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

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 Chabad 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 Chabad 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 Chabad 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.

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 Lubavitch. “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 Menachim Blau’s home to interview his wife Esther, who ran the Hadar Hatorah women’s program. Their house was neatly but not plushily 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.”

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 dybbuk 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.  

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 belated 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.

The minute they arrived back in New York, though, 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.

One night, Danny’s dad Hal was venting to Mo over the phone, and Mo suggested he call Erwin Forrest, a landlord-tenant lawyer and the fixer of all fixers in New York. Erwin was happy to hear from Hal 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.  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. In fact. 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 for $1.5 million, and Hal brought in a telehealth marriage counselor so he could save the deal. The counselor advised  Yale and Danny to laugh at themselves and then go isolate in the Hall family compound in Southhampton, Long Island;; they were leaving the next day. Meanwhile, 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 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 23: A Loan To God

By Ray Schultz

Louis Victor Eytinge had barely arrived in New York in 1923, having served 16 years for murder, when it was announced that he had married. The lucky woman, Pauline I. Diver, was a 43 year-old secretary for a publishing company, who had written for Postage and served as Eytinge’s “proxy” at conventions.

With her as his muse, Eytinge got right to work. Among his great direct mail letters was one for a combined cathedral and skyscraper in New York.

Have you ever heard of any one loaning money to God?

Yes—and having an actual 5 per cent interest paid, the loan being secured by mortgage? Not only would the investment be quite profitable and safe, but it can bring in tremendous happiness through contribution to the community welfare.”

No, you are not asked to contribute one copper cent. No one is begging you for a gift. We are trying to interest you in an investment—

A loan to God first, secured by income-earning property—but better still, an investment that will give vital happiness to your neighbors and more to yourself.

Mailed to 8,000 prospects, this letter raised $502,000. And Eytinge was lionized. But he had his disappointments. He wasn’t on the program at the DMMA convention in October 1923, and he was defensive about it. “Sure, I’ll be at St. Louis,” he wrote to a friend. “What’s the use of asking that question? If I’m not on the program, I’ll be where a chap can see the wheels go round.”

Soon, he left John Service, which had hired him right out of jail, to work for Franklin Printing, of Philadelphia. and this, too, failed to pan out. “I am too much of an individualist to fit in with any organization,” he admitted, then offered his services as a freelancer. “Quite modest fees will be asked of firms whose ideals can command my keenest enthusiasm—others not desired.”

Eytinge may have also been too much of an individualist for marriage. He and Diver separated barely five years after their wedding, although they lived in the same house. Months later, Eytinge was arrested for passing worthless checks in Pittsburgh. He blamed his wife—she had overdrawn the account, he ungallantly charged.

“You see, I am legally dead,” he explained. “Whenever a person is sentenced to life in prison he becomes dead in all legal respects. After my marriage Mrs. Eytinge and I agreed to a joint bank account, with the understanding I was to use her name on checks, since I was legally dead and could not enter a contract.”

A young copywriter, Henry Hoke of Baltimore, visited Eytinge. “Behind the bars in a Pittsburgh jail, he told me he was lost in the outside world and had only recently written to the Arizona warden asking that he be taken back,” Hoke wrote. “He told me, ‘Don’t worry about me, Henry. I feel at home here.’”

But Hoke helped spring him, and Eytinge pleaded nolo contendre to three charges of false pretense. The sentence: Probation and restitution.

Chapter 24: The Traveling Salesman

DEAR FRIEND: The Rascals, Rogues and Roues Who Made American Junk Mail, Chapter 21, The Inertia Plan

By Ray Schultz

Copywriter Robert Collier did “not have a lot of pride”–he would sell anything, an acquaintance said. And he certainly displayed some cynicism in his letter offering Bruce Barton’s book, “The Man Nobody Knows,” which posited that if Jesus Christ returned to earth he would be an advertising man:

Jesus Christ ‘the founder of modern business?

Jesus a master of efficiency in organization, a born executive?

Jesus a sociable man, a cheerful, bright companion with a pat story on His lips…?

Jesus wording the best advertisements ever written?

This letter, and others like it, were accompanied by a brochure, asking: Was Jesus a Physical Weakling?

The painters have made Him look so—but He swung an adze and pushed a saw until He was thirty years old. He walked miles every day in the open air. He drove a crowd of hard-faced men out of the Temple.

Collier’s letter sold millions of books. But an upheaval was coming: the Great Depression. At that time, people viewed Jesus in a more traditional light: as minister to the poor and fallen.

Collier was a copywriting legend, even without cellestial help. “Collier was first guy that really sold merchandise by mail,” said the agency pioneer Robert Stone in 1997. “He came up with 10-day pre-trial guarantees, all things we use today. He was a merchandising genius. For example, he had a bunch of black raincoats that they couldn’t sell worth a damn. Who absolutely has to have a black raincoat? So he had a list of undertakers. and sold out entire stock. It was a lesson I never forgot.”

Stone met Collier at a conference in 1939.  “He wasn’t aloof , he was a loner,” Stone observed. “There’s a difference. He was a shy man.”

Collier came from a renowned family. He finally joined his uncle’s business, P.F. Collier & Son Co., publishers of Colliers magazine and books like Harvard Classics, the Five-Foot Shelf of Books. His uncle “had always told me he did not want me in the business until I could bring something to it they could get nowhere else,” Collier wrote.

Whlle Collier was selling books about Jesus, two hustlers were sitting in a cold-water flat in Greenwich Village, also thinking of ways to peddle books: Maxwell Sackheim and Harry Scherman. “We were young, poor, ambitious. — I think we began to plan, scheme and invent from the day we met,” Sackheim said.

Scheme was the right word. Their best ideas weren’t even theirs. The Boni Brothers, who owned a bookstore in the neighbodhood, came to Sackheim with the idea of publishing classics in leather. “Scherman and I each put up $100 or $150 and we were in the publishing business with copies of Romeo and Juliet,” Sackheim continued.

The Leather Library was nothing of the sort. The duo realized they’d go broke binding books in real leather, so they found a cheap substitute: imitation leather with ground cork backing, the kind used as a sweatband in men’s hats. They sold these editions in Woolworths, then by direct mail. But this turned out to be “absolutely impossible for the simple reason that the selling cost had to be charged against the sale of a single book,” Scherman said.

“The logic of it was that if the selling cost could be spread over a number of books that problem would be solved, just as in the case of The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde , or Joseph Conrad, or any of the other sets being offered at that time — O. Henry, Zane Grey, Mark Twain, etc.,” he explained.

In other words, “you couldn’t sell a single volume profitably, but you could sell the set because the selling cost could be applied against the total number of volumes. Therefore our prospective customer had to buy over a period of time — something like a subscription.”

These boys, who also had a mail order agency called Sackheim & Scherman, sold their interest in the Library to Robert Haas, and with his help launched their next project in 1926: The Book of the Month Club. The scheme was that the editorial board would select a book, and the Club would arrange for suppliers with the publisher. Then the selection would be “sent to each subscriber without pre-notification…but with a review of book by one of the board members. The Subscriber could return it, and the charge would be cancelled.”

The first ad for the new enterprise ran in the April 25, 1926 issue of the New York Times, featuring pictures of the editorial committee, and this copy:

You Can Now Subscribe to the best new books—just as you do to a magazine

Please send me without cost, your Prospectus outlining the details of the Book-of-the-Month Plan of Reading. This request involves me in no obligation to subscribe to your service.

The best new book each month is selected by this committee and sent you regularly on approval.

There was only one problem: Not everyone liked the given selection every month.

“The first book of 1927 was the one I pick as the one with which we had the worst experience of all,” Scherman said. “It was probably as a result of that book we changed the system radically. That book was The Heart of Emerson’s Journals, edited by Bliss Perry. By that time, we must have had about 40,000 subscribers — and that book just came back by the carload. The country didn’t want The Heart of Emerson’s Journals; they did want any part of Emerson’s Journals…”

It soon became apparent that “no book could please everybody,” no matter who selected it, and that any fixed period subscription would be a mistake. Few subscribers accepted twelve books consecutively and earned the three extra books free.”

Scherman added: “We had plenty of trouble with returned books in those days ….it was probably around that time that we decided we’d have to be ever so much more liberal with the subscribers and allow them NOT to get books if they didn’t want them, and also for our own protection. There was nothing to be done with the books when they came back — they had to be scrapped. It was a great expense, and in that respect it was not a good system at all in the beginning.”

Sackheim came up with an idea: “Why can’t we notify subscribers of the book selected before shipping it to them, giving them an honest review of it and telling them the book would be sent to them unless within two weeks they returned a certain form notifying us NOT to send it, or to send some substitute selection which we would also describe in this advance form?”

Sackheim called it the “prenotification plan,” but it was also known as the “automatic shipment plan”and the “negative option” plan.

“The negative option plan was started with one thought in mind; that of removing resistance on the part of the prospect to order merchandise which he wanted but which through normal delay, inertia or whatever you want to call it, was put off until eventually the purchase was missed entirely,” Scherman wrote.

Sackheim added: “Originally, I called it the ‘inertia plan’ because it was thought at the time to be a sales incentive that relieved the subscriber of the job of ordering something he wanted but knew in his heart he would never order if left to his own devices. There was no feeling on our part whatever that inertia meant the dumping of books on unsuspecting people who were just too lazy or too preoccupied to return a card refusing the book offer.

“My dictionary gives this description of inertia — the tendency of a body to resist acceleration; the tendency of a body at rest to remain at rest or of a body in motion to stay in motion in a straight line unless acted on by an outside force. “

This eventually drew the attention of the Federal Trade Commission. “Mainly the complaint declared that the “of-the-month” sales technique relied substantially on exploiting such human traits as procrastination and forgetfulness.”

The summer of 1928 was a hot one. Franklin Roosevelt, barely able to stand on crutches after being afflicted by polio, nominated Al Smith, the Happy Warrior as the Democratic candidate for President. Young Sherman Sackheim came home to New York from summer camp, but his parents had moved to Cleveland, Sackheim having sold  his interest in the Club to Scherman in 1928.

Sherman Sackheim had very mixed feelings about his father.

“To outsiders, he was personable—very short, 5 feet 2, knowledgeable, accommodating, generous,” he said. “He had a sense of humor, and an ego: He could look someone in eye who was 6 feet tall and simply dismiss him. He was a tyrant in his own way. Even in my childhood, he could be a tyrant, a dictator, the old school, and it wasn’t until I started my own agency in 1962 that he finally came around to recognize me not only as his son but as a person who had ability.”

Chapter 22: Air Mail Special

DEAR FRIEND: The Rascals, Rogues and Roues Who Made American Junk Mail, Chapter 28: Inside The Johnson Box

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:

 Dear Subscriber:

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.”

Dear Subscriber:

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:

Dear Subscriber:

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.

Dear American:

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.”

Chapter 29: Gifts From Foreign Lands

DEAR FRIEND: The Rascals, Rogues and Roues Who Made American Junk Mail Chapter 30: The Nervous Breakdown Saint

By Ray Schultz

Another headache for Max Sackheim was that younger people were coming into the business who din’t need his help. John Stevenson, a tall Englishman with a mustache and an impish griin, started his career on Fleet Street in 1933 writing mail order copy for the Daily Herald. A year later, he moved to Australia and wrote book promotions for the Melbourne Herald, a paper owned by Rupert Murdoch’s father Sir Keith Murdoch.

The young rogue’s next stop was the United States. Stevenson worked for the New York Post and Doubleday. And in 1948, with a modest capital outlay, he bought a company called Greystone Press in a bankruptcy auction.

Eventually, that firm sent 50 million pieces of junk mail a year, selling everything from children’s books to handyman and medical book series. Did Stevenson have the books in the warehouse when he tested book club ideas? No. “We would send a survey letter, maybe offer them the first book, he said in 1997. “We’d say, ‘We’re thinking of offering this.’ It had to be worded very

The direct mail was a dumb as it could be. “We did rebus puzzles,” Stevenson said. “Now it would require no skill — a rebus is picture arithmetic, like ‘Cat plus rat minus hat equals…’ Other publishers thought it was an undignified way of selling books.”

Then there was use of the word “free,” as in, “Free! Send for Volume 1, no obligation.” This drew the ire of the Federal Trade Commission.

“They wanted an immediate explanation with the headline that there was a commitment — if there was a commitment. Of course, you could cancel, but they don’t like the inertia factor at all. So we tightened the offers.”

One night, Stevenson was driving home with the copywriter Paul Michael. “I asked, ‘How is it that no matter how good it is, you can only get 2% of the people to respond?’“ Stevenson said. “It was like a man standing on a corner giving away $20 bills, and nobody would accept them because there was something wrong. Paul came in with a publisher’s letter, which later became known as the lift letter. It was folded over, and said: ‘If you have decided already not to accept this offer, please read this letter from the publisher or editor. I can’t understand…’ That kind of note.”

That was a breakthrough, but it was still a primitive business. “We only had their purchase and payment history,” Sttevenson said. “You couldn’t cross-sell. We kept every club separate.”

At its peak, Greystone pulled in $25 million a year, with minimal profit. “We were scrabbling around 10%,” Stevenson said. Then he moved from continuities into book clubs, because the average contiuity carried “the seeds of its own destruction. If you have a 20-volume set, it’s over after you ship the 20th volume. The partial answer is to publish annual yearbooks, but that’s not the same as a club where you can continue and continue and continue.”

Another newcomer was Andi Emerson, a tall, beautiful woman with red hair and freckles, who could have passed for Katherine Hepburn. Having been trained to write copy during a hellish weekend in a hotel room (“You’re not a good copywriter, but you can write mail order copy,” her teacher told her), she went to work for Eugene Schwartz, the author of direct mail headlines such as, “She Fled the Table When the Doctor Said, ‘Cut Her Open.’ Schwartz ran a mail order business, selling everything from weight reduction pills to “A wire nail THAT CUTS THROUGH ARMOR PLATE!” Schwartz and his stunning wife Barbara were socialites, known for buyng art and donating it to museums. One night, a fellow socialite asked him, “Do you work for a lliving?”

Schwartz closed that business to write copy full-time, and Emerson founded an agency, but included her husband Ken Weeks’ name on the door because “you couldn’t have women and you couldn’t have Jews,” she said. It was called Emerson-Weeks. One day, she was visited by Father Bernard Dazzi, a Franciscan in need of a direct mail writer.

“Father, I’m not Catholic,” Emerson protested. “I’m Protestant if anything, but I’m really an agnostic. My assistant is Mormon, and my art director is Jewish.”

“Great,” the Franciscan said. “I’m sick and tired of being ripped off by Catholics.”

Emerson took the job, and quickly condluded that they needed a saint. They found one they called “the Nervous Breakdown Saint.”

People suffering from jagged nerves and emotional disturbances may not be award that a loveable girl saint has been granted unique power to help them in their affliction. She is Irish-born St. Dympha, the ‘Lile of Eire’ whose feast occurs on May 11. This is her story.

Finally, Emerson met John Caples, the copywriter who wrote a famous mail order ad in the 1920s: “They Laughed When I Sat Down at the Piano, But When I Started To Play…” And she formed the John Caples Creative Awards, which drew crowds of drunken copywriters from the UK and Europe. A typical awards ceremony would find some of them laying under tables.

Of course, The most threatening rival to Sackheim was much closer to home. Sackheim had hired Lester Wunderman, a whiz kid who had sold a book titled “I was Hitler’s Doctor.” But Wunderman irritated him: He would return from visiting clients without any copy. Sackheim, who carried transparent pads and wrote ads in front of his customers, would ask, “Did you tell the clients jokes?”

No he didn’t. Wunderman was more more interesed in vision and strategy—he “verbally put his arm around the prospect,” Emerson said. “You ha to hire him.” Wunderman helped launched the Columbia Record Club and the American Express credit card while working for Sackheim. Then he decided to leave and take whatever clients he could. He and Sackheim ended up court.

Chapter 31: Eros