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Remembering Bloom

In the formative days of Dallas advertising, one man towered above the rest: the spiritual adviser to both altruistic city fathers and hard-sell retailers.
By David Ritz |

The office of Bloom Advertising is on South Akard Street, in the small unassuming Zale Building across from Memorial Auditorium and the adjacent cemetery. The area looks much like the rest of downtown Dallas in 1960-stark, lonely, uninviting and unfinished.

It is May, and the Dallas heat is already oppressive. The air is still; the streets are deserted; it is 10 o’clock on Sunday morning. In five minutes, I will meet with Sam Bloom.

The somewhat proud, somewhat insecure editor of my high school newspaper, I am carrying with me articles and editorials of my own making. I clutch them in my hand like passports. This is my first experience with what adults call “connections.” I am about to ask Mr. Big of Dallas advertising for a summer job, in a meeting arranged by my sister’s boyfriend’s father.

The reception room is as deserted as the street below. No receptionist is there to greet me. I meekly take a seat and notice a door ajar. I hear voices behind the door-deep, important-sounding voices. It must be His office.

Finally, a man appears in the doorway. He is huge, a lumbering giant with the face of an Indian chief, extraordinarily tall and extraordinarily fat. He slouches. His countenance is lined, expressive, intriguing.

“Come in,” he summons, looking at me across the room. “Come in,” he bids in a voice deeper, more profound, more confident than any I have ever heard. “Come in,” he booms, sensing my fear and intimidation. Still clutching my precious newspapers so tightly that my palms are wet with perspiration, I follow him.

His office is mammoth, as large, it appears to me, as our entire house. It is obviously the working area of a great man, filled with overstuffed couches, armchairs of the variety one finds in English men’s clubs, tables, enormous lamps and, in the center of it all, a large and elegant desk (which, I would later be told, belonged to U.S. Grant). Behind the desk is an almost ridiculously tall, high-back swivel chair, the sort used by judges, bishops or Presidents. Seated now on the throne is Mr. Sam Bloom, president of Bloom Advertising, chain-smoking cigarettes, inhaling them whole so it seems, filling the office with his enormous presence.

His voice is silken, a trifle gruff, but smooth in its endless flow. He talks about sociology, why times are changing, why language is important. He uses large words well like “expressive,” “antithesis,” “paradoxical.” He speaks beautifully as he leans back in his chair; it is as though the earth itself has turned on its axis. The chair takes him almost to the floor, and from a nearly horizontal position, staring at the ceiling, cigarette burning in his hand, he discusses the universe and the businessman’s and intellectual’s place in it. He starts coughing-oh, that famous cough of Mr. Bloom!-and it is frightening, as though a volcano is erupting. Everything about him is monumental.

The phone rings, and he presses a magic button, not moving from the executive reclining position. The voice of the caller booms from a loudspeaker box on the desk. It’s Lyndon Johnson calling from Washington. Johnson is seeking Mr. Bloom’s advice, and Mr. Bloom, after listening to the Senate majority leader for a minute or two, starts talking into space (without benefit of the standard telephone receiver) as though he is addressing not only the senior Senator from Texas, but the entire nation. As Mr. Bloom theorizes, as he waxes eloquent, I desperately try to catch the drift of the conversation. But I am lost; the talk is above me, beyond me. Mr. Bloom has said his piece and they are ready to say good-bye. They call each other Sam and Lyndon, another button is pressed, and then Johnson is gone.

Mr. Bloom rises as though we, too, have finished our business. He thanks me for my time. And as I walk down the hallway from his office to the elevator, high on the experience, on the glibness of Mr. Bloom and the glamour of his surroundings, it occurs to me that I have no notion of what he was talking about. He failed-I failed-to mention the possibility of a summer job. Too late I realize that I never showed him my modest bids for journalistic fame which have already turned my hands black from the smudge of the sweaty ink.

On Monday morning I call Mr. Bloom’s office and ask his secretary to ask him if I have a job. She puts me on hold, and I wait for a minute or two until she returns to tell me that it seems that Mr. Bloom does not know who I am. “The student he met with yesterday,” I answer and, after another endless pause, she comes back to the line to tell me to report to work whenever I like. “What will I be doing?” I ask. “Mr. Bloom is on long distance and has two calls holding,” she replies.

So it began-a baffling 13-year relationship with Sam Bloom. I would not be alone in my feelings of love, loathing, amazement, admiration, bewilderment, fascination and fear. He seemed to affect everyone he met in those ways. He could put you in a trance and keep you there for a lifetime.

To describe Bloom Advertising in the early days of the previous decade is, in large measure, to describe a group of 20 or 30 or 40 people, running around an office in an attempt to understand and carry out the mandates of one man. For me, it all began in the tearsheet department. My job was to go through the country’s major and minor newspapers looking for Zale advertisements to tear out. (Zale’s was Bloom’s largest account in those days. In fact, members of the Zale family actually bought stock in Bloom’s firm to help give him working capital. Years later, he bought them out. The account was always thought to be the backbone of the agency. And, for the record, it was the then president of Zale’s, Ben Lipshy, who set up my initial meeting with Bloom.)

I worked along with two Mexican-American girls, and our responsibility also included sorting and distributing the mail. Every day towards closing time, as part of his ritualistic tour of the agency, the man himself would wander back into the office in which we were all huddled. I always felt as though he was the plantation owner inspecting the grounds and that we tearsheeters were the cotton-pickers. He would lumber in, all 300 pounds of him, and bid us good afternoon. I was certain that he did not remember me and had forgotten our original conversation. I was a nod on the tour, and I felt like an aspiring football player who comes to the try-out in hopes of being noticed and admired by the coach.

It must have been only a month after I had been working there that I was summoned into his office. I was petrified. It was my first return visit to the throne room, and there he sat, the center of power, leaning back in that incredible chair, speaking to a group of assembled employees-copywriters, public relations writers and account executives. When I entered the room he turned to me, as though he and I had previously indulged in a probing conversation on the subject at hand.

“Now, David,” he began, “you know the situation in New Orleans. You know the sort of community fall-out they experienced. The collective temperament of a city is like a woman’s. It needs to be soothed, softened. It requires time and attention. It requires money and people commitment. We’re all on board, I believe, and I know that Luther, C.A. and the rest will cooperate, will be pleased with the sort of team we’re putting together. Now it’s a matter of a game plan and everyone, of course, knows exactly what must be contributed. You know what I’m talking about. You know what to do.”

With those words, his head nodding and his eyes looking for agreement, everyone began to nod back in response. I, too, found myself nodding vigorously. And then he gestured that he was through with us, that we were, as he had put it, “to go to it.” We thanked him, each of us separately, and we left. His delivery had been so smooth, so polished, so self-assured, that an hour passed before I realized that I didn’t know what he was talking about.

I wandered about the office in a panic, trying to figure out what I was supposed to do. I put together the jigsaw puzzle with the help of an employee here and there. It seemed that Bloom, in his capacity as a member of the Dallas Citizens’ Council and the public relations adviser of that group, together with C.A. Tatum (then head of Dallas Power and Light) and Luther Holcombe (then head of the Dallas Council of Churches) was leading an effort to make sure that Dallas’ first attempt at stair-step integration-in the coming fall-would be peaceful. The idea-Bloom’s, Tatum’s and the Citizens’ Council’s-was to make a film, show the violence with which parents fought segregation in towns like Little Rock and New Orleans, and then have civic leaders say that, like it or not, the law is the law and we all must obey. The film was to be made by Bloom and the people sitting in his office that day. That’s what the meeting had been about.

The movie was called Dallas at the Crossroads and it began with scenes of the tornado which ripped through the heart of Dallas in 1957. That kind of thing could happen again, we were reminded, if we didn’t accept the Supreme Court ruling and, instead, resisted with violence. Then the mayor, judges, businessmen and the police chief all paraded before the camera to say the same thing. The film was shown thousands of times, in PTA meetings, in factories and plants, and finally on TV. Whether it was the film’s work or not, there were no violent incidents when integration came around in the fall, and much credit was given to Bloom, whose public relations reputation was growing by leaps and bounds.

Now at the time, I felt like a happy inhabitant on what seemed a liberal island in the midst of downtown Dallas. It seems strange to say, but that was exactly what I took it to be. Only in retrospect is it clear that what I was moved by, what seemed progressive to me at the time, were all the things Bloom and Tatum and the Citizens’ Council were not: they were not Bruce Alger; they were not right-wing.

To be sure, the key word was moderation. In truth, Bloom represented the PR equivalent of the Rayburn / Johnson / populist / conservative wing of the Democratic party. He was born out of that political time and place and, as far as I know, he would never abandon that position. One did not argue politics with Sam Bloom; one listened or, at best, one asked questions. Once I built up enough nerve to ask him what he thought of the establishment whom he served as PR man. “We’re all in this together,” he answered.

The longer I worked for Mr. Bloom, the less I really understood him. He was not a lighthearted man, did little joking and made virtually no small talk. I knew he had grown up in a small Texas town and had little formal education. I knew that he had worked up the ladder, so the legend went, from modest beginnings in Clarksville, Texas. (One thinks of Robert Strauss.) And I knew, too, that he had worked for the Times Herald for years and years, had raised himself up, in fact, to a vice-presidency and key executive position. He had been in charge of all advertising sales. He had led the paper, so the story went, into a period of booming profits. He had been the greatest salesman of his day, the Paul Bunyan of advertising lineage. He had lined up mass retailer after mass retailer, making the paper fat and rich with department store ads, with sale ads, with jewelry ads.

To this day, the Herald bears the mark of Sam Bloom. It remains a monster in the land of giant retail ads. In time, Bloom had done so well, had become such a dominant force on the paper, that the presidency was all but inevitable. He would surely become the boss. That in itself would have been unusual: Bloom is Jewish, and the family which ran the Herald was not. Finally, it proved too unusual. Whether his religion had anything to do with it or not, I don’t know. But in any event, Bloom was passed over for the presidency and quit to begin an ad agency in the early Fifties.

The basis of the agency was the Zale account, one of the retailers Bloom had worked with at the Herald. The Zale people had always been spellbound by Bloom’s golden tongue, so it was not surprising that he worked a way to handle their advertising. That set a pattern for the agency: Bloom jumped on the back of a growing giant called Zale’s which would carry him a long, long way.

Normally, large retailers do their own advertising; they have their own advertising departments because of the incredible amount of detail work, the daily changes and the absence of creative requirements. They just don’t need an agent or a middle man. You show the merchandise; you give the price; you write a big headline that says SALE! But Bloom quickly built up a large art department to handle such traditionally non-agency accounts. And his agency began through his retail contacts from the Herald. There were Affiliated Food Stores and Tom Thumb and Skillern’s-thousands of pages of hot retail ads, hard-sell all the way, ads which had to be written, pasted-up and rushed to the papers. I drowned in a sea of buy-now-be-fore-it’s-too-late radio copy. I swam through oceans of catalogues selling pear-shaped diamonds and $19.95 radios. I sailed under a flag on which was written the most sacred of the period’s selling mottos: “No money down, terms available.”

Mr. Bloom himself-I will never be able to call him Sam-was a master of the Old School of Advertising. He liked, he loved the bold, black headlines, the screaming 10% OFF, BUY NOW! Humor had not yet been injected into advertising, at least not into the advertising world of Bloom. For the founder, advertising was no laughing matter.

For some reason, Bloom was particularly involved in the Skillern’s account when it first came to the agency. Perhaps it brought back fond memories of the Herald. In any event, for years he demanded that the basic two-page Skil-lern ad be redesigned again and again. Artists still talk about the nightmare of that endless job. First, Bloom would insist that the corners of the box surrounding the words “Maalox, 4 cents OFF” be rounded; then he would insist the corners of the box be square; then he would insist that the size of the Skillern’s signature at the bottom of the ad be increased two-fold, then three-fold. To most of us, a sale ad looked like a sale ad. It could be a little neater, a little sloppier, but basically it was what it was. To Bloom, however, the art director responsible for the layout could have been Michelangelo painting the Sis-tine Chapel. And like Pope Julius, our boss would hover and fret over each detail, each headline, each starburst, as though they were sacred scenes in an elaborate religious mosaic.

It is one of the great paradoxes of the Dallas advertising business that in the next 15 years that image would be turned around. Bloom’s son, Bob, gradually took over the agency and emphasized creativity to the point where, beginning in the late Sixties, one began to associate Bloom with more contemporary advertising. Today the company employs over 200 people, and if the organization has risen to the level of a national agency, it has been under the direction of the younger Bloom. Years ago, Bob saw the need to grow beyond the retail accounts, to bring in people from Chicago and New York who knew something about the big-time agency business and, in fact, to go against his father’s newspaper instincts. Those instincts, on Mr. Bloom’s part, were to seek any form of advertising that represented volume-the more the merrier. After an intense and difficult period, Bob won the Oedipal battle and moved the agency into a new era of sophistication. I have always admired his tenacity in demanding that power be transferred from dad to son.

Father Bloom was an endlessly fascinating walking paradox: the spiritual adviser to altruistic city fathers and hard-sell retailers alike (who, as with the Cullums, were sometimes one and the same). His public relations pitches were lofty in tone, elevated, full of pomp and circumstance. But on the advertising side of the agency, when Bloom got his way-which was very nearly always-it was all nitty-gritty.

What bridged the paradoxes was his pragmatism. Do what works. And be smart enough to figure out what works. Couple that with intrinsic good business sense and an intuitive feel for political moderation. Put that in a body whose frame more befits a Comanche chieftain than a local businessman. Let that pragmatism and business sense and political moderation be articulated in the most eloquent and stunning language. Give it a voice which is mellow, deep, confident and lilting (think of the voice of the late Everett Dirksen) and you have a man capable of dealing with ease in both the sensitive world of civic public relations-diplomacy and the tough world of large retail newspaper advertising.

Bloom loved to be surrounded by intellectuals, at least to have one or two on staff, to talk to, to write speeches and reports for him, to listen to him philosophize. He loved sociology, or at least marketing sociology, or at the very least hearing himself and others say the word “sociology.”

Marshall Terry, now a professor in the SMU English Department, worked for Bloom for two years, partly as a copywriter, partly as an intellectual-in-residence. Terry tells the story of how he waited outside Bloom’s office for two weeks before Bloom acknowledged his presence and decided to hire him. Terry had no idea what he had been hired to do and, days later, Bloom turned to him and said, “Marsh, pack your bags, we’re heading west.” They traveled into West Texas and New Mexico, Bloom “evaluating” Zale stores and Marshall assisting him, taking notes and carrying his bags. Terry’s experience with the Bloom legend was so intense that he wrote a novel about it and modeled the main character on the Old Man himself. A publisher turned down the book, Terry says, claiming it was improbable that such a character existed.

Bloom was fascinated by academe, primarily by its lighter side. He felt intellectuals were there to be used, and, like lawyers or doctors, to be paid a certain price. Bloom loved to tell his hard-nosed retail clients that he knew how to talk to intellectuals, knew when to listen and when to ignore them. He liked to have intellectuals and their ideas around, like the expensive pieces of Steuben glass he collected in his private office. They were there to look at, to play with. Bloom himself was not, nor did he claim to be, an intellectual. His rhetoric fell down from the heavens. It was natural. And it always seemed that as he sat behind his desk, preaching to his clients, he was selling champagne to farmers, and doing a masterful job of it.

In 1963, a number of us were called into his office. There was the usual brilliant mumbo-jumbo about changing times, about socio-economic fall-out, about the total concept of community feeling. There was a lot of coughing. After a lengthy discussion, I was told to put together a brief sketch of “political Dallas” which would be helpful in understanding “the trip.”

“The trip,” I would learn again by asking around, was John Kennedy’s plan to visit Dallas on November 22, ironically enough the anniversary date of the agency (which began on November 22, 1952). The city fathers were worried because of the 1960 incident with the Johnsons in downtown Dallas and because Adlai Stevenson had been hit over the head while he was in town, just months before, on behalf of the United Nations. Because of his sociological-marketing experience, Bloom was given the task of protecting the moderate image of Dallas. If he could integrate our schools and keep the crazies away, he could get our liberal President in and out of town without an incident.

That project, like all the non-advertising projects at Bloom, was total madness. Secret Service men, aides to the President, press people-they all swarmed around the agency for days. Phones rang incessantly, messengers scurried down the halls. No one seemed to know who was in charge of what. But none of that mattered, because the main job had been done by Bloom himself: he had worked out a non-partisan invitation list for the Market Hall luncheon. Every important and reasonable citizen of public note-from Irving Goldberg to W.A. Criswell-was on it. It was a patriotic occasion. Just as it was not important whether or not you liked integration-you followed the law-so was the line repeated: Like our President or not, he is our President and we must treat him with respect. Bloom moderation, Bloom good sense to the rescue.

My own job, on November 22 itself, was to carry to the Dallas Trade Mart giant teddy bears which were to be gifts for Caroline and John, Jr. When the gifts were announced to our President, I was to stand up and show them to Mr. Kennedy, Mrs. Kennedy and the luncheon guests. The whole thing was another crazy Bloom project-sweeping in scope, moderate in ideology, messy, annoying and voluminous in detail.

I remember after the assassination I gathered up the nerve to ask Mr. Bloom his assessment of the situation. It was yet another trembling attempt to delve into his mind. At lunch at the Baker Hotel coffee shop, I swallowed hard and asked the question: Did he now wish that the Citizens’ Council had not requested his services in keeping The weekend peaceful ana uneventful? I waited for an answer as Mr. Bloom studiously examined his honeydew. “You must understand, communities thrive on intellectual and cultural diversity. Our nation is new, our city is young-so are you, David-and ideas are subject to a plethora of meanings and interpretations.”

Perhaps the Jack Ruby trial was the wildest in a series of wild affairs. The scenario was much the same: the city fathers were worried about Judge Joe B. Brown’s ability to handle the press who were about to converge on Dallas for the trial. Where were the reporters to sit and who would be accredited? Our city fathers were also worried about the judge himself. He was thought to be neither our brightest nor our best. Would he embarrass us while the world looked on? The powers-that-be decided he needed help. So when the national media picked up the fact that a judge, perhaps for the first time in the history of American jurisprudence, had hired a PR man to help run a trial, we could not deny the truth of the rumor. The judge himself-like Zale’s, like W.O. Bankston Oldsmobile or Earl Hayes Chevrolet-had joined the long list of clients who sought advice from Sam R. Bloom. (Though, according to Bloom, PR advice was given to the judge free of charge.)

I remember one meeting in which Bloom’s rhetorical and manipulative skills were nothing short of fabulous. He had assembled in his throne room a group of businessmen, English teachers, black teachers, a preacher or two and some employees. We were discussing-more accurately, Mr. Bloom was discussing-ways to use the media to discourage demonstrations for desegregation. (He would never use the word “integration,” thinking it too inflammatory.) Part of the group felt that the TV stations were the most important to reach; others were more concerned about the newspapers. Bloom put the matter to rest by leaning back in his splendid black leather chair and, without batting an eye, declaring that “a cross-pollination of media feedback is crucial.”

Another famous Bloomism which took the breath away from an admiring client came when the client suggested that the agency write a history of his company. Bloom snuffed out the suggestion and ended the discussion by announcing that “retrospection is a tricky whore.”

A Bloomism could be an act as well as an expression. Once, going to a meeting with him at Neiman-Marcus, I was behind the wheel of his car in the middle of a traffic jam on Elm Street. The traffic was fierce; it was unbearably hot; the car was overheating. And as was his habit when he grew nervous and impatient, he was tapping and shaking his legs as though he were following a frantic jazz solo. Finally, he could wait no longer. He simply climbed out of the car, mumbling to me, “Do what you think is right.” To this day, I don’t know what he meant, particularly in view of the fact that when I finally arrived at Neiman’s I discovered that no such meeting was scheduled. Mr. Bloom had gone to Dallas Power and Light.

You had the feeling that you couldn’t escape Mr. Bloom’s grasp. (And, of course, in those days you didn’t really want to. Things were happening and the glamour was real.) One summer when the pressure was too much to bear, I did escape for a week to a friend’s farm in a remote section of New Jersey, miles from civilization. I was sitting on the front porch, daydreaming, when an elderly man in a pickup truck appeared on the dirt road in front of the farmhouse. He leaned out the window of his truck and asked, “Is there a David Ritz around here? He’s wanted on the phone in the general store. A Mr. Bloom is calling from Texas.” At that point, I knew that the Old Man had my number.

Mr. Bloom could be generous, kind and thoughtful. He would often pay for the funerals of employees’ relatives. He was great at sending flowers. He was an extravagant tipper. And during my first semester in college, he sensed–don’t ask me how-that I was lonely and unhappy where I was studying, at Austin College in Sherman. One day I was called away from a ferocious ping-pong game in the student lounge. Once again, I was wanted for a long-distance call. Once again, it was a call from the Old Man. “David,” that warm and confident voice boomed, “how’d you like to leave that little town and work for me in New York?” He had found me, and of course-how could I do otherwise?-I would jump at the chance.

In New York, I worked for Mr. Bloom, writing copy inthe Zale office and going to school at NYU. Mr. Sam, ashis more subservient employees would call him, paid my tuition. A semester later, I returned to the Dallas officeand to SMU. And Mr. Bloom continued to support myeducation. As is often the case with a father-son orfather-daughter relationship, leaving him could be, and formany would turn out to be, hell. It was bitter. He had the .feeling-you had the feeling-that he owned you.

Yet leaving him, for hundreds of people like me, was inevitable and necessary. And liberating. The alumni of Bloom, we would often joke, could fill the Cotton Bowl. There are scores of people like myself, people who fell into the place, fell in love with the man and with what he was doing, and then, slowly but surely, felt suffocated and forced to escape. Bloom had an uncanny ability for unearthing people’s talents, for changing people’s lives for the better. And at the same time, he remained distant, untouchable, removed, available only on his terms, talking to you from his throne. He could be large and magnanimous. And I have known him to be small and petty. He is the best talker and worst listener that I have ever met.

The agency was notorious for firings. The Old Man would fall in and out of love with employees’ abilities on a whim. People fell from his favor like birds falling from precarious nests. Needless to say, yes-men and yes-women survived longest. And for nearly everyone, Friday afternoon was a time of anxiety and fear.

I would struggle to write a speech for him. He would change the language, insist that I add this, that I take away that, that I modify the tone. It would take me a week to produce a draft that would be acceptable to him. It would be important: he was to deliver the speech before a Senate subcommittee in Washington. So after seven days’ and seven nights’ work, I would give him what he wanted. The labor pains for that talk would be excruciating. Then I would learn that, by mistake, he had left the speech behind, that he had forgotten to take it on the plane. I would run to his secretary like a man possessed, tell her that I would rush immediately to the airport and airmail the text to him. I would be on the verge of collapse. “No need to do that,” the secretary would calmly reply, “I have spoken to Mr. Sam and he has already delivered the speech, impromptu, and he says it was quite successful.” I bet, I would think to myself, I bet.

Today, in spite of the fact that the world is very different, in spite of the fact that the Dallas oligarchy is near or past the point of disintegration, I would suspect that much is the same with Mr. Bloom. Even though his agency more closely reflects the image of his son than himself, the Old Man, in one way or another, must still reign supreme. And as recently as 1973, when Temple Emanu-El was having an internal dispute, they called on Bloom, who had been president of the congregation in 1949, to take over once again and calm things down. He remains a towering and sobering influence.

Nearly a decade and a half have passed since it all began. You suddenly realize that you are no longer a littleboy trying to please an older man. You think that youhave overcome your “Bloom thing.” And then, 15 yearslater, it is 1975 and you find yourself serving on the boardof a human relations organization along with the OldMan. One day he is asked to speak to the board, on thestate of affairs in Dallas and the world. He arrives at themeeting and you realize it has been so long, so very long,since you have seen him. He looks older, yet even moreimpressive, heavier, taller, more powerful. He speaks foran hour. He is eloquent. He is circuitous. Everyone in theroom is hushed, impressed, intimidated by his presence. Headdresses the Large Questions. He is through speaking andmajestically leaves the room. And, though the times aredifferent, the city changed, the characters in the playaltered and transformed, you realize that for you and Mr.Bloom the world is closed, fixed, settled. In that world youremain, will always remain, his disciple-the one who is calledthe doubter.

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