Feminist icon Betty Friedan should have known better than to dick around with an adman. After she released her autobiography, Life So Far: A Memoir, earlier this year, the media went into a feeding frenzy over the book's allegation that during her years of history-making activism, her husband, Carl, had abused her. In one passage she writes that he "started beating up on me. It seemed as if I never went on a television show in those days without a black eye I had to cover over with makeup." Friedan later toned down the charges in the press, saying both Carl and she got physical with each other sometimes. But that was hardly enough to quell the outrage of the now ex-hubby, an advertising creative who in the '60s demonstrated a flair for copy with unusual bite. In recent months, Carl Friedan has embarked upon a new acerbic campaign - this time to unsully his own good name.
In the early '60s, when Betty Friedan was just making a splash with female rights bible The Feminine Mystique, Carl was running a small Madison Avenue shop, Friedan Allen Celestino. The one-time theater producer's biggest clients were the New York Fuel Oil Dealers and the Muralo Paint Co. (an account he retains today after 40 years). "I never got into the real big-time advertising," Friedan admits unregretfully, satisfied with the creative outlet his career has provided. But his work did make some historical strides. Alongside heavy hitters like Doyle Dane Bernbach and Young & Rubicam, Friedan's campaign for the fuel oil dealers earned the praise of William D. Tyler, the late Advertising Age columnist and former Benton & Bowles VP. Tyler at one point called it "the toughest campaign now running" and credited it as a forerunner in the resurgence of an effective, risky advertising movement toward "degrading the competition." The campaign launched full-page attacks on gas-heat utilities like Con Ed and Long Island Lighting in urban newspapers. One ad ran the outrageous headline "DON'T MURDER YOUR WIFE over those crazy high gas bills," and features goofy photos of commercials actor Maurice Shrog. "It seems out of thin air," acknowledges Friedan, but the ad was actually a takeoff of a popular 1965 Jack Lemmon movie, How to Murder Your Wife. Under Shrog's grimacing expressions, copy reads, in Ralph Kramden fashion, "A million times I told you we should of stuck with oil. Like a dope, you gotta change to gas!" Friedan's favorite piece is headlined, "How to be a Jewish mother to your Oil Furnace," and depicts a matronly woman fawning over a furnace. "Jewish you don't have to be. Be Irish! Be Italian! Be even an Arab!" the copy continues.
The 1973 oil crisis killed Friedan's most inspiring muse, but decades later, Hurricane Carl roars on full-blast. Working from his home in Sarasota, Fla., he says his main occupation is "Muralo and fighting my ex-wife." The adman staunchly asserts the charges are false, and he went through the roof when the press parroted Betty's accusations without adequately covering his side of the story. George magazine ran a headline declaring "Battling for Women while Being Beaten at Home," and book reviews from The New York Times and The Washington Post zeroed in on the charges, failing to get the adman's input. Since June, Friedan has embarked on a letter-writing campaign to news establishments. At age 80, he has also launched his own website (www.CarlFriedan.com) to refute the claims. "I'm serious about knocking her out here on this," he says, in a slightly unfortunate choice of words, "because what she did is monstrous. It's all over the place that I beat her and all this."
Heavy on copy and short on style, Carl's site is pretty low-tech as webfare goes. Nevertheless, it's an entertaining, tabloid-esque screed, and its irreverent tone is reminiscent of Friedan's early ad work. Carl pelts the ex with various unflattering monikers, including "absolute horror show," and "poor little Betty Boop." He refers to the Life So Far autobiography as So Far Out, and in a dedicated page entitled "Living With Insanity," he claims that Betty is clinically insane and prone to episodes of "raging tantrums and lunatic behavior." And then there's his already-famous statement about Betty's sexual appetite, or lack thereof: "In its article Time reports how she boasts about her sexual triumphs in naked detail. Time's coverage of the book makes her out a sexpot. Are they kidding? Betty Friedan a sexpot? Come on, now! Let's be sane! In all 19 years of marriage she never gave me a blowjob."
His efforts have made some impact. In a Good Morning America interview, Betty Friedan played down the claims, saying that "I almost wish I hadn't even written about it because it's been sensationalized out of context." In his June 5th Washington Post column, "Abuse Reports that Smack of Unfairness," media critic Howard Kurtz writes, "Perhaps there would have been less sensationalizing if more journalists had bothered to call her ex-husband." The New York Times has run an apology and printed Friedan's letters, and Friedan also vented his side of the story in the July 5th edition of The New York Post. As Betty's book makes its way to paperback and undoubtedly more press attention, Carl Friedan remains pretty pissed - and oddly enough, not at the media. "They're doing their job," he acknowledges. "I'm mad at her. She's a psycho. That's what made her so effective. People were terrified of her."
Betty's response to her ex's new campaign? "I have nothing to do with it," she insouciantly remarks over the phone from her Sag Harbor summer home. "As I have said repeatedly, he was not a wife beater, and I was not a passive victim of a wife beater. We had a stormy marriage and he was bigger than me." When pressed for a reaction to her ex-husband's unrelenting ire, she becomes mildly annoyed. "There are many more important things going on in the world than some kind of grudge of thirty years. It's embarrassing for our kids; it's embarrassing for our grandkids. It's embarrassing for him, for godsakes. Grow up!"
"She's full of crap," retorts Carl. "This book with its charges of abuse just came out. [This flap] goes back only to April, not 30 years. I never expressed myself publicly before this. Of course there are more important things, but I had to defend myself."
With a vengeance.