The Mad Men of Dallas
Amid the glamour of the advertising business at the height of Kennedy-era ambition, I learned the true name of the game: compromise and moral corruption. I loved every minute of it.
Sometime in the spring of 1963, I was talking to Shanghai Jimmy, proprietor of Chili Rice, a hole-in-the-wall restaurant on Live Oak, in the bowels of downtown Dallas. “Chili Rice is oh so nice,” he liked to say. “Eat it once, and you’ll eat it twice.” I was a madman-in-training, a 20-year-old copywriter navigating his way through the rough terrain of the advertising world. I was eager, naïve, and hungry.
“Where you been, kid?” asked toothless Jimmy, whose exotic Far East travels were documented on bizarre handwritten note cards plastered over the walls of Chili Rice.
“Gaston Avenue,” I said, as Jimmy served up the No. 9 special, a tub of steaming white rice topped with chili, cheese, raw onions, and a slab of butter—the same special Elvis reportedly ordered during his post-“Blue Suede Shoes” visits to Dallas.
“What were you doing on Gaston?” he asked.
“Picking up a client’s date and delivering her to the Adolphus.”
“A date or a hooker?”
“A hooker,” I said.
“A high-class hooker, I presume.”
Jimmy smiled as he said, “I see you’re learning the ad business.”
In East Dallas, Gaston Avenue was alive, while Swiss Avenue was dead. Gaston Avenue was home to new two-story, California-style apartment complexes with names like the Surfer and the Limelighter. Airline stewardesses, models, and escorts shared apartments next to nurses, secretaries, and sales ladies. Several complexes headquartered prostitution operations servicing, among others, the madmen and their clients. For well over a year, I had been entrusted to pick up and deliver these women to their dates. I was stunned by their elegance. They looked like movie stars, and, in fact, one became just that.
The world of the madmen centered on private clubs—the Dallas Club, the City Club, the Dallas Petroleum Club, the Chaparral Club, the Cipango Club—where membership meant mixed drinks, a luxury in those liquor-restricted days. The ad biz lifestyle had a gloss and glamour that hid the subtext of the overall enterprise: compromise and moral corruption. Neither the compromise nor corruption bothered me.
In a parallel fictitious universe, the darkly sophisticated Mad Men television series that mirrors this same ’60s epoch played out in Manhattan, the seminal episode was season five’s “The Other Woman,” in which Joan, the voluptuous office manager, sleeps with a client to capture the account and advance her career. That sort of dedication to the job was not uncommon in the Dallas advertising wars, when Kennedy-era ambition was at its height. The great warriors were Morris Hite at TracyLocke, Liener Temerlin at Glenn Advertising, and Sam Bloom at his eponymous agency. I worked for Bloom.
Bloom was especially fascinating because, more than his two competitors, he worked both roads—high and low—in the pursuit of promotion. In 1961, when Dallas was forced to integrate its schools, the downtown power brokers hired Bloom to create a campaign to persuade the citizenry to peacefully accept the change. The thinking was practical. Ugly riots would be bad for business. The highlight of the campaign was a film narrated by Walter Cronkite, who warned how the devastating tornado that had ripped through Dallas in 1957 would not be nearly as destructive as civil resistance to desegregation. The campaign worked. No riots and many kudos for the art of shaping public opinion.
I was a student of this art. I was so studious that I dropped out of SMU to devote myself fulltime to learning how to use words to persuade. I was taught the economy of expression and the power of the impeccable phrase.
I loved those lessons and still honor them today. Yet those weren’t the deepest lessons learned during the madmen era. Those lessons, like the ones dramatized on the television series, involved the struggle between light and darkness. Those of us on the make in the ’60s were fueled by a restless optimism undercut by the harsh limitations of a culture that was at best semienlightened.
Around this time, Dallas culture began to widen and include a hint of bohemia. Jazz clubs and coffeehouses started popping up along Greenville and McKinney. My guide through their front doors was a man I’ll call Rance. He worked for a competing agency in the public relations department and, like me, had a passion for music and poetry. Rance was a fashion plate. In his early 30s, he augmented the standard uniform—three-piece Brooks Brothers chalk-striped suit, button-down shirt, club-stripe tie—with a pair of white tennis shoes, a remarkable departure. Rance had sad, watery blue eyes and blond hair Brylcreemed into well-tamed waves. He was a man going places, confident, witty, and, to my mind, wise. He taught me how to write a press release and order a Tanqueray martini.
One night he took me to a small spot called the Interlude. Flutist James Clay, later to join Ray Charles’ band, blew sweetly behind the musings of Sherry Riley, who resembled Mary Travers.
After the first set at the Interlude, we went over to a club called the 90th Floor, where the jazz duo of Dick and Kiz Harp performed. Rance explained that the place was named after Cole Porter’s most sophisticated song, that ultimate anthem of self-pity in which the narrator is “alone with her sorrow, down in the depths of the 90th floor.” Rance spoke of Manhattan and his plans to find work on Madison Avenue. Dallas was gaining ground as an advertising center but, according to Rance, would always be minor league.
From the 90th Floor we went to the Magic Grille on Lovers Lane, where Mark Carroll, a cool combination of Bobby Short and Bobby Troup, crooned songs of unrequited love. We ended the evening at the Rubaiyat on McKinney Avenue, a sliver of a folk club/coffee bar where, while listening to a blues guitarist, I drank my first espresso. Rance ran into a few other madmen and invited us all back to his place on Blackburn, by Turtle Creek.
Rance had a modern apartment with a sunken living room and commanding view of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Kalita Humphreys Theater. He had decorated his walls with Wright posters and framed ads for Mercantile National Bank, Dr Pepper, and Mrs. Baird’s Bread. He’d worked on all those accounts. He passed around a joint and put on Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. This was, I thought, as cool as cool can be.
Rance spent the rest of the evening delivering a monologue about how advertising was the harbinger of American taste—and how his taste in particular assured his success. It wasn’t simply his taste in clothes and music, but his taste in people, the advertising tastemakers who understood, as did he, the pulse of the public. I left his place believing that the advertising industry, like Rance himself, was on the absolute cutting edge.
A month later, a friend who had worked with Rance called me at home.
“What about him?”
“What do you mean gone?”
“Left his job, left town, disappeared without a trace.”
“I don’t get it. Why?”
“They’ve kept it out of the papers, but last week a young Baptist minister killed himself.”
“What does that have to do with Rance?” I asked.
“He was Rance’s boyfriend.”
I never heard from Rance again.
Northpark didn’t open until 1965, but two years earlier, developer Ray Nasher had begun soliciting advertising concepts. Along with Stan Richards, who would soon have a full-service agency of his own, Bill Hill at Bloom was considered one of the hippest of the art directors steeped in the modernist school of Bill Bernbach (of Volkswagen Beetle’s “Think Small” fame). I was assigned to work with Bill on ideas to herald the opening of the mall.
Bill and I went to the corner of Central Expressway and Northwest Highway, where construction was under way, and heard Nasher proclaim that the shopping center would be to Dallas what the Acropolis was to Athens. Bill raised his eyebrow as if to say, “Is he kidding?”
But other marketing mavens in the assembly who heard these same words wanted to build an entire campaign on the NorthPark-as-Acropolis analogy. I myself was tempted. No matter how far-fetched the hype, if the client said it, who were we to argue?
“We’re the creative people,” Bill said. “If we don’t display some integrity in our work, no one else will.”
Integrity, a novel concept.
A company photo of the TracyLocke agency taken sometime in the late '50s or early '60s
Bill spearheaded an effort to demonstrate the uniqueness of NorthPark. He shunned all comparisons. His full-page ads were flowery illustrations, whimsical and soft, not in the least literal. When our competitors’ campaigns were presented before ours—ones that depicted the Acropolis on one side of the page and NorthPark on the other—Nasher dismissed them as ridiculous.
“But that was your idea,” the ad’s creator said.
“I was trying to make a point, not create an ad,” Nasher said. “If I could create an ad myself, I wouldn’t need you.”
When Bill’s campaign was presented, Nasher was all smiles. He loved the full-page ads that eventually ran in both the Dallas Morning News and Times Herald. And I was faced with the uncomfortable truth that, even in a moral universe where compromise is the golden rule, knowing when not to compromise is the ultimate wisdom.
Caroline, my pseudonym for a celebrated media buyer, was drinking heavily. The more she drank, the more she revealed her heart. I could do little but listen. She was somewhere in her mid-30s and would not be considered pretty by conventional standards. She was rail thin and, at over 6 feet tall, ungainly. Black cat-eye glasses gave her elongated face a hard but intelligent demeanor. Avant-garde style was her saving grace. Even shopping at Neiman’s wasn’t enough for Caroline. She flew to Europe every year to survey the latest fashions. On a recent trip to Carnaby Street, she adopted the mod look. Six months before the Beatles came to America, she talked about seeing them live in London. Two years before Twiggy appeared on the scene, Caroline had the Twiggy look, a close-cropped, plastered-to-the scalp hairdo, arty copper coin earrings, and a magenta A-line dress covering her angular body.
A department head at one of the three big ad agencies, Caroline saw me as her little brother confidante. She brought me to La Tunisia, a North African-style restaurant in Exchange Park, next to Mickey Mantle’s 32-lane bowling alley, just off Harry Hines. Caroline said she felt comfortable in the kitschy atmosphere of the Sheik’s Tent, the restaurant’s cocktail bar where the waitresses wore veils and darted about in harem costumes. Outside, the official La Tunisia greeter, a 7-foot-tall black dude wearing a fez, had welcomed us. Inside, the sultan tent decor was a product of the same decorators who had done Disneyland.