‘Grey Flannel Gal’ Tells All-Flying High on Madison

A Big Life (in Advertising) , by Mary Wells Lawrence. Alfred A. Knopf, 307 pages, $26.

Mary Wells in the late 60’s … the stuff of dreams! Her idea of advertising was to “create miracles”-and that’s exactly what she did, the chief miracle being her ownagency,Wells Rich GreeneInc.,which sprouted in eight rooms of the old Gotham Hotel in April 1966, grew faster in its first five years than any other agency in history, and etched indelible phrases into the public imagination: “Flick your Bic” and “I love New York!” and “Plop plop, fizz fizz: oh, what a relief it is!” Fearless, tireless, hugely hungry, Mary Wells was also (to borrow The New York Times ‘ prim, pre-P.C. phrase) an “attractive blonde”-dynamite, basically. And though in her memoir she barely mentions her looks (modest asides about “Norwegian legs” and “limpid, sexy brown” eyes), she’s doing her best to seduce; she makes sure you fall for her energy, her single-minded drive, her ever-expanding appetite for life.

An impresario and a salesman, she provided an atmosphere conducive to the creation of brilliantly original advertising, and then sold her wares to corporate America (“There was a myth that I could sell anything,” she writes, “but that was not true-I could not sell bad advertising, it made me physically sick”). The excitement in A Big Life comes from the wooing of clients-American Motors, Midas, Ford-and the even trickier business of holding on to a client whose loyalty is wavering, as when Philip Morris, after 14 years with Wells Rich Greene, decided that snapping the ends of Benson & Hedges 100’s in charming ways (“America’s Favorite Cigarette Break”) just wouldn’t work anymore.

Early on, she treats us to an encounter with Governor Rockefeller, whose re-election campaign was in trouble. Nobody remembered his accomplishments: “All people remembered was his divorce and his new marriage to Happy.” The agency Mary Wells was working for at the time devised commercials in which Rockefeller himself did not appear-“we decided that Nelson should stay off the television screen”-and chose Mary to deliver the news that he would not be featured in the ads he was paying for (a cruel blow to any candidate’s ego). At the toughest part of the pitch, she lowered her voice: “I almost whispered to him about the cold moral gravity we had found in the high awareness of his divorce and the low awareness of his achievements. I said if we put him on television personally, people would see nothing but his divorce, it was so darkly entrenched in their minds.” The presentation ended and Mary said a few more words. “No one said anything when I finished. Nelson sat staring at me, and then … stood up and applauded.”

Mary Wells was already famous as “The Grey Flannel Gal” when she married a client, Harding Lawrence, the dashing president of Braniff Airways, and made more headlines; soon enough she was bosom buddies with the likes of Hubert de Givenchy, Henry Ford II and Princess Grace of Monaco. By the mid-70’s, according to Advertising Age , Mary Wells was the highest-paid female executive in the world, with an estimated salary of $300,000.

Who was this world-conquering dynamo? A Big Life begins in media res , when her career is just taking off; the book gallops along for 160 action-packed pages-a steady diet of advertising triumphs-before our heroine takes the time to fill us in on her background. She was born Mary Berg and grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, an only child in a house notable for its silence: “My parents … didn’t say much to each other or to me,” she writes, “and they didn’t say anything about what my life could or should be …. They simply didn’t talk.” Nonetheless, when she was 5, her mother packed her off to elocution lessons, and later pushed her into the arms of a local theater group. After high school, her father drove her to New York, where she enrolled for a year at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of Theatre. At Carnegie Tech in Pittsburgh, her interest in the stage evaporated, and she “slid into the role of a college girl looking for someone to marry on graduation day.” She picked Bert Wells, an industrial-design student, and when they moved to New York together, she found work writing copy, first for Bambergers, then for Macy’s.

How did she get from the Macy’s advertising department to the chief executive’s office at one of the biggest agencies in the world? Gloria Steinem once said, “Mary Wells Uncle Tommed it to the top.” In her memoir, with characteristic disregard for feminist dogma, she replies, “I worked as a man worked. I didn’t preach it, I did it.” Those two blunt sentences tell you everything you need to know about her days at the office, the formidable focus she brought to bear. Her theatrical training came in handy, too, and not just because it taught her how to deliver a sales pitch. Her instinct was always to “theatricalize,” she says-and she came along at just the moment when American advertising was learning the value of entertainment.

She relaxed her grip a bit in the 80’s, after two bouts with cancer, and in 1990 she retired from Wells Rich Greene, selling her share of the agency at a propitious moment. She found plenty of uses for her free time: the house in Mustique, the ranch in Arizona, the Palladian-style villa at Cap Ferrat, and the grandchildren supplied by her two adopted daughters. There’s also her social life, which she hints at with a discreet scattering of boldface names-“Aileen Mehle (‘Suzy’), who is like a sister”-and a selected inventory of the gowns worn at glittery soirées (“There was the Norman Norell mermaid dress of blue sequins I wore to the White House the evening I was seated next to President Marcos of the Philippines”).

The last 50 or so pages are less interesting than the rest. After her illness, she began investigating spirituality; her fuzzy mystical musings seem out of place in a razor-sharp chronicle of adventures on Madison Avenue.

Her book inevitably invites comparison with David Ogilvy’s Confessions of an Advertising Man -but in fact they’re very different, mostly because Ogilvy was in full stride when he published his book in 1963; he was still drumming up business through self-promotion. The how-to component of Confessions is utterly absent from A Big Life , and there’s something else missing, too. David Ogilvy was an ego-mad genius, with a mad genius’ unique charm. Mary Wells Lawrence is more like you and me, only smarter, braver, harder-working and luckier.

Adam Begley is the books editor of The Observer.