I have been floating on the James River across from where English settlers set up the first lasting colony in the Americas. Sometimes I throw a fishing line in the water so I do not look too suspicious, just floating there. There is no hook on the line. The only way a fish gets in this contraption is in a tuna sandwich.
In this part of Virginia, summer skies boil up vast towers of thunderheads. I can see Confederate earthworks, still there, waiting for the Yankees to come up from Yorktown, behind which hungry men are determined to kill them. History lays its heavy hand upon every creek and every mound of dirt and clay. It is the perfect setting to ply my new trade, reading history books, real ones and invented. I pore through tomes of American antiquity and marvel at the incredible leverage a single man or woman has had on the fate of nations.
And sometimes I think about advertising and my life in it. Mostly, I think about the people I met. Often I have regrets that I have not kept in touch.
I think about the wonderful complexity of advertising people, and note that the business is so demanding you have very little time to appreciate your comrades-in-arms.
Perhaps the Confederate soldier, emaciated, foul-smelling, cleaning his long rifle behind a dirt mound, had no time to appreciate the stringy haired, ragged man next to him, either.
All this history provokes a memory about a different kind of boat and a different kind of advertising person whom I worked side by side with, enjoyed and exploited, but never really had a clue about even though we had often shared gin and fish and late-night focus groups.
In our small broken circle, "Sassy" is a legendary boat not so much for where she cruised. When I knew her, back in 1978, she hadn't cruised anywhere in a long time. Her legendary status derived from the lengths to which her master went to keep her out of the water and surrounded by particles of old paint, shellac and wood shavings.
Janice, the 6-foot Amazonian blond producer, continually goaded David to take us on a cruise to far away Santa Catalina, where the buffalo roam. He always promised future adventures, and at a discrete time in the evening, usually after two and one-third martinis, would announce he was off to "work on the boat." Then Janice declared, "I've gotta feed the dogs."
REAL PEOPLE, REAL LIVES
It never occurred to me to question. Was there a boat? Are there dogs? What goes on in the real lives of the people I work with and communicate with so intensely? It did not even dawn on me these people had real lives. I was so very absorbed in my real life and its pursuit of frivolous excellence I just wasn't aware.
When the old game ball came in the mail, with a short powerful note from David's sister, I was not prepared for the jolt to the solar plexus. The ball was a yellowed All-American League Star baseball. A numeral "1" inscribed (in my hand) in ink. Several blurred initials adorned the ball. I immediately recognized my signature as it came out of the small box. With foreboding, I removed the note and read it.
"My name is E.B. and I am David Rodgers' sister. I am very sad to tell you that David died on October 2. He spoke of you often and I thought you would like to know. He had been doing very well, consider (sic) the problems he faced, but he contracted an infection and was just too weak to win that battle.
"My husband and I have moved into his house and are putting his affairs in order. We will live in the house as long as it takes to prepare it to sell. When going through his things, I found this baseball. It does not mean anything to me, but I noticed you had signed it. When I saw the articles in USA Today (a retirement story, actually) saying you would love to be a big league catcher, I thought it might bring back nice memories of a very special man."
I called Janice. We spoke as if our previous conversation had been last night, not three years before. (Advertising sucks, advertising people suck and clients super-suck but we keep doing it because it feels good when we stop.) She hadn't learned until December. It happened in October. Now it was January 1998.
She told me David had not returned telephone calls and that while she was on location she got involved in production hassles and just failed to follow up. The next thing she knew a creative director at her agency let her know David had died several months before. She added, "His partner, K, died a couple of years ago, and David was very upset."
"Yes, you know. Don't you?"
"Well, yes. I knew David was ... but, uhh, I guess I respected his privacy. It really didn't make any difference to me. I loved him. My wife loved him, too."
"Yes. ... They lived together for 17 years."
"I didn't know. Seventeen years?"
Janice replied quietly, "He was a very private man."
That night I learned about the terrifying destruction of one of the most energized humans I have ever known.
My image of David was a sneering, gin-swilling demon of a writer with the tenacity of a ferret and the savoir-faire of David Niven. I never saw David with the implant in his arm. I never saw him in the depths of his depression. I never understood he couldn't get work anymore since getting laid off. I never knew David's lover, whose death tore him apart, and I never truly appreciated the evil disease that has killed so many creative people.
SCRAPING, PAINTING, PRAYING
I called David's sister and apologized for being so out of touch. She said that thanks to the cocktails-not gin-and the implant IV and the memories of our old circle, "We had David for two years more than we expected."
It took David many years to get "Sassy" on the water. It didn't take as long, but it seemed like it, to get "The Love Boat" campaign for Princess Cruise Lines on the water. There was a lot of sanding and scraping and painting and praying over that one, too.
It all started with winning the Sitmar Cruise business out in California. That was some plum for a Detroit agency in 1984. After an exhausting new-business pitch, we learned they liked us but wanted a different campaign. A new campaign.
OK, we could put our thumbprints on this one. We needed another writer so I contacted David Rodgers, who had worked for us in Detroit and for me at a different agency in L.A.
Then they sold the company to P&O from the UK. Instead of Sitmar, we had Princess. But Princess had an agency, too. And the Princess people were running the show with supervision from two recently arrived hotshots from London and parent P&O. They had a great idea. Why not have a new-business pitch? Why not? We had a lot of old spec campaigns around.
`IT'S THE LOVE BOAT'
We learned things in the focus groups. If it doesn't look like a cruise commercial, it won't score with cruise intenders. If it looks like a cruise commercial, nobody can distinguish it from any other cruise commercial. One woman, who had been on 20-plus cruises, reported the worst cruise she had been on was still wonderful. She couldn't understand from our test work why Princess would be any better than Norwegian or Royal.
David, in his best hissy-fit impersonation, declared from the darkness: "Lady, it's not just a cruise; it's `The Love Boat'." His booming voice and hysterical laughter flooded into the focus group. And she says, "Oh, I get it."
The line was not in our copy. The next day, David made sure it was. He worked magic with the campaign and wrapped it all up with his stroke of genius utterance. We later learned our competition made the same kind of pitch, but the competition didn't have the line.
Jump cut to family birthday party. Shriveled up little man with moustache over crooked skinny lips reads to family members who grit their teeth.
David Rodgers reads autobiography:
"Meet David Rodgers on his 52nd birthday. Born in the closing days of WWII, when the world was full of promise and opportunities, Dave Rodgers celebrates his 52nd birthday without a clue about what lies ahead. Maybe a burst of activity and creativity; perhaps a long golden sunset; or maybe an abrupt final curtain that falls from the flies without any prior notice.
"His childhood comes right out of `Ozzie and Harriet'; there actually were cookies and milk waiting for him on the table when he came home from school. He was a good student, a member of the National Honor Society and a scholarship winner to Michigan State University. A very dramatic young man, he was aware of his homosexuality from about the age of 12. Shower rooms were torture; he was fascinated by budding beards of young men just reaching puberty. He was skinny, and it's good that he ran track well or his ass would have been kicked all over St. Clair Shores, Michigan. His first sexual experience was in Boy Scouts with someone named Bond, James Bond, no kidding. Since that day at the D Bar A Scout ranch, he's been looking backward and forward and sideways.
"He first became a school teacher, English, in inner-city Detroit. It was 1967, and the war in Vietnam was gearing up. He got an occupational deferment. He was too scared to kiss the draft sergeant, tell him the truth and go to New York and become an actor, which is what he wanted to do.
"He taught for four years, but he thought teaching was beneath him and acting too unstable, so he went into advertising. For 22 years. A little show business and a little business business. He was wildly successful. Hawked Goodyear tires, Ramada Inns, Toyotas, Diet Coke, Princess Cruises and more. He ended up as a vice president at Campbell-Ewald. But when the Love Boat account sailed away, it sailed away without him, and he was laid off. His advertising career ended.
"Somewhere along the way fortune smiled on his soul, and he met Kim Z. His only problem was that he should have kissed him more. Kim was the light and life of Dave's world. There had been other men before, other lovers even, and God knows other sex, but there was nothing like Kim before. They drank in the world together. And then one terrible night in September 1995, when the white cactus flowers were blooming in the front yard, Kim died.
"David, out of work, alone without the love of his life, got sick. He nearly died. His sister called him three times a day just to see if he was still breathing. It didn't end here. Miracles came from all corners, drug companies, doctors, teachers and friends. And they seemed to work because now you can meet David on his 52nd birthday-a little skinny, a little lame, a little shopworn, but alive and 52 years old."
Two months later David was dead.
David and Kim made their last cruise together in "Sassy." Their ashes are somewhere near Catalina, a place David loved.
I loved the advertising business, the work, the clients, the people and the money and ego rewards. If you're lucky, you go from being on the line to being on the top. If you're not, you keep plugging on the line until someone or something disconnects you. Either way you miss the work a lot. No amount of icon-hood or title creep is really worth the loss of being hands-on.
And when the party is over, there may be some money left over. But what you will really miss are the people you loved.
I wonder if that Confederate realized all that matters is the work and the people.
Mr. Fitzpatrick, after 20 years with Interpublic Group of Cos., retired to Virginia in 1998 to write a magnum opus. He held a series of top agency posts at Interpublic, including chief creative officer at two shops as well as exec VP of McCann-Erickson Worldwide and vice chairman of McCann-Erickson North America. Among current projects is a book, "Tiger Butter, or How to Survive in Advertising While Tigers are Chasing you Around the Tree." This essay is an excerpt from that book.