The Personal Reminiscences Of Albert Lasker

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Albert Davis Lasker made no speeches and wrote almost nothing for publication, and when he died, on May 30, 1952, very few people paused to read the obituaries; yet the newspapers and magazines in which they appeared carried his monument, in a sense, on nearly every page, for Lasker was accounted by many the father of modern advertising. He put over many of its great coups and slogans; he taught it how to frighten, tempt, cajole and sell —that above all. Born in Germany in 1880, he was precociously successful as a newspaper reporter and tried advertising in Chicago in 1898 only to please his father, who thought the latter profession more respectable. He would have quit the distasteful job but for his misfortune in incurring a debt of $500—which he did not possess. It was necessary to stay to work off the debt and stay he did, for the rest of his life. Soon he owned the agency and it became one of the richest and most fabled advertising enterprises of this century.

From Teddy Roosevelt to George Washington Hill, the dynamic proprietor of Lucky Strikes, the people who met Lasker were impressed by his ability. Between 1918 and 1920 he was Assistant Chairman of the Republican National Committee, with a ringside seat adjoining the “smoke-filled room” which placed the mantle of Lincoln on the shoulders of Warren G. Harding. Always, however, his heart was in advertising, at which he was superb.

These reminiscences are excerpted from the transcript of interviews with Mr. Lasker over seven months in 1949 and 1950 by Professor Nevins and Mr. Dean Albertson. The interviewers’ questions are omitted, as they merely suggested topics. Repetitions are deleted, but nothing has been inserted.

I was born in Freiburg, Germany. My parents were both American citizens. I was the third child born to them—the two before me had been born in Galveston, Texas—and there were five children born after me, all of them in Galveston. My mother had not been well at the time I was expected, and my father took her over to Freiburg to the hospital. That’s how I came to be born there, although I was born a natural-born American citizen.

When I was six weeks old, they brought me back to Galveston, and I received all the education that I have in Galveston. I went through the primary schools and the Ball High School in Galveston, and graduated there in 1896.

I started working immediately after I graduated from Ball High School. Before I graduated I had started the high school monthly magazine. There were only about twenty high school magazines in the United States at that time. I organized athletic teams—football teams, tennis teams. I was the organizing spirit of the school.

Through starting this high school magazine, I began working with the people on the morning and evening papers in Galveston. Finally, on the side, even while I was still in high school, I did work for the Galveston Morning News .

There was a reporter on the News who served several papers in the North and received a small weekly compensation from each of them. He served two St. Louis papers, two papers in Chicago, and the United Press in New York. He reported the cotton quotations to them. He worked for the News for a small salary, but it gave him the right to service out-of-state papers with whatever Texas dispatches came to the “state desk” at the News . He sent Texas news to the Northern papers, and they printed various parts of that which would be of interest to their readers—particularly news of the cotton crops, Texas being the great cotton-growing state of the Union.

For some reason this reporter had to leave the city in a hurry, and for $100, he sold me his franchise. The News permitted me to take his place. At that time, I was definitely headed toward a newspaper career.

I worked on the News, and I got a very important scoop from Eugene V. Debs. He had been in jail as a result of the railroad strike of ’93, and the Locomotive Engineers, of which he was the head, were to have their annual convention in Galveston. Debs arrived on Saturday before the Monday of the convention.

The Tribune —Galveston’s evening paper—published a paper on Sunday as did the Morning News . One Saturday evening the Tribune carried on the front page the news that Debs was in town and that he was staying at a boarding house in the city. However they couldn’t get an interview with him.

I waited until it was dark, then I went to the manager of the Western Union and asked him for a messenger’s coat, hat, an envelope, and the book messengers carry to have receipts signed in. He said that he couldn’t give these things to me—that he’d lose his job if he did.

I said, “You stand a chance to lose your job if you don’t do it, because I can send my wires by Postal if I want, and my business is almost the largest in town.”

That convinced him, and he gave me what I wanted. I knew a building across the street from the boarding house where I could change my coat and hat, so that I wouldn’t have to walk through the streets in the uniform.

I knocked on the front door in the middle of the house and the door was opened. I knew that if I spoke loudly enough, everyone in the house could hear me. A man opened the door, put his foot in the door, and said, “What do you want?”