Weissman, by George!

Luther Gulick wouldn’t mind if we take a detour here and write about one of our own — George Weissman: Baruch alum (’39), WWII Navy commander, publicist with PR pioneer Benjamin Sonnenberg, chairman and chief executive of Philip Morris International, chairman of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, and philanthropist.
And specifically, namesake of Baruch’s Mildred and George Weissman School of Arts & Sciences, thanks to their 1998 donation of $10 million, then described as “the largest cash gift that City University of New York had ever received.” Weissman died in 2009 at 90 after falling at his home in Rye; Mildred died in 2022 at 102.
Their largesse was catching. In 2016, Austin W. Marxe (’65), gave $30 million to Baruch’s School of Public Affairs, now the Marxe School; in January 2024, the Simons Foundation and Simons Foundation International gifted CUNY $75 million for computational science and AI research; and in March 2024, The Steven and Alexandra Cohen Foundation, led by philanthropist and New York Mets owner Alex Cohen, awarded  $116.2 million to LaGuardia Community College in Queens to create the Cohen Career Collective, a state-of-the-art workforce training center.
Anyone remember the old-time radio show “Let George Do it”?
The Newman Library Archives recently received a trove of Weissman’s papers and we’ve been mining them for insights into a fascinating life. We were keeping an eye open for any newsy accounts of how Weisman and other tobacco executives handled the mounting evidence of tobacco health risks embodied in the landmark 1964 Surgeon General’s report linking smoking to cancer. We found a few scattered mentions. But the Weissman papers shed little light on the aptly burning issue that culminated in the mammoth $206 billion Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement that Philip Morris and the three other major cigarette companies signed with the attorneys general of 46 states in 1998, sharply curtailing age-old marketing practices. For that, see these resources:

Weissman himself smoked — 40 cigarettes a day, he said in 1980.

The Weissman collection, now processed in the Archives by our superb archival associate Katherine Mitchell, includes oral histories rich in biographical detail — one from 1984 conducted by Jessica E. Holland, a prolific interviewer and 1969 Barnard graduate who was tragically killed  in 1989 at 42 when hit by a car while riding a bike on vacation in France. Another, from 1991, was by Sharon Zane. In the extended interviews, Weissman, then chairman of the board and CEO of Philip Morris, recounts his hardscrabble upbringing and storied career.

His mother, Rose Goldberg, came to the U.S. in 1901 at age 10 with a cousin’s family from a small town near Mielec in Austro-Hungry, now Poland, just north of Slovakia. Many family members later perished in the Holocaust. Rose went to work in the sweatshops of the Lower East Side. She was so small and thin, she sewed weights into the hem of her dress to pass muster with the health inspectors.

Weissman’s father, Samuel, also came from Poland, a central town called Drobnine, sailing to New York via Liverpool with a young friend in 1891 at age 7. (Amazing!) He found work in the sweatshops, went on to design hats and helped organize the millinery workers union.

Rose, who grew into a Hedy Lamar-type “absolutely stunning beauty”, according to her son, married Samuel in 1912. They settled in the South Bronx, where George was born, middle child between an older brother and younger sister, on July 12, 1919, at 1008 Garrison Avenue near the later Bruckner Expressway. He was delivered at home, his birth certificate signed, with remarkable fortuitousness, by a Dr. Faustus. The Weissman home boasted a hand-wound Victrola which played opera and concert records, another omen for the future head of Lincoln Center.

Young George attended the brand new P.S. 82 on University Avenue and Tremont, then at age 13, City College’s prep school Townsend Harris High School, housed at the college’s downtown business school on 23d Street and Lexington Ave., original site of the Free Academy and later, of course, home of Baruch College.

The original Free Academy, founded in 1847 and demolished in 1927.

In 1935 at 16, in the middle of the Depression, he finished high school and prepared to look for a job. No!, Samuel decreed, with a rare slap, George would go to college –they’d find a way to make up the lost wages. And so George went to CCNY downtown, working summers waiting and bussing tables in the Catskills and sorting clothes at Orbach’s department store on Union Square for 27 1/2 cents an hour.

“Everyone was struggling,” Weissman recalled. “There was a lot of camaraderie of a different kind than you’ll find at an ivy league school. The camaraderie was built around the student anti-Franco movement, or picketing the Bremen when it came into New York — being attacked by longshoremen with their hooks.”

It was an exciting time, he remembered. He joined the leftist American Student Union, the yearbook, and the student weekly, The Ticker. “We were fighting fascism, fighting the Depression, fighting the college administration.” He studied Latin and majored in accounting and business administration, and graduated in 1939, hoping to land a job as a teacher or government worker while applying at accounting firms. But as they told him bluntly, they weren’t hiring Jews, especially not from City College.

Weissman drifted into writing for newspapers in New Jersey, and on Dec. 8, 1941, the morning after Pearl Harbor, rushed to enlist in the Navy. At midshipman school at Columbia University in 1942 he began dating a Teachers College student, Mildred Stregack, before shipping out on a submarine-chaser patrolling North Africa to prepare the way for the Allied invasion of Sicily. Like almost everyone, he smoked — Camel or Chesterfield or Philip Morris, when he could get them, and once, at Tenes in Algeria, local Arab cigarettes he found out too late were laced with hashish. In liberated Palermo, he was enthralled to visit the opera house for a riveting performance of “La Traviata,” a memory he would carry into his later stewardship of Lincoln Center.

After his ship was bombed at Anzio and sidelined for repairs, Weissman returned to the states for his sister’s nuptials and he and Mildred decided to make it a double wedding, two days before D-Day. Then it was back to the war, this time in the Pacific where his high-speed transport ship, the Horace A. Bass, survived a kamikaze attack before word came of the Japanese surrender.

The Horace A. Bass

Weissman’s ship was carrying some war correspondents so he asked Robert Trumbull of The New York Times to get a message to a Times colleague who had been Weissman’s classmate at City College to call Mildred to say he was safe. Trumbull did him one better. He put a plug for Weissman’s heroism in his front-page war story. “And the whole world called Mildred up,” Weissman recalled. (The oral history rendered the Times colleague as “Cal Siegel” but this was a misprint — it was Kal, for Kalman, Siegel, who along with his brother, Max, was still on The Times when this blogger started there in 1964.)

Weissman came home to start writing a feverish memoir of the war. In a month he put down 30,000 or maybe 40,000 words — and then “all of a sudden I hit a complete writer’s block. I couldn’t write another word.” Traumatic combat memories surfaced. “I said ‘the hell with it.'”

He floundered around and freelanced a review of the soon-to-be-classic postwar movie, “The Best Years of Our Lives.” Samuel Goldwyn himself called with congratulations to offer him a job.  Weissman worked for a while at MGM alongside Bill Ruder, but by 1948 Ruder was leaving to start his own PR firm with his brother-in-law David Finn, and Weissman was steered to a $175-a week apprenticeship with Goldwyn’s publicist Benjamin Sonnenberg.

Sonnenberg had the Philip Morris account and, as Weissman recalled, got the idea in 1952 to counter growing alarm over the risks of smoking by forming the Tobacco Industry Research Committee. Weissman ended up handling the radio and television advertising for Philip Morris, working with the brand’s famous pitchman, the 3-foot-11-inch midget Johnny Roventini, a former bellhop at the New Yorker Hotel renowned for his clarion page, “Call for Phil-ip Morr-eees!”

And that led Philip Morris, then on the hunt for creative young talent from outside the tobacco industry, to recruit Weissman in 1952. He saw the possibilities and leapt — despite a 25 percent pay cut. His first big idea was to propose a marketing department to promote research and product development. Okay, they told the 33-year-old Weissman, you’re in charge of it. And the next year came the sensation that Weissman insisted be named Marlboro.

Originally positioned as a “women’s cigarette” in the 1920s, it was reconfigured as a macho man’s smoke, thanks to its flavorful new burley blend and filter, bold red and white graphics, revolutionary flip-top box and — most notably — cowboy models.

In less than 30 days Marlboro became the best-selling cigarette in New York. Weissman had early inklings of success. Every restaurant he walked into “every table had a Marlboro on it.” Total sales skyrocketed from 18 million in 1954 to 6 billion the following year to 20 billion in 1957.

One night coming back from a restaurant with tobacco industry guests, Weissman and his group waiting at the curb saw a pile of butts from an emptied car ashtray. They were crouching  down to check the brand names when a cabbie pulled up. “Listen” he said, “you guys want a cigarette, I’ve got some.”

He saw himself as the quintessential Marlboro man, he told Fortune when he became chairman and chief executive of Philip Morris in 1978. “I’m no cowboy and I don’t ride horseback,” he said, “but I like to think I have the freedom the Marlboro man exemplifies. He’s the man who doesn’t punch a clock. He’s not computerized. He’s a free spirit.”

In Canada the Marlboro trademark ended up in the hands of cigar store kingpin David A. Schulte who liked to boast loudly how well his stock was doing. When a lunch companion once shushed him, warning that the waiters were listening, Schulte winkingly replied, “I know.”

By 1972 Marlboro was the best-selling cigarette in the world, a (dubious) distinction it retains, now shipping more than 240 billion cigarettes a year globally, and, in the U.S., dominating more than 40 percent of the market.

You can read lots more here: Stanford University

And here: Marlboro Oral History and Documentation Project

And, for the grim toll, here: smoking deaths.

According to the National Institutes of Health, “Marlboro cigarettes have killed more than 2.3 million Americans since 1955 with another expected 1.6 million deaths in the next 10 years. Put another way, in 2005, Marlboro is estimated to account for 30% of all smoking‐attributable deaths in the United States.”

Weissman remembered how the growing alarm over smoking from a Reader’s Digest article of 1958 to coverage by Consumers Union and the 1964 Surgeon General’s report set off a “tar derby” in a beleaguered industry, everyone “trying to say we’re milder than the next guy.”

There were a lot of “bloopers,” Weissman recalls, including a cigarette called Carlton that “tasted terrible and you couldn’t get any smoke out.”

Weissman rose rapidly in the ranks of Philip Morris, to vice president of marketing, then executive vice president of the domestic tobacco business. By 1958 adman David Ogilvie, who was chairing a committee for the construction of a major new performing arts acropolis in a slum clearance area on Manhattan’s West Side called Lincoln Square, invited Weissman to join a committee of leading New Yorkers to champion the project. He helped plan the extravagant 1959 groundbreaking by President Eisenhower, Leonard Bernstein and other luminaries.

Linking Philip Morris to the arts had been an idea of Sonnenberg’s, Weissman remembered: “He used to say it was the cheapest way he knew of buying a reputation.” Accordingly Philip Morris filled its Park Avenue headquarters with art. Weissman rejected the view that using tobacco money to support the arts was somehow unseemly. “Do you stop the Bolshoi from coming here because you don’t believe in the Russian system?” he told The Times in 1987.

Let’s end with some synchronicities, which Carl Jung thought might be more than coincidence –circumstances that lack a causal connection yet seem meaningfully connected.

In a folder marked “Research Materials” containing Weissman bios and magazine clippings, we found a New York Times magazine issue of March 20, 1994. The cover story, by the longtime journalist and author Roger Rosenblatt, was “How Do They Live With Themselves?” on tobacco executives grappling with the moral ambiguities of their work. But what stopped this blogger cold was a small headline on the cover’s right corner, promoting another piece inside the issue: “U.F.O’s Land at Harvard! John Mack’s Abductees.”

It was the famous (or infamous) Times piece on Harvard psychiatrist John Mack who had gravely risked his distinguished career to study seemingly normal people from all walks of life who recounted vivid and often terrifying encounters with alien beings. Mack had looked for a logical explanation — hallucinations, nightmares, hoaxes, fabrications — and applied his psychiatric skills to reject them all, leaving a confounding mystery. I had written a 2021 book on Mack, “The Believer” and referenced this same Times article  at length. And now here it was in the Weissman files.

There was one more surprise in the folder: A Manhattan, inc. issue of February 1990 with an inside “Dossier” profile on Weissman. But once again it was the cover that stopped me. The headline was “Executive Sweet: Married Execs in the Same Company/For Better or For Worse?”

The man and woman — was it possible? — were Ivana and Donald Trump. (Clearly, the answer had to be: For Worse.)






End of the Year, Gulick-style

So here we are, end of another year. Which prompts us to see how Luther Gulick liked to sum up the past trip around the sun  – and welcome the coming one.  Either way, there were always momentous events to be marked, and anticipated, in Gulick’s momentous life.

Ending the fateful year of 1945, after President Roosevelt’s death and the surrender of the Germans and Japanese, Gulick “swang” (his word) back into peace work and what would be daunting new challenges applying the science and art of public administration to a new world struggling to recover from the worst barbarities in human history.

Two years later,  as 1948 dawned, Gulick was witness to the U.N.’s partition of Palestine and the agitation for a Jewish homeland, and shrewdly foresaw the carnage ahead in the Middle East, although he failed to anticipate the Arab attack on the soon-to-be-declared new state of Israel.  Timely today, indeed!  And he also got Stalinist Russia right — “just plain ideologically crazy.”

Fast forward six years and as 1954 dawns, we have Gulick serving New York’s newly elected Mayor Robert F. Wagner as the first City Administrator. Among Gulick’s many triumphs (despite his troubles drafting “dames” for City Hall power portfolios) was appointing the first female Health (and Hospitals) Commissioner — Leona Baumgartner,  who would become a crucial advocate for fluoridating the city’s water supply.
Another New Year, and, like the song says, “Another Opening, Another Show…”

A Toast to Repeal

Repeal! — The End of Prohibition’s ‘Noble Experiment’
Event Date: 

Reception to Follow (with cocktails and mocktails, of course!)

Roosevelt House is pleased to present a discussion of the historic repeal of the 18th Amendment in December 1933—a signature early reform of FDR’s New Deal. Not that Roosevelt had ever renounced spirits himself, ordering four cases to be delivered, legally, right here to his home on East 65th Street just before Prohibition began. But for 13 turbulent years, the U.S. was officially dry, the improbable triumph of a surging women’s rights movement, religious fanaticism, disproportionate rural voting clout, and nativist rage against Germany and its brewers over the Great War. The alcohol lobby proved no match for a utopian vision of universal sobriety whose time had surely come. Temperance, which had once meant moderation, suddenly meant abolition. And drinkers were too busy drinking to protest.

Americans had been wedded to alcohol since colonial days. The fledgling republic faced its own rebellion when Pennsylvania farmers, enraged by a tax on whiskey, took up arms against President George Washington, until Congress backed down and repealed the tax (which had proved impossible to collect anyway.) By 1830, the average American was consuming two bottles of 80 proof spirits a week—three times more than today. The government itself was addicted—to the alcohol tax: by 1875, the tax was generating a third of all federal revenue.

But intractable forces were in play. By the later 19th century, women were clamoring for the vote, in part to shutter the saloons that were destroying domestic tranquility. Bigotry ran rampant. Liquor was branded the cause of criminal behavior by African Americans, Jews were vilified as brewers and distillers, and the Irish as saloon-keepers. And, by 1913, the government had found another way to finance itself—the income tax.

By the end of 1933, nine months after FDR’s inauguration (March 4, 90 years ago), Prohibition was crushed by popular demand—a return to national sanity with a mixed legacy: sinister new crime lords, corrupted law enforcement, and seismic fault lines of public disorder and official hypocrisy. But, buoyed by the New Deal, Americans were more than ready to raise a glass to the return of John Barleycorn. Happy days were here again. But how exactly could America go suddenly un-dry?

Robert L. Billingsley is vice chairman of Cushman & Wakefield, the global commercial real estate services company, and a biographer of his father, Logan, who led a storied career as a developer of the Bronx and leader of one of America’s largest bootlegging clans. Eldest brother of Sherman Billingsley of the Stork Club, Logan served stints in prison for killing his father-in-law and large-scale liquor trafficking before and during national Prohibition. He later became president of the Bronx Chamber of Commerce and a political ally of FDR’s. Robert Billingsley joined the realty firm of Cross & Brown in 1971, eventually becoming its youngest ever vice president, and in 1977 was a founding principal of Colliers ABR, a predecessor of Cushman & Wakefield. He is working on a book about his father.

Ralph Blumenthal, moderator, reported for The New York Times from 1964 to 2009 and is the author of Stork Club: America’s Most Famous Nightspot and the Lost World of Cafe Society about proprietor Sherman Billingsley and his Prohibition roots as an Oklahoma bootlegger. A Distinguished Lecturer in the Library at Baruch College, Blumenthal works with historic collections, including an influential 1936 Rockefeller study, After Repeal.

Blanche Wiesen Cook (’62) is Distinguished Professor of History and Women’s Studies at John Jay College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Her definitive three-volume biography of Eleanor Roosevelt was called “monumental and inspirational…[a] grand biography” by The New York Times. Volume One, on the Times bestseller list for three monthsreceived many awards, including the 1992 Biography Prize from the Los Angeles Times, and the Lambda Literary Award. Volume Two was also a Times bestseller.

Daniel Okrent is the author of Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, featured in the 2011 Ken Burns series on PBS. He is also the author of Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in History, and The Guarded Gate: Bigotry, Eugenics and the Law That Kept Two Generations of European Immigrants Out of America, winner of the National  Jewish Book AwardOkrent served as the first public editor of The New York Times from 2003 to 2005 and before that was an editorial executive at Time Inc.





A Kennedy Secret?

This could be the newsiest post we’ve ever run — and wildest!

It portrays John Fitzgerald Kennedy, then still a United States Senator, calling his brother Teddy “Yellow Belly” — a coward.

The Brothers Kennedy: Jack, Bobby and Teddy/AP Photo

It’s grounded in a letter we found in the batch of new material that Luther Gulick’s granddaughter Lisa gave the archives early this year. (The trove, to remind you, was rich indeed, and produced two quick posts:



There was lots more. But as we sifted through the packed cartons, one letter in particular jumped out and we’ve been trying to piece together the story ever since. It was written to Luther and his (second) wife, Carol, on Oct. 7, 1979, a year before the presidential election that would pit Democratic incumbent Jimmy Carter against Ronald Reagan. The writer was a New Deal pal of Gulick’s — William A.F. Stephenson, a Chicagoan who had joined the Roosevelt Administration in agricultural and housing capacities, helped plan the D-Day invasion, served under General George S. Patton, ran (unsuccessfully) for Congress in Florida, and organized the Florida presidential campaigns for Adlai Stevenson in 1952 and 1956. (Not to be confused with the other William Stephenson, another WWII hero known as “Intrepid”, who may have been Ian Fleming’s model for James Bond.)

You can read about our William Stephenson here, from the guide to his papers at the University of Chicago Library:

When Stephenson sat down to write his friend Gulick in October 1979, he was clearly no great fan of President Carter’s. (“I have kept loyal and hopeful on Carter because I am terrorized by the alternatives.”) But Stephenson’s disdain for Teddy Kennedy, who was preparing to challenge Carter for the Democratic nomination, seemed boundless, following Teddy’s ignominious exit from Harvard after a cheating scandal and the ever-mysterious car accident that drowned a young Kennedy volunteer, Mary Jo Kopechne, after Teddy’s car went off a bridge on Chappaqiddick Island one midnight in July 1969 and Teddy failed to report it until 10 the next morning.

So Stephenson, who called Teddy “the coward of Chappaquiddick”, could hardly have been neutral when recalling for Gulick 10 years later something that Stephenson said had occurred in 1958 or 1959 in Senator Jack Kennedy’s office. As Stephenson recounted, he was at the Capitol working with the Senator on an education issue when a secretary said Kennedy’s brother was on the phone. To which Jack supposedly replied, “Which one, Yellow Belly?” as Stephenson recalled, adding that indeed Teddy was then put through with a question for his brother. “There is not the vaguest doubt about what I heard,” Stephenson wrote Gulick, underlining the words for emphasis.

You can read the whole letter here:

For context, we ran the letter by some experts. John A. Farrell, whose 2018 biography of Richard Nixon was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize, has a new book on Teddy Kennedy coming out in October.

Farrell said Jack Kennedy’s remark was news to him although “he and Bobby could be caustic about [Teddy].”

Fredrik Logevall is another noted Kennedy biographer, now on leave from Harvard and in his native Sweden working on a sequel to his 2020 book: “JFK: Coming of Age in the American Century: 1917-1956.” Logevall said he was also surprised by Stephenson’s letter while wondering if it had “the ring of truth –WS seems consumed by animus.” Logevall said he would keep an eye out. But in the continuing research for his volume 2, so far covering from Jack’s 1958 Senate reelection campaign to the 1960 presidential primary campaign, “the two brothers work well together and are close.” Volume 1, he said, recounted no evidence of cowardice on Ted’s part — “Quite the contrary, when it comes to campaigning on his brother’s behalf.”

David Nasaw, biographer of the father of the Kennedy brothers, Joseph P. Kennedy, and recently retired as the Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. Professor of History at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, said he was struck by Stephenson’s vitriol.

“My God.  What a letter,” Nasaw said. “Such invective, such passion.” Nasaw said there may have been no specific event behind Sen. Kennedy’s “yellow belly” remark, “but perhaps only the sense that unlike his older brothers–and sisters–Ted was not a risk taker in any sense.  He was the youngest, the baby, overweight, never an athlete, and apparently, in Jack’s mind, scared of his own shadow.”


Russia, Year Zero Minus One

Wow! Look what turned up in the Newman Library Archives the other day! This commercial guide, issued annually by a British publisher in London, has been hiding in plain sight in our offices for years. But it’s not from our Library shelves because it bears a Dewey Decimal Classification number of 314.7 which we don’t use. What’s especially intriguing is the date — 1916, so the year before the Russian Revolution.

According to the borrowing card on the inside cover, it had been taken out for its last, and perhaps only, time on March 23, 1967 — some 55 years ago and almost 50 years after the Revolution. The internet offered a few possible clues to the borrower’s identity but nothing conclusive.


We quickly paged through to see if offered any hints of the carnage to come, but no. In fact, the opening entry is on Emperor Nicholas II and his wife and family, all to be taken prisoner by the Bolsheviks and executed in Ykaterinburg on July 17, 1918. Yes, even 17-year-old Grand Duchess Anastasia Nicolaevna, despite rumors of her escape. 



The volume is replete with manufacturing data and charts and tables, befitting a guide for business people, but there are fascinating glimpses of pre-Communist Russia, like these entries for Jews: