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Few of the many creative and talented people who live in our neighborhood would credit their presence here on a real-life Don Draper; a charismatic ad man who cleaned up the streets and made the area habitable. But that’s exactly what happened when Fred Papert left behind his glittering Madison Avenue career to devote his life to saving Manhattan from itself.

Fred Papert and Jackie Kennedy Onassis outside Playwrights Horizons on W42nd Street. Photo supplied

Fred who, at “pushing 90”, still works out of his office on W42nd Street, recalled for us the agency that became the inspiration for Mad Men and the role he played getting the drugs andprostitutes off the mean streets of Hell’s Kitchen.

ADLAND

At the turn of the 1960s, Fred Papert was an ad man on a hunt and his prey was talent. He was revamping his agency and the people he eventually bagged were the finest available: Julian Koenig and George Lois.

Koenig, who died last year, was one of the greatest copywriters who’s ever lived, his Think Small advert for Volkswagen transformed the industry and in 1999 was voted the No 1 campaign of all time by Advertising Age. Meanwhile, Lois generated some of the most stunning adverts ever and 32 of the covers he created for Esquire magazine are on the wall in MOMA.

Together, the three set up an agency. Papert Koenig Lois (PKL) and revolutionized the industry. No one had previously formed an agency with an art director as a partner but Papert’s respect for creative talent went further and, when I asked him what made PKL so successful, he was forthright in his answer. “We were successful because of one shift in thinking. The only people in the agency who could decide what campaign was going to be shown to the client were the art director or the copywriter. The account executives could not affect those decisions.”

With creativity at the heart of their strategy, PKL made some of the 1960s’ best advertisements. After forming in 1960 it became the first agency since 1929 to go public and by 1967 it had become the 17th largest agency in the US, with billings of $40 million Fred did explain, however, that sometimes their successes were down to dumb luck: “I set out one Saturday and there’d been a snow storm the day before so there were no cars out so I decided to pull my girls down the street on their sled to the office, partly because it would be fun but mainly because I’d left my gloves there. Then, when I got to the office, I got a call from Xerox asking did we want to pitch for their business? Of course I said yes. Then later, after we’d won the business and I was talking to this guy from Xerox, he said, ‘You know, we were so impressed that, on one of the worst days for traveling in the city, you were there working away in your office. I never corrected him.” Fred chuckles.

The “Think Small” Volkswagen advert made the reputation of PKL agency.

A MAN WITH A PLAN

After transforming the advertising industry, Fred then reinvented himself as a man of causes. While working with The Municipal Art Society of New York (MAS) he teamed up with former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis to save Grand Central Terminal, which was under threat of having a huge office block built over its south side, effectively obliterating it.

Their success in securing the iconic building’s landmark status in turn passed the New York City Landmarks Law, which set a precedent nationally for historic preservation. At the same time he had set up the non-profit 42nd Street Development Corporation.

Fred, Jackie and the 42nd Street Development Corp then looked westward, to our very own patch, and an ambitious plan that was 25 years in the making. When I asked Fred where his idea to transform 42nd st came from he was unequivocal: it came from Jackie. “Onassis said that her mother had said, ‘You may never go alone to the west end of West 42nd Street.’ When she told me that quote, I said, ‘My mother said exactly the same!””

What Fred managed to do was close down the strip joints and massage parlors and transform the area into theater use, what we know now as Theatre Row, with the wonderful Chez Josephine and Playwrights Horizons. That combined with the rescue in the 1970s of Manhattan Plaza, which was falling into disuse before being given over as the largest performing artists’ housing complex in America.

They made a once desolate, dangerous part of New York a great and vibrant area. As Fred concluded: “We cared about 42nd. We believed that visitors to New York think that this street is one of the great things about New York and for it to look like a bum at the west end of the street was just unacceptable. And we just yakked and yakked this to everybody and then we walked along and found out that we could buy the whole street because in 1976 you couldn’t get people to drive by, let alone develop anything.

“Our goal was to make the city’s once most famous street worth the reputation it had by making it nice, and the best way we knew how was to bring art. We could buy all the buildings on the south side of 9th avenue for almost nothing. The guys who owned it were making little to nothing and they were trying to get out of the prostitute business. Suddenly the neighborhood changed. It went from low class to very high class.”

When I ask Fred if he’s pleased with the way Theatre Row turned out. He’s pretty direct: “Oh God! It’s been a triumph! Theatre Row was an exceptional thing. That would be my proudest accomplishment.”


This story was originally published in Issue 4 of W42ST Magazine in March 2015.

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