I'd written him a letter and told him the truth: That I'd just returned from a year in Israel, and that my job there in the Hebrew University press office had been so boring, I'd escape down the hall to the library where I started reading a magazine I'd never heard of before: his.
From 6,000 miles away I fell in love with Ad Age because it seemed to be the place where American culture was laid bare. Let others wonder why a brand changed its slogan; Ad Age knew why. Let others feel the inexplicable urge to switch fabric softeners; Ad Age knew what was really motivating them. It went behind the scenes of American culture because it was all about what made America move and shake: marketing. I wanted to work at that seismographic magazine and, after a short trial run, Fred granted my wish.
He was the first guy to believe in me as a real writer.
He was not, however, able to give me a desk. There just wasn't any space. So for the first few months, I worked in a corner of his office, on the ground. This might sound a tad Cinderella-ish, but I thought it was great. (To this day, I still like working on the ground sometimes.) Working for Fred was a joy because he was so kind and funny, and so enthusiastic about new ideas. I was his mail-sorter and part-time reporter. I loved it!
The magazine was just starting a weekly two-page spread about pop culture and one of my early articles (now you will know I am as old as Coke) was about a new singer who was really sexy and perhaps on her way to bigger things.
Her name was Madonna.
I also wrote about some funny new guy with a kids' show: Pee Wee. And about MTV back when the real world was still . . . the real world.
Fred encouraged me to drink in the culture -- to watch TV, read magazines, talk to everyone -- which is what he did, too. He seemed as with it as anyone my age, but he could also tell stories about interviewing Kate Smith for UPI. I wanted to have that kind of full life, too.
So, with his blessing, I wandered the streets of New York looking for new tastes, artists, oddities. You'd think I could see these for myself, but it was Fred who pointed out the first Dove Bars to me (or was it the Chipwich?), though I doubt he ever ate one himself. In my mind, he is always eating a turkey sandwich, probably without mayo.
In fact, he was always living right and doing the right thing. Healthy and helpful, cheerful and smart. He's the one who explained to me when to use the word "which." (Short lesson: Don't.) He gave me another lesson that has also served me well: Hand in your article when it's DONE, not when you're wondering, "Boss, do you like the first ending better or the second?" And he let me write about so many things that didn't pertain directly to advertising, but that he thought our readers might care about: The layout of convenience stores. Why Gerber keeps its baby blue. What goes on in a tween-girl focus group.
He also let me start a weekly humor contest called The Next Trend that asked readers to predict everything from the name of the next serious children's book ("Green Eggs & 'Nam") to the next Cosmo cover line ("Decorate Your Apartment with Orgasms!") to the next Beatles song to be turned into a jingle. ("Listen. Do you use Unscented Secret? Do you promise not to smell? Very well, then . . .") Today I run a similar contest in the magazine The Week.
In fact, so much of my career began at Ad Age , thanks to Fred. Because even after I left that institution, I never left behind the curiosity about America that he'd help me turn into a job. And eventually, after years in print journalism, it led me to my latest venture: Finally try to budge our culture, instead of just observing it.
Right now I'm filming 13 episodes of a new hour-long reality TV show for the production company Cineflix. The folks there found me from my book and blog, "Free-Range Kids," which posits that our kids are safer and more competent than our culture leads us to believe.
I wish Fred were alive to see it. In fact, I just wish he was alive to keep being himself and an example to all of us of how to live.
For my birthday one year, Fred gave me a T-shirt that said, "Whoever has the most toys when he dies, wins." It was funny because it was the exact opposite of what he believed. He knew that whoever has the most JOY, wins.