The phrase “an American original” may strike you as overused, and I might agree, but I’d have to limit it to the narrow sense in which it may be applied to more people than deserve it. In other words, there aren’t enough of them.

But today, we have a genuine contender: Jerry Della Femina, the famous advertising man, Hamptons restaurant owner, and creator of himself, profiled this past weekend in the FT.

What on earth, you are about to ask me, could Jerry Della Femina have to do with law-firm land? Well, stick with me here.

The occasion for the FT’s profile was presumably the new season premiere of “Mad Men,” “Matthew Weiner’s phenomenally successful show about the advertising world in New York in the early 1960s,” based on Della Femina’s own memoir of the era, published in 1970, From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor. (The reference will become apparent; as I said, stick with me.)

Brief obligatory what/where/when (courtesy the FT):

1936 Born in Brooklyn

1961 Junior copywriter, Daniel & Charles

1967 Founds Jerry Della Femina & Partners. By 1970, the company is billing $20m a year

1972 Plans takeover of Saatchi & Saatchi (fails)

1984 Sells his agency, but continues to work there

1992 Sets up new firm, Jerry, Inc. – and opens a successful restaurant

1994 Jerry, Inc. merges to become Della Femina, Rothschild, Jeary & Partners – where he still works today

The studious will note no academic degrees listed, because there were none–he graduated from Lafayette High School and “attended” Brooklyn College. But he was the self-taught polymath extraordinaire, borrowing 10 books at a time from the New York Public Library (“Hemingway to pulp fiction”) and says that he has a “small vocabulary,” but one which he “moves around fast.”

His father worked three jobs, as a pressman at The New York Times, a soda jerk in a coffee shop, and operating rides at Coney Island; his mother sewed dolls and dresses. Growing up in Gravesend, Brooklyn (notoriously characterized by a US Senator as the “breeding place for crime in the US”), he resolved as a child go “get out of here.” So how did he become the Jerry Della Femina we think of today?

In the early 1960s, he started sending ideas to one of New York’s smaller advertising agencies. Finally, the agency invited him in, and he offered to work for free. The partner said: “We have to pay you a token salary. How about $5,200?” Della Femina thanked him quietly, shook his hand and agreed to start on Monday. But when he got outside, on to lower Madison Avenue, he screamed with joy. “That ‘token salary’,” he explains, “was more than any Della Femina in the history of Della Feminas had ever made.”

Perhaps his genius stemmed from his profound common sense and pithy ability to distill what everyone had to be thinking into the lingua franca: “When he wrote lines such as, “Are you scared stiff your first color television set’s gonna turn out to be a $500 dog?”, he was thinking about his mother in Brooklyn. “

But the Della Femina magic touch had just begun:

[Della Femina had started at] one of the smaller, Jewish agencies. He says: “I worked there for two, three months and I was coming down in the elevator one night at 9.30pm and the new boss gets on and he says, ‘Workin’ late tonight, kid?’ And I said: ‘Ma nishtana halayla haze mikol haleilot?’ which is a Hebrew prayer meaning, ‘Why is this night different from any other?’ He gave me a $3,000 raise before the elevator hit the bottom.” Not every Italian kid from Gravesend, Brooklyn, could pull that off.

This begs the question: Could anyone pull that off today?

Della Femina seems to have mixed feelings on how the advertising business has evolved. Under “Progress,” one must surely count:

  • That people no longer smoke four packs of cigarettes a day,
  • That the “three-martini lunch” made immortal by Madison Avenue itself, has waned, permitting useful work to be done in the second half of the day,
  • That casual sexism is a thing of the past, at least in the open,
  • That formal sexism is very much a thing of the past (Get this: “For 25 years his firm ran a secret sex contest, in which people voted for the person they would most like to sleep with. The winners would get a weekend together at The Plaza Hotel, and the event lasted into the 1990s”)
  • Clients would not say to an Italian from Brooklyn (as Ford Motors did) that they didn’t want someone “of your kind”
  • And people who succeed and buy nice clothes are not told, as Della Femina’s mother told his wife, wearing a “fabulous” outfit, “you look like a Jew.”

On the “What We’ve Lost” front, count:

  • Computers: According to Della Femina, they’re wonderful but they’re cold, and what comes out of them is cold.
  • Less risk-taking in copywriting or art direction: “People just basically sort of do their job.”
  • There really was more creativity then: People meeting with giant note pads and art directors with drawing pads. Now it’s PowerPoint.

And the cryptic “from the wonderful folks who brought you Pearl Harbor”? His brainstorm when a large agency he’d just moved to was pitching the Panasonic account. “The room fell silent,” the FT dutifully reports.

His persona, of the original mad man, did have this effect: He knew he had clinched an account when an executive at the potential client said “You are not as crazy as I thought you’d be.”

The tale of his skirmish with the elders of the town of East Hampton is also priceless. Shortly after buying a house there, he opened a fruit and vegetable store, Jerry and David’s Red Horse Market. First, the town required him to paint the shop in regulation green. He refused. Clash. Next, he placed pumpkins outside, and was told that they were impermissible”advertising”. He said, “I am an advertising guy, and let me assure you those are not advertisements, those are pumpkins.”

Matters escalated to a summons and arrest warrant being issued against him, and his lawyer advised him to turn himself in quietly. But, apprised that if he turned up at the police station instead of court, he would be publicly handcuffed and given the perp walk, three guesses as to what he chose to do.

There were photographs all over of Della Femina in handcuffs. Later, he sued the town for wrongful arrest, and won.

And the relevance, at last, Patient Reader, to law-firm land?

The FT reporter asks:

“Was it calculated, though, or just natural exuberance?” Della Femina looks me straight in the eye. “I invented myself.”

The point precisely.

We need more lawyers who “invent themselves.” We need more lawyers who are American originals. We need more lawyers driven to grow wildly beyond their roots. We surely need more lawyers who are slightly mad, whom clients hire when they realize they’re “not as crazy as I thought you were.”

More lawyers, in other words, who are the next generation’s legends of the bar: Who are brilliant, fearless, profoundly insightful polymaths.

And who, again, invent themselves. Because that is the root of unwavering authenticity.

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