See Ben Drink

PhpThumb_generated_thumbnailjpgJane Maas's book, 'Mad Women', got me thinking about the not-so-good old days. And, while I missed the Mad Men era by a good 15 to 20 years, I did catch the tail end (and I use that word in the most liberal sense).

I joined Hill & Knowlton in the early 1980s as a newly-minted junior account executive. And, I must say, I saw quite a bit of the same drinking, smoking and office shenanigans that Mad Men made famous.

I also worked within a male dominated culture. Indeed, in those days, H&K had only ONE woman with a vice president title: Mary L.T. Brown. I was always curious about the initials, but she scared the bejesus out of me, so I never asked.

We JAEs knew many of our bosses were sleeping with their secretaries (and, had heard stories about more than a few administrative assistants who ended up as suburban housewives, just as Mad Men suggests).

But, it's the Mad Men/Women focus on heavy drinking in the office that really rings true for this blogger.

The Hill & Knowlton of the early 1980s was staffed with legendary former newspaper men who not only knew how to write and place stories; they also knew how to down a fifth, or two, of bourbon each and every day at lunch.

I remember one heavy drinking, demi-god whom I'll call Ben. He must have been at least 70 when our paths first crossed.

My boss had dispatched me to seek Ben's help with a client crisis. My assignment was to get him to place a major story for a colossal (and, very demanding) client.

Ben was on a first-name basis with the likes of Lou Rukeyser, Sylvia Porter and John Chamberlain, each a famous syndicated columnist whose articles were published in hundreds, if not thousands, of newspapers every day.

If given the proper ammunition from a junior account guy, Ben could make a syndicated column appear like magic. And, boy, did we ever need magic at that moment because, frankly, the account was in jeopardy.

My boss said the key to success with Ben, though, was getting on his schedule before lunch. He didn't explain why, and I didn't ask. So, I had my secretary (yes, H&K had assigned a full-time secretary to a 22-year-old junior account executive) call Ben's 'gal'. The meeting was set for 11:45am the next morning.

I walked into Ben's cavernous office, shook his limp hand and told him I was hoping he could help me. He leaned back in his chair, lit up his cigar, pulled open his desk drawer and pulled out a bottle of bourbon. “Care for one?” Ben asked. I declined. He poured himself a stiff one, downed it and said, “OK, kid. Whatchya got for me?”

I begin relating my client's story when Ben's inter-office phone rang. He picked it up, listened to his secretary and then hung up. “Gotta go, kid. Lunch engagement. Come back at three,” he said as he tossed on his jacket.

I dutifully returned at 3pm. I told Ben's secretary that he was expecting me. She smiled, and said, “Not this afternoon he isn't.” I tried to argue, but she sent me packing. I told my boss what had happened. He was upset. “I told you to see him before lunch!” He yelled. I replied that I had, but Ben had cut our meeting short.

I still recall my boss sighing, and thinking out loud, “If he goes on a bender, we're dead.”

Happily, Ben showed up the next morning, met with me, extracted the information he needed. Et voila, we had a Louis Rukeyser column and a very, very happy client.

There were quite a few Ben's at H&K. And, they could work wonders. But, only BEFORE lunch. After that, those Mad Men were positively useless. And, yet, no one said anything or did anything about their alcoholism. Nothing good about those old days.

2 thoughts on “See Ben Drink

  1. Interesting question since, as I mentioned, the H&K of the time had only one woman who held a VP title. My guess is the Old Boys network that dominated ad and PR firms at the time would have been looking for any excuse to undercut a woman’s powerbase. So, I’ll bet they would have used alcoholism as an excuse to can her. That said, if she had Ben’s magical abilities to place mega stories in mega columns, the boys just might overlook the pervasive boozing. The bottom-line is, after all, the bottom-line.

  2. RepMan: Just curious… do you think if a female executive displayed Ben’s behavior that it would have been tolerated? Amazing that a guy who probably put in a solid 15 hours a week of real work was enabled in that environment.