it because soot would fall out [of the envelope]. But boy, it was fun to do.”
Then there was the 1951 letter for Life addressed to all the Johnsons in the United States (an amazing feat given that Time could not yet deduplicate its subscriber lists). Johnson wrote:
Dear Reader Johnson:
You’re one in a million. And you and 999,000 other Johnsons in the U.S. can proudly boast a flourishing family tree.
“Time Inc. was making money like crazy, so we never asked what anything would cost,” Johnson said. “We used to look back at what we had done and say, ‘My God, we were damned fools.'”
Johnson wrote in hand on a yellow legal pad, using a soft-lead Eberhard wingtip pencil. “I was the world’s slowest,” he said. “I’ve been known to stare at blank paper for days before I wrote a word. I’d write ‘Dear Subscriber,’ then scratch that out and write “Dear Reader,” then scratch that our and try ‘Subscriber’ again.”
When not writing himself, Johnson hired and trained writers. One of his finds was Bill Jayme, a war veteran and Princeton graduate who was “terribly articulate and very insulting to practically everybody,” as Johnson put it.
Jayme quickly made an impression with one of his first letters, “Cool Friday,” celebrating the 15th anniversary of Life magazine:
It was a cool Friday in November.
Plymouth offered their newest model for $510—in an ad that also reminded you that you could tune in on Major Bowes’ Original Amateur Hour any Thursday from 9 to 10.
Loyalists and Rebels were fighting in the outskirts of Madrid—while many U.S. citizens were preparing to celebrate two Thanksgivings. Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne were at the Shubert, ambling through “Idiot’s Delight”—and a few doors down the street, a pillow-padded Helen Hayes was appearing as “Victoria Regina.”
Jayme later said the piece originated “out of my brain. Life was having a birthday, and we needed a letter to use as a hook to get people to subscribe. I went down to the public library and sat there with a lot of bums in the reading room, with my head sunk in this viewer, and rolled these scrolls about what was going on, like the price of the car, taking notes on the ads—sort of setting the scene.”
“It was leisurely, something you can read aloud after dinner,” he said. “It conveyed warmth and it conveyed charm. We tried to reward the reader for his reading time.”
In 1954, Johnson himself started moonlighting for American Heritage, a start-up run by former LIFE editors Joe Parton, Oliver Jensen and Joe Thorndyke, and soon was involved in all aspects of their direct mail operation. For instance, he wrote to his bosses that “I am still as skeptical as a virgin on a troop ship” about a plan to use the Changing Times list.”
In a 1956 letter, Johnson observed that The ability to read intelligently is not a common attribute. It is a delicate subject, for with it go a lot of implications about education and culture and background–things we traditionally soft-pedal in this country, especially if we suspect we’ve acquired ’em.
It was during this period that Johnson invented what is called the Johnson Box, although he later denied ownership. But friends said he did deserve credit. The purpose of the box, Jayme said, was to summarize the letter, “just as 19th century English writers like Dickens would say at the top, ‘Chapter 10, in which Mr. McGruder discovers Emily in a Compromising Position with the Director’s Son.'”
In one letter, Johnson stuffed these headlines into the famous box:
SECRETARY OF WAR’S SON HANGED FOR MUTINY
“MUSHROOM CLOUD” KILLS 30,000 OFF U.S. COAST
ENEMY TROOPS INVADE VERMONT
ELDER STATESMAN WEDS EX-MURDER SUSPECT
In an interview in 1999, Johnson offered his secrets of direct mail success.
“All you’re trying to do with any letter is to keep somebody from throwing it out,” he said. “You tell funny stories, you put in funny pictures, you do any goddamned thing you can to keep them reading. One of my rules is never end a sentence at the bottom of a page, so you had to turn the page. I’m teaching you a lot of tricks.”
Johnson added that he always put in “a couple of indented paragraphs on pages two and three that told a funny story or said something outrageous, so that if you were beginning to skim through the letter, they would catch your attention.” He admonished, “I don’t believe exclamation marks.”
Follow-up letters were another challenge. “You send a four-page letter and you don’t get anything, then you follow it up with something quite different–shorter, different pictures. ‘As you recall, we wrote you two weeks ago,’ or words to that effect. What’s exciting, of course, is when you a write a piece of direct mail and mail it and it works.”
As for graphics, he advised, “Get a cute little girl and a cute puppy, and figure out how to run them both, and you’ve got a winner there.”