The restrained high style of the ad men in Mad Men has revived a painful memory of one of my life-changing moments.
In the mid-sixties I worked as a press rep for CBS-TV in New York. Though low on a steep vertical hierarchy, I felt I had the kind of dream job I’d seen in movies like The Hucksters and Sabrina — an office (windowless) in the CBS building on Sixth Avenue, a good salary at a time when a floor through apartment on a nice street in Greenwich Village cost me $125 a month, and a charge account at Brooks Brothers that I worked like a farmer works good black loam.
With visions of sartorial sugarplums like William Powell, Clark Gable and Cary Grant in my head, I slid down the slippery slope from well-dressed to dapper to dandy. With the exception of spats, I stopped at nothing. My workday wardrobe consisted of three piece Brooks suits, bow ties, spit-shined cordovans, a fedora, a silk pocket handkerchief and — why stop now? — a flower in my lapel, bought fresh every morning at the 14th St. subway station. I even grew a moustache when facial hair was rarely seen in the Knoll-decorated surroundings at Black Rock, the Eero Saarinen-designed CBS headquarters.
In one of his novels, Heinrich Boll once imagined an architect who went into business in a small German city and for lunch every day ordered cottage cheese with paprika, not because he liked it but because he knew that in a short time everyone in town would know who he was. I suppose that idea of giving myself a trademark — what’s known today as branding — led to my excesses. But I was immune to self-analysis, and even more immune (if there are degrees of immunity) to self-criticism; I found myself delightful, the star of my own intriguing story. And I assumed that this feeling must be shared by everyone who saw me. Wow, who is that guy?
Then one day, returning to Black Rock from an expense account lunch, buoyed by an excellent martini, I stepped into an elevator and found myself alone with the actor Peter Falk. This was several years before he starred as Detective Columbo (on another network) but in a rumpled raincoat he looked exactly as he did later in that series.
Why he was there that day I don’t know. Perhaps the bosses on the floor above me were trying to woo him from NBC. The elevator button was already lit for the 36th floor, the Olympian redoubt of William Paley and Frank Stanton, chairman and president of the company. We press agents, mere servants of these gods, worked one level below, so Falk and I had 35 floors to travel together. Naturally, I considered being in a car with a movie star a treat. Unnaturally, I figured that Falk would consider being within arm’s reach of an obvious up-and-comer at CBS a treat too.
Of course, as a proud Manhattanite, I would never have behaved in the star struck manner of a mere tourist. Not even the ritual “I love your work” passed my lips. Instead, I smiled and nodded in a you’re-cool-and-I’m-cool-so-nothing-need-be-said kind of way. He looked at me expressionlessly.
The elevator ascended with a whispery swoosh. With each floor I felt a stronger kinship with the star, an increasing sense of our mutual specialness. I was standing slightly ahead of Falk, since I would get out first, but I was sure he was looking me over. In his wrinkled raincoat, he had to be wondering if maybe he shouldn’t think more about his appearance, spruce up his wardrobe, absorb at least some of that tall, good looking kid’s style.
The elevator eased to a stop at 35, the doors opened onto my floor, and I, a laddie who lunched with reporters demoted to the television beat, turned and gave Falk another nod and my most collegial smile. That raincoat! Sad, really.
As I stepped out and the doors began to close, Falk finally spoke, with the gravelly voice and tough New York accent that I would recall in later years with every Columbo re-run:
“You’ll never get away with it.”
The doors closed. Stunned, I looked left and right to see if anyone was there to hear this oracular curse. Within my vested chest, the heart of a poseur thumped with fear. Falk had needed only a minute to see what he saw, and now I saw what he saw too. I felt as if the hissing of the air from my deflating ego must be audible to everyone on the floor.
And he was right; I didn’t get away with it. A couple of months later, my moustache and I were looking for another job.