Black Mail: How the Nazis Used Direct Mail In America

By Ray Schultz

To the untutored, 1940 probably seemed like just another year ending in a zero. The movies Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz were playing around the country. On the radio, one heard Frank Sinatra singing with the Tommy Dorsey band. But some people were not consoled by such entertainment. The Germans were overrunning Europe, the Jews were in peril. And at home, there was a struggle between isolationists like Charles A. Lindbergh, whose comments were tinged with anti-Semitism, and those who felt the U.S. had to help defeat Hitler.

Henry Hoke was in the latter category. The 46 year-old Baltimore native and Wharton graduate was a direct mail expert. He had run the industry’s trade group, The Direct Mail Advertising Association, and he published a magazine called The Reporter of Direct Mail Advertising. He was ever on the alert for frauds who abused the medium. And he felt he had uncovered just such a group.

The Nazis.

Yes, the Germans were using the U.S. mails to spread propaganda, and Hoke, whose son Pete had isolationist circulars shoved under his door at Wharton, took it on himself to expose them. As he wrote later, in a book titled Black Mail, “the German government, through mail issued by specified agencies to selected lists, was attempting to divide the country so that the United States would be helplessly unprepared for future military attack.”

Could he cite examples? Sure. For one, “the German Library of Information guided by Matthias F. Schmitz (assisted by George Sylvester Viereck), issued about 90,000 copies of a semi-weekly, well printed and written Facts in Review to ministers, school teachers, editors of college papers, legislators, publishers,” Hoke wrote in May 1940 in his magazine. “Purpose: to sell the National Socialist ideology and to prevent preparedness against attack.”

Then he added that “the German Railroads Information Office, guided by Ernest Schmitz, issued about 40,000 weekly mimeographed bulletins to hotel mangers, travel agencies, stock brokers, bankers and ‘small business men,’” to “convince Americans that the Nazi system of doing business was best.”

Hoke wasn’t done: “The American Fellowship Forum, guided by Friedrich E. Auhagen, assisted by George Sylvester Viereck, Lawrence Dennis, and others, issued pamphlets or bulletins to a ‘cultural class,’—educators, civic leaders, authors and a selected list of persons who might be sold the idea that the German mind was filled with nothing but the milk of human kindness for all humanity.”

It took courage to write that, even for an American tucked safely at home in Garden City, Long Island. E. Schmitz, from the German Railroads Information Office, wrote to demand that Hoke retract these “slanders,” and assured him that if he did, “a waiver will be given, releasing you and your publication from further claim.” Hoke noted that the letter “had been sent to my home…not to my office.” Were the Germans trying to intimidate him?

If they were, it didn’t work. Instead, Hoke published his exchange with Schmitz in a special mailing—“I refuse to be intimidated by you or by any German controlled organization. I refuse to have my family intimidated,” he wrote. And he got more outspoken as he realized the scope of the German operation.

“For the first time, it was possible to show how the Nazis had built a large mailing list (estimated at 250,000) of German Americans with relatives in Germany…how Japanese boats brought hulls full of printed material from Hamburg, Munich, Berlin…how these pieces were delivered under International Postal Union Treaties free of charge by the United States. (Under International Postal Treat, the country of origin retains the postage collected,” he wrote in Black Mail. “The country of delivery delivers free. A wash-out transaction to avoid bookkeeping).”

But the Germans were only part of it. Hoke found that Sen. Burton K. Wheeler, the Montana Democrat who had broken with Roosevelt over his court-packing plan, was sending out isolationist mail under his free Congressional frank. Analyzing the addressing on the envelopes, Hoke traced the pieces to a German group: the Steuben Society, Also sending seemingly pro-Hitler mail, for free, was Rep. Hamilton Fish (R-NY), who in 1938 had met with German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop in Europe, and reportedly said that Germany’s demands in Poland were “just,” according to Hoke.

Hoke, who was not Jewish, deplored the anti-Semitism expressed by many isolationists. “On April 25, 1941, in Omaha, Nebraska, Charles B Hudson, violently anti-Semitic publisher, admitted to reporters that he had distributed isolationist speeches under the Congress free mailing franks of Senators Worth Clark of Idaho, Bennett Champ Clark of Missouri and Burton K. Wheeler of Montana, and Representatives Oliver of Maine and Bolton of Ohio,” he reported.

Hoke wrote to Wheeler: “Unaddressed franked mail under your signature and under that of former Representative Jacob Thorkelson of Montana, has been distributed by your violent adherent Donald Shea at his anti-Semitic meetings and by Nazi-loving, Jew-baiting Joe McWilliams at Christian Front meetings. Recipients were instructed to address the franked envelopes and dump them into the nearest postal box, without payment of postage.”

Of course, isolationists had a right to circulate their views, although not under franked mail, Hoke argued. Wheeler fought back. “I am not seriously concerned about Mr. Hoke’s misrepresentations,” he wrote in a letter. “In the first place, Mr. Hoke is interested in direct mail advertising, as he himself says, and is opposed to the use of the franking privilege on general principles.”

Sen. Wheeler then claimed that “Mr. Hoke makes no reference to the fact that those in Government who apparently favor our intervention in foreign war sent out under various Congressional franks some 2,00,000 pieces of mail all over the United States, much of it distributed by the pro-interventionist committees and organizations.”

Wheeler also falsely wrote that Hoke was employed by the Anti-Defamation League of the B’nai Brith, as if that discredited him. Meanwhile, Hoke reported that the supposedly good name of the Order of the Purple Heart was being used as a cover in the scheme.

Events moved quickly. Franklin Roosevelt was elected to an unprecedented third term in November 1940. On June 2, 1941, Hoke wrote, “a friend beside a news ticker called me on the ‘phone to beat the headlines…’Henry, you ought to be glad to know,’ he said, ‘the President of the United States has just issued an executive order closing the German Railroads…the German Library of Information…and the German Consulates.’”

Hoke was pleased, although this crusade had practically wrecked his business. But he kept after the Nazi sympathizers, using the techniques of his trade to undo them. For instance, friends wrote flattering letters to the appeasers, using dummy names, and soon received isolationist letters addressed to those names, fueling his investigative reporting. And more was to follow.

“We learned from a girl who worked in a locked and guarded room on the top floor of the Ford Building at N. 1710 Broadway in New York City that Ford Motor Car Company employees were compiling a master list of appeasers, anti-Semites, pro-Nazis and Fascists from fan mail addressed to Colonel Charles A. Lindbergh, to former Senator Rush Holt and to Representative Hamilton Fish,” Hoke wrote.

He added that “the lists, when compiled, were delivered to Bessie Feagin, circulation manager of Scribner’s Commentator. That explained how some of the dummy names used in writing to radio orators eventually got on the list of the American First Committee and Scribner’s Commentator. But why the Ford organization? But why…a lot of things?”

Feagin was eventually hauled before a grand jury, as were many others, including Hamilton Fish. “No one knows what Hamilton Fish told the Grand Jury on December 5, 1941,” Hoke said. “Someone was pulling every possible string to have the case buried.”

Two days passed. Then: “Sunday afternoon, December 7, 1941, just as our little family sat down to dinner…the flash we feared came over the radio…Pearl Harbor!”

Myth has it that the country pulled together at that moment, but Hoke knew better. Isolationists blamed Roosevelt for the war, inferring that Japan was in its rights to attack. “Remember…these were statements made by Americans on the Sunday night of December 7, 1941…the blackest day in American history,” Hoke wrote. “Made by the same Americans who for months had been mimicking and distributing the printed propaganda of the enemy.”

And they continued. “By the fall of 1943…the volume of black mail had grown to alarming proportions and was increasing rapidly,” Hoke charged. “The average citizen, when told about it still said, “I don’t believe it.” He didn’t see many of the Hate Sheets of the vermin press—or he may have seen only one or two which he passed off as “crack-pot.’” Hoke cited several anti-Semitic publications, like The Defender, Destiny and The Mothers of Sons Forum Bulletin.

There were victories along the way: Multiple indictments for sedition and other crimes. Some resulted in convictions, including that of George Hill, secretary to Hamilton Fish. Hill was “that certain man,” sought by Hoke, who ran the massive propaganda operation. “He was convicted of perjury—but the evidence proved him guilty of conspiracy with Viereck and Dennet to use the Government Printing Office and the Congressional franking privilege for the dissemination of Nazi and Fascist propaganda,” Hoke wrote.

Then there was the case of George Sylvester Viereck, who had failed to register as a foreign agent. Hoke recorded the scene:

“11:30 P.M. Judge Lawes appears and the courtroom is filled with an air of dignity…and tension. The jury walks in a semi-circle at the side of the bench. Viereck stands before the jury and glares. The clerk reads each count and the foreman answers—‘Guilty’…six times. Vierecks lawyer asks that the jury be polled. Viereck glares at each juror as the question is put six times, an the answer six times is ‘Guilty.’ Seventy-to times Viereck hears his ‘fellow citizens’ say the word ‘Guilty.’ The big marshal standing behind George Sylvester Viereck takes out his handcuffs and the Nazi agent goes out through the back door. Court adjourned.”

Henry Hoke lived until 1970. His son Pete took over the magazine, and changed its name to Direct Marketing. Pete’s son Hank is now in charge of the Hoke operation. To paraphrase James Agee, let us now praise Henry Hoke for his selfless campaign. Why did he do it? “Because some people, some place…are running a campaign to destroy Democracy,” he wrote, concluding Black Mail. “Our destiny is better than that. Our boys and girls deserve a better future. Fight against this black mail. If we do not…we’ll not know the sweet of Freedom until we have lost it.”

The Schlock That Wouldn’t Die

By Ray Schultz

I recently had breakfast with a filmmaker whose masterworks include 2000 Maniacs, The Gore Gore Girls, and Blood Feast, the first movie in which “people died with their eyes open.”

The producer of those splatter classics, now eating yogurt and cereal in a hotel coffee shop, was Herschell Gordon Lewis, a direct mail copywriter and an inspiration to anyone who wants to have fun as well as make a living.

“The technique I learned of how to cause an unsuspecting yokel to come into a theater has served me well in my dotage years in direct marketing,” he confessed.

I couldn’t resist asking how a person goes from being a footnote in movie history to a junk mail legend. Herschell had already worked as an English professor, a disk jockey, and a general ad person, when he started making low-budget gore flicks in Chicago in the 1960s (he just happened to own a half interest in a studio that did commercials and government training films). His first was Blood Feast, which was also the first movie in which fiends “reached in a girl’s mouth and pulled out her tongue.”

Hard to top, wouldn’t you say? But he tried, in follow-up blood fests like Color Me Blood Red and She Devils on Wheels. Men were sliced and diced, white-mini-skirted women were crucified (literally), and Lewis won himself a loyal cult following. A year or two ago, he showed up at a horror film festival in Milan to find the audience singing along—in English–with the opening song for 2,000 Maniacs:

There a story you should know

From a hundred years ago

And a hundred years we waited now to tell

Now them Yankees come along and they’ll listen to this song

They’ll quake in fear to hear this rebel yell


Herschell wrote and sang the soundtrack song himself, and still gets a small royalty– “about $30 every six months, a symbol of what I call the Schlock That Wouldn’t Die.”

Unfortunately, Herschell’s film career faded as distributors went bankrupt and the big studios came in with “more advanced skills in killing people onscreen.” (They didn’t have to splatter ketchup on the walls). And his advertising business took a nose-dive when a client went belly-up owing six figures.

Reduced to arguing with schlemiels about $40 typesetting charges, Herschel was ready to listen when asked to write a direct mail package for the Women of the Century series of collector plates from the Bradford Exchange.

Talk about landing on your feet: He showed a knack for selling collector’s items, and was soon given other assignments by Bradford. By this time, Herschell had gotten another break (the most important one of his life): his marriage to Margot, an agency colleague, who now became his partner in charge of the business end.

The pair moved on to the Calhoun Collector’s Society, where their projects included The Creation, a 12-plate series telling the Genesis story, and the Bethlehem Christmas Plate, which has to rank somewhere near Blood Feast in the Lewis canon.

To get the Bethlehem plate off the ground, Margot found a porcelain factory in Israel near the Lebanese border, then tried to find someone to authenticate the plate. But the best she could do was the Archimandrite Gregorious, an Orthodox prelate whose role in life appeared to be greeting the tour busses and asking for money. His picture, complete with black robe and hat, appeared on the plates, although “we had to airbrush the sunglasses,” Herschell says.

But it sold. “After two years, the Archimandrite was recalled or fired or what I don’t know. But we kept using his name, and he was immortalized. Right now, as we talk, he is hanging on somebody’s wall.”

Herschell confessed that “it’s possible to develop cynicism based on some of the things we market successfully. But there’s a big difference between cynicism and contempt.” One thing that appalls him is when he sees copywriters treating financial offers “in a light-hearted manner. I say, ‘Hold it there, fella, people take their investments seriously. When you make a joke out of it, you make a joke out of your proposition.’”

POSTSCRIPT: Herschell returned to filmmaking late in his career. Whatever he did, he was first to admit that none of it would have been possible without Margot. Now there’s an enduring marriage.


Quality TIME

By Ray Schultz

Time magazine liked to flatter prospects in its direct mail pieces. The message was that only smart people read Time, and that you had to be in that category to even be asked to subscribe. And the flattery must have worked, because it appeared in many forms over the years, sometimes subtly, at other times boldly.

Take this letter sent in the fall of 1955. It was identified in an in-house note, posted over the letter, as a House List Copy Test. The note also included these tidbits:

Pick one Letter

Pick One Envelope

IBM Check Card



It’s not clear now why this direct mail prospecting test went to the house list—maybe the file was of Life and/or Fortune subscribers—or what the IBM Check Card was.

And we don’t know why someone wrote “’69” on the note. Can we conclude that this test did well, and that the letter was still being mailed in 1969? That’s doubtful, but no matter. Here it is: another engaging piece of direct mail copy from the wordsmiths at Time.

Dear Reader:

 How would you like to be described? Pick one:

 “The kind of person who reads comics.”

 “The kind who reads business papers.”

 “The kind who doesn’t read anything.”

 “The kind who reads whodunits.”

 “The kind who reads TIME.”

 There’s nothing to be ashamed of in any of these characterizations — except the third. But I think that most people, if they had to be described in only one of those ways — would choose the final one.

 Why? Because reading TIME has become a hallmark in the U.S. and throughout the world. It has come to mean that you are ambitious to know more, to earn more, to participate more actively in the “action and passion of our times.”

 Reading TIME means that a man is “constructively discontented” – that he is anti-smug, that he doesn’t think he knows it all, that he is ,in short, young in mind and heart and spirit.

 But how has this come about? Why is this magazine so widely approved and respected?

 Because of the men and women who read TIME.

Because for more than thirty years these readers have been demanding standards so high that TIME has had to keep getting better and better.

Because these readers have shown their loyalty to TIME in the most eloquent possible way – by renewing their subscriptions year after year after year.

And finally, because of who these readers are. TIME’s subscribers are leaders of business, the professions and government. They are people active in clubs and civic organizations, people who travel a great deal, people of influence.

When you become a TIME reader, you join, for example:

 –leading architects, who vote TIME their first-choice magazine … top engineers – who say TIME is their favorite publication … college deans who vote TIME their favorite magazine. And you join the most valued executive customers of U.S. industries – who say Time is the magazine they consider most important.

In short, wherever you find a group of men or women remarkable for high standards of achievement, TIME turns out to be the magazine they prefer.

You should be reading it too.


Bernhard M. Auer

Circulation Director

P.S. The enclosed card offers you a special rate on an introductory subscription to TIME. If mailed at once, it can bring you TIME for less than nine cents a week delivered to your door.

Grecian Formula

By Ray Schultz

Frank Johnson once joked that nobody, not even the editors, could define the mission of Horizon magazine. And it followed that they could not explain Horizon Books.

But they tried. Here’s a letter written in the 1960s by Johnson himself—for the HORIZON Book of Ancient Greece, offering a replica of a Greek “kylix.” It seems understandable enough.

Dear Reader:

The Greeks had a way with them.

For example, I don’t believe you can read your copy of The HORIZON Book of Ancient Greece without feeling again a strong sense of kinship with those long-gone people. Their ideas of reason and freedom and art are still, across the long years, ours.

We hope and believe you’ll thoroughly enjoy the book. All of us here who worked on it became happily immerse in our topic, and rather regret its completion. So saying, here is pictured a somewhat unexpected result of our own emotional involvement.

If you never saw a Greek “kylix” … now you have.

And If you would like to own one, in perfect facsimile … now you can. At quite a bargain.

Let me explain: In the course of our researches on Greek art for the book, we arrived at a carefully guarded storage room in the cavernous basement of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. There, acquired through the Rogers Fund I 1908, were some of the contents of a nameless warrior’s tomb, discovered in 1895 at Montefortino, near Arcevia in Northern Italy.

He was buried around 400-300 N.C. And whether he was Greek or Etruscan, his cherished wine-drinking equipment certainly was of Greek design and manufacture. With him, among other objects, were a silver pitcher (oninochoe), badly deteriorated; a handsome silver ladle; a big, flat-bottom drinking vessel (skyphos), also deteriorated; an two beautiful preserved silver drinking bowls – – “kylites,” in the plural. Quite possibly these treasures were war booty.

I don’t know how to explain why the kylix made such an impression on several of us, except to say that it’s one of those small things you have seen on occasion in museums and wanted to own – – not because it’s “priceless,” but because it’s perfection of a sort…It’s a two-handled bowl, 5-3/8” in diameter, 7-1/2” across the handles.

You’ll find the handles were utilitarian as well as graceful. One’s thumbs fit solidly across them, we’d guess for two-fisted wine drinking. The intaglio design at the center is fern leaves, fish-net weights, and honeysuckle. No one quite knows why the small nipple is there. Perhaps it’s just that the Greeks were anthropomorphic on occasion.

As with many archaeological objects, your guess about the details is as good as anyone’s. Since the Greeks often mixed water with their wine before drinking it, one of us non-archaeologists thinks the little bead served as a jigger. Cover it with wine, fill to the brim with water?

I do know the design is so good that it richly deserves emulation. With the Metropolitan Museum’s consent and cooperation, we asked the Gorham Company of Providence – – “America’s Leading Silversmiths since 1813” is their proud slogan – – to reproduce the kylix.

The cross-section…is from one of Gorham’s blueprints, made under the close supervision of Mr. J. Russell Price, their Director of Design. Since all of us wanted it to be an exact copy, not an approximation – – as are most reproductions – – the task challenged even Gorham’s silversmiths. They have followed the exact curve of the original walls, a painstaking job because of the varying camber and thickness and the undercut at the rim; and have made a dental-wax impression of the original intaglio, to get it precisely right without harming the original.

…At any rate, we thought you and some of the other owners of our book might like to own a superb copy of this rare and little-known classic Greek object. To us, it says a lot about the Green artists’ unmatched simplicity of design and facility of proportion.

The kylix seems to us to be primarily an art object. But of course it can be “used” for anything from candy to olives to ashes to – if you will – wine and water. It can make a most original gift, for Christmas or a wedding or a thank-you.

But the kylix has been costly to reproduce. So we will have less than 2,000 available this year, to be ready in a few weeks. Quite possibly, that’s all there will ever be. And it will never be generally available. The three names stamped inside its base bespeak its quality: The Metropolitan Museum of Art; the Gorham hallmark; and the HORIZON logotype.

This is the only notice about the kylix we can send you. It goes only to owners of The HORIZON Book of Ancient Greece. We are advised that both its quality and cost call for a price of $25 to $30. But our business is publishing. If the cost of such an amiable diversion detracts from the pleasure of it for you, we shouldn’t bother.

So until they are gone, you may have a kylix, boxed and postpaid, for $17.95. See the enclosed form and envelope. If you’d like one, it’s best you mail your order quickly We must ask for your check with your order, but of course the kylix is returnable. (Once you see it, I can’t believe you won’t want to keep it.)


Darby Perry

For American Heritage

The Girl With the Guys

By Ray Schultz

Of all the writers I’ve known in direct marketing, none was more talented and charming than Joan Throckmorton.

Joan, who died in 2003, was a brilliant direct mail copywriter, and a prolific author and speaker. But she was also a gracious woman, with a certain wry reserve.

She was born in Evanston Hospital, something she had in common with the DM legend Bob Stone, and grew up in Florida. She arrived in New York in the early 1950s, and was hired by Doubleday, because friends and former classmates worked there. Her first assignment was in the art department.

“My job was literally to do character counts on new books, and all the scut work, and also to work with some of our illustrators and artists,” she said in an interview in her home in Pound Ridge, NY in 1997.

She particularly recalled one young artist who would hand her a drawing and say, “Joan, I drew you this butterfly.” After she had thanked him and he’d left, she’d promptly discard it.

He was Andy Warhol. “If I had kept some of those butterflies, I would be in a lot better financial position today,” Joan laughed. Another artist was Ted Gorey, whose ghoulish Victorian drawings later made him famous.

Eventually, Joan moved on. “Because I was a writer and an English major who wanted to write, I was allowed to go downstairs to what they called Sherman’s Alley. Charley Book Club Sherman ran the Doubleday Book Club promotions. He was known throughout the company as a vociferous, harsh, cookie-scary boss, but maybe he had a heart of gold, and I rather thought he did.”

Joan worked on club mailings. “I was Mystery Guild and Catholic Book Club. I did a few Literary Guilds here and there. Literary Guild was, as always, a high-end club. We worked with the editors, and that’s how I started to write, mostly with the thrillers., where you do sort of a film trailer or preview, the monthly club announcement. That was my introduction to direct mail.”

Most book club prospecting was done in space ads at that time. But there were also monthly selection mailings. “The package consisted of pretty much what it consists of now: a plain white out envelope identifying the club,” Joan said. “Sometimes it may have had copy lines, very simple lines, club announcements and not a series of flyers. We had a small list of many fewer books, alternate selections, that we changed and updated. Today we have many more.”

She continued that the prevailing wisdom then was that the information age was on its way, “the information age when people would be given more to read about, more data input than they could handle, due to new electronic methodologies, one of which was the photo facsimile of newspapers, not to mention the purple-inked Xerox machine.”

Making Your Own Clothes

Work aside, Joan’s early life in New York was right out of My Sister Eileen.

“I started at Doubleday at $55 a week, and we got an extra bonus at Christmas of about $20, with taxes taken out,” Joan said. “That was it. Now how did you live in those days? You lived like they’re living today—two and three people in an apartment. No real privacy. Once a week, you would go out to dinner with a friend when you didn’t have a date, and you’d have a nice meal at a modestly priced restaurant. If you had a date (the women never paid in those days0 you might go to a modestly priced little French restaurant, or to a Third Ave. bar and hang out with your mixed groups of friends. And we had lots of parties. But nobody had any money.”

In contrast to women with their $55 salaries, men started at $65 to $70 a week—not bad money at the time, Joan said. “We’re talking in weekly terms,” she added. “Nobody could understand anything more than that.”

On those tight budgets, young working women usually made their own clothes. “We sewed—we either rented or one of us had a sewing machine,” Joan remembered. “We made clothes so we’d look decent in the office.”

But Joan was a talented writer, and she jumped around, even though she was advised against it. “They’d say, ‘Why would you want to leave? You’re doing well.’”

Joan noted, though, that “we had quite a hard time for women to get promoted, so I went over to Time Inc. and applied for a job to Life Promotions. And there I worked with Bill Herringbone, and the publisher, a young guy named Andy Heiskell. Wendell Forbes was down the hall, and Bob Fisler was over in Time, and we all knew each other. Later, I became Andy Heiskell’s assistant. And I moved to being promotion director for Sports Illustrated when Bob Fisler left that book.”

Sports Illustrated was a daring start-up for the time. “In those days, they said sports was tennis and golf. It wasn’t. Tex Maule was there early, and we were doing a lot more cogent advertising. But there was no professional basketball. Pro football was just getting started, and I was dating one of the guys on CBS, so I got to know all of the New York Giants football team, which was nice for a young gal working for Sports Illustrated. It was really wild and crazy—Frank Gifford, Kyle Rote, the whole bunch.

As copywriter, Joan also worked on the first Life book—The Life Cookbook. “By today’s standards, it was a pretty antiquated-looking book, but it was a life-sized book and I did the promotions for it,” Joan said.

Time Inc was a fun place to work. “Two weeks wouldn’t go by without some floor party—a big birthday party,” she went on. “Ad salesmen met at the 3G’s across the street at 5:30, and drink, drink, drink. There were people falling down elevator shafts, being caught in embarrassing positions,” she laughed.

It was easy to party: The work day went from 9 to 5, and maybe they’d stay until 5:30 or 6 when busy. There was no weekend work.

Joan’s next stop was American Heritage, where her sometime boss at Time was now in residence: Frank Johnson.

“Frank was quite a character, not a ladies’ man, a wonderful guy,” she said. “A perfectionist, a tough guy, and Bill Jayme was writing for us, too. Jayme and Frank were very close. And Frank was a good red pencilier, on anybody’s copy. Tough, tough guy to work with.”

Later, Joan worked for Time Life Books and later on Look magazine at Cowles. “That’s where I got to know Pat Carbine and that group—the Ms. Magazine group,” she said.

Finally, Joan went out on her own and had an illustrious freelance career, writing thousands of effective packages, columns for DM News and Direct and books.

I richly enjoyed our interview in ’97. We sat in her home office, a small room with a desk and computer, a zebra painting on the wall, and large stacks of catalogs. Joan’s husband Sheldon Satin, a customer service consultant, was at work in the office next door. You could see the autumn foliage outside the window.

In the end, Joan had mixed feelings about some of her experiences–for example, Andy Heiskell’s birthday dinner at age 80, thrown by the Time Life Alumni Society. Heiskell had been chairman of Time for 30 years.

Joan felt a certain loyalty, but “they were all tall men in Navy blue blazers,” she recalled. “Just wasps—no blacks, no Jews. All the women had lovely little dresses on, and they were all wives. I thought: All the good and bad things rolled up into one.”

A Broker’s Education

By Ray Schultz

Painfully shy, so thin he was rejected for insurance policies, Edward W. Proctor did not look like a salesman. But his employer Charles Guild wanted him to sell, so he did, starting around 1903. This took him to outfits like the Swamp Root Co., maker of the Swamp Root kidney and bladder cure, in Binghamton, New York.

What the product was good for? “About one-and-a-half to two million a year,” the founder’s son Willis Sharpe Kilmer replied.

Proctor also visited the D.A. Williams Medical Company, seller of a “uthrethral balm” to Civil War veterans. “Exposure, miasma, bad food, hardships of every description—these and not the bullets are responsible for the extremely rapid death-rate among the veterans,” it said in a direct mail letter.

In short, Proctor was selling mailing lists in the format of the time: Letters from customers. Mailers simply copied the return addresses into ledgers or onto envelopes, noting pertinent information like what diseases the people were suffering from. And he handheld clients and wheedled them into selling Guild their letters for rental. For Guild, a failed advertising agent from Boston, was a letter broker—an early day list broker. However, he didn’t like the business, and was all too willing to dump it on his clerk.

In time, Proctor met rival brokers like Herbert H. Hull, who owned a million letters, and Frank B. Swett, who had even more. They were convivial fellows who cooperated with each other even as they competed and what Proctor couldn’t learn from Guild he learned from them. He commenced his education.

He learned (judging by reports from that time) that the value of a letter decreased as it got older.

He learned that a person who wrote out of curiosity was not as good a prospect as one who knew what he would receive.

He learned that the names of mail order buyers were better than those copied from directories or clipped from newspapers.

He learned, too, that some of the most coveted names were those of sick people rejected for life insurance policies; treatments could be sold to these unfortunates.

More valuable still were those of Lydia Estes Pinkham, of Lynn, Mass. Her Vegetable Compound, an herbal concoction with an 18% alcohol content, was guaranteed to “ease women through the Change of Life, dissolve and expel tumors from the uterus, and cure entirely the worst form of Female Complaints, all Ovarian troubles, Inflammation and Ulceration, Falling and Displacements, and the consequent spinal Weakness.”

Pinkham’s “mild Quaker face” appeared not only on bottles of the compound, but in all circulars and newspaper ads. “Many small newspaper offices possessed no cut of a woman’s face except that of Lydia’s maternal countenance, which occasionally was shifted from an advertising to a news column to do double duty as Queen Victoria,” wrote historian James Harvey Young.

Every ad for the Vegetable Compound invited readers to “Write to Mrs. Pinkham at Lynn, Mass., and she will advise you,” and millions of women did. But Pinkham insisted that the letters were “opened by a woman, read only by a woman, seen only by a woman,” and she wouldn’t rent them—to anyone. “They can’t be bought,” a broker said. “The old girl won’t even answer a letter about them. I don’t know what sort of a plant she has at Lynn and it doesn’t matter much, as her files are worth more than the plant.”

Rubbish, said another; Pinkham’s advertisements are “so wide in their scope…that hardly a woman can read them without feeling that she is a sufferer… they are practically worthless after written.” (Little did they know that Lydia was dead, and had been since 1883—the company was run by her children).

The tone of Proctor’s talks with these brokers (and with Guild) can be inferred from an 1890s newspaper account, in which a young man meets a letter broker on a train.

“I am a dealer in old letters, and am now on my way home with a check for $250 in my pocket which is all velvet,” the broker said. “This check I received for the use, for one month, of 10,000 letters, of which I am the owner.”

The older man was happy to explain the business.

“You, in the course, of your life, have written in reply to some advertisement, asking information in regard to the article advertised, or sent a request for a sample to be forwarded, and enclosed the necessary price, otherwise you have been different from most persons.

“The letters received in answer to such advertisements have a distinct market value among parties who deal in novelties. They are better in every way than lists made up from directories, representing, as they do, interested parties, or, in other words, persons who, attracted by the catchy wording of advertisements will be still more liable to bite after reading lengthy circulars with arguments as to why they should purchase.”

The broker went to his compartment, and returned with samples. “For these letters I pay at the rate of from $30 to $50 per thousand, and thus become the sole proprietor of them,” he said. “I have my customers, to whom I rent them at the uniform price of $50 per thousand for the first month’s use. They find them very valuable in sending out their circulars, and on their return these letters become a part of my stock in trade, being re-let at constantly decreasing prices, according to the number of parties through whose hands they have passed, until they remain marketable for many years at so low a figure as $3 per thousand for 30 day’s use.”

But these were not as valuable as his medical letters.

“I have got a number of hundred thousand of such as these, which we call ‘the blooming sucker variety,’ and for which I pay as high as $75 to $100 per thousand,” the broker continued. “These I let to my medical customers for, say, $125 per thousand for the first thirty days, reducing the price afterward.”

What good were these letters to a patent medicine seller? The broker explained it. “Did you ever go fishing more than once to a pond where you had spent a whole day trying to get a bite? Oh, no, you always go where you have been able to fill your basket before, and it is just the same in fishing for men.”

“Why, my dear boy, some of these medical practitioners in special diseases will not sell their letters for love or money. Why? Because after they have worked the fools under one name for all the money they can get out of them, the doctors then address a letter to the innocents under another name, saying they have learned that he (the patient) had been under the treatment of those unmitigated quacks, giving his former name, and telling why they condoled with him for such a misfortune, and wishing that he could have come under their treatment, which could but prove successful. Nine times out of ten they catch the gudgeon, not only the second, but even the third time.”

How to Write Copy Like Groucho Marx

By Ray Schulz

Most of us know Groucho Marx as a comedian. And he was indeed one of the best. Adorned with a greasepaint mustache, he played an impertinent hustler in Marx Brothers classics like “A Night at the Opera” and “Duck Soup.” Then there was his long run as host of TV’s “You Bet Your Life.”

Well, it turns out that Groucho had another talent—for direct mail copywriting. Yes, he once wrote to booksellers to promote his book: “Groucho’s Letters.” And in the best direct mail tradition, he touted the benefits and asked for the order.

It must have worked: The book was a bestseller. But this was not your typical B2B sales letter.

For starters, the one-page missive appeared under a Groucho Marx letterhead—hardly corporate. Second, it referred to his sex life (or lack thereof). Finally, need we say, it was funny.

Was it ghostwritten? I doubt it: It sounds too much like Groucho or one of his characters—Otis B. Driftwood, Rufus T. Firefly or J. Cheever Loophole.

I don’t know about you. But all I have to do is picture the cigar-smoking Groucho to feel good.


Feb. 28, 1967

Dear Bookworms and Bookies:

As you and the world knows, I have a classic book bursting forth next April called “Groucho’s Letters,” or something like that. This is no ordinary book like those hack pieces of writing that infest the best seller lists in the New York Times and other throw away papers.

Now let’s get down to cases. I have worked for two decades on this book, sacrificing my sex life whenever I could, turning down girls that I used to turn up, fighting high cholesterol night and day, abstaining from rich curries and buttermilk pancakes – in short, living like the most dedicated monk. Bananas and then more bananas until they stuck out of my ears.

And what have I been doing this for? Certainly not for money. Let me tell you here and now, I’ve got more money than a lot of you bookish fellows. George Bernard Shaw, an Irish writer of little note, wrote hundreds of letters to Mrs. Patrick Campbell and made a fortune. He wrote her a 12-page letter every day and she wrote him a 2-page letter once a week. Finally she quit the weekly letter and began sending him souvenir postcards from various watering troughs in the Dardanelles. And baby, from what I hear, she wasn’t alone on those islands. His letters were magnifique, but naturally, they took a lot of his time, what little time he had left after combing his whiskers and riding his bicycle. Mrs. Campbell, on the other hand, didn’t have any whiskers and didn’t have a bicycle. At any rate, Bernie never got to first base with her. This is the kind of stuff my book is loaded with.

My book can be a smash if you bookdealers have guts enough to neglect all the other merchandise you’re hawking in your literary warrens. So just put your shoulders to the wheel. Those of you who don’t have a wheel, just drop a note to Bob Gottlieb, care of Simon and Schuster, and see what you get back. This book is a cinch as people love to read letters because they like to stick their noses in other people’s business.

So for God’s sake, get on the ball. I have a wife and five children that I know of, and they’re all starving. People will treasure these letters because they’re loaded with sex, wisdom, jocular sayings and a special chapter on how to avoid probate. This is for those who feel they’re on their last legs. Now then, it’s up to you.


P.S. My publisher (an impecunious sort) demanded that we include an order form. Feel free not to use it.

It’s too bad about Groucho. He should have stuck to copywriting and forgotten those crazy ideas about show business.

Thanks to the Mal Warwick Agency for forwarding this letter.