Carl Spielvogel, 1928-2021
After a long Covid interruption, we resume with this salute to a sturdy son of City College and Baruch, my friend Carl Spielvogel, who left us on April 21, 2021. Spielvogel, New York Timesman, prototype of advertising’s swashbuckling Mad Men (“It’s Miller Time”), diplomat, and philanthropist, died in a Manhattan hospital at 92.
I don’t know if he ever met Luther Gulick, that other adventurer in democracy chronicled in this blog, but both men shared a love of humanitarian causes and responsive government. Spielvogel was a lot better at making money. And he had an adman’s special way with words, like his description of a corporate bungle: “Ready. Fire. Aim.”
A 1952 graduate of the pioneering free-tuition business school originally known as “City, downtown” — a year before it was named for the eminent financier, FDR-advisor, philanthropist, and 1889 alum Bernard Baruch — Spielvogel had a long relationship with Baruch College, spun off as a separate unit of the City University of New York in 1968.
He served as president of the board of trustees of the Baruch College Fund, and in 1990 received the Baruch College Distinguished Alumnus Award for Outstanding Career Accomplishment. In September 1992, the college inaugurated an annual lecture series on global marketing communications in Spielvogel’s honor, and in 1998, he was elected to the City College Communications Hall of Fame. In 2008, to celebrate another distinguished City College graduate, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, Spielvogel funded “The Colin Powell Fellows,” that each year sent two summer interns to the U.S. Department of State, where Spielvogel himself had served as the Clinton-appointed Ambassador to Slovakia in 2000-01, a diplomatic title he gloried in forever after. He also was a trustee of the State University of New York, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Lincoln Center, the Asia Society, Mount Sinai Hospital, and the New York State Democratic Party, along with many other institutions to which he also generously contributed. He was married for 40 years to the urban preservationist and author Barbaralee Diamondstein-Spielvogel.
His Times obit Carl Spielvogel, a Longtime Power in Advertising, covered a lot of ground but didn’t mention how he got his job at the World’s Greatest Newspaper, the time he met Hemingway, or some of the other great stories he shared with me over long lunches at the Asia Society, conveniently close to his opulent Park Avenue apartment. He loved to reminisce and given our shared Times history (he left in 1960, four years before I arrived, and was on the board of Lincoln Center in the 1990s when I covered culture for the paper), we always had a lot to gossip about, especially since I had also attended City College (uptown), and we had both started our journalism careers at the very bottom, as copy boys.
He told me how he had once taken a train down to Florida to find Hemingway. A great fan, young Carl made his way to Key West to seek out his idol. He knocked on Hemingway’s door and the writer actually answered. Nervously, Carl babbled on about how much he worshipped the great man, had read all his books and wanted to be a writer just like him. Hemingway listened impassively and finally said. “You want to write?” Oh, yes! Carl said, going on and on about his dream of becoming a writer. “Then write,” Hemingway said. “Don’t talk!”
Spielvogel realized his dream, in a fashion, at The Times. He had been hired in 1950, he told me, thanks to Herbert Mitgang, another Times stalwart, who had joined the staff after service as a combat journalist in World War II. Mitgang (1920-2013) was eight years older than Spielvogel and came from Manhattan whereas Spielvogel grew up in Brooklyn but somehow they had met and Spielvogel envied Mitgang’s job at The Times. Mitgang asked if Spielvogel would like to work there. “I would mop the floors at The Times!” Spielvogel remembered gushing. Mitgang got him hired, barely a rung above janitor but blessedly in the cacophonous news room where he fetched coffee for star reporters and ferried paragraphs from their smoking typewriters to the copy desks of grizzled editors in green eye shades and sleeve garters.
After a stint in the Army, he returned to the paper as a business news reporter. One day the financial editor pulled him aside. “You know anything about advertising?” “Oh sure,” Spielviogel bluffed. He spent the weekend in the public library reading everything he could find about advertising. Which is how he became the paper’s first advertising and marketing columnist, writing six days a week.
He wasn’t the only Timesman to find allure in advertising. Ernie Tidyman, a dashing copy editor on the soc-obit (society news and obituaries) desk from 1960 to 1966, wrote ad copy in his spare time, enabling him to afford a converted red barn as a chic weekend getaway in Connecticut. He did especially well after he wrote the bestseller crime series “Shaft” and the screenplay for “The French Connection.”
Spielvogel quit The Times in 1960, lured away to apply his expertise far more lucratively as a publicist for the advertising giant McCann-Erickson and eventually vice chairman of its parent company, Interpublic. But when he was passed over for the top job after 20 years, he left in 1979 to found, with his former McCann-Erickson colleague Bill Backer, their new partnership Backer & Spielvogel. Backer was legendary for having scribbled on an envelope during a forced layover at Shannon Airport in 1971, the anthem “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke.”
By 1987, with clients wooed away from competitors, B&S, a subsidiary of Saatchi & Saatchi, was billing $550 million a year. That year it merged with another Saatchi subsidiary, Ted Bates Worldwide, to form an even huger conglomerate with 104 offices in 46 countries and annual billings of $2.7 billion.
Among their clients was the upstart South Korean carmaker Hyundai. As Spielvogel told me, their strategy capitalized on the fact, little known to car buyers, that Hyundai was the world’s largest shipbuilder and oldest steelmaker in South Korea.
Their campaign noted this, Spielvogel said, with the irresistible tagline, “Think we can build a car?” They could. Hyundai became one of the hottest new brands.
After I became a Distinguished Lecturer in the Newman Library in 2010, Spielvogel told me one day over lunch that he was seeking a home for his voluminous papers spanning his advertising years and diplomatic career. I begged him to consider the Baruch College Archives which housed some of Bernard Baruch’s books and memorabilia and other important collections like the Gulick papers and the Institute of Public Administration history. Alas it never worked out. His archives, and Barbaralee’s, ended up at the Duke University Libraries.
We last booked a lunch before the pandemic at his favorite French brasserie in the East 70’s. As 1 o’clock came and went, I sat alone. My phone finally rang. He was stuck downtown in horrendous traffic. “Order anything you want,” he told me. “Champagne, caviar.” I settled for a beer. He arrived half an hour later. We ate and talked late into the afternoon, pushing away from the table as evening diners were beginning to trickle in. I watched him cross Lexington Avenue and waved goodbye.