Article — From the November 1963 issue

Mrs. Roosevelt Does a TV Commercial

From November 1963: Thomas L. Stix is partner with J. G. Gude in the radio and television talent agency whose clients have been Elmer Davis, Howard K. Smith, Walter Cronkite, and others famous as news commentators. Mr. Stix has written short stories and books on topics ranging from banking to bridge.

An explanation, by her one-time agent, of an episode in her later life which puzzled many of her closest friends.

If you want a dispassionate appraisal of Eleanor Roosevelt, this personal reminiscence is not for you. For seven years I was her radio and television agent and she was our brightest star. She was special. And when you told people you represented Mrs. Roosevelt, you were special too.

Our relationship began in 1955. One day at lunch Colston Leigh, her lecture agent, was lamenting that he did a very poor job for his clients on radio and TV. He was overly modest, I said, and I admitted that I was a rank amateur on the lecture circuit. As a result of our mutual confessions, we decided to swap a few people–like a trade of baseball players. And I came away with Mrs. Roosevelt.

At our first meeting she asked me who our other clients were. I listed them and added that we had just acquired the New York Racing Association. “That will be a much more lucrative account than I will be,” she said. She was wrong. At that time she was very anxious to make money for her charities; among them were the Wiltwyck School, an institution for delinquent boys; the Citizens Committee for Children of New York; and the American Association for the United Nations. She was not earning much for them from television. That was the era of games and quiz shows and she wanted no part of them. She also had the habit of saying yes whenever she was asked to make a free guest appearance on radio or TV for some worthy cause. Generally I found out about these dates when I read the announcement in the papers. I remonstrated, but Mrs. Roosevelt said she didn’t think I should be bothered with unimportant details.

I explained that her chances of getting a good regular program were not too bright if she accepted all such invitations. She understood this, so I began to hope that from here on in everything would be simple. Well, it wasn’t.

She was planning a trip to Israel and I tried to arrange two appearances for her on the Ed Sullivan Show–one before and one after the trip. She liked the idea and so did Sullivan and we tentatively agreed on the fee. But the whole project fell through when she insisted on doing two propaganda appeals for Israel on the show.

“Of course you don’t understand it,” she said, “but I am probably the best Jew in the United States.”

She was quite objective about her prospects. “You are going to have a bad time trying to sell me because I’m so controversial,” she said. This was all too true. In the first four years I doubt that I averaged more than $2,000 a year for her. Many lesser lights make that much a week on TV. Mrs. Roosevelt believed that a majority of advertisers were Republicans and that they thought her “poison.” She was a Democrat and bore a well-hated name.

I have tried to figure out just when the “Hate Eleanor” period ended. I can’t fix a date or a definite reason. It just happened. Suddenly most people admired and then came to love her. One day out of the blue Hank Booraem, then head of radio and TV at a large advertising agency, phoned me to discuss what he called a cockeyed idea. Would Mrs. Roosevelt do a straight commercial for a margarine account for quite a lot of money? I didn’t think so, but I listened. The sponsor was to be Lever Brothers, a well-known, reputable organization. Possibly, I thought, other conservative companies would follow their lead if she agreed to do it–a big if.

Booraem and I worked out the details, including Mrs. Roosevelt’s right to approve the text of the commercials. Two days later I presented the proposition to her. I had by now convinced myself that it was a fine idea. But I told her that she would probably be severely criticized for doing anything so undignified.

She asked for a day to think it over. I know that she consulted her confidential secretary, Maureen Corr, and two close friends, Joe and Trude Lash. All of them were very much against the idea. On the other hand, I had told Mrs. Roosevelt that if the commercial was successful she would no longer be “poison” to sponsors.

When I called to learn her decision, she logically detailed all the pros and cons. Finally she said, “With the amount of money I am to be paid I can save over six thousand lives. I don’t value my dignity that highly. Go ahead and make the arrangements.” I don’t know just what lives she was thinking of but I am sure children somewhere received the money–perhaps in Africa, Greece, or West Virginia.

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