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.)