Don Draper and Tony the Tiger — Two Murky Pasts | Bleader

Don Draper and Tony the Tiger — Two Murky Pasts

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Mad Men is back with us, and the Tribune has alertly linked its home page to a story that ran in Chicago magazine a year ago. "Meet the real Don Draper," suggests the Tribune, and when we take the suggestion we discover a nostalgic yarn about Draper Daniels, an important Chicago ad man of the 1950s at legendary Leo Burnett who later ran his own agency. "I Married a Mad Man" was written by Daniels's widow, Myra Janco Daniels, who says Daniels was not only a lot like Don Draper — he helped inspire the TV character.

In her glow of reminiscence, Draper Daniels sounds like a nicer and less complicated guy than Don Draper — but who can be sure? Myra Janco says she met him in 1965 when he decided to buy the agency she worked for, and married him in 1967, and among the comments that follow the article, someone with a touch of malice posted a link to the lengthy death notice prepared by her church when Daniels's first wife died in 2006. "Divorced in 1968..." it says, "she courageously reinvented herself as a career woman at age 57."

Time rolls in like a fog and the past is but the elusive murmur of muffled bells. Wouldn't you say?

This passage caught my eye:

"In effect, Dan was the creative director of the company and I was the marketing director. All of the finance and account people reported to me. It was a good fit. We hired several of the best creative minds in the business to work for us: men like Ernie Evers, who had done the Dial In, Dial Out campaign for Dial and was head of creative at Foote, Cone & Belding, and John Matthews, who had created Tony the Tiger."

Eight years ago a retired adman named Don Tennant died in LA and got this salute from Advertising Age: "He was the creative director on many of the early campaigns for Marlboro cigarettes, and in 1952 he created the 'Tony the Tiger' character for Kellogg's Co.'s Frosted Flakes cereal." Back then,Tennant had been an exec at Leon Burnett in Chicago.

In Danville, California, another retired adman read this tribute and it felt like a fist to the stomach. Since 1976, Jack Tolzien, a former Leo Burnett art director, had been waging a one-man crusade to remind the industry that he created Tony the Tiger. 1976 is when an Ad Age obit gave the credit to Gene Kolkey, who succeeded Tolzien as Leo Burnett art director in 1953, soon after Frosted Flakes were launched nationally.

Tolzien requested and received a correction from Ad Age in '76, but the lesson the trade paper learned did not take. So now Tolzien wrote it again. He wrote Kellogg's. He wrote the Associated Press. Seeing a crawl line on CNN announce the death of the creator of Tony the Tiger, Don Tennant, he wrote that network too. "It was like a slap in the face to me," he told CNN. "Not once, but twice, my finest hour has been blatantly stolen from me. I'm too old to take such treatment with grace."

I told Tolzien's story in Hot Type in 2002. In addition to Tennant and Kolkey and Tolzien, I spotted the name of Chicago illustrator Martin Provensen identified on an Ad Age website as the "original designer" of Tony the Tiger. And a few days after Tennant, Marilou Wise, a Chicago illustrator, died and was remembered in the Sun-Times as the "commercial artist who created the Tony the Tiger cereal cartoon."

And now, there's John Matthews. The Tony the Tiger listing in Wikipedia says Provensen did the design and Jack Matthews "came up with" the catchphrase "They’re Grrrrreat!"

Tolzien had told me he came up with "They’re Grrrrreat!" (And a retired TV guy from Burnett named Bob Noel had told me it was actually Don Tennant who came up with "They're Grrrrreat!")

I just called Tolzien again — two days after he turned 90, it turned out. I asked him who John Matthews was. "Matthews was the writer I worked with, a great guy to work with," Tolzien said. "John backed me up with some real good copy on everything I did. But he did not create Tony."

And neither did Provensen, which Tolzien had told me back in 2002. Tolzien says he did it all — "humanizing this tiger and calling him Tony and I put the little red bib on him and I had him saying ‘They're Grrrrreat!'"

This controversy is the key to Don Draper and Mad Men. Don Draper understands, just as Tolzien does, that the creation of a Tony the Tiger is no small thing. An icon like Tony the Tiger lines a company's coffers with billions of dollars in revenues. Like oil, like diamonds, like opium and coca, it is a means to big homes, fast cars, and willing women.

Yet in the end the story of the icon's creation will be mistold, because nobody who wasn't there will take it seriously enough to get it right. And if, by luck, the creator receives every last ounce of recognition due him, his tombstone will read, "Born. Came Up With Tony the Tiger. Died."

The father who beat him and the fictitious identity he assumed are merely resonant details. There's a deeper reason why Don Draper is a mess.

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