Jane Maas, a ‘Mad Woman’

By John B. Manbeck

Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle

BROOKLYN — In 1976, Jane Maas crashed through the glass ceiling to become one of the few women executives of the advertising world. She succeeded beyond her dreams, eventually owning her own company. The peak of her achievements centered on relationships with Brooklynites: Hugh Carey and Leona Rosenthal, better known as Leona Helmsley. They represented the zenith and nadir of her career.

After years of experience in advertising, Maas was chosen to head a campaign that seemed nearly dead on arrival. As in the popular film, Moneyball, she was asked to resurrect a near corpse: New York City. At the time, New York was suffering from fiscal collapse. Yet Maas accomplished the impossible with the “I Love New York!” campaign.

Maas earned a national reputation. As a result of that project, she met Gov. Hugh Carey and planned his wedding ceremony. The publicity also led to an encounter with Helmsley, the business woman nicknamed the “queen of mean,” who hired Maas, although the relationship resulted in such a fractious conflict that it almost destroyed Maas.

Maas’s New York campaign was a challenge to American advertising, the maddening center of Madison Avenue and its “mad men.” That it was accomplished by Jane Maas, a woman, is rather incredible. Mad Woman is the title of her latest book, published Feb. 28 (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press).

As viewers of the popular “Mad Men” television show know, mid-century was a time when women had long been confined to virtual house arrest. Men called the shots in business, law, politics and life. Men wore the pants in actuality and metaphorically. But times were changing. The changes were being ushered in by women such as Maas — known derisively as “working mothers.”

Born in Ridgewood Park, N.J., in 1932, Maas entered the business world with her eyes open. In high school, she became entranced with life across the river, although she was not yet considering going to college. In her junior year of high school, Jane Brown (her maiden name) was selected for the cheerleading squad. This act turned her life around, spurring her to become a goal-driven overachiever. With a father who was a principal and a grandmother who lived in Lewisburg, Penn., she became acquainted with, and eventually enrolled in, Bucknell University.

At Bucknell, Maas continued on an ambitious track. She immersed herself in sorority life, student government, theater and publications, as well as academics. She fell in love with college life — her fellow actors, her professors, her academic endeavors. A creative theater program lured her to the stage, where she acted with Philip Roth, later the award-winning author. (She still sees him and consulted with him on his book Everyman, which deals with advertising.) In 1953, she emerged from undergraduate school to win a student Fulbright Grant to the University of Dijon in France. She then continued her education at Cornell, where she earned a master’s degree in 1955. Eventually, she faced the cruel world of business.

The world of advertising provided the right challenge for her. Women of the mid-20th century entered a world of layered complexity. As women, they were responsible for reproduction; once a pregnancy showed, the woman would likely be confined to home. Often they had the sole responsibility for bringing up the children, cooking, cleaning, sewing, washing and ironing, and even minor repairs. As hostesses, women were expected to know the rules of etiquette and fashion.

If a woman needed, or chose, to work, another layer was added to her responsibilities. To work in an office, she had to know typing and dictation and how to operate a switchboard. To rise above the secretarial pool, she had to operate a dictograph — later the wire and tape recorder — and to program a computer. A private secretary had to understand the business, protect her boss, learn Robert’s Rules of Order and be a gracious hostess.

As Maas indicates in her book and the “Mad Men” show reiterates, liquor flowed freely and sex reared its head often. A secretary was a toy, despite the song “A Secretary Is Not a Toy” from the 1961 musical How to Succeed in Business. The Lexington Hotel often served as the “hot sheet” Midtown lunchtime rendezvous.

Maas explains that her mentor, David Ogilvy, prepared her for the world of 1964 advertising, from which few women emerged unscathed. Ogilvy, while competitive, instilled moral scruples in his staff and would accept no work from cigarette makers or the military, Maas said. Other agencies had fewer taboos, and the behavior on the “Mad Men” show is tamer than it was in real life. Maas says she toned down her interviews in the book to save reputations. Today, Ogilvy is chaired by Shelley Lazarus, who, Maas reports, is doing a fabulous job.

When Maas married in 1957, she established clear goals for her life, including continuing to pursue her career. A live-in caretaker assumed responsibility for her daughters; her husband, Michael, as an architect, had his own business.

Now she is promoting her book with 40 talks in 35 cities across the nation, mostly to advertising organizations. She also consults for the History Channel and Radio City Music Hall, among others.

For many, including Maas, the ride has been a rough one, but well worth the experience. Maas believes that advertising still harbors problems, and she now wonders how the future will shape up for women and if the values that she helped instill will prevail.  

© 2012 John B. Manbeck