Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Flashback: Frances Catherine Cleary Gets an Important Boost at J. Walter Thompson as the Mailroom Boy Looked in the Mirror and said: “You big bum, you better get a move on!”

[More reminiscences for my kids and grandchildren on my Mother, our kids’ grandmother, our grandchildren’s great-grandmother].

Frances Catherine Cleary, bored with learning after two years’ high school at Robert Waller, left academia for the business world, landing a job in the J. Walter Thompson steno pool when she was 17 in 1913, moving upward with excellent clerical skills to second in charge of the steno pool and a big salary increase when she was 19. Thus she paid “board” to her family and as a pretty good breadwinner decided that this made her an adult which led to her rejecting her father’s admonition to forsake all excursion boats because of what happened to the Eastland in 1915. After a good deal of sulking, Grandfather Thomas Francis Cleary, a marble-layer and two-flat owner, came round. And Frances moved upward, being considered for head of the steno pool when she turned 20. She was striving very hard to get there.

She had been working late on night at J. Walter, in the Wrigley Building, when she got on the elevator with the top dog of the agency, McQueen. McQueen’s foppish, wistful, theoretical, philosophical son, Alexander, working as a copy-writer at J. Walter, was a frequent hanger-on at her desk but his father told her not to go out with him because, in his estimation, while the son was of good morals, he was an impractical, poetical type who never got himself organized. Taking the advice, Frances declined every date offer (but would let him buy her lunch). Now as she got on the elevator, she told McQueen how excited she was that she was being considered as head of the steno pool.

“No,” said McQueen, “you’re not going to get that job because I have another one for you”—indicating that it would be a much better one. “Come to see me at 8 tomorrow and I’ll fill you in.”

The next morning his secretary gave her a cup of coffee (with a secretly delivered grimace because Frances was still far below private secretary class and just in the steno pool). While she sipped, McQueen sat behind his great desk and brought his fingers together thoughtfully in a pyramid and said: “It’s up to you, Frances, but if you take the job I’m offering you and do well at it, you’ll never think about the steno pool again.” And then he described it.

“I’m sick and tired of the lackadaisical way this office is serving our clients,” he said. “Understand, I’m talking out of school. It’s the approved way of doing business here with people drifting in and out of meetings giving their ideas. It’s Stanley Resor’s idea, the guy who made this agency a world leader. Maybe it works for him in New York but it doesn’t work here for me.

“We’re trying to serve a good many accounts, such as Ivory Soap and Woodbury and Maxwell House coffee, but occasionally we fall short on administration and that is what concerns me. Where we fall short is this: we have talented copywriters, an excellent art department, fine creative directors but getting these damn-fool geniuses to turn out their work on time is the problem. Last week we sold the Proctor & Gamble people on a strategy for Ivory Soap to further dramatize their slogan: it floats! They bought it. Well, the copy people turned in first-rate material but the art department was slow in producing its end so we almost missed a key publication deadline. Which means that we should have some smart young people engaged in the production end—seeing that the art is produced and delivered on time, that when it is, it is merged with the copy that is produced on time, that the whole batch goes out to the engraver for him to make half-tones and that it comes back, is approved and sent on to the magazines.

“Up to now we’ve been depending on the ability of our account executives to see that everything is done on time. But this ties them up and makes them policemen when they should be out making calls for new business. I’ve decided to launch what we would call a Production Department staffed with people like you to take a project from conceptual stage and follow its production through to the end—coordinating, of course, with the account executive but ramming it through and seeing that things get done on time. You’d be the first one to move into this specialty. If you do it well and it works, others will be following you. There—doesn’t that sound more interesting than your work in the steno pool?”

Yes, Mother said, but as a chief breadwinner for my family (she was stretching it here for effect] I’m interested in what it would pay.

“Good for you, Frances. It will pay, starting out at--…” and he threw out a figure that in 1916 was more than her father and her big brother, a draftsman, earned collectively with her two working sisters’ steno wages thrown in for good measure. “This is a professional job and we will be watching to see how you do. It means that you will have to shepherd the ideas through, attending the initial client meetings and taking notes as to what has been decided, going to creative meetings and taking note as to how the strategy is coming—noting that the strategy must be delivered to the client at a specified time. Jesus, I know the big boss in New York likes informality but there’s got to be an end somewhere. So this is what you do. You start out going to the first writers’ meetings where they get the conception of the ad.

“Then following through with the copywriters who are developing the strategy, seeing that the art follows the client’s specifications with the copy, seeing that the whole package is sent out to the engravers, standing by while the engravings are approved or sent back for further work, notifying the various people here including the account executives on the progress, and following it through until the day the thing appears in the magazines and newspapers.

“Others have a concern, Frances, as to whether or not you can do it. Most of our people here have either college diplomas or some college. You don’t even have a high school diploma but you’ve done a whiz-bang job, running the steno pool when its director was sick. You have impressed me and also many others in this place and I’d like you to be the first to give it a try. The fact that Alexander [his son] is smitten with you doesn’t mean a thing. You will do a favor to his mother and me if you can instill in him the work ethic you have. Now, if this new job doesn’t work out, you’ll go back to your old job in the steno pool and nobody need be the wiser. If it does, I think you have a full-fledged professional career in front of you at J. Walter. But I have to ask you while I have you here, why the hell don’t you have a high school diploma?”

Because, she said, after I learned the three Rs I decided I would do better learning things in business. The “Tribune” said the other day that all-told, Thomas Edison had three months of formal education after he learned to read, write and do numbers and Lincoln only had a few years of school. I’d rather get things done than learn about the Greeks and the Romans.

“Well, personally I wish my own son would think less often about the Greeks and Romans than getting things done around here—so I’m with you, Frances. But when you get time, we’re going to enroll you in something we have here: the University of Advertising—an in-house college. Anyhow you see Leddy who’ll be your supervisor and you start tomorrow morning attending a conference on Ivory Soap at 7:30 in the morning.”

So she went out and brought a whole new outfit at Marshall Field’s. Leddy became her guru. She was tough, self-taught battleaxe, also up from the steno pool and in the parlance of the day an “old maid” wedded to J. Walter with a savvy knowledge of all the agency’s players and who were the comers: including a young guy in the mail-room whom she was trying to fix up Frances with, Ted Jardin. Mother said: mail room? And she sniffed. Leddy said: “I tell you, this guy’s going to come close to running this agency one day! He’s a college graduate.” Mother looked him over as he sorted mail—a black-haired, witty guy with a college degree and said:

He’s a nice young kid. But every guy’s a college graduate around here.

“Just your age, Fran!”

Mother said: He’s going to head up this place?

“I tell you he will! He likes you, Fran!”

You mean: go out with this kid in the mail-room!

“Anything to spare you from Alexander McQueen!”

Mother said: Don’t worry about him. As for this one, I don’t know.

The next morning, as Ted Jardin sorted mail, she went to the big Ivory Soap meeting as the official expediter.

When she came out of the Ivory Soap meeting, there was Alexander McQueen, the swain, junior copywriter, all set to take her to lunch to celebrate.

“How did it go, Fran?”

Okay, she said. I was taking notes on the Ivory Soap account. They keep working around the old slogan: Ivory Soap: 99 and 44/100 percent pure. It floats! I didn’t bring it up because I’m supposed to be a note-taker and expediter there but I mean to…and I’m going to see the account’s chief copywriter right after lunch because I don’t understand the slogan.

“What about it? It’s been there since the 1880s.”

Ninety-nine and 44/100ths percent pure. Pure what?

“Tell you what. Don’t bring it up.”

Why not?

“Because it doesn’t matter pure what! It symbolizes the ineffable mystery of the ad business. Ninety-nine and 44/100ths percent pure! It floats! Suppose you find out that the reason it floats is that somebody added candle wax to it! There’s no romance to that! The romance is: it floats! People like the idea of purity. Ever since Hippocrates who in his Oath said `With purity I will pass my life and practice my art.’ Don’t bring it up! Frances, you’re too literal.”

And you’re always bringing up something from the ancient Greeks. You don’t want me to question it?

“I beg you not to question it. It’s Procter & Gamble’s best product. The guy who discovered how to make its soap float was the son of old man Gamble. I guarantee you it’s time-proven.”

All right, I won’t question it. You say I’m too literal. What does that mean?

“It means you’re too practical—plain meat-and-potatoes, you know? Now let me ask you something literal. Will you go out with me tonight? A show. The Astaires, your favorites, are at the Great Northern and I have tickets. Then we’ll get a bite.”

No, I’ve always got to be home for supper and then go to bed because there’s another meeting at 7 tomorrow morning.

“Then Saturday?”

I can’t think that far ahead. We’ll see.

He grumbled. Then he started.

“Look!” he said pointing to the window overlooking Michigan avenue, where a dignified, small, old bearded man with winged collar was walking by. “Do you know who that is?”

Of course not.

“That’s Robert Todd Lincoln. Name sound familiar?”

A relative of Lincoln I guess.

“His only surviving son. Do you know that he was secretary of war in two presidents’ cabinet?”


“That he was present at the assassination of President James Garfield and William McKinley.”

Hmmm. After all that, I’d imagine other presidents would stop inviting him.

“Then he was an eyewitness to the stabbing of the Mayor of New York William Garland in the throat and ran to him with his handkerchief!”

A handkerchief wouldn’t help somebody stabbed in the throat.

“That’s what I mean by you being literal. He’s founder of the biggest law firm in town--Isham, Lincoln & Beale.”


“And now he’s president of the Pullman Company. You know how Pullman was started? After Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, they took his body to several cities including this one. They needed a railway car designed for people to stay the night and sleep. Pullman did it and now it’s fitting that--”

She had grown deeply interested, craned her neck and actually stood up at her table, her eyes following the old man to catch the remaining glimpse of Lincoln.

She enthused: The Pullman Company!

“Why are you so much more interested in his being president of the Pullman Company than Abe Lincoln’s son or being present at three assassinations?”

Because I admire anyone who runs a corporation—who runs a business. Who can run anything.

“Fran, if I ran a business—say J. Walter—would you like me better?”

Oh, I guess I’d think you were very smart. Not that I don’t think you’re smart now with all your knowledge of quotations and your college diploma and all. But to run a business--.

“That’s really it, isn’t it? If I ran a business, you’d be impressed and like me better.”

Alex, I like you. I really do! Now let’s get back up there or we’ll both be out on the street walking down Michigan avenue with old Mr. Lincoln.

Thinking: Not him, with his father the boss.

On the elevator he said teasingly, “Maybe he’d hire you over at Pullman.”

Hush up. I really like it here.

When she was back at her desk, she looked up and the dark-haired, hair slicked back in a pompadour, mail-room college-diploma-holder, Ted Jardin, handed her a memo.

“Miss Cleary, this has to do with tomorrow’s meeting at 7. The time’s been changed to 8. I just thought I’d walk it over to save you from getting in here so early.”

Oh, thanks, Ted. That’s very thoughtful. I appreciate it, I really do!

He wasn’t about to leave just then. So she said:

I understand from Leddy that you’re going to be a big shot here some day.

He nodded. “Every day I get up and look in the mirror, I say: You big bum you’d better get a move on if you’re going to be head of the Chicago office of J. Walter!”

She was tickled.

Do you really! Honest?

“Yeah. Say, Frannie [suddenly familiar]. I understand you and your sisters go on the excursion boat to Milwaukee and back every Saturday night.”


“I’m going to be on that boat this Saturday. If I ask you, will you dance with me?”

And if I say no, what will you do?

“The next time I look in the mirror, I’ll say: You big bum, maybe she won’t dance with you but you’re still going to be head of the Chicago office of J. Walter!”

She laughed merrily. Well, if you’re on the boat next Saturday night, let’s see what happens!

“Also I have tickets to…”

Ted. I’m busy now. `Bye.

“See you on the boat.”


.“I understand they’re going to send you to the University of Advertising here.”

How do you know that?

“Just overheard it.”

You sneaked a peek at the memo in the mailroom?

He reddened.

I’m not going to any University of Advertising if you keep on taking my time.

“My father is the head of an agency in Des Moines. I could have worked for him right off but I wanted to work here. The best agency in the world, you know?”

`Bye, Ted. Get out of here now or I’ll never dance with you.

He was gone.

In 1971 a college classmate, John Kidwell, who lived in New York, called me and said he was in town. He was supposedly the only one from our class who made it into the business big time: president of the 7-Up Company.

“Com’on over to the J. Walter Thompson office at the Wrigley building where I have to talk to a guy, wait for me and we’ll have a drink,” he said. “Come around about 6 or so tonight and ask for Ted Jardin. He’s the executive vice president in here from New York. I’ll be in his office; ask to come in, I’d like to have you meet him. He’s a great old guy, white hair, lots of stories. A real old-fashioned ad guy hustler. But his ideas are far better than the young guys’. He should be retired but I’ve requested he hang on for our sake. I won’t work with anyone else. After this we’ll go out for a few drinks. You’ll like him even if he’s an old guy. Real old.”

Having heard about him for years and the glories of the ad business and J.Walter Thompson, I knew what I’d do. When I got to his spacious paneled office and he rose to greet me…expensively coiffed white-hair in a dated pompadour, tailor-made pin-striped suit, super-starched, brocaded white shirt, power-tie, gold cuff-links, shoes shined so brightly they reflected his ruddy face upward…and offered me a cup of coffee from the percolator and motioned me to the sofa where on the coffee table a huge picture book of ads looked inviting. A filter tip cigarette was burning in the tray.

“We’re just finishing up,” he said. “Then we’ll go out for a--.”

Then I said it:

I heard a lot about a young guy who began in the mailroom a long time ago here and every morning when he looked in the mirror he would say, “You big bum, you better get a move on if you’re ever going to be head of the Chicago office of J. Walter Thompson.”

He sat down in his chair, ignoring Kidwell from 7-Up, his gaze fastened upon me, figuring either I had just happened upon that phrase or--. He picked up the cigarette, took a long inhale with his eyes never leaving me.

I said: I bring you greetings from Frances Cleary, my mother.

“God,” he said. “God. How is she? Is she--?”

Alive? Yes. It just occurred to me as I came over here that you’re the guy she talked about incessantly when she wanted me to get into advertising. Ted Jardin.

“My boy, there was a time when I thought I had a chance—which, if I had, could have made me your father. How is she? Is she well?”

Excellent. She’s 75 years old, widowed and just retired from a second job, as paymaster of the Cook county treasurer.

“What I say is not prejudicial because I’ve been married fifty years. Your father was a very-very lucky guy.”

And a great man. He heard of you often.

“Really?” He said, “I’ll be goddamned. I gotta talk to her.”

I wrote the phone number.

Kidwell, a fast-read, said: “We’ll be waiting out in your anteroom, Ted, and we’ll have a drink.”

Jardin didn’t answer. He was dialing.

When I got home later that night Lillian said Mother had called.

“Well,” she said. “He made it. A big shot. Bigger than even he ever thought. But I still made the right choice.”

Mom, I’m sure glad you made the choice you did.,

“So am I,” she said. “But, you know, we’ve got to respect others’ feelings. Don’t tell him that.”

1 comment:

  1. Tom-
    What a remarkable and charming story!
    You really should publish all of this.