Arlo Guthrie Introduces ‘Alice’s Restaurant’

The Newport Navalog, July 21, 1967

By Ray Schultz

First of all, it’s raining, and things are getting kind of soggy on Festival Field. Second, Joan Baez is sitting in the next seat eating a sandwich, the Goodyear Blimp is flying overhead, and an English group, the Young Tradition, is performing on stage. With that combination of props, it’s hard enough to concentrate on anything, particularly in the middle of a wet Sunday afternoon. And let’s face it, you do feel conspicuous, shall we say, in your conservative Navy haircut.

You’re just about ready to pack up shop and leave when Judy Collins comes on stage and makes the following announcement:

“As you know, all of us in the folk music scene were trained and influenced by one man more than any other, Mr. Woodrow Wilson Guthrie.”

The crowd starts clapping and stamping. 

“It’s impossible for Woody to be with us at this time, but we have to carry on his work and ideas, a remarkable young man, who toured Japan with me last month, his son, Mr. Arlo Guthrie.”

More applause, and some people are standing up. 

“All I can say is his creativity boggles the mind. Here he is, ladies and gentlemen, let’s hear it for Arlo Guthrie!”

With applause thundering the whole of Festival Field, a skinny ragamuffin-looking boy walks on stage, toting an ordinary folk guitar. He’s dressed in faded blue jeans, a beat-up jacket, and an old felt ranger’s hat, out from which his long curly hair projects on either side like two enormous mouse-ears. 

Everyone in the crowd starts shouting ‘Alice! Alice!” and the young skinny troubadour on stage says: “You can yell all you want, I’m not gonna sing it.” Then, as he’s tuning the guitar, “You’re probably wonderin’ why I am gonna sing it again, after singing it yesterday. Well, I figure if I sing it enough, you’ll get sick of it and I won’t have to sing it so much any more then. I hope you get good and wet.”

With that, he begins a simple melody line with a voice not quite as raspy as Bob Dylan’s:

You can get anything you want,

at Alice’s restaurant

You can’t get anything you want,

at Alice’s restaurant

Just walk right in, around the back, bout a

Half a mile from the railroad track

You can get anything you want at Alice’s restaurant.

Then, strumming the guitar lightly, he begins a talking jag that lasts for something like 25 minutes. 

“This here is the ‘Alice’s Restaurant Bad Times Massacree Part Two,’ as oppose to the ‘Alice’s Restaurant Bad Times Massacree Part One,’ or as oppose to any version of Alice’s restaurant you might have heard, or any Alice’s restaurant you might have been in across the country. The name of the restaurant is not Alice’s restaurant, Alice just works there, but that’s just the name of the song, because it is about Alice, and that’s why I named the song Alice’s Restaurant.”

Well, it goes on about his being rejected for the draft after being convicted of littering in Stockbridge Mass. on Thanksgiving day. Twenty-five minutes of it, and each line funnier than the last. Towards the end of the song, he suggests that when faced with the draft, you should “‘enter the Army psychiatrist’s office, singing the chorus of Alice,” and “you’ll probably get rejected.”

“If three people go in and sing Alice’s restaurant, he chants, “then they might think it’s an or-gan-i-zation. If 50 people go in singing the song, they’re gonna think it’s a m o v e m e n t, and friends, it is a movement, it’s the “Alice’s Restaurant Bad Times Massacree Part Two” movement. I’d like you to sing it with me. With feeling. We’ll just wait till comes around again on the guitar. Here it comes.”

The crowd starts singing until he stops and tells them they’re doing terribly and should start again. Finally, he does the last note and chord of the epic, and then it explodes! The crowd gives a thundering standing ovation that lasts for ten minutes, George Wein invites him back for the evening concert, and you know, you feel, that here in front of your eyes is standing the man who will be the next king of folk music. The Arlo Guthrie Masacree Parts One, Two, Three and Four movement!

Later that night he climaxes the 1967 Newport Folk Festival with another performance of the song, this time with Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Oscar Brand, Theodore Bikel and the rest joining in on the last chorus. You leave Festival Field with “Alice’s Restaurant” on your brain. Martha Matzke, a Providence Journal reporter, says: “He’s beautiful.” The New York Times calls him the new “festival hero.” Arlo Guthrie is here!

The young man who created that very remarkable song and experience for an audience of 15,000, is the 20 year-old son of Woody Guthrie, the rambling bard who wrote and sang so eloquently of the problems faced by the dust-bowl okies during the great depression 30 years ago. Since the early 1950s, Woody has been in a Brooklyn hospital, with Huntington’s Chorea, a progressively worsening disease of the nervous system. Friday night, the entire cast of festival performers sang Woody’s “This Land Is Your Land,” in honor of his 55th birthday.

Then here is young Arlo—with his own genius, and the only authentic claim among folk singers to being one of the “children of Woody Guthrie.”

In an interview with a Navy reporter Sunday night, he was asked how Woody feels about his son’s career.” He’s all for it,” young Guthrie said. When asked how his father is doing these days, he said: “He’s alive. That’s all I can say.”

Arlo was born in Coney Island, N.Y. and grew up in Massachusetts. He started playing the guitar when he was about six years old. He started performing professionally about two years ago, and has already toured England and Japan. 

He said that the visits to his father by such top folk performers as Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, and Jack Elliot, impressed him deeply.  Besides his father, he lists Jack Elliot as the greatest influence on his writing and singing. 

At this points, he has no plans for electrification of his music, or for any protest singing. 

“I plan to stay away rom the marching,” he said. 

He was genuinely pleased at his reception at the folk festival, and “feels great” about his first record album, which will be released by Reprise next month. 

Like his father, he’s done his share of rambling around the country. He has a sister who is currently performing bossa nova music. 

His repertoire includes blues and country music and the ‘Alice’ type of thing. 

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, all of which goes against my grain. 

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

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

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