Notes to My Younger Self
At my 20th high school reunion, many years ago and the first reunion I’d attended, someone approached and said, “I bought a painting from you, and I still have it.” That I’d recognized the value of my work so early was surprising, but that they’d kept the painting was more surprising. I’d received the Bank of America award for art, not that I was the “best artist:” a tall, skinny kid named Jerry was the best, but I was the best artist with the best grades. I know there’s always someone “better,” but I also know that persistence and that overused word “resilience” counts for a lot. That, and a willingness to never be quite comfortable in what I think I know. “What are they going to do if I fail?” I’d say to myself, “shoot me?” In fact, there were several times when that was a possibility.
Notes To My Younger Self: “Go home and think about what you want to do.”
No, that’s not me on that billboard. I was one-half of a team that created an city-wide billboard campaign for KDAY Radio in 1972, as an art director for a boutique agency in Beverly Hills. Today the image isn’t radical, but it was then, and in a city so driven by media, quite a sensation.
I had dropped out of college to get married at twenty because good girls couldn’t just live with boys. We’d moved to Honolulu so that my young husband could attend the University of Hawaii while I began my commercial art career. The now famous Crazy Shirts tees had just started; our neighbor was one of their first employees. So when we moved to LA in 1967, I brought tees with me, along with the concept, as I worked my way up in advertising art departments.
With this campaign in 1972 – billboards all over LA and a hand-paint on Sunset – I like to think that I helped spread the tee shirt trend to the mainland. I didn’t write the headline and to this day, I hate it, but take a closer look. It’s quite a period piece, capturing the moment in time when women were beginning to be “liberated,” or so we hoped.
Note the hip huggers with the peace sign belt and the radical cropping of the model’s face, and also her nipples. In this era of the burning bra, she had to be braless. Our bodies were to be liberated from the constraints of unwelcomed pregnancy, decorum, sexuality, sexism, 1950s post-war stereotypes of what a woman should be.
I remember the day the photographer and I shot this image. I’d brought a tee for the model, with letters that I’d had to iron on myself. It was hot in his studio under all those lights. It was so hot that the model’s nipples disappeared. I had to invent a quick alternative. With bits of cotton ball, she taped on fake nipples. I do believe that this was the first braless billboard in the entire world.
The process of printing billboards was complicated then. There were only two companies in the US that had the capacity to print large sheets of paper that would be glued, one sheet at a time, to each outdoor panel in the greater LA area that had been purchased. When my writing partner informed me that I would be traveling to the deep South, to Opelousas, Louisiana, to approve the first proofs off the press, I was dubious about such a responsibility. I replied, “I’ve never done that, I can’t do that!” He looked up at me from his desk and said, “Yes, you can…you can do this.”
Beverly Hills then was a different town. I lived five blocks east of my office in the Bank of America building at Wilshire and Beverly. Celebrities walked around unmolested by either tourists or paparazzo. Steve McQueen, Ali MacGraw, James Colburn in a white Ferrari, Richard Burton in a white Rolls, Elvis – portly, coifed, and dressed in tight, fringed leather, standing beside his Stutz Bearcat in front of his jewelers. No big deal. Well, McQueen – McQueen was a big deal. Gentlemen had to wear jackets in restaurants; women alone were discouraged at the Beverly Hills Hotel bar, or so I heard. The most expensive designer jeans at Theodore’s on Rodeo were $25. I went out with a celebrity actor once, and declined an invitation to the Playboy Mansion, which I now regret.
My younger self remembers an LA then as a less boozy version of “Mad Men:” meetings I couldn’t attend because I was a woman, or too young, or clients who had other things in mind. Overnight, workplaces abandoned rules that women must wear dresses, or at least pantsuits. I don’t remember wearing anything but jeans. While I worked mostly with men who were supportive, I was also well aware of limits.
As society shifted rapidly, many of us thought we could have it all. I did, and I have managed to have a great deal, but not in advertising. It wasn’t that there were only about 5 female full service art directors out of 1,000 guys then (as I recall), and it wasn’t that I didn’t love the challenge. It wasn’t that a recession around then prevented me from being hired by the notorious Samsonite gorilla ad team at Doyle Dane, that art directors were being let go, that it looked to be an insecure profession – it was and it still is.
Forty-six fast years later, the photographer Bob Stevens, and I reconnected on Facebook. He’s still two years older than I, and has had a successful career shooting commercials and directing. We’ve decided to compare notes as the two young talents that we were then, he male, me female, he a husband and father, me a wife and mother, both in business for ourselves. The lasting bits of the rebel linger for each of us. He liked women as humans then and I can tell he still does.
My younger self thought that the characteristics that made me a successful advertising creative were in direct opposition to what it was going to take to create a family. Men asked why they should give up their positions in the professional schools to women – that once women started having babies they’d quit. My father, who was an egalitarian, made a prediction. He said that “women’s lib” was not so much a movement as an economic justification for the future: that families wouldn’t be able to afford a one income household – that women would be forced to work, just to survive an increasing cost of living. My younger self might have listened more closely.
Losing Steve McQueen
Beverly Hills had many great restaurants to choose from for lunch. This one was long and narrow with warm wood and macramé hanging plants. My secretary and I often made healthy choices, forgoing the obligatory two-cocktails when joining the guys, or calorie rich institutions like Nate n’Al’s.
We worked for a boutique ad agency in a high rise at Wilshire and Beverly Drive. It was a town of celebrities: more their town than the tourists and paparazzi that came later. When I lived and worked there in 1972, I saw lots of stars on the streets and in restaurants: Richard Burton, Elvis, Faye Dunaway, and while fun, I gave no thought to pestering. No wait, except for James Colburn and Steve McQueen, who though short, bow-legged, and married to McGraw, had to be the sexiest man alive.
I’d been recruited as the art director by Alex, a copywriter I’d worked with at a larger agency in downtown Los Angeles. Mentored by a creative department of talented males, I’d quickly reached my glass ceiling with management. During the first of many recessions that have directed my career, I was fired when the owner discovered me, in the basement, accepting freelance work from a former art director. A metaphor.
I’d taken out a business license that very week, and spent the next seven months assisting art directors with all the work they hated doing. Because I had a skill and could, I charged a high hourly rate. But I learned nothing new, and in the end, suffering from the first and last migraine of my life, called Alex.
Alex had started a boutique agency in Beverly Hills. His partner was the account executive, and we had one secretary, Rita. She’d worked for Cary Grant, and had had a relationship as well, proving Grant bi-sexual, not just gay…before people talked about such things.
I’d forgiven Rita for a huge, but funny mistake she’d made earlier that week. She and I had been coming down in the elevator. As we reached ground level, there stood Steve McQueen, my idol. While I’d seen him on Rodeo Drive, I’d never seen him up close, and I didn’t see him then. Rita is so excited that she pressed the close door button; doors slammed in his face, and up we went.
We were still laughing about losing Steve McQueen as the food arrived. Conversation shifted to trips she’d taken to Europe. She, attractive and full of fun stories, was perhaps 45 to my 24. I listened, but what I really heard was the word “Europe.” Europe. Suddenly, I realized that I was about the only person I knew who hadn’t been. I’d just left a five-year marriage, I was free, and in that moment, I knew I had to go. Within a month, I was gone.
Years later, McQueen was to emerge in my life again, this time as a mural on a house. (Until I can get copyright permission for an image of the mural, click here.)
Master muralist Kent Twitchell had painted this iconic image in 1971. The scale of this image in an urban environment, along with the famous Coppertone billboard installed on a garage door in Malibu Colony, inspired me to pursue a career as a muralist. When a UCLA career counselor demanded that I decide what I want to do, emphasizing “want,” I listened. I told my husband, who’d been patiently waiting for me to finish my degree and get a paying job with benefits, that I wanted to paint graphics on garage doors. He said, “Nobody’s ever going to pay you to do that.” He’s right. Nobody ever has, but in the meantime…
In 1982, I called Twitchell, and painted a mural of him painting a mural of City Hall, for the Los Angeles City Hall. Twitchell and I have kept in touch on and off over the years. He shared advice about VARA, the law he inspired, to protect artist’s rights. He shared production advice as well.
He’s a lovely, generous man, and later, sent me this drawing.
(image of Twitchell’s sketch of McQueen here, copyright by Twitchell)
One of the remarkable things about a creative career is the profound meaning of relationships between people and small events, linking over the span of many years. I’m hoping that Twitchell and I can have a conversation comparing our careers, and what it’s taken to survive making large-scale art in public places.