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DEAR FRIEND: The Rascals, Rogues and Roues Who Made American Junk Mail, Chapter 20: Peace!

By Ray Schultz

Americans awoke on the morning of Nov. 11, 1918 to the sound of church bells and gunfire. Germany had surrendered and people ran into the streets, drunk on “100 percent-proof, government-bonded patriotism.” And where were our junk mail pioneers? Buckley was in Chicago, as pleased as he could be. Peace meant the paper quotas would be lifted.

Edward Proctor was at his home in Teaneck, New Jersey. But he had little time to celebrate. His client, the John C. Winston Co., had summoned him to Philadelphia, and now he had to get to the train station past mobs in the streets.

But he was happy to go, for Winston, the country’s largest Bible publisher, was the kind of client he wanted. Of course, Winston also sold a book titled, “Sexual Knowledge: What every young man and every young woman should know,” that it sent in a plain brown wrapper. But now it had hired an historian and a military analyst to write a book titled, “History of the World War.” Proctor had to help sell—by mail—a book that was not yet written. He went home that night with an order for several million names.

Meanwhile, the balance in the Guild office had shifted. Mr. Guild was spending more time at his home in Maine. He hunted and enjoyed his breakfasts of steak and fried potatoes. Proctor ran the place, although Guild’s wife Addie was listed as president.

Louis Victor Eytinge heard about the war’s end in his prison cell, where he was quietly hoping that outsiders would spring him. Private detective William J. Pinkerton argued that Eytinge was innocent of murder (“his criminal bent was not in that direction”). And a former warden said he had reformed.

“To my personal knowledge Eytinge’s money has paid for milk and eggs for men who were too sick to eat prison fare. Eytinge’s money has paid for sending paroled prisoners home to die. He has given men going out of prison money to start life on. He has paid transportation to employment, even across a Continent. In doing for others Eytinge has found himself.”

Eytinge wrote that “I am reasonably certain of coming east some time during the winter.” But he didn’t make it out that winter, nor the following summer. Instead, he ended up back in the “lunger’s yard” at the Arizona Penitentiary at Florence.

“YES—I’ve been sick,” he wrote. “That’s one of the reasons I gave up the editorial end of the old POSTAGE..I want and need WORK to keep me upspirited, to keep me grinning and growing. I’ve time schedules that will permit me to take THREE MORE CLIENTS—And no more.”

It was harder to stay upspirited as the years dragged on. But Gov. T.E. Campbell finally heeded the call of the advertising industry, and on the morning of Dec. 30, 1922, Eytinge, age 43, walked through the gate of Florence. He wasn’t exonerated—he apparently was paroled. But he was free. And he had a $6,000-a-year job waiting for him with John Service Inc., a producer of personalized mail campaigns, in New York.

“There’s a moral in the tale of Louis Victor Eytinge,” a man wrote to Postage. “It’s this: if a man in jail, suffering with a supposedly incurable disease and existing amidst surroundings that sap all initiative and inspiration, can win his freedom, win his health and win a place in the sun—what heights are not possible to you and me and the other man, out here in the open?” He concluded with an even more pertinent comment: “It vindicates your claim that ‘Anything that can be sold, can be sold by mail.’”

Chapter 21: The Inertia Plan

DEAR FRIEND: The Rascals, Rogues And Roues Who Made American Junk Mail, Chapter 33: Junk Mail Babylon

By Ray Schultz

Despite the sleaze that surrounded it , junk mail started to attract notice on Madison Avenue. By client demand, the J. Walter Thompson ad agency hired its first full-time direct mail copywriter: Ed McLean, a literary type from Chicago who had knocked around in New Orleans and thought he was applying for an editorial job when Red Dembner hired him as a direct mail writer at Newsweek. He was treated with the utmost disrespect at JWT.

“Direct mail was shit in the ad world,” McLean said later. “It was not commissionable. When creating TV or radio spots, you could make money even for production costs. But in mail, the costs were very low, so you couldn’t make any money on that.”

At JWT, the main direct mail copywriter was “an old hack living in Montclair,” McLean recalled. “She would put out old copy when she came with an assignment. They’d scratch out the old date and recycle it.”

Worse yet, the designers “didn’t like to design for mail,” he continued. “A designer would hold it up like this”—McLean then held his nose—“and let it drop to the floor.”

Finally, he had to go to the “animal trainer in charge of the copywriters” to get a seating assignment every day. “I wandered around for six months,” he said. “I never had an office. I had a manual typewriter on a dolly.”

McLean went on to write thousands of letters as a freelancer, like the award-winning one he crafted on diesel cars for Mercedes-Benz (‘Forget it, Heinz,’ the experts told me. ‘It just won’t sell here.’

**

Among the “legitimate” users of  this sanitized medium were a plethora of credit cards companies. This started in 1950 when the new Diners’ Club card was mailed unsolicited to several thousand businessman. The card was cardboard, and had the names of its few participating restaurants on the back, wrote Matty Simmons, the press agent for Diners ‘Club, and later publisher of the National Lampoon.

In one typical promotion, mailed to everyone, Diners‘ Club  wrote, This invitation is extended to (Blank for name)

by Mr. Allred Bloomingdale, President THE DINERS’ CLUB INC.

This meant it would extend credit to anyone who happened to open the envelope. 

The letter went to say, Your credit standing and financial rating have placed you on the select list of individuals to whom we are limiting the mailing of this invitation for Diners’ Club membership. 

But then it added, The enclosed application is transferable to members of your immediate family or associates sharing your business responsibilities, if you now have a Diners’ Club Credit Card.

Within a few years, American Express entered the credit card field, with Lester Wunderman’s help, after a failed attempt to buy Diners’ Club. Oh, it was a nasty business: Diners’ Club retaliated in kind when its take-one displays in stores were mysteriously replaced with American Express take-ones, Simmons wrote. These cards were followed by Visa and MasterCard. Banks saturated the market, mailing 100 million cards to anyone whose name they could get their hands on, including dogs and dead people, some joked. 

“In your mail box or even under your door, often unwanted and unwelcomed, they keep coming—a maze of bright new, plastic credit cards to be heaped on top of all the others you already have,” the New York Times wrote on July 8, 1969. 

This practice ended in 1970 when Congress prohibited the mailing of unsolicited credit cards. Banks and other credit issuers tightened up their credit-checking, and a global business was built.

But another group of junk mailers rejected the conventional marketing wisdom that the best customers for any offer were people with money and credit. They chose to target the financially strapped and bankrupt—the credit poor. 

There were several variations on the basic scheme to bilk the poor of the little money they had.. One was the secured credit card offer, as perpetrated by firms like Metro West Financial Group. This company notified hundreds of thousands of people by postcard that they were preapproved for credit, including “bank loans, department store credit cards, and a MasterCard or Visa bank credit card.”

That would be quite an attractive offer if true, but people who responded received none of that. What they got, after shelling out $48 for a 900 number telephone call and another $50 later, was a list of banks offering secured credit cards—a list that could have been obtained for $1.50. And it omitted the fact that a person needs to post a deposit for a secured credit card—whatever its value is. 

But the promotion was successful by any standard. Roughly 15,000 suckers coughed up $1.4 million over four months, half of it via a 900 telephone number. 

Then there was the gold card offer from Federal Bankcard of Santa Barbara, California. “Final attempt,” its postcards state. “We are trying to reach you. Your $5,000 credit limit has been approved. Call NOW.”

With this offer, it was possible for people, those who could ill afford it, to spend over $100 on various 900 number calls and other charges before finding out that the “gold card” entitled them only to shopping privileges in a catalog with limited merchandise. One childlike victim ended up with a $900 phone bill. The potential profit could be seen  by the fact that this offer went to 15 million people. 

The basic scams were bad enough. Even worse was the inclusion of potential victims’ names on mailing lists known in the business as “Credit Derog” lists. One was the Credit Alert Database—10 million to 15 million people “more than 60 days past due on one or more credit cards,” a promotion said. Another was the Credit Reject Database—consumers who had been refused credit. 

It was never determined whether credit bureaus and banks themselves had released Credit Derog lists, or if they had slipped out the back doors of a computer service bureaus.  Either way, there was no dearth of new exciting offerings, like the Transactional Financial Services Derogatory Credit list of 11 million people with one or more derogatory credit lines.” Then there was the ultimate resource: the Unskilled Urban Fringe—people with “low or no income, only occasional low-wage employment, little education, many with no mobility; old housing, multiple families living together.”

In 1967, Lester Wunderman conferred a certain legitimacy on junk mail by lumping it together with other media under the name direct marketing. And, as much as anywone, he turned a business backwater into a global phenomenon.

But some people already knew there was more to the business than direct mail–like the trio of Monroe Caine, David L. Ratke and Herman Liebenso. They used print ads to offer a chemically impregnated car-cleaning mitt called the ROLL-A-SHNE, claiming it was developed by the General Electric Company, tested by the U.S. Army and Navy and endorsed by Reader’s Digest.

It was a pack of lies. The Federal Trade Commission forced all three men to sign a consent order agreeing to cease advertising falsely “the quality, composition, characteristics, performance, endorsement, and guarantee” of the mitt.

The copywriting genius Caine wasn’t through: A decade later, he was convicted of 72 counts of mail and wire fraud for his role in peddling the “Sperry Unitron,” a device that supposedly increased gasoline mileage. Caine wrote that the Unitron was a new invention by one of America’s leading scientists (co-developer of synthetic tires and power brakes).

Also not true: The unknown inventor worked out of his garage, an appellate court noted when refusing to overturn their convictions.

Worse, there was “no mention that the Unitron was actually a can of engine detergent which needed to be replaced with every tankful of gas rather than a solid device which would not need replenishment,” the court went on. Not that it mattered: “Customers failed to receive their Unitron, even after their checks were deposited in Sperry’s account,” the court concluded.

Caine and his colleagues drew four years in the slammer for that scheme to defraud. They appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, not even bothering to deny that their advertising was false—what they objected to was the fact that one alleged fraudulent claim, that refunds would be issued to buyers who weren’t satisfied, was not specified in the grand jury indictment along with 12 other charges. Caine and company lost in the appellate court, then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. “The Court of Appeals would have us accept, as a finding of fact, that the Grand Jury made twelve specific charges as set forth in paragraph 4 of the indictment, and did not include a charge with respect to refunds because they considered that it would be redundant, to include it ‘among others.’”

Later, Caine worked with a career con man named Norman Chanes, whose mail order firms Encore House was raided by postal inspectors after several thousand consumers complained about binoculars and other products sold by the company. Chanes and Caine signed a consent decree with the FTC, agreeing to pay $250,000 in consumer redress and $100,000 in civil penalties. As legend had it, Caine had to agree not to write direct marketing copy for five years as part of one of his plea deals.

But there were worse offenders than Monroe Caine out there. 

In 1983, an entity called Farragut Research offered an extensive collection of pornography to anyone who signed up for a “scientific research survey”—for a fee, of course. You have been chosen for this survey because you are known to be of better-than-average intelligence and to have exceptional sexual prowess, the direct mail letter said.

But it warned: You must make every effort to keep these products out of the hands of children, even though children play a large role in the actual films and tapes.

When queried by a reporter, a postal inspector said, “I think we’ve gotten some complaints on that”—not for the child pornography, but over non-delivery of the products. It dawned on the reporter that this was a sting designed to entrap people into purchasing kiddie porn.

The reporter went for a get-aquatinted visit with postal inspector Sherry Treuax, who had a gun in a shoulder holster on her desk, at the Post Office building on Ninth Ave. in New York. Another inspector, Bob Mignonya, came in and expressed satisfaction about a criminal case they had just closed.

“As of now, they’re convicted felons,” he said of the perpetrators.

“Do you know about Ira Smolev?” Inspector Treux asked. 

She produced some clippings from the Newark Star Ledger about Ira Smolev, purveyor of the Panama Ceiling Fan, which “barely stirred the sir,” and the Tilt-Top Table and Bavarian Beer Stein, which were also not as advertised. In addition to bringing in cash orders, these offerings generated sucker lists that could be rented out. But these were the least of his offenses.

Smolev’s Perth Amboy, New Jersey warehouse had burned down in mysterious circumstances. And now he was being probed because cosmetics donated by Revlon to the Association for the Help of Retarded Children had ended up in his warehouse, and he was marketing them by mail.

In 1984, Smolev copped a plea to one count each of mail fraud, conspiracy and interstate transportation of property taken by fraud. And, in a separate case, the he pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud, resulting from his promotions for Tilt Top Table and other inadequate products. Smolev, who was injured in a car crash around this time, never served a day in jail.

Of course, Smolev and Caine had serious rivals in trying to shake a few bucks loose from the unsuspecting—including some from far away. 

In 1990, fortunate individuals received a letter from Chief Tunde Dosumbu of Lagos, Nigeria, wrote asking for permission to “remit $24.5 million U.S. dollars into your company’ or private accounts.” 

The authors claimed to be involve with Nigerian National Petroleum Corp. “By virtue of our positions and in collaborations with our able computer analyst, we were able to process thee second-phase payment of $15.1 million,” they stated. 

The rub was that “we can not risk having such huge amount of money in our local accounts considering our salary base.”

To prove the legality of the transfer,” they asked for “four copies of the person’s letterhead, along with bank account numbers, invoice copies, and telephone and fax numbers. 

The letter concluded, “For the fact that we are working with our corporation an also to avoid scandal, we advise all issues regarding the transaction be kept in absolute secretary. Otherwise, we stand the chance of loosing our jobs, pensions and gratuities after years of meritous service to the government.” 

Another letter claiming to be from the same  company offered $6 million for allowing the sender to temporarily deposit $20 million in the recipient’s bank account. All they needed was the bank account number and some letterhead.

The “Nigerian Prince” scam was lampooned on late-night TV and became part of American folklore.  Thus, the junk mail business thus attained a new notoriety.

But the old-timers weren’t there to enjoy it–they had been shuffled off the stage and replaced by younger talent. Max Sackheim retired at age 70 the same year Homer Buckley died. Sackheim’s son Sherman bought the Sackheim agency with three other people, but left after a few years, wishing that his father had sold his share of the Book of the Month Club for what it was worth.

“Would I be sitting in my little ticky tacky house in Clearwater, Florida, waiting for my little Social Security check?” he asked in 1995. “It would be worth $100 million now between me and my brother, but I can’t eat more than three meals a day.”

John Stevenson retired, too, but It was easier for him because his wife was wealthy “You’ll have a nice life, but you’ll never make much money,” he said over coffee in their vast apartment on Fifth Ave. in 1997. “It’s a small business.”

Stevenson then revealed the enduring formula for junk mail copy from the days of J.M. Pattee to Ira Smolev: “It’s like the old story about the clergyman who had so many converts. He was asked his secret. He said, ‘I tell them what I’m gonna tell them, then I tell them, then I tell them what I told them.’”

The Manhattan Shuffle

The Last Rebbes: Life among The Hasidic Jews, Part XIV–Epilogue

By Ray Schultz

There is a reason this account stops in 1974 and does not continue as a full-fledged history: I had a bad, chopped-up article appear in the New York Times Magazine that fall, which I now find mortifying. and after that gave up on the idea of doing anything more—there was no demand, and I would have lost access in any case. This narrative mostly consists of verbatim notes I wrote up in 1973-74 on cheap yellow paper, then retyped into my computer over the last couple of years, editing along the way.

I don’t present this as a great work of journalism. But it’s a document of sorts– it tells the story of my encounters with the Hasidim at a particular moment in history: the era of Watergate and the Yom Kippur war, and the aging of the great Rebbes. 

Almost 50 years have passed, and there are postscripts to several of the stories. 

Samuel Shrage died of a heart attack in 1976. There were charges within Hasidic ranks that the African-American ambulance attendants took their sweet time and let him die. I couldn’t believe that, but I was greatly saddened by his death.

A summer or two later, I was in CBGB’s, the Bowery punk-rock club. As Patti Smith was shrieking onstage, I ran into David the Lubavitch dropout. He was very unfriendly, and said, “Stop asking me how I am.” I concluded based on his attire and the venue that he had not returned to Lubavitch. 

In 1979,  the Satmar Rebbe died at age 92. Given the state of his health, I suspected the Satmar were already used to getting along without him. Later, I  learned that the movement split into two groups, with different rabbinical leadersship.

There also was change at Lubavitch, although it took longer to unfold. In 1991, the Rebbe and his caravan of cars were driving back to Crown Heights from Montefiore Cemetery, when the last car in the procession hit and killed Gavin Cato, a seven year-old African-American child. This precipitated riots and conflict in which a young Jewish man, Yankel Rosenbaum, was stabbed to death. These tragic events exacerbated stresses that had existed as far back as the 1960s. 

The Rebbe died in 1994. And the Lubavitch movement also split into two groups, at least intellectually—those who believed the late Rebbe was the messiah and those didn’t. I would have been in the latter group.

The Bobover Rebbe died in 2000, and his movement, too, eventually broke into two groups.

Historians may uncover the truth behind these splits.. But I have my own theory: that the job in each case had become too big for one man.

The passing of the Satmar, Lubavitch and Bobover Rebbes marked the end of an epoch. These were the leaders who escaped the Holocaust and made their way to the United States. There they pulled together small groups of survivors and new adherents who had nowhere else to turn, helping them get a toehold in America and in so doing rebuilt their shattered communities until they were more robust than ever, in the face of grave poverty and other problems, all the while giving tirelessly of themselves as they entered old age. Hopefully, no future Rebbes will face such harrowing challenges. 

That’s why this account is called The Last Rebbes. 

Of course, other Rebbes performed similar feats. And both younger and older Rebbes continue to lead their congregations today. But Schneerson, Teitelbaum and Halberstam were giants of a type that surely marks them apart.

As for me, you might wonder if this experience turned me into a Hasid.  It didn’t. A skeptic, a bohemian and a hack. I could never submit to the kind of regimented religious life pursued by Hasidic Jews: My brief taste of it convinced me of that. 

But I did feel drawn to Jewish identity, on whatever level–my wife and I would sometimes show up at Friday night services at a Conservative synagogue, just to feel like we belonged.

Then there were the political issues.

I had long been bothered by the Haredi’s outsize political influence in Israel, and the Orthodox rabbinate’s power to determine who is a Jew and to pass on the legitimacy of marriages. It’s one thing to voluntarily choose a religious way of life—it’s another to be compelled to observe even small elements of it. Surely, there must be room in the Jewish tent for converts, non-believers, Reform Jews, Conservative Jews, individuals whose fathers were Jewish but not their mothers, gays, lesbians, the transgendered and other outliers. 

Then there is the tendency of the Orthodox in the U.S. to support Republican candidates and to align on issues with the religious right. 

Late in 1974, I was on the Broadway Limited train from New York to Chicago, when men wearing black coats and hats boarded in Ohio. Not Hasidim—Amish. I did a double take. My traveling companion scarcastically said. “There’s your next article,”

Please, no—I’d had enough of black-coated religious groups for a time and was in fact fleeing New York to escape the probable reaction to my article in Crown Heights. But one thing became clear as the years went by and I grew even more ambivalent about the politics and my own belief structure: I missed the Hasidim. 

Introduction

Part 1

Part II

Part III

Part IV

Part V

Part VI

Part VII

Part VIII

Part IX

Part X

Part XI

Part XII

Part XIII

The Last Rebbes: Life among The Hasidic Jews, Part XIII

By Ray Schultz

It was the evening of Thursday, Aug. 8, 1974. The Lubavitchers had announced a farbrengen with the Rebbe, and I dutifully showed up in Crown Heights. But my mind was elsewhere, as were most people’s: Richard Nixon was giving a speech that night, and the reports said he was resigning. 

Maybe it was me, but there was a strange feeling in the hall—it wasn’t as festive as usual. A Hasid was selling black shoes in the lobby. The Rebbe spoke, and there were the usual songs and toasts. But what did he say on this strange night? 

“He spoke a lot about the Messiah,” Hirsh Gonsburg told me. (That seemed logical, given the belief that the Messiah’s arrival will be preceded by great turmoil.) 

“He feels the Messiah is overdue?”

“He says it all depends on our work.”

“What does he want you to do?”

“What we’re doing—everything. Help out other people, mostly spiritual. He starts with Talmud, and Bible, like a lecture.” 

A few days later, armed with the assignment from the Times Magazine, I met with Yehuda Krinsky. First, we went over questions the Times wanted answered, like how many Lubavitchers there were in the world and Krinsky answered (there were 750,000). Then he tried to explain Hasidism to me. 

“The Chabbad philosophy is not just a philosophy,” he said. “It’s actually a deeper understanding of and involvement in Judaism. As such, it makes the person a better Jew, but it also makes him a different Jew. Because his comprehension of what Judaism is a lot deeper and more sensitive than the Jew on the street who hadn’t had the advantage of the Chabbad way of life, and therefore his practice is different.”

“How so?” I asked.

“There’s a story about this old Tzaddik, who when he used to put on his tefillin in the morning, he would be so emotionally involved in it that two people would have to hold him because he used to go into an ecstatic involvement in it. Why? Because his concept of tefillin was such that his involvement moved him to the state of ecstasy. Of course, not everyone is at that level. His putting on tefillin was different than my putting on tefillin, because he was one with what he was doing.”

“But how do you get to that stage?”

“What Chabbad philosophy tries to inculcate in a person is that the  person, whatever he does, does it with a deeper understanding of what the mitzvah is, so he knows this is God’s Torah, not an intellectual book of philosophy, and therefore, he’s a different kind of person.”

Krinsky then enunciated a belief that ran against my egalitarian grain.  “There are different levels in people. The Bible talks about the eyes of the people. The leaders of the people are often referred to in Judaism as ‘the heads.’ In the physiological structure of a person, you have his head, his heart, his hands, his feet. Now there are different levels of life. You can’t compare the level of life in the heart to the level of life in the sole of the foot. A person can live without a foot, but he can’t live without a heart or without a mind. So, obviously, the life coming forth from the soul has different levels of emanation.”

Krinsky was just getting started. “The same thing is true in the structure of a people as a whole. You have those who are the leaders, and those who you might call the feet of the people. The Bible tells about Moses–he mentioned the 600,000 foot people that ’I am amongst.’ There is this difference between levels of people. And the leader characterizes the head, which is delicate and very sensitive. It’s simply a different type of person. In a democracy, everybody is the same. You have the past president—is he or is he not above the law? Obviously, he’s not above the law. But in any case, when you’re talking about the Jewish people as a whole, they’ve been blessed through the generations with extraordinary leadership—not in the secular Jewish sense, I’m talking in the religious sense. Beginning with Abraham, his son Isaac, and his son Jacob, and subsequently Moses, Joshua and the Prophets, then we came into the time of the Mishnaic sages, and the Talmudic sages. They’ve been a very small number, but they’ve been people who were capable of leading the people through very difficult times. And actually, they are on a different level. They don’t look upon themselves as different—it says that Moses was the most modest person, he held himself lower than the lowest of the people that he led, because he was in fact a true leader, in an authentic way.”

“Is the Rebbe on that level?” 

“The Rebbe is in the same way, because of the outstanding ability, the outstanding concern for the people,” Krinsky answered. “I would say the Rebbe is more concerned with his fellow Jew, regardless of the type of Jew, than a person on a lower level who’s a compassionate person involved in helping others. This mitzvah campaign—it’s not the Rebbe’s business. He doesn’t gain anything off it. What gain does he have? There’s no monetary gain, it doesn’t make his house any nicer, no more prestige or honor—he simply does it for the sake of the mitzvah itself. If there’s something lacking somewhere, by any Jew, in any part of the world, he feels that lack, he feels that something, he can’t rest or take it easy. What I’m trying to say is that the Rebbe’s capacity for leadership in general—there are certain prerequisites. First of all,, the man has to be well-versed in Torah study—you can’t be an ignoramus, and as far as that’s concerned, the Rebbe is an acknowledged genius in all fields of Jewish study. That’s intellectually speaking. But you have to be emotionally involved with your people, you have to feel that their concern is your concern. And it’s very evident.”

“It sounds like a lonely job, almost like the presidency,” I ventured. 

“I think that to a degree, there’s a comparison there. I think it’s a very lonely kind of a position. The Rebbe is not only closely tied in with the people constantly, he knows what’s going on. He’s very well informed as to everything, in the total world in general.”

“But what about the man? I impertinently asked. “Do you think he enjoys his food?”

“We’re talking on a very superficial level,” Krinsky replied. “You must remember that there is a difference between Judaism and other religions. In Chabbad Hasidus, more than any other philosophy, it’s a total job, it’s not something where you go to church on Sunday, and the rest of the week you can do what you want. It’s a total, encompassing kind of existence, from the instance you’re born to the end of your life, and we believe, beyond that.” 

He continued, as if I were a candidate.

“There’s a definite pattern by which a person must live. From the instant he gets up in the morning, he has to wash his hands, says his prayers, then he has to put on tefillin. ‘In all your ways you should know Him.’ That Biblical injunction is not to be taken superficially, it’s a very serious one in the sense that a Jew, no matter what he does, when he eats, sleeps, he does it with a certain ultimate goal, an ultimate purpose in mind, which is to bring Godliness into the world. He should do his job thoroughly, he should give to charity, raise children, lead his family in Yiddishkeit. There is no area in life that is exempt of Yiddishkeit. In the Tanya, the basic book of Chabbad philosophy, written by Rabbi Schneur Zalman, he talks about when one eats, everything one does, has to be for a higher purpose. When one eats, he should not go down to the level of the food, but he should bring the food up to a higher level. For example, you have the animal, mineral, vegetable. The ultimate of the mineral is that it should give out vegetation, it should produce the vegetable. The ultimate of the vegetable is that it should be eaten by the animal. The ultimate of the animal is that it be elevated to a higher sphere, which is the human being. The ultimate of the human being is that he be elevated to a higher sphere, to Godliness. So that obviously, the food that a person eats is on a lower level than he is, and his obligation is to elevate to divinity, which is to be found in everything, the food hat he eats to a higher sphere.”

I was awed—he had, in effect, answered my question, although that wasn’t the type reply I was seeking. 

 “Who would be the closest person to the Rebbe?”

He mentioned a Rabbi Hartichov. “He’s about the same age, and is the Rebbe’s closest confidant,” Krinsky said. 

“He’s just a friend?

“Not just a friend, it’s his position. He’s involved in that work. He works until very late at night, and even when he’s home a few hours resting, his mind is here. I think it’s

 that way with most of us here. There’s a lot of satisfaction, of course. You’re really never free of it, when you’re home.” 

“Does it take away at all from your observance?”

“As far as practical observance is concerned, you still do that. But it does diminish from the time that I put in on studying. Speaking for myself, I wish I had more time to study.”

“The Rebbe’s health is good?” 

“Thank God. Sometimes he looks tired, which is understandable. He’s never left for a vacation or taken a rest that I know if. He just hasn’t. He’s never missed a day. I think what drives the whole thing is when any one of these individuals stationed in any part of the world looks at the Rebbe and sees how hard he drives himself, I think this gives him the stimulus to drive himself, and he doesn’t let up on himself, and he’s demanding of other people he works through, and I think his own schedule and his own approach to work stimulates others. He doesn’t ask any more of anyone else than he does himself.”

“If you’re working with him closely, is there a level on which you can socialize with him?”

“There’s really no socializing. I’ve been involved right now about 17 or 18 years, and as close as I’ve come to the Rebbe, I would say that he’s still an enigma, and I think even his closest confident, Rabbi Hartichov, would attest to the same thing. Despite the close activity at any given time, the Rebbe remains an enigma. He seems to be all locked up. There are territories there that are just virgin seemingly. No one has entered. “

“Do you think he has doubts?”

“Well, I would assume the decisions that he makes are thought through very carefully, cautiously, and before a decision is made, there might be doubt, I don’t know how to term it.” 

“I mean religious doubts, philosophical doubts.” 

“No, no, no. The Rebbe is a very believing man. Chabbad does profess intellectual inspection and introspection and involvement and research, but it doesn’t negate belief in any way. Therefore, belief is always there, it’s the rock bed of Judaism, and all the investigation that goes on intellectually speaking or philosophically speaking goes along hand-in-hand with the belief. There are no doubts by the religious Jew as to basic Jewish beliefs. The reason for the mystery is that the Rebbe is such a deep character, a complex person, that I simply think that he might be involved with certain studies, with certain matters of Torah, that he might not speak to the individual about at the time.  But in his thinking, his way of life, these are things he is involved in, in a higher sphere of mental and emotional involvement.” 

That was my last visit to Lubavitch.

Introduction

Part 1

Part II

Part III

Part IV

Part V

Part VI

Part VII

Part VIII

Part IX

Part X

Part XI

Part XII

The Last Rebbes: Life among The Hasidic Jews, Part XII

By Ray Schultz

One hot Tuesday in August 1974, I found myself in a Hertz truck manned by young Rabbinic students on vacation. Their job was to drive around the city, jump out at different spots and urge American Jews to “identify.” My job, as I saw it, was to survive the ride.

By this time, I was on assignment from The New York Times Magazine. The Times had spurned an earlier proposal of mine, but another writer’s article on the Hasidim had fallen through, and the Times suddenly was interested in a mish-mash I had written, its main virtue being that it was “not too chicken soupy,” an editor wrote. But they wanted revisions. And their first demand was that I ride one of these new Mitzvah Mobiles—that was the news hook. I called Yehuda Krinsky, who seemed none too friendly at first. But faced with an impending article, he was helpful.

So there I was. Our first stop was Wall Street, where the truck attracted bemusement at best. The young men who manned it would sidle up to people on the street and ask, in confidential tones, “Are you Jewish?” If the answer was yes, they would start their pitch, but would withdraw the proffered booklets if the person said no.

Men who said they were Jewish were invited to enter the trucks. Most didn’t—as Shrage had said in a somewhat shocking remark, the Hasidim reminded acculturated American Jews of  “something they had a nose job to forget.” The few who did enter were instructed on the importance of charity boxes and tefillin. And they would be invited to put on tefillin. I, a non-believer, also was coerced into donning tefillin before the truck even took off, but I was now fairly skilled at wrapping it around my arm.

We left Wall Street, and after a bumpy drive to Brooklyn, parked on a corner near Sheepshead Bay. With klezmer music blaring from the truck, an old man started dancing on the sidewalk. They kept asking him if he was Jewish, but he wouldn’t stop dancing long enough to answer.

***

My other mandate from the Times was that I profile a “plain foot soldier” in Lubavitch. So Krinsky served one up. Hirsh Gonsburg, age 45, ran a printing house, The Empire Press, on Empire Blvd. He was born in Moscow, where he attended a small yeshiva in a basement. His father was an alumnus of the original Lubavitch yeshiva, and a photographer who occasionally took shots for Isvestia, the Soviet news agency. In 1938, the family moved to Palestine to avoid the coming war, and young Hirsh and his two brothers were able to pursue their yeshiva studies in peace. In 1948, at age 18, he came to America to study in Crown Heights, and met a young woman named Rasha Denburg, who came from a respected family. They were married. Rather than going in for teaching or further Rabbinic training, Gonsburg took a job with a small print shop in East New York, and started learning the printing business. After a brief period in Montreal, he returned to Crown Heights, and in 1967, with a loan from the Small Business Administration, he and Mordecai Chean, opened their own shop. They print publications for Lubavitch in Hebrew, Yiddish and English, and pamphlets for various businesses in the area. Both men enjoyed the work, but said it was tough to make a living. No matter what they earned, 10% of their incomes had to go to Lubavith. “It’s part of Jewish law,” said Gonsburg..

Like most men, Gonsburg carried the burden of mitzvahs for his family. He arose at 6:30 every morning and went to shul. There he donned his tefillin and tallis (prayer shawl) for morning prayer. He davened for 45 minutes, then returned home for breakfast. His shul was a small place near his house. Though most men would rather daven where the Rebbe was, they usually went closest to home. At 9:30, he arrived at work and began a long, hard day. Within an hour, his hands were usually full of printer’s ink, and his ears subjected to the constant clacking of the hot-type machines. Occasionally, he and Chean had to wash up and go over to Manhattan for business. In the course of a day, they were required to go through two more prayer sessions. One was mincha, or afternoon prayer. They usually davened together at the shop, with the co-workers. “The only requirement is that we do it by sundown,” he said. “If it’s late, we’ll just close the shop up: it takes about 15 minutes.” At night, he went to shul for evening prayer, which also takes 15 minutes, and after dinner he usually studied Torah for an hour or two by himself. “We have to keep studying,” he said. “It’s an ongoing thing. The Rebbe is studying, too.”

Gonsburg’s two sons attended yeshiva, where they spent half a day on religious subjects and half on state-required secular subjects. An average Hasidic schoolboy, in his bright-colored yarmulke and close-cropped hair, spends 8 or 9 hours a day (in school and at home) of grueling work in Torah, Talmud and Hasidus, and by the time he is 10 years old, will already be something of an expert, I was told. In addition, by the tender age of five, he would also mostly likely speak English, Yiddish, the sacred language Hebrew, and possibly one or more European languages, such as Russian or French, depending on where his parents came from.

At some point, I asked Gonsburg about his wife, and he replied, somewhat abashedly, that she had passed away in 1969. “We manage, thank God,” he said

To get a woman’s perspective, I visited Rabbi Menachim Blau’s home to interview his wife Esther, who ran the Hadar Hatorah women’s program.. Their house was neatly but not plushly decorated—there were photos of the previous and current Rebbes on the wall. Blau took out tefillin, kissed it and bade me to put it on. Esther brought out a quart of Tropicana orange juice and lemon meringue pie. While we talked, another woman sat in the front room and rocked their small baby.

Mrs. Blau told me the girl’s training program was the right one for women. “Girls can’t sit and study, they must work to support the men during first year or so of marriage while the men complete their studies,” she said. Her husband gravely nodded in agreement at some point.

Mrs. Blau continued that women are relieved of many of the responsibilities that fall on men—not that women are less valuable, only that “each sex has its role,” she said. “That of women is to make children—they are required only to observe those commandments for which they can find time. We want women to serve our Lord, but her part or role is by raising the family, to be fruitful, to have children.” Finally, without my even inferring it, she said, “Religious people don’t feel women are lower.”

Introduction

Part 1

Part II

Part III

Part IV

Part V

Part VI

Part VII

Part VIII

Part IX

Part X

Part XI

The Last Rebbes: Life among The Hasidic Jews, Part XI

By Ray Schultz

In my ignorance, I now considered myself an expert on the varieties of Hasidism. In addition to the Satmar and Lubavitch, there were the Breslover Hasidim, the “Dead Hasids,” so called because their founding Rebbe, Rabbi Nachman, had died and never been replaced; they were viewed by other Hasidim with a mixture of contempt and pity, I thought. There were the Gere, the Belze and the Squarer, who inhabited New Square, in Rockland County, New York. 

I’d also somehow heard of the Sassover Hasiim, and I visited the remnant  that existed in their shul on the ground floor of a tenement in in the East Village of New York. To get to it, you had to walk through a dark alleyway. The Rebbe was a slightly passive young man, maybe 27, who did not look to me like a leader. Everyone else was elderly. They could barely pull together a minyan for afternoon prayer. 

Next on my tour were the Bobover, one of the largest groups in the city. They lived mostly in Borough Park, a Brooklyn neighborhood served by an El line that went to Coney Island. One Friday morning, I visited Rabbi Halberstam, a nephew of Shlomo Halberstam, the Bobover Rebbe, who at 67 was one of the most well-known Hasidic leaders in New York. We sat at a dining room table with a large, bright chandelier overhead and enjoyed soft drinks while talking.  

The Bobover dynasty was founded in Sanz, Poland in 1830 by Chaim Halberstam.  He learned with Rabbi Naftali Horowitz, who in turn had learned with Elimelech Weisblum of Lizhenskwho had studied with the Maggid of Mezeritch, successor to the Bal Shem Tov himself. Rabbi Weisblum “was above our conception, we can’t even conceive the mind that he had,” our host, Rabbi Halberstam said. 

The current Rebbe’s father, Ben Zion Halberstam, had greatly expanded the movement after World War I, helping and praying for people with serious problems. Life was hard in Poland. And like other Hasidic groups, the Bobover were caught up in the horror overtaking Europe. The Rebbe, Ben Zion Helmerstam, was shot to death by the Nazis along with 1,200 other Jews in a slaughter in Lvov, Poland in 1941. And Shlomo Halberstam’s wife and two children also died in the Holocaust.

Despite these tragedies, Shlomo Halberstam took up the mantle of Rebbe and devoted himself to smuggling people out of concentration camps. In one operation, he hired coal trucks that were shipping coal into Hungary, and made double layers near the bottom, 20 to 24 inches wide, and there they would hide people. “The drivers got paid, they knew what was going on, and they smuggled out hundreds of people,” Rabbi Halberstam said. “He was running a whole intelligence system.” 

Some of the Bobover escaped to Russia, and found themselves in Siberia. Rabbi Halberstam’s own father died in prison there. The Hasidim were afraid to take Russian citizenship because it meant they couldn’t return to Poland, they thought. But in the end they were allowed to go home, only to find that anti-Semitism still prevailed in Poland and that they were not welcome back.

The Rebbe’s son left for Palestine on one of two ships headed there. The British Navy sank one, and fired on the other. The young man barely made it to land. 

Finally, the Rebbe arrived in the United States and found himself ministering to survivors, some of whom had not belonged to the Bobover congregation.

“Unfortunately, there are a lot of other Hasidic movements some who were just wiped out, and there were no followers to reinstate it,” Rabbi Halberstam said. “There was nothing left in those countries, Poland, Hungary, Austria, nothing left over there.” 

These survivors were often burdened with psychiatric problems, as were their children. But few were ever treated because people wouldn’t seek help. And even if they did, there were few professionals qualified to deal with these issues. “What is psychiatric help going to do when a kid starts talking about a dybuk or gilgul?” asked Rabbi Yitchak Rubin, a Bobover I spoke with that same week. Rabbi Rubin added that some of these children were “skeletons,” or challenged in other ways, and encumbered with the fears of the parents. 

“There are little kids whose parents from the camps won’t let them ride on public transportation—they’re afraid they will be driven to the camps,” he said. 

It fell upon the Rebbe to pull the surviving followers together—if he could. 

“It was the Rebbe’s job to encourage them and prove to them they could start anew,” Halberstam said. That was the first challenge.  

Then there was the problem of making a living. 

“In early part of 1946 or ’47, the people who came over were lost people without any families, nobody to turn to, so the Rebbe felt that he must try and help these people,” Halberstam said. “So instead of them going out, not knowing English, not knowing where to start in this new country, he felt it was his duty to provide them with an occupation where they can make a decent living. “ The Rebbe decided on watch repair and jewelry. 

Why those two trades?

“He had meetings with professional people, with economists, from various trades, and had some of his businessmen bringing in people from the Labor Dept.,” Halberstam answered. “It was decided that these would be the most appropriate trades for a Jewish Hasidic youngster. It was an individual trade—there wouldn’t be any problems with unions, or with observing the Sabbath or the Jewish holidays.” 

The training program lasted for two years—after that, there was no need. 

How did the Rebbe bear up under all this pressure? Halberstam answered by saying something I had never heard about any of the other Rebbes: “He has a tremendous sense of humor, not only a sense of humor, but he rises himself above any problem he may encounter.”

This was reflected in the character of the Bobover, who while just as serious as other groups in their observance, they avoided controversy.

 “We do not discourage anyone, we do not disqualify anyone from becoming part of our movement,” Halberstam said.. “To the contrary we tolerate anyone’s views.” 

The Rebbe himself “is accessible to all,” Halberstam continued. “He’s in constant contact He has weekly gatherings every Friday night after the first Sabbath meal. The congregation would come where the rabbi comes. He says the kiddush, and they drink a cup of wine and sing the Sabbath songs. The Rabbi eats his Sabbath meal, and the rest of the people participate either by drinking a cup of beer, and eating fruit, and dance. And on this occasion the Rabbi gives a sermon. During this sermon, he will seek a certain topic to speak about. Sometimes it’s about education of children, sometimes it’ about ethics. Whatever the topic is, people are delighted and exceptionally enthusiastic about it.”  

The Bobover were also known for their joyous singing.

“An important point in the Bobover movement is singing because my grandfather, the Rebbe’s father, was a great singer, a composer,” Halberstam said. “He composed beautiful songs , we have records that we distributed. The Rebbe today also makes very beautiful compositions, so singing is important. It’s a good release, it tends to make you joyous and gives a lot of young people a certain feeling. It gives you patriotism, and they could be enthralled and prepare for the gatherings and for the holidays.”

Once again, I was astounded by the diversity within the Hasidic movement– how the Satmar, Lubavitcher and Bobover could have such distinct characters while rigorously adhering to the same commandments.  

The earlier installments:

Introduction

Part 1

Part II

Part III

Part IV

Part V

Part VI

Part VII

Part VIII

Part IX

Part X

 

Yale And Danny Do The Pandemic

By Ray Schultz

A Sunday or two ago, I was enjoying a stroll in Central Park when I was almost knocked over by a lout on a skateboard, wearing no shirt and no mask. I was about to curse the Millennials, then I saw it was a particular Millennial: Yale Moss by name.

I tried to hold my temper because Yale’s wife Danny was sitting on a bench not three feet away, wheeling a baby carriage back and forth. And she at least had a mask on.

The last time, I had seen this pair was at their wedding reception in January. Danny’s dad Hal Hall had finally accepted Yale as his son-in-law, mostly because of Yale’s sales record, and had even named him as VP in charge of used car lots and hauling and cartage concerns for the Middle-Atlantic region. And a baby was on the way.

Not that I cared, but how had they been faring and what were they doing in Central Park?  They looked a little gaunt. I sat down with them, carefully social distancing myself, and they told me the story. Yale did most of the talking.

The baby arrived in March and he was named in honor of his two grandfathers. There was some debate over whose name should go first, but Hal’s was chosen because Hal Mo sounds better than Mo Hal when the contractions are used together, and Hal is the billionaire.

Over Danny’s objections, Yale insisted that they fly to Tampa to see his folks Mo and Wendy. But the minute they landed, they were clapped into quarantine because Florida ordered that anyone from New York be isolated for two weeks. The only food they could get was takeout pizza during a three-hour window each day. Fortunately, they had enough baby formula and diapers.

When the quarantine was up, Florida put them on a plane back to New York, and the minute they arrived, they were  thrown into quarantine again because New York was retaliating by blocking anyone arriving from Florida. Here they were given leftover jailhouse bologna sandwiches once a day.

No sooner had the last two weeks expired, with things getting gamier by the day, when they were grabbed by ICE and transported on a bus with barred windows to Easton, Pennsylvania because someone heard Yale joke that they were being  “deported.” They were quarantined again, and left to rot  in a motel where there was no food available at all, and they had to subsist on small packets of Famous Amos cookies and Cheezits from a vending machine.

Meanwhile, Hal Hall’s  battery of high-priced legal help couldn’t even figure where his family members were, let alone how to get them out of this predicament.

One night, Hal was venting to Mo over the phone, and Mo suggested he call Erwin Forrest, a landlord-tenant lawyer who might be able to help. Hal called and Erwin was happy to hear from him because business was slow, there being a moratorium on evictions in New York State.

Hal, a man accustomed to great authority, had to visit Erwin’s office in a rat-trap office on Fulton Street, where file cabinets were kept in the hallway outside the elevators. Speaking over a telecom, Hal explained the problem and Erwin gruffly ordered Hal to deliver $20,000 in small unmarked bills, exclusive of fees.

Hal has never been talked to this way in his life, but he had a certain familiarity with criminality. He sent the assistant who was with him to his office to get the cash from a safe. Then he had to deposit the money into a automated teller’s window in the wall in Erwin’s hallway.  It took a day or two, but thanks to Erwin’s magic, Yale, Danny and little Hal Mo arrived back in the city by private limo.

All three had contracted colds, but thankfully not Covid-19. They were sure of this because the adults were painfully tested with long nasal swabs that went right up to the eyeball at every step of the journey.

Altogether, they  were in custody for two months, and their marital relations were severely strained. Danny threw Yale out of her apartment in the Pierre the day they got back.

Luckily, Yale had won a contract to gut the office of a bankrupt Philadelphia law firm, and the bankruptcy court insanely approved a fee of $1.5 million, most of which was profit.

Determined to save the deal, Hal brought in a telehealth marriage counselor, who advised Yale and Danny to laugh at themselves, enjoy the sunshine and then go isolate in the Hall family compound in Southhampton, Long Island. So here they were, making goo-goo eyes at each other again.

I was happy that the lovebirds were reconciled, but not that happy. When I got home, I found that I had a fever.

DEAR FRIEND: The Rascals, Rogues and Roues Who Made American Junk Mail, Introduction: Oh, Pioneers

By Ray Schultz

Copyright 2014

For Andrea

The consumer was prey who had to pray,” Copywriter Ed McLean

“`Who? Who’s got a steady job, a couple bucks nobody’s touched, who?’ David Mamet in Glengarry Glen Ross

Known for their beauty and even more for their vast ore deposits, the hills around Laramie, Wyoming were in 1865 the scene of regular knifings and garrotings. Then the Union Pacific Railroad was extended to Laramie, and westward from there: By 1875, trains were pulling in to refuel, and passengers were rushing into trackside restaurants to dine on dishes like minced liver on toast and calves tongue with tomato sauce. And there was one other sign of civilization: a lottery run by a man listed in the city directory as “Pattee, J.M., capitalist.”

Not that most townspeople were aware of the Lottery King. Having been run out of Omaha for swindling, Pattee had learned to operate by stealth. There would be no public drawings in Laramie, as there had been in Omaha. He would also pull back on advertising in newspapers. Why bother with that when there was a more hidden medium, one that would render him “hard to arrest for the deeds of the present, and harder to locate for the deeds of the past?”

That would be what is now called junk mail. This medium did not yet have a name, but it was the precursor of spam, and all other forms of instrusive advertising, and Pattee had mastered it. His circulars, 40,000 at a time, were printed by the Daily Sun, a newspaper located two doors down from his office, placed in hand-addressed envelopes, then loaded onto trains, some ending up “where the temperature is fifty degrees below zero, and little business has been transacted beyond sending to the general store for provisions,” as legend had it. Others went to places where “the golden scresent sinks beneath the blue water of the Gulf of Mexico. and summer is eternal.”

The pieces were simple prize sheets. There was no way to tailor the copy by classifying people by their characteristics. Still, early junk mailers like Pattee had little trouble targeting their customers: They referred to them, simply, as “the fools.”

It was all they needed. For the real pioneers were grifters of whom little good can be said except that they were less likely than train robbers or other postal felons to be tattooed.

Chapter 1: Crooked Colonials

DEAR FRIEND: The Rascals, Rogues and Roues Who Made American Junk Mail, Chapter 25: Harbors Of Missing Men

By Ray Schultz

The Depression year 1932 was not a good one for mailing list compilers or anyone else. “There has been a steady decline in lists of all kinds,” said E.J. Williams, age 72, in his apartment in the Waldorf-Astoria. “In 1929, we had far more millionaires, wealthy widows or paper hangars worth $2,000 or more.”

Williams, the owner of Boyd’s City Dispatch, had long experience in this business. Started by John T. Boyd in 1844, Boyd’s had delivered mail in New York and even had its own stamps, featuring the image of an eagle on a globe. Williams joined the firm as an errand boy, and traveled around the city on foot and on horse cars.

One Friday in May 1883, the delivery boys left for their first of two runs for the day. Waiting for them on Beekman Place were postal inspectors. The inspectors, armed and with full police powers, ordered the boys to turn over their mail bags: The post office had decided to protect its monopoly by shutting down independent delivery operations. Counting those seized from both Boyd’s and Hussey’s, another delivery company, the haul that day was 25,000 letters.

This should have been the end of Boyd’s. But the firm then known as Boyd’s City Despatch Addressing, Mailing & Delivery Agency had a side business. Around the time of the Civil War, a steamship line asked to use the Boyd’s address list to mail cruise solicitations. In time, Williams bought a half-interest in the firm for $150 during a downturn, and eventually owned it all. He changed course when he took over: He created mailing lists by copying names from public stock listings.

Foremost on the Boyd’s list were the 2,532 widows in the country said to be worth over $50,000. Williams also collected the names of “fat people, bald people, and sufferers from asthma or liver trouble.” But he was ethical up to a point. Though he had no problem renting the widow’s list to real estate agents or philanthropic fundraisers, he drew the line matrimonial agencies.

In 1923, Williams wrote a article, outlining some of his methods, and stated, frankly, “The hardest names to get are those of responsible persons with means.

“People worth up to a thousand dollars, and who are known to have a good standing because they pay their bills, are on what we call the general mail-order list,” he wrote. “They receive catalogs from mail order houses, and also announcements from dealers about such moderate-priced products as clothes, shoes and raincoats.” The types of solicitations improved as a person moved up the financial ladder. “The man who is supposed to be worth from $1,000 to $5,000 receives letters from jewelers concerning moderate-priced rings and watches,” Williams wrote.

“The cigars brought to his attention range in price form five to ten cents,” he continued. “His letters from an insurance company tell him of policies ranging from $1,000 to $5,000. If he receives letters from hotels or summer resorts, his information is about accommodations to be had for from three to five dollars per day.”

People at the $5,000 pinnacle received letters about “pianos, organs, high-class domestic furniture and rugs, and silverware. The insurance suggestions sent to a man in this class range from 10,000 to $15,000. He receives letters from hotels whose rates are from $5 to $25 a day. The cigars he hears about are priced at from ten to thirty cents.

“The preparation of any such list as this requires a great deal of expert investigation, covering public records of property holdings and stock lists,” Williams explained. “Facts which on their surface might indicate that a man is very well-to-do cannot always be relied upon.”

Here he took a slam at rivals R.L. Polk and Donnelley—Midwestern companies that compiled car registration lists. “To some extent, the kind of automobile a man owns might be accepted as an indication of his worth; but, on the other hand, a man may have bought a high-priced car second-hand.”

There was good reason for his boasting. Boyd’s, in little more than a year, had sold “150,000 lists containing 200-million names, at a price for each list ranging from one dollar and a half to six thousand dollars,” Williams said. Its millionaires’ list was ever popular, as were its doctors’ and lawyers’ lists (you could rent all 7,000 doctors for $17.50).

Williams admitted that business had suffered since 1929. But there was a bright side: With 11-million unemployed, there was a great pool of college graduates available for stuffing envelopes, Williams told the New York Times at the Waldorf.

*****

Boyd’s competitor, R.L. Polk Co., was started by Ralph Lane Polk, a Civil War drummer boy who was present at Appomattox. A “stern and frugal man,” who had enlisted in the Union army at 16, Polk sold patent medicines door-to-door after the war, then was hired as a city directory enumerator for $2 a day.

City directories were the main listings of individuals in that pre-telephone age. In 1837, McCabe’s Directory of Detroit listed Andrew B. Calhoun, merchant tailor at 175 Jefferson av.; Denis Callaghan, laborer, on Wapping; and Barnaba Campau, gentleman, at 178 Jefferson.

In 1870, Polk started a directory of towns along the Detroit and Milwaukee railroad. And as the railroads pushed west, he published directories in many other towns, outpacing his competitors. Polk directories eventually became known as the “books with thousands of characters.”

Don’t think the Polk family was infallible: It should have moved into the telephone directory business, competing against Reuben H. Donnelley, but it didn’t. “That was probably the biggest single mistake my grandfather made,” the scion Stephen Polk said in a 1996 interview. “He decided there wasn’t much business in telephone books.”

But there was another business waiting, and Polk found it thanks to a lucky piece of geographic planning. Though he could have settled in Milwaukee, South Bend any other Midwestern town, the patriarch chose Detroit. And it was in that city that the automobile was mass produced.

“Alfred P. Sloan, who was the real founder of General Motors, knew my grandfather (Raph Lane Polk Jr.) socially,” Stephen Polk said. “He always complained that Henry Ford lied to him about how many cars he was selling across town. We were the largest directory company, managing all these slips of paper, and keeping track of millions of people. He said, “I can’t believe you can’t keep track of the autos being sold.”

So the Polks went into the automotive statistics business, and it was there that they found another lucrative sideline: In 1921, they bought regional companies that compiled mailing lists based on automobile registrations–in Des Moines, Newark and Cleveland. And they started sending brochures to local auto dealers, selling them on the benefits of direct mail.

Like E.J. Williams, R.L. Polk Jr. found one positive factor during the Depression. “Our city directories are ‘harbors of missing men,’” he wrote in an article. “In this day of change, when folks move about like checkers on a board, the directory alone probably holds the record through which they may be located.’”

There was, of course, one man for whom there was no hope at all, although he was hardly missing: Louis Victor Eytinge. “We got him a job,” wrote Henry Hoke, a copywriter who had run the Direct Mail Advertising Association and now published a magazine called The Reporter of Direct Mail. He. “He paid back his ‘obligations.’ But he was sometimes, ‘Jekyll.’ Sometimes ‘Hyde.’ His name gradually dropped out of the picture.

But Hoke kept up with him. “I last saw him in Chicago during the summer of 1938,” Hoke continued. “He was 59 years old then. The uncontrollable had been controlled by laws of nature. He was making good on a job. His genius for writing was still great. He asked me please not to give him any publicity. He smiled at his broken memories and the mess he had made out of the big promises of 1920. ‘Hyde’ was dead. ‘Jekyll’ just wanted to be left alone with what might have been.” Louis Victor Eytinge died a year later.

Chapter 26: Black Mail

 

DEAR FRIEND: The Rascals, Rogues and Roues Who Made American Junk Mail, Chapter 24: The Traveling Salesman

By Ray Schultz

Edward Proctor Jr. was a child of privilege. He’d gone to the Hackley School, a boarding school, in Tarrytown, New York after his father decided that the children of tenant farmers of Teaneck, where his family lived, were not suitable classmates.

Young Proctor hardly ever saw his father, who worked non-stop to build the business he had bought. But as side benefits accrued as the prosperity of the 1920s took hold. One summer, the family visited 40 states on a train tour of the U.S.; the following year, they went on a European trip.

Proctor later attended Cornell, and hoped to become a journalist. He was hired as an intern on the Bergen Record in Northern New Jersey in the summer of 1931. One day, when the regular reporter didn’t show up, Proctor was sent to cover the dedication ceremony for the George Washington Bridge. He found himself riding in an elevator in the superstructure of the bridge with New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt, and was shocked to see Roosevelt seated in a wheelchair.

It was easy to forget that his education was being paid for by the mailing list business, and that there was a depression going on. But Proctor was reminded of it that fall when his father called him in for a talk.

The old man got right to the point. Business was so bad that he had to restructure and lay off several people. There was no choice but for Ed Jr. to leave school and come to work for the company. Another young man would have rebelled, but Proctor took it well. “Everything my father suggested I just automatically accepted–so different from the children today,” he said.

So Proctor became an apprentice in the mailing list business, just as his father had in 1899. He started keeping entries in the same old ledger that had come down with Charles Guild from Boston. And although he attended night courses at Columbia University, he traveled one week a month to the Midwest.

It was a grueling regimen. Brokers like Proctor looked through newspapers for mail order ads, then contacted the companies and asked if they would rent their lists. “They made endless calls to list owners. They trudged up countless fights of stairs to dingy offices to meet with publishers and merchandisers who wore green eyeshades,” wrote the copywriter Denison Hatch.

“The big argument was money,” said Proctor. “We’d say, ”Look at all you’re losing. Ten dollars a thousand was a lot of money during the Depression.”

One such candidate was American Products, the possessor of about 2 million names mostly of the gullible. In a typical ad, it said:

Here is a new way to make money—a way that offers a chance for big, quick profits. Men and women everywhere are making $6 to $10 a day in full time—$1.00 to $2.00 an hour in spare time—taking orders for Jiffy Glass Cleaner—a new pure, harmless liquid that instantly cleans glass surfaces without water, soap or chamois.

Proctor visited them. “I went and sat in office in Cincinnati, trying to persuade them,” Proctor said. “They took in other bids, but ours was bigger—we had users lined up.”

In time, Proctor also “pried loose a few subscriber lists,” starting with that of The Workbasket, a magazine for “little old ladies who knitted.” He rented it to the publisher of a sex manual that he remembered as “How to Sleep with Your Wife.”

Then there was the Dale Carnegie list. “It reached a total of about 65,000 names and back in 1937 that was a large list — probably the largest high grade list available at the time,” Proctor said..

Either way, there was rental business to be had. Liberty magazine mailed millions of pieces for its Presidential poll, which wrongly forecast that Alf Landon would beat Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936–it was said to be the biggest direct mailing ever. And Lucky Strike mailed 12 million pieces for its Hit Parade that year.Capon Springs, which sold mineral water, sent this letter in 1933:

Dear friend:

Would you like to “feel years younger?”

Would you like to be “made over anew?”

Would you like your eliminative organs to function naturally, thoroughly, and of their own accord, without outside help?

Then drink water from the magic spring — the Fountain of Health — Capon Springs — “The most delicious water I have ever drunk.

The offer was 5 gallons of his water bottled and sealed at Capon Springs, West Virginia) for only $1.25 (regularly $3.25).

Also included in the envelope was a black-and-white brochure, titled “Things you will observe about Capon Springs Water,” which made these claims:

It leaves a clean taste in the mouth. Capon uncoats the tongue and checks pyorrhea.

It regulates the bowels. Capon restores their normal peristaltic action (the eliminative urge).”

Another good customer for mailing lists was Psychiana, the mail order religion run by Dr. Frank B. Robinson. I Talked with God. So Can You — It’s Easy, Dr. Robinson promised in his direct mail copy. You may learn to use this fathomless, pulsing, throbbing ocean of spiritual power just as you learn to use chemistry, physics or mathematics.

List brokers like Proctor were delighted with the sheer volume of names Robinson used. “Many mailing lists were prospected, with the highest conversion rates – 20 percent — coming from a lonely-hearts list and a list of inquirers interested in ‘the power of thought,’ wrote Martin Gross, a direct mail copywriter.

Gross continued, “The next list generated a return of 16 percent. These were mail order buyers of fish. (Always experimenting, Dr. Robinson had bought a very large list of these seafood lovers. He tested only 2,000; of those who responded, 16 percent bought the lessons. He expanded the test and the return was much like the first.)

“Other results included a Yoga list (14 percent), two astrological lists (12 percent and 11 percent), a Charles Atlas-like list (six percent) and a parents’ organization (six percent),” Gross continued. “No conversions at all were received from inquiries for a high-fashion list.”

When not on the road, young Proctor also adjusted to office lie. List brokers worked half a day on Saturday, and nobody was ever addressed by their first names. (“Everyone was Mr. or Miss,” Ed Proctor, Jr. said. “It was very formal in those days.”

Chapter 25: Harbors Of Missing Men

 

 

 

 

DEAR FRIEND: The Rascals, Rogues and Roues Who Made American Junk Mail, Chapter 22: Air Mail Special

By Ray Schultz

Aviation was barely out of its infancy in 1928. But business people realized that planes could deliver mail. On Aug. 1, the Post Office reduced the air mail postage to five cents for a one-ounce letter. And at the stroke of midnight, 30,000 direct mail letters were delivered to the New York postal center by yacht designer Henry J. Gielow Inc.

The stamps had to be shipped from Washington to New York by air, and they were costly, given that a regular letter cost two cents. But Gielow figured that airmail would be noticed.

And it was: Gielow sold $450,000 worth of yachts in ten days to people who had probably never gotten a letter by air, according to the October 1928 issue Direct Mail Selling, a trade journal.

Others firms followed. On Aug. 14, the Reo Motor Car Co., sent 350,000 air mail letters in a nationwide drop weighing 7 1/2 tons. The postage bill was $17,500, but the mailing paid for itself. Druggists, hat manufacturers and varnish makers followed.

“Direct mail advertisers, like the Reo people, find that air mail gets the same preferential reading as a telegram,” the journal Direct Mail Selling noted. And delivery was fast, for mail planes flew “100 miles an hour at night as well as in the day time.”

Of course, there were less positive trends occuring down on earth—way down. A.J. Liebling, who wrote for the New Yorker for almost 30 years, was known for his articles on boxing, food, the press and World War II. But buried within his body of work are a few paragraphs on the mailing list business, contirbuted by Col. John R. Stingo, a racing writer and Broadway characte, over bottles of “Gambrinian amber” in a Times Square dive.

One tale concerns his stint early in the last century as credit man at Tex Rickard’s Northern gambling house in Goldfield, NV. (This was way before automated scoring systems.) “Many a man rife with money makes no outward flaunt,” the Colonel says. “His habiliments, even, may be poor. But, Joe, when it comes to rich men, I am equipped with a kind of radar. The houses I worked for collected on ninety-five percent of markers, an unchallenged record.”

These gifts came in handy when he went to work for the traveling evangelist Dr. Orlando Edgar Miller in the 1920s. As part of their routine, they asked congregants to include their addresses on the envelopes they dropped into the collection plate (the better to receive literature).

“The Doctor was not interested in the addresses of people with less than a buck,” the Colonel tells Libeling. “Such were requested to drop their coins in the velvet-lined collection box, where they wouldn’t jingle. The jingle has a bad effect on suggestible people who might otherwise give folding money.”

Though not trained in mailing lists, the Reverend had figured out how to suppress unwanted names. These were identified when his employees followed up with prospects. “If, as occasionally occurred, they encountered a scoffer who had invested a buck just to see what would happen, the name was scratched from the mailing list,” the Colonel relates.

Dr. Miller also pioneered list exchanges. “When we swapped towns with another big preacher, like Dr. Hall the hundred-dollar-Bible man, we sometimes swapped mailing lists,” the Colonel recalls. “But we would always keep out a few selected prospects, and so, I suspect, would the other prophet.”

The Miller list, a “mighty lever to place in the hands of a stock salesman,” was eventually used to peddle shares in a movie that bombed. Like Max Bialystok in “The Producers,” Dr. Miller drew jail time for the scheme. But he emerged unscathed and went back to his ecclesiastical dodge.

Chapter 23: A Loan To God